Summary: Compelling evidence for an afterlife for people investigating the Christian faith.
Are our lives parts in a play scripted by God, or is this all there is? Is this life merely a stage, with life-like props? Is there life beyond this realm?
The vast majority of Americans believe that there’s life after death. We see it in popular movies like Ghost, Heaven Can Wait, even in Disney cartoons like All Dogs Go to Heaven. Most recently we saw it in the Robin Williams movie What Dreams May Come, with it’s dramatic portrayal of heaven and hell. Entertainment Weekly called What Dreams May Come a lost verse from the Beatles song "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" as it presents the afterlife as a kind of metaphysical candyland. Yet What Dreams May Come was a very popular movie.
Two years ago Time magazine devoted its cover story to the question of the afterlife.1 In that article, they published the results of a Time/CNN poll, where they found that 81% of Americans believe in the existence of heaven. Sixty-three percent of Americans believe that hell exists, although only 1% believe that they’ll end up there. So belief in life after death is certainly not on the way out in our culture.
Yet many people wonder if life after death is just wishful thinking. Are beliefs about an afterlife merely our way of dealing with our anxiety about death? Philosophers Paul and Linda Badham point out, "To many contemporary philosophers, life after death is not merely unlikely, it is inconceivable."2 Atheist philosopher Anthony Flew agrees, when he claims that the idea of life after death is a nonsensical statement that has no meaning, much like a square circle.3 This idea too has crept into our popular culture, as the band Collective Soul tells us "Heaven’s Already Here" (Hints, Allegations, And Things Left Unsaid), and Gloria Estefan reduces heaven to "how I feel when I’m with" the person I love ("Heaven’s How I Feel" Gloria).
Today we start a new five week series called BEYOND DEATH’S DOOR, where we seek to push away the curtain and catch a glimpse at what lies beyond this life. The former Swedish secretary generation of the United Nations and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Dag Hammarskjold once said, "It is our conception of death which decides our answers to all the questions that life puts to us."4 He’s exactly right…and the Christian faith presents a very distinct concept of death and the afterlife that many people today have never been exposed to or learned before. So in this series I’m not making any assumptions about what you know or don’t know, but we’re coming to this topic with a freshness, an openness, to hear what the Bible itself says about what lies beyond death’s door. Today we’re going to talk about death, about some of the theories that have been suggested for what lies beyond death, and how death fits in to the message of the Christian faith and the Bible.
I. The Mystery of Death
In many ways death is a mystery. This is why we love movies about the afterlife. In his book The View from a Hearse, Christian author Joseph Bayly describes the mystery of death this way: "We may postpone it, we may tame its violence, but death is still there waiting for us. Death always waits. The door of the hearse is never closed."5
This brings us to our first idea we’re going to explore together. BECAUSE DEATH IS A MYSTERY, OUR WORLD HAS OFFERED DIFFERENT EXPLANATIONS FOR WHAT HAPPENS WHEN WE DIE.
It’s human nature for us to try to figure out mysteries, to explain away things that we can’t understand. Let’s explore a few of the oldest and most influential explanations. Probably the oldest explanation is DISEMBODIMENT, which is the idea that when we die our soul is liberated from the prison of our body. This is probably the oldest Western explanation, tracing its roots back to the ancient Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle. According to this view the real "me" is not my body but my soul, or my mind, that non-physical, spiritual reality that makes me who I really am. My physical body is a prison for my soul, limiting it, preventing it from being free, so death is a kind of liberation. Thus this approach views the afterlife is a disembodied—-or bodiless—-existence. This view has been extremely popular throughout history, and it wields incredible influence today. That Time magazine poll found that 66% of Americans believe that only a person’s soul goes to heaven. This disembodiment view is what’s behind those who believe in ghosts, it’s the view of most tribal religions in primitive parts of the world. Yet disembodiment is not the explanation offered by the Bible.
Another popular explanation is REINCARNATION, which is the idea that after we die we are reborn as another living being based on our karma. This view goes back to 1000 years before Christ, and it lies at the heart of the eastern religions of Hinduism and Buddhism. Reincarnation is tied to the idea of karma, which is believed to be the universe’s justice system. Karma claims that everything painful that happens in our lives is a direct result of bad things we’ve done in previous lives, thus our suffering is the universe’s way of balancing the scales of justice. This means that all pain and suffering in this life is deserved, whether it’s the Albanian refugees we see on TV or a ten year old who’s been abused by her uncle, all suffering is a direct result of bad things we’ve done in previous lives, and suffering bad things in our present life is the universe’s way of settling the score. Reincarnation and karma have emigrated from the East to the west, and been popularized by people like Shirley MacClane and Peter Sellars and by groups like the Unity School of Christianity and Astara. According to a 1996 poll in George magazine, currently 30% of Americans believe in reincarnation.6 The Bible nowhere affirms that reincarnation is true, and in fact the whole idea of karma goes against the entire message of the New Testament, yet belief in reincarnation remains strong.