What do we know about life after death – if indeed we believe in such a thing at all? The truth is precious little – as no one (if we exclude Jesus) has yet returned from the great beyond to tell us. Yes, we have stories of near and immediate post-death experiences from some who have stood on the edge and, on occasions, stepped momentarily over the threshold subsequently to return fully to this life. Some such have been significantly impacted by their experience but none of these, as far as I know, have offered a definitive guide to the perplexing question so many of us have regarding our post-death existence.
Asking a question about Jewish beliefs in relation to the afterlife, the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks who served as the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth from 1991 to 2013, said this:
Read through the whole of Tanakh, the whole of the Hebrew Bible from beginning to end and you will find that references to the afterlife are almost infinitesimally small. The references are there but you really have to search for them. Judaism is an extraordinarily this worldly – this life-focused religion. That’s extraordinary because all the religions of the ancient world were religions obsessed with the afterlife. That’s what the great temples and pyramids of Egypt are all about. This life is a place of struggle and pain and all sorts of agonies. It’s when you die and you go to heaven then you find serenity. Now Judaism does not deny that but it does say if justice is to be done it’s to be done down here on earth.
Nothing of what Jonathan Sacks has said conflicts with the teaching of Jesus. In fact, it affirms it. Jesus’ mission and purpose were and are summed up in the prayer he taught his disciples to pray to our Father – ‘Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’ (Matthew 6:10). Jesus is not speaking here about ‘going to heaven when we die’ – but of the very concrete Kingdom of God and his present will being done right here on earth right now.
Asked recently about some of the most common misconceptions relating to the life and ministry of Jesus, highly regarded Evangelical New Testament scholar, N. T. Wright said,
One of the big ones I think which comes back again and again is to see Jesus as somebody telling people how to go to heaven after they die. There’s absolutely nothing in the gospels saying – “this is how to get to heaven”. Rather than that, when Jesus talks about the Kingdom of Heaven, that doesn’t mean a place called Heaven conceived as a Kingdom, it means the idea that God, the one who lives in Heaven, wants to set up his Kingdom on Earth as it is in Heaven.
So the idea that the teaching of the Tanakh or the Gospels is primarily about how to get to Heaven when we die, despite the fact that it has become something of an evangelical orthodoxy to teach so, is patently a false one.
The various theologies and arguments surrounding life after death, heaven, hell, eternal torment or eternal bliss and so on are, likewise, very often presented by their proponents as almost undeniable and unassailable truths while, in reality, they are far from being so.
American Orthodox Priest Fr. Stephen Freeman said this in a recent blog article:
I have long intended to avoid the turmoil of after-life debates (universalists vs. infernalists, or whatever we should label the positions) with something that approaches a kind of agnosticism. When the question, “Shall all be saved?” is asked, I demur to the fact that I don’t know. I can speak of what I hope, but not of what I know. I have read everybody’s arguments (I do not exaggerate). Invariably, the answers turn on what we do not know. The evidence is slim – scattered verses of Scripture, some of which seem contradictory. I am often surprised by the certitude that surrounds various positions.
Of course the great problem for Christians like me who have been brought up to believe that clarity, certainty, provability and definitive systems of dogmatic theology are the bulwarks of our faith – all this uncertainty sounds like outright heresy.
However, long ago I rejected the notion that such a thing as certainty was possible in many of these matters – opting instead for resting in The Mystery. Again this was and is seen as a cop-out by many of my more rationalistic theological friends.
Stephen Freeman again, on his own experience –
Years ago, when I converted to Orthodox Christianity, I heard a common explanation that passed a number of folks. They said that “Stephen could not deal with modern uncertainty and has run away to hide inside Orthodoxy.” On the one hand, nothing was more “certain” among them than the platitudes of modernity. My rejection needed an explanation. The reality was that I was abandoning the false certitudes of mainline American Protestantism for the frightening journey of the soul into the mystery of Christ that lies at the heart of the Orthodox faith. Orthodoxy is not a bastion of answered questions. Rather, it is a way of life, whose teachings are the abiding testimony of those who have walked that path and borne witness to what they found.
And yet, at the depth of our uncertainty and unknowing, lies another mysterious reality – faith! Faith rests – faith holds, however tenuously at times, to the promises of life beyond life – of Jesus’ promise – ‘Because I live, you also will live.’ And – ‘I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there you may be also.’ With the saints of old we cling to the hope that to be ‘absent from the body, (is) to be present with the Lord’ and that ‘Christ risen from the dead, (has) become the firstfruits of them that slept.’ Knowing that – ‘If we died with Him, we will also live with Him’.
And the criteria for this eternal life, which in fact, according the the Bible, starts right here and now as we embrace Christ and His Kingdom, is also a very simple one. It is not dependant on our denominational attachments or lack of them, on our grasp of theology or the absence of it – but simply on this – did we live in Love.