Volume 11 - Issue 2

Life after death

By David Wenham

‘He is not here; he has been raised again’ (Mt. 28:6). ‘We believe that Jesus died and rose again; and so it will be for those who died as Christians; God will bring them to life with Jesus’ (1 Thes. 4:14). At the heart of the Christian good news is the assertion that Jesus of Nazareth was raised from the dead on the first Easter day. The central importance of the resurrection for the early church is obvious enough from the New Testament.

It was important for them apologetically. It was their meeting with the risen Christ that decisively convinced the disciples that Jesus was Lord and God, and it was on the basis of what they had heard and seen that they went out confidently proclaiming Jesus in face of sustained opposition: ‘as we can all bear witness’ (Acts 2:32). Subsequent generations of Christians have not been witnesses in the same sense as the first disciples, but the evidence for the resurrection as a historical event remains extremely strong, and proclamation of the resurrection as a real event that happened and that cannot easily be explained away is still a centrally important ingredient in Christian apologetic.

The importance of the resurrection is, secondly, theological. The resurrection was not just a remarkable one-off event. It was rather, as Christians have recognized from New Testament times onwards, a clear demonstration that Jesus of Nazareth is truly Lord and Christ (not just a self-styled Messiah), that his death was an effective and triumphant defeat of sin and Satan, and that the new age of resurrection life has dawned.

Arising out of this, the importance of the resurrection is, thirdly, pastoral, bringing hope to the dying and to the bereaved, and giving purpose to life. Because of the resurrection Christian hope is not a vague hope for some sort of eternal survival; it is rather a confident anticipation of resurrection life with Christ and like Christ’s. Because of this the Christian knows that his or her ‘labour is not in vain’ (1 Cor. 15:58); and because the resurrection was resurrection and transformation of the body, it gives value to the physical world in which we live and work.

In any Christian discussion of life after death the central and decisive importance of Jesus’ resurrection is clear. But there are many questions connected with the subject to which the answers are less clear: some of these questions are addressed in the first three articles of this Themelios.

For example, most theological students (and indeed many scholars) are not sure what to make of the Old Testament teaching—or lack of teaching—about the after-life: is the Old Testament entirely this-worldly and thoroughly materialistic? Or does it teach that all who die survive in a dim half-life in Sheol? Or is there a variety of views in the Old Testament, and is it possible to detect a significant evolution of ideas within the Old Testament? If any of these views is correct, how is it to be squared with New Testament teaching, if at all?

There are also plenty of debated questions about life after death in the New Testament. For example, there is the question of the so-called ‘intermediate’ state: what happens to the Christian dead between death and the final resurrection? Also hotly disputed, especially in some evangelical circles, are questions about the interpretation of the book of Revelation and in particular of the ‘millennium’ described in Revelation.

Perhaps as perplexing as any, because they are so serious, are questions about judgment: about the fate of those who have never heard the gospel of Christ, about the nature of hell and eternal judgment, about the universality of God’s saving purposes. Questions such as these are carefully and helpfully discussed in this issue of Themelios, though the authors would not claim to have reached conclusive answers on many of the points discussed.

There are many other questions concerning death and life after death that are not addressed in this Themelios. For example, there are all sorts of questions raised by non-Christian religious and secular thinking about death and life after death and also by what we might call Christian speculative thinking. Some ideas are relatively easy to evaluate from a Christian point of view. For example, the idea of reincarnation, despite its popularity, is clearly contrary to the New Testament’s consistent teaching about the finality and reality of judgment after death, and also about the life to come. Other ideas and claims are much harder to evaluate: for example, what are we to make of the supposedly scientific claims to knowledge about death made by people who have experienced clinical death but have then been revived? Or, what are we to make of the claims of spiritists and even of some professing Christians to have contact with the dead? Are their claims delusory, demonic or true?

The answer to that last question may be ‘all three’! 1. The power of human beings to be deceived themselves and to deceive others (deliberately or otherwise) is enormous. It is important for Christians to recognize this, and to be careful to base their ideas on the sure rock of biblical truth rather than on insecure and subjective interpretations of personal experience. 2. The reality of demons is made very clear by the Bible and should not be thought to be the figment of primitive people’s imaginations. Demonic activity is characteristically deceptive, being intended to lead people away from Christ and from God’s truth, and the deception may well be effected through the presentation of misleading ‘spiritual’ phenomena (as also through the presentation of misguided, but plausible, theological arguments!) (cf. 2 Thes. 2:9, 10). 3. The possibility that people do sometimes have real contact with the dead can hardly be ruled out in view of the biblical evidence (e.g. the story of Saul and the witch of Endor in 1 Sam. 28).

However, although the Bible does not allow us to say that there is no possible contact with the dead, it does make it extremely clear that seeking such contact is wrong, and that dabbling in occult practices of any kind is evil and dangerous (e.g. Dt. 18:9–14; Rev. 21:8). It also discourages us, by its teaching and its example, from speculation about what has not been revealed (e.g. Acts 1:7). In the Bible God has given us an entirely adequate map to guide us through life, and it is our task to concentrate on following the route indicated by the map (which is all we need to know), not to waste time speculating about what lies off the edge of the map. There is a huge amount concerning the spiritual world and the life to come that God has not chosen to reveal to us and that we do not need to know.

The only qualification to this statement which needs to be made is that there is a need for some Christians to take an interest in psychic and paranormal phenomena, if only in order to be able to react with non-Christians who are involved in research in the field. But it is an area fraught with more spiritual danger than most, and Christians involved in it need to be prayerfully alert and to be careful not to go beyond the bounds of biblical revelation; it is important that they make the Bible the basis of their interpretation of the phenomena rather than making the phenomena the basis of their biblical interpretation (as so easily happens).

Another important range of questions concerned with death and life after death that this Themelios does not cover are the pastoral questions that arise in the context of ministry to the dying and the bereaved. It is clear that the Christian minister has something vitally important to share with people in the face of death; but effective ministry in that situation requires not only knowledge of the truth of Christ, but also great sensitivity to people’s needs and feelings. We need the love of Christ within us enabling us to weep with those who weep and the Spirit of Christ within us guiding us in what we say and do. Only so will we minister the wonderful gospel of the risen Christ appropriately and helpfully to people in pain and grief.

The fourth article in this Themelios is not on life after death but on Islam and Christianity. The author, Miss Ida Glaser, contributed an earlier article in the same area in Vol. 7.3 of Themelios under the title ‘Towards a mutual understanding of Christian and Islamic concepts of revelation’; we are glad to have a further contribution from her. She has recently taken up a position as Asian Project Worker with a church in the north of England.

Editorial notes

We warmly welcome as new international editors Professor Samuel Escobar and Dr Hans Kvalbein. Professor Escobar comes from Peru, but has recently been appointed Professor of Missiology in the Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. Dr Kvalbein from Norway is this year guest professor at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Hong Kong.

The need for committed Christians to be involved in theological research is as urgent as ever in our world where there is so much theological confusion and uncertainty. But many theological students who could do so never seriously consider whether God might be calling them to this vital (though sometimes unglamorous) ministry. A leaflet about research possibilities, Serving Christ through Biblical and Theological Research, is available free of charge from Tyndale House, Selwyn Gardens, Cambridge CB3 9BA.

David Wenham

Wycliffe Hall