Understanding Life After Death

One of the most shocking moments I ever had from a theological point of view happened in Jerusalem, in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, in the Chapel on top of Golgotha no less, where traditionally Jesus was crucified.  I heard a Catholic priest say these words to his tour group:  “I don’t know what eternal life is, but I like to think it has something to do with this world.  I like to think we live on in the memories of those who love us.”

My jaw must have hit the floor.  Did Jesus need to die to help people remember them? Nooo!  This priest was confused to the extreme, but confusion is not limited to him.  What happens after we die confuses many people for some reason.  The result is disagreement.

There are basically four ideas of what comes next. One is caught up in Paul’s use of the word “sleep” (see 1 Cor. 15:51 or 1 Thess. 4:13 for example).  In this model we are unconscious at our death until aroused at Judgment Day.  This model is quickly contradicted by 1 Thessalonians 4:14 which has the righteous dead returning with Jesus as he comes on Judgment Day. 

For since we believe that Jesus rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep.

1 Thessalonians 4:14

It also is in tension with Revelation 6:9-10 where martyrs are conscious, in Heaven, and asking God how long they have to wait for Judgment Day.  For that matter, also Revelation 7:9-17 which shows people in Heaven in a pre-Judgment Day setting.

Another is a time-warp model that doesn’t have you sleeping but going direct to the Judgment Day. The idea is that because God must be transcendent (above the Laws of Nature), that we are also transcendent after our death. While I do believe God can do whatever He wants with us. Assuming transcendence is a jump. This theory also contradicts the same passages as soul sleep mentioned above.

Yet another is a super vague explanation that equates “heaven” with being a part of the body of Jesus.  That doesn’t seem like a bad idea at first, but it is essentially making “heaven” (not capitalized) be a state of mind or being. Essentially, I am in heaven now because I am part of the body of Christ.  It is not Heaven a place where Jesus is. Again, Revelation 6 and 7 speak against this. 2 Corinthians 5 also speaks of our having an independent body in which we are “clothed”. We do not exist as a being assimilated into Jesus until the Resurrection.

Here is what the Scripture tells us.  When we die (like the thief on the cross), immediately we will be with Jesus in paradise (Heaven – capital H), fully awake, fully aware and loving it.  I would argue that this experience comes with a heavenly body (1 Cor. 15:40, 2 Cor. 5:1), you are not formless or ghostly.  Then, when the time arrives, we will return with Jesus from Heaven to Earth.  We will receive a resurrected body, appropriate for Earth, and go through a Judgment Day experience (1 Corinthians 3:10-15).  Judgment Day for the Redeemed is not a determination of salvation, but rather an accounting of our works and an appropriate reward.  (1 Cor. 3:10-15, et al.).  Where then?  Wherever you want.  God dwells with us on Earth, but I wouldn’t guess that Heaven is off limits either.

What Is Eternal Life?

I want to tell you of an encounter I had on Golgotha, the place where Jesus was crucified. I am not speaking metaphorically here. I was in Jerusalem a couple of years ago. We were visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. This is a church in the old city of Jerusalem, where the traditional site of Jesus’ crucifixion and of Jesus’ burial lie within one building. Many people, including me, don’t appreciate that Golgotha and the rich man’s tomb were so close together; but John’s gospel records that the place of crucifixion was in a garden. It was an ugly act placed in a beautiful place near the gate of the city. I expect it was to show Roman dominance.

When you enter at the ground level through the main door, the top of Golgotha (the place of the skull) is just up about the equivalent of two normal floors of a building to your right. The tomb is around a corner to your left. Our group went up to the Chapel on top of Golgotha first. The chapel is a somewhat sad story of in-fighting among the groups that control the church. There are three altars. The far right altar is Roman Catholic, the middle Orthodox, the left Arminian. We were in the middle and a group (presumably Catholic) was in the right portion of the chapel. I couldn’t help but overhear the presentation being made by the priest, who sounded American. To my shock he said, “I don’t know what eternal life is, but I think it has something to do with this Earth; we live on in the memories of people.”

I almost had a stroke. Here we are on the likely place where Jesus died and a member of the clergy suggests that eternal life is being remembered. In reflection on the statement made by the priest, I guess I assumed that everyone is clear about the nature of eternal life; and, clearly, I assumed too much. When we let worldly doubts, fears, and academic criticism get into our heads, we can believe that real existence beyond our deaths is impossible. The Jews also had a group, the Sadducees, who did not believe in the resurrection of the body. When this becomes your worldview, references to eternal life are nothing more than wishful thinking or, as the priest said, memories.

My question is, “What would Jesus’ dying on a cross 2000 years ago have anything to do with whether people remember me or not?” The answer is, “It doesn’t.” On that rock on which we stood Jesus literally suffered being forsaken by His Father. That selfless act enabled a promise of God to work. God extends to humans the opportunity to be connected to Jesus. When connected through baptism in the name of Jesus (not some other ridiculous formula), the forsakeness of Jesus becomes the fulfillment of what God’s law requires of us. Because we have not kept God’s Law, we are required to be damned (forsaken). Jesus takes that sentence for us. Having been made right with God, we can live with God in the joy and glory of Heaven (a real place and thus capitalized) and also in the New Earth (also real and as a proper noun capitalized). If you can’t tell, the failure of many books and bible translations to capitalize both Heaven and Earth when referring to the place is a pet peeve of mine.

It is also important to note here that eternal life does not just mean existence. After your death you will exist regardless of your standing with God. That is how you are made. You will actually exist, not just in memory. It is just that if you exist as a being forsaken by God, the experience will be so hopeless and horrifying that calling such an existence “life” is a gross disservice to the word. The Bible is not even thrilled with called our current existence “life”. Existence in Heaven and the New Earth is real life. Once there you will not care if people remember you. You will be having too much fun. Life after death is not some version of the Disney movie, “Coco”. Maybe that is where the priest learned his theology.

So take heart. Jesus has opened the door to life. This is not some vague concept. It is more concrete that you are now.

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