What happens after we die?
In the 19th century sex was a taboo subject in polite society. Today talk about sex bombards our society from every quarter, but death has taken its place as the subject which no one wants to talk about. This is rather foolish as the only human experience we can be absolutely sure is going to happen to us from the moment we are born is that at some point life in this body will cease. Even the most committed atheist must have some curiosity about what happens then. In this article we will examine the three main possibilities believed today.
Rotting in the ground.
Many people say, ‘Death is the end, only the material world exists. There is no proof of life after death, therefore there is no life after death.’
By definition life after death cannot be proved scientifically because all life that we experience and are able to investigate scientifically is life before death. That does not mean it does not exist. This is only a proof if you accept that only what can be proved scientifically exists, which is in itself a dogma which cannot be proved. There are a number of pointers to life after death which are common to all human experience:
- We all recognise that the person we are is much more than our material body or even our brain. Something inhabits our body and brain to give it personality. Whatever we care to call this, it is not something which can be analysed or dissected physically. The Bible teaches that we have a spirit which is breathed into our physical body by God (Genesis 2.7) and which departs from body at the moment of death: ‘Then the dust will return to the earth as it was, and the spirit will return to God who gave it.’ (Ecclesiastes 12.7). It is interesting that the words for breath and spirit are the same in Hebrew (ruach) and Greek (pneuma). When we cease to breathe, our spirit ceases to inhabit our body. I was with my first wife Nikki when she died in hospital. The next day I went to see her body in the hospital morgue. I recognised the body of the woman I loved, but she was not there. While I wanted to be with her before she died, I did not want to stay long with her lifeless body because the person I knew was not there. While the body will decompose after death, the question of what happens to the person who inhabited that body is one which has always perplexed humanity.
- The human heart longs for something greater than ourselves beyond what is offered by this material life. No atheistic tribe has ever been discovered on the face of the earth. Even atheistic communism produced its own pseudo religion with its false gods (Lenin, Stalin, Mao etc), its rituals and its striving for something greater than oneself. There is no evidence that animals have any similar longing. You do not find cats or spiders or dolphins meeting together to worship God. Nor do you find them creating concentration camps to torture and oppress fellow creatures they don’t like. All animal behaviour is determined by survival issues – the search for food, defending territory, breeding and protecting young. Human behaviour has another dimension as the Bible says, ‘He (God) has put eternity into their hearts.’ (Ecclesiastes 3.11). This is observable in all cultures. As well as there being no atheistic people groups there are no people who do not have some concept of life after death. From a biblical point of view their views may be wrong (e.g. The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Confucian ideas of ancestor worship, Egyptians making pyramids to prepare the soul for the next life), but all have some idea about a life continuing beyond the grave.
- Human sense of justice naturally looks for some idea of reward and punishment after death. Again this is common to all religions. In this life the wicked often prosper and the righteous often suffer. Psalm 73 begins with the writer complaining to God. He is oppressed and suffering despite the fact that he has tried to serve God but the wicked who reject God’s ways are prospering and at ease. He envies the wicked until he realises that after death the wicked will face the judgement of God. ‘When I thought how to understand this it was too painful for me – until I went into the sanctuary of God and then I saw their end.’ (Psalm 73.16-20).
- It is clear that many people experiencing near death and recovering have some experience which points to a continuing existence after death. While we should not build too much on this phenomenon, it is another evidence that there is a life after death.
Re-incarnation is a core belief of eastern religions – Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism. According to surveys between 25 and 40% of people in the western world now believe in some form of re-incarnation. The New Age movement teaches re-incarnation, popularised by showbiz fans of this belief. Also many modern cults – e.g. Scientology – teach some form of re-incarnation.
Supposed evidences of re-incarnation are:
- Child prodigies – the child prodigy starts with a memory of past lives and therefore has an advantage over the rest of us.
- Déjà vu – experiences of visiting somewhere you have not been before and feeling that you have been there.
- Past lives supposedly remembered in dreams and under hypnosis.
The word ‘reincarnation’ literally means to ‘come again in the flesh.’ The process of reincarnation – continual rebirths in human or animal bodies – allegedly continues until the soul has reached a state of perfection and merges back with its source (God or the ‘Universal Soul’). A person’s fate in life, according to those who believe in reincarnation, is based on the law of karma. This law says that if bad things happen in one’s life, this is an outworking of bad karma in this life or a previous life. If good things happen in one’s life, this is an outworking of good karma.
‘Karma’ refers to the ‘debt’ a soul accumulates because of good or bad actions committed during one’s life or past lives. If one accumulates good karma by performing good actions, he or she will be reincarnated in a desirable state. If one accumulates bad karma, he or she will be reincarnated in a less desirable state. Shirley MacLaine writes in her book ‘Out on a Limb’, ‘Reincarnation is like show business. You just keep doing it until you get it right.’
The earliest mention of re-incarnation is in the 7th century BC in the Upanishads (Hindu sacred writings).
Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (4,4,5): ‘According as one acts, according as one behaves, so does he become. The doer of good becomes good. The doer of evil becomes evil. One becomes virtuous by virtuous action, bad by bad action.’
By reincarnation (samsara) a person is supposed to reap the fruits of his deeds. If they have done good in their life they come back in a better form than their previous life, if they have done evil in a worse form:
‘The murderer of a Brahmin becomes consumptive, the killer of a cow becomes hump-backed and imbecile, the murderer of a virgin becomes leprous – all three born as outcastes. The slayer of a woman and the destroyer of embryos becomes a savage full of diseases; who commits illicit intercourse, a eunuch; who goes with his teacher’s wife, disease-skinned. The eater of flesh becomes very red; the drinker of intoxicants, one with discoloured teeth…. Who steals food becomes a rat; who steals grain becomes a locust. These and other signs and births are seen to be the karma of the embodied, made by themselves in this world. Thus the makers of bad karma, having experienced the tortures of Hell, are reborn with the residues of their sins, in these stated forms.’ (Garuda Purana 5).
‘Just as the self advances through childhood, youth and old age in its physical body, so it advances to another body after death. The wise person is not confused by this change called death (2,13). Just as the body casts off worn out clothes and puts on new ones, so the infinite, immortal self casts off worn out bodies and enters into new ones.’ (Bhagavad-Gita 2,22).
There are also ideas of re-incarnation in Greek philosophy. Greek Platonism stated the pre-existence of the soul in a celestial world and its fall into a human body due to sin. In order to be liberated from its bondage and return to a state of pure being, the soul needs to be purified through reincarnation. Plato taught that human souls existed since eternity in a perfect celestial world as intelligent and personal beings. They were not created by a personal god. Although the souls lived there in a pure state, somehow the divine love grew cold in them and, as a result, they fell in physical bodies to this earthly, imperfect world (but only as humans not animals).
The Druids and Celts also believed in re-incarnation. Julius Caesar wrote of the Celts ‘They wish to inculcate this as one of their leading beliefs, that souls do not become extinct, but pass after death from one body to another, and they think that men by this belief are in a great degree stimulated to valour, the fear of death being disregarded.’
Reincarnation also comes into some forms of Judaism, especially in Hassidism. Judaism 101 website says: ‘There are some mystical schools of thought that believe resurrection is not a one-time event, but is an ongoing process. The souls of the righteous are reborn in to continue the ongoing process of tikkun olam, mending of the world. Some sources indicate that reincarnation is a routine process, while others indicate that it only occurs in unusual circumstances, where the soul left unfinished business behind. Belief in reincarnation is also one way to explain the traditional Jewish belief that every Jewish soul in history was present at Sinai and agreed to the covenant with God. (Another explanation: that the soul exists before the body, and these unborn souls were present in some form at Sinai). Belief in reincarnation is commonly held by many Chasidic sects, as well as some other mystically-inclined Jews.’
Martin Buber wrote ‘Tales of the Hasidim,’ including the famous story, ‘Rich man, poor man.’ This deals with a rich man, Mr. Geltman, who dies at the same time as a child is born to a poor beggar woman, Mrs. Bettler. The soul of the rich man is reincarnated in the poor child. When the child is six years old all the poor of the town are invited to the barmitzvah of one of the Geltman family in their home. The six-year old child begins to act out of character and demand the best place in the house and to be given the best food. He refuses the money the Geltman brothers distribute among the poor, as was the custom. ‘When the Bettler boy’s turn came, he looked disdainfully at the small coins and shouted, “How dare you offer me coppers!? Bring me gold from the treasure chest!”’ The rabbi present had supernatural powers to know all about people’s past lives. He knew that this unusual behaviour in the child was explained by the fact that he was the reincarnation of the deceased head of the Geltman household.
While there is no direct passage dealing with reincarnation in the Tenach (Old Testament) the idea of reincarnation goes right against its principles. When Saul goes to a medium and brings up Samuel from the dead (thereby going against the teaching of the Torah which forbids spiritism or calling up the dead – Deuteronomy 18.11), he is told by Samuel, ‘Tomorrow you and your sons will be with me’ (in the place of the dead). 1 Samuel 28.19. When David fasts and prays for the child of Bathsheba, he is told that the child has died (2 Samuel 12.16-23). His response to the news of the child’s death is to stop fasting, saying, ‘Now he is dead why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him but he shall not return to me.’ Both these accounts imply no possibility of reincarnation. The Bible does teach the resurrection of the dead. Job says, ‘For I know that my Redeemer lives, and He shall stand at last on the earth: and after my skin is destroyed, this I know that in my flesh I shall see God.’ Job 19.25-26. Daniel 12.3 says, ‘Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, some to shame and everlasting contempt.’
Proponents of re-incarnation say that it was taught by Jesus but suppressed by the church following the Council of Constantinople in AD 533 when it was condemned as a heresy. They claim that Matthew 11.14 about John the Baptist being ‘Elijah who is to come’ and John 3.7 where Jesus tells Nicodemus ‘You must be born again’ are references to re-incarnation.
In fact the New Testament specifically rejects re-incarnation as a possibility: ‘And as it is appointed unto man to die once but after this the judgement, so Messiah (Christ) was offered once to bear the sins of many.’ Hebrews 9.27-8. We have one life and one opportunity to find God and salvation in this life.
Matthew 11.14 refers to John the Baptist coming in the spirit of Elijah, not being Elijah re-incarnated (John the Baptist denied that he was physically Elijah in John 1.21). Jesus told Nicodemus not about a need to be reborn physically but spiritually (John 3.5-8). All early church fathers condemned re-incarnation as conflicting with the Gospel long before AD 533.
In fact there are many questions which one can ask of those who believe in re-incarnation:
- Why does one get punished (via bad karma) in this life for something one cannot remember in a previous life?
- If one has no recollection of the supposed previous life in what sense is the present life a continuation of it?
- If one is re-incarnated as an animal what chance does one have of self-improvement?
- If the purpose of the process is to rid humanity of its selfish desires, why is there no noticeable improvement in human behaviour after thousands of years of re-incarnation? Why is India where re-incarnation has been taught for generations not more advanced morally and socially than other nations?
- What happens if this world is destroyed by the bad actions of humans and there is no place to re-incarnate to?
- Since people are supposed to be on the way to perfection by which they will escape the cycle of death and rebirth, where can one meet the people who are perfect or nearly perfect?
The Bible teaches resurrection and refutes re-incarnation
As we have already seen in the verse quoted from Hebrews above (Hebrews 9.27) we have only one life in which to get it right. Re-incarnation is one of the Devil’s lies to blind us to this truth. It denies God as the Source of life and Sovereign over our lives and final Judge of our lives. It conflicts with His moral law, saying that we can pay off past sins in future lives. It also leads to a lack of compassion towards those who suffer, as their poverty or illness may be considered to be the result of sins in a previous life.
Following death the Bible tells us we will be judged by God. ‘For as the Father has life in Himself, so He has granted the Son to have life in Himself, and has given Him authority to execute judgement because He is the Son of Man. Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming in which all who are in graves will hear His voice and come forth – those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil unto the resurrection of damnation.’ John 5.25-29.
The most common religious view is that we will be judged by our deeds. Our good deeds will be weighed out on the right hand side of balances by our defending angel and our bad deeds on the left hand side by our accusing angel. Then we will be judged on the result as to whether our good deeds are greater than our bad deeds or vice versa. In fact although this is the most common view it is not correct. Our good deeds will not cancel out our bad deeds as far as God is concerned. If we break God’s commandments we have to pay the penalty.
The following illustration may help us to understand this. A few months ago I was caught by a speed camera going over the speed limit and issued a £60 fine. Suppose I had written in to the office dealing with the fine and said, ‘I am normally a good driver and keep the speed limit’ or ‘There are a lot worse drivers than me on the roads’ or ‘I give money to charity’ would they have let me off? No way. But suppose I wrote in and said ‘I am very sorry and I can’t pay this fine. Please have mercy on me.’ Someone opening this letter decided to pay my fine themselves (highly unlikely I admit!), would I then have been let off? Yes. As long as the fine is paid it does not matter who pays it.
When we come to God our debt is the equivalent of billions of pounds – way beyond anything any of us can pay. The only way the debt we owe to God because of our bad deeds can be paid is by someone else paying it for us. Therefore this is the only way we can know that we have forgiveness of sins and eternal life after death.
This is what Jesus did when He died for us on the cross. He paid our debt in full. Jesus who alone has lived a perfect life on earth took on himself the sins of the world so that we might be forgiven for our sins when we turn to Him in repentance and faith. This was prophesied of Him in Isaiah 53.6: ‘All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.’ As Peter puts it ‘For Messiah also suffered once for our sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God.’ (1 Peter 3.18). By faith in Him we are saved and have eternal life (Ephesians 2.1-10). Jesus says ‘I am the Resurrection and the Life. He who believes in me though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.’ John 11.25-6. Through faith in Him we no longer have to fear death. ‘Through death He (Jesus) might destroy him who had the power of death, that is the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.’ Hebrews 2.14-15. The Bible is clear that there is a life after death and that our souls will survive. We will not come back as dogs, monkeys or fish. The redeemed will receive a new eternal body which will not be subject to sin, sickness, decay and death (1 Corinthians 15.35-58). The redeemed will dwell eternally with the Lord (1 Thessalonians 4.13-18, Revelation 21.1-7). Those who reject salvation through faith in the Messiah Jesus will face eternal punishment in Hell (Revelation 20.11-15, 21.8). Heaven and Hell are real. Avoid Hell, choose Heaven through Jesus the Messiah.
Here is a prayer to help you make this choice.
‘Dear Heavenly Father, I admit that I am a sinner and need your forgiveness. I believe that Jesus the Messiah died in my place, shedding His blood to pay for my sins, and that He rose again from the dead to give me eternal life. I am willing right now to turn from my sin and accept Jesus the Messiah as my personal Saviour and Lord. I commit my life to you and ask you to send the Holy Spirit into my life, to fill me and to take control and to help me become the kind of person you want me to be. Thank you Father for loving me. In Jesus’ name, Amen.