The afterlife: what Jesus taught and what developed later

by frankbeswick

Jesus said something about the afterlife, but much Christian teaching is the product of theological reflection after Jesus' death.

Many a time you will hear a preacher saying that Jesus came to teach us the way to heaven, which, unlike Earth, is our true home, for here we have no abiding city. You will also hear people saying that he came to open the gates of heaven, which were closed until that time. Yet he did not make these claims. Jesus did teach about eternal life, but he rarely said much about going to heaven, and he gave very little detail about the afterlife. He was more concerned with getting people's lives right.

The Eschatological Gap.

Eschatology is that branch of theology that deals with the Last Things: death, judgment, hell and heaven, and it is one of the trickiest parts of Christian theology. The trouble is that Jesus did not say much about it. On many occasions he promised eternal life, in fact it is the main promise in John's Gospel. He certainly responded to the young man who asked him how he would obtain eternal life by telling him to keep the commandments. This promise of eternal life seems to be at the core of Jesus' teaching, but he gives no details of what it is like or where it will take place. At certain points he speaks of a day of judgment, the Last Day, which will be a time when the dead are raised, after which a new age will be instituted. Both of these ideas are found in John's Gospel, where there is a promise that one who believes will be raised up at the Last Day.

While there will be a new age, John's Gospel states that believers in Christ already possess eternal life. Christianity distinguishes eternal life from afterlife. Eternal life is a quality of life possessed by those who have accepted Christ. It will be possessed by the saved in the afterlife, but it is possible to have an afterlife without it, as those in Hell do.

Later there came the resurrection, when the apostles and other disciples began to think that the old age had ended and that in the resurrection the new age had begun. Yet even after the resurrection, there seemed to be no detailed message given about what the afterlife was like. The church began to speculate. They reflected that being raised at the last day implied resurrection, just as Jesus had resurrected. For Paul Jesus was the first fruits of the resurrection that would come to all believers. Paul, in Thessalonians 1 envisaged that Jesus would return in glory on the clouds of heaven and that the saved would be taken to meet him in the upper air. This belief that there would be a judgment day certainly derives from the teaching of Jesus, as found in Matthew 25, and it was pretty standard Jewish teaching, and no Pharisee would have challenged him on that. But it is Paul's belief that the saved would meet Christ in the upper air which has given rise to the doctrine of the rapture held by Evanglicals, that the saved will one day be whisked off instantly to be with Christ. Jesus does not mention this belief and it seems not to fit in with the parable of the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25, where the saved and the sinners are judged together, with no mention of a rapture.

But of critical importance is the fact that the early church expected the return of Jesus at any time, and thought that they would live to see it. Thus when their expectations were disappointed, and when holy people were dying off, they preserved belief in the day of judgment, but asked the question of what happens to the righteous before Jesus' return. This is the eschatological gap, and it was filled with much speculation.



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Fragments and thoughts.

We do not have much to go on, but some things that Jesus said imply a state in between our personal death and the Last Day. In John's version of the Last Supper,chapter 14, Jesus says that his Father's house has many mansions and he goes to prepare a place for his apostles. This seems to imply some kind of heavenly state. Paul,writing in the fifties A.D. seems to suggest that he believed in a heavenly state in Philippians 1:23 when he says that he longs to be dissolved and be with Christ.

We also find the parable of the Rich man and Lazarus, Luke 16:19-31. This tells the tale of a very rich man who neglects a beggar. They each die and go to different destinations: the rich man to the flames of Hades and the poor man to Abraham's bosom, a Jewish term for heaven. This parable certainly implies that individual death may be followed by heaven or hell, but the language of the parable shows that it has undergone evolution over the forty years between Jesus' stating it and its inclusion in Luke. The bit about the rich man dressing in purple and fine linen, while being a descendant of Abraham, is a swipe at the Herod family. The only Jews who could wear purple, the imperial colour, were the royal family of the  Herods; and the term Abraham's bosom is characteristically Jewish, both indicating that this came from Jesus. Yet Hades was a Greek term, which Jesus would not have used, so there is some evidence here that the language has adapted in the telling. Yet it seemed that Jesus did imply a personal destiny after death. He is also reported to have told the Good Thief, "this day you will be with me in paradise." implying an individual destiny after death before the Last Day. Scholars are sceptical about this story, as it only occurs in Luke's Gospel, but the scepticism, while having some weight, does ot totally convince, as the events of Crucifixion day were complex and fast moving, so different individuals would each have had their fragments of the story to record. Furthermore, Paradise is a Jewish term, so Jesus would have known and been able to use it..

Yet there is also talk of Hell. Some talk of Hell occurs in the context of the Last Judgement in Matthew 25, but the Rich Man and Lazarus speaks of an individual hell after death. Yet the image is unclear. Jesus speaks of the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and grinding of teeth, yet other texts speak of a fire, e.g. the Rich Man and Lazarus. The imagery of fire derives from Gehenna, the figurative name for Hell. But this was based on the Vale of Gehinnom, the Jerusalem rubbish tip, which was considered accursed because it was once a place of child sacrifice to Moloch, a Canaanite deity. The fires there smouldered day long, as people burned teir trash, but by the end of the Book of Revelations the fate of the wicked is a lake of burning sulphur. It seems that the thermostat was being turned up. Preachers have not been averse to cranking up the punishments.

The unresolved problem is why two judgments are needed. If we are judged after death, why have another one at the end of the age? If your judgment after death is final, why bother with a general judgment, the decision is made.


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Other elements

Some elements in Christian thought are not present in the gospels, at least not explicitly. Protestants believe in two destinations, heaven and hell. While Catholics accept both as final destinations, they accept an intermediate state of purgatory, where those who have been forgiven their sins but need to make some progress remain for a while. Some regard this state as punitive, so someone like Hans Frank, the Nazi butcher of Poland, who repented in hs prison cell and accepted his death penalty as proper punishment, would not go to Hell,but would spend time in purgatory. Purgatory is not a belief found in the New Testament, and the same can be said of the Catholic belief that you can pray for the dead, but the Second Book of Maccabees, in the Old Testament, supports prayers for the dead to be released from their sins [Second Maccabees 12:42-46.]

Another destination postulated by Catholic thinkers was limbo. This was the state of those virtuous people who knew not Christ and died unbaptized. Limbo was divided into the limbo of innocents, children who died unbaptized,  and the limbo of the ancients. There is no evidence in Scripture to support this belief, but it arose to deal with the problem that God would be unfair to send pagans who had never heard of Christ to Hell. It also was a response to the ridiculous belief promulgated by Augustine that unbaptized babies went to Hell. Catholic thinkers modifiied Augustine's idea by postulating limbo. This belief has fallen out of favour in recent years. Catholics don't bother with the belief. Calvinists, though, are happy with the idea that sincere pagans go to Hell, as they believe that God predestines you to either heaven or hell: an ugly image of God and to my mind a blasphemy.

It was the doctrine of limbo that was the first time when I thought that a teacher was wrong. I was six at the time when the adorable Miss McLeish told us that there were four places: heaven, hell, purgatory and limbo, but when the end of the world came there would only be heaven and hell. She told us that we  don't know what will happen to those in limbo. "God takes them to heaven" I said, to which she replied "God can't do that." I knew that she was wrong, as God can do anything, but I said nothing. Miss McLeish had already told my mother that I was a dreamer, as I had a tendency to be often lost in my own thoughts.Maybe that's what writers are like.



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The forgotten doctrine.

In John 9:1 the apostles see a man born blind and ask Jesus "Did this man or his parents sin that he was born blind." They were discussing an issue important in Judaism: why did people suffer. Some thought that you suffer for your parents sins, and others for your sins in a previous incarnation. Yet others believed that you could sin before birth. If Jesus rejected reincarnation he could have killed off the doctrine there and then, but he did not. He healed the man. But while the doctrine of reincarnation was and still is held by some Jews, notably hasidic ones, Jesus neither affirms nor denies it. But many early Christians did accept that reincarnation occurred, notably Clement of Alexandria [whose works are lost] and Origen, Clement's pupil, who was to surpass his master in scholarship. Gnostic Christians certainly accepted the doctrine. It was only to fall out of favour in 553 when the Second Council of Constantinople, held by the imperial tyrant Justinian, against the will of the pope, whom Justinian had had imprisoned,  and without a representative selection of bishops from across the empire, decided against the pre-existence of the soul. As reincarnation depends on pre-existence,  the doctrine fell out of favour. But Jesus never made any statements for or against pre-existence or reincarnation. This is an example of clerics and politicians  blessing their own ideas with the status of doctrine, when they ought not do so.

Reincarnation could resolve the question of why we  have two judgments. If this life is not always final, then the judgment at the end of life will not be final either. So the final decision on heaven or hell imay be made at the last judgment, at least for some people.


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Where are we now? There are two billion Christians in the world, and they differ in their vews. One issue of contention is exclusivism. Do we believe or not that only Christians go to heaven. Some take a very rigid view with Calvinists dividing humanity into saved predestined to Heaven] and unsaved [predestined to Hell.] I can recall watching a television programme in which Adam Nicholson, cruising the islands around Britain, stopped at Lewis, where he was discussing one sabbath with earnest young Calvinists. "Are you saved? " one asked him, and he said quite sadly, "I don't think so." Looks of horror. But I thought that the one person there who showed any Christian humility was Nicholson. Perhaps he was the one most likely to be saved. There are extremists who think that only their tiny group will be saved. I can recall the separatist Archbishop Lefebvre, who split from Rome over his opposition to changes in ritual, telling his supporters to take heart, "There are no Protestants in heaven." This kind of narrow separatism does not appeal to me. 

I think that Pope Francis takes the right view, when he said that an atheist could be saved and go to heaven. Francis rightly realizes that in Christian thought heaven/ salvation is an unearned gift, and the boundaries of the gift can stretch wider than Christianity. But we must be clear. There are people who reject Christ and his values, and who live badly. Heaven/salvation is not for them. I don't rate your chances of meeting Hitler in heaven.

I will finish with a Catholic story. Three priests, a Dominican [holders of a strict theology] a Franciscan [follower of Francis of Assisi and exponent of love] and a Jesuit [really intellectual] were arguing. The Dominican says there is a hell and lots of people are in it; the Franciscan says that God is so loving that there is really no one in hell; the Jesuit says that we have no evidence to support any assertion, but Hell remains an awesome possibility. But these three might reflect on the vision of the English mystic Dame Julian of Norwich, one of whose  visions was of Hell. It was empty.


Updated: 07/22/2014, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick on 07/26/2014

There is a happy medium to hit. We can over-focus on the afterlife at the expense of this life, but we need a sense of direction and some idea of what we are going to.

WriterArtist on 07/26/2014

I think we have forgotten the real essence of life. We should not care whether Heaven and Hell are on earth or somewhere else - instead focus on the teachings of Saints. Jesus and many others taught how to live life rightly.

frankbeswick on 07/23/2014

The statement that we die once is of dubious translation. The precise exegesis of the text and its translation are both disputable. Once might be better translated as first.

I have come to see over the years that the simple view of religion that I was taught as I grew up is inadequate. There are mysteries that we do not understand. My non-Catholic grandfather told my devoutly Catholic mother "Your priests like to tell you that they know everything, but they don't. There is much in this world that they don't understand." As usual, grandfather was right.

The root of my religion is a devotion to prayer and mass. I try as far as possible to stick to these devotions, but I know that the mystery transcends my understanding, and the afterlife is a state that I have yet to experience.My own belief is that a super-intelligent God probably has developed an afterlife more subtle than the simple heaven and hell so beloved of preachers.

The path to truth can only be folltowed by following the evidence and the argument wherever they lead. There is a light at the end of the road, though it may be distant, but we must stick to it faithfully.

dustytoes on 07/23/2014

I enjoy reading pages like this one as it keeps me thinking and questioning. Religion has certainly been twisted around to conform to various ways of thinking. All people who judge others are certainly not following the command to leave the judging up to God. I am not Catholic and am unfamiliar with the Maccabees, but in Hebrews 9:27 I read that "man is destined to die once" which would go against the belief of reincarnation.
I have always been confused as to what happens when we die. How can we die and go to heaven immediately (like the thief who died with Jesus) but then be raised at a later time, in the last day? Anyone who thinks they have all the answers is fooling him/herself. One day we will all find out.

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