An example of poor journalism prompted Nathan Brown to consider the bigger implications of understanding what the Bible says about death.
When Australian cinematographer Dion Beebe won an Academy Award (an Oscar) in March for his work on the movie Memoirs of a Geisha, he made news in another way as well. In his acceptance speech, he enthused, “What an amazing feeling. Terrifying but amazing.”
“Mum,” he said, holding the golden statuette high and looking up into the spotlights, “I know you're up there somewhere.”
Of course, such a win was big news in his homeland and within minutes media outlets were trumpeting the award—and commenting upon his “tribute to his late mother.”
But there were two problems with those news reports: fact-checking and theology.
Fact-checking would have revealed that Beebe's mother was indeed “up there”—seated high in the upper tier at the award ceremony venue and quite alive, soon to be celebrating with her son the crowning achievement of his career. Indeed, the next day she was doing interviews on some of those same media outlets. “I hope they didn't think I was dead,” she commented with a chuckle.*
But the other trap these journalists—eager for a heart-warming story—fell into was theological. The traditional belief about what happens when we die leaves us open to such misunderstandings. The idea that we float off to heaven or hell after death—and in our assumptions usually the former—is popular in a cartoonish kind of way even among those with little belief in God or time for religion.
While there are some verses in the Bible that might be taken by themselves to suggest different views of the afterlife, the weight of evidence given in the Bible is that death is a sleep-like state of unconsciousness—simply ceasing to be—that can be reversed by the power of God in what is called resurrection, a “conditional immortality” that can be likened to a candle's flame that simply burns itself out.
In Jesus' confrontations with death while He was on earth, He made no mention of people going to “a better (or worse) place.” The Bible tells of three people brought back to life by Jesus: the daughter of Jairus, who Jesus described as “sleeping” (see Luke 8:52); the son of the widow of Nain (see Luke 7:11-15); and Jesus' friend Lazarus, who again Jesus described as having “fallen asleep” (see John 11:11).
None of the resurrected people themselves, Jesus or anyone else involved in these stories, express any sense of calling these people “back,” regret or joy that they had to leave the place to which they might have gone, or even any reports from an “afterlife.”
Rather, in His encounters with death, Jesus' primary focus was on resurrection—and particularly a resurrection when death would be finally defeated: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die like everyone else, will live again” (John 11:25, NLT). The miracles of resurrection Jesus performed on earth were simply a foretaste of the general resurrection that will accompany His second coming. Then the flames of these individual lives will be relit in a similar way to God's original creation of humanity.
Some people question the necessity of such “fine tuning” in theology. If we've got the basics of our faith sorted out, do we need to get too hung up on the details? But the intricate details of what we believe does matter. And, even for those embarrassed journalists, there are more serious implications that come with an inaccurate view of death.
Lack of appreciation of our physicality
One of the philosophies that have influenced our understanding of Christianity is that which draws a distinction between our “souls” and our physical bodies. This has had a profound effect on the value some Christians have placed on the world in which we live and the physical aspects of our lives. A lack of care for the natural world, a suspicion of pleasure and some twisted views on sexuality have all arisen from this ideological imposition on Christianity. And the belief in the separation of the “eternal soul” from our “mortal body” at death is part of this artificial distinction.
The Bible begins with a record of the creation of this world and quotes God, the Creator, who upon reviewing his handiwork declared that the earth, and everything in it, was “very good”—His crowning act of Creation being humanity. And despite the brokenness of our world, the goodness of life—without distinction—is affirmed and the Bible calls us to honour God with our physical lives (see 1 Corinthians 6:19, 20).
A misunderstanding of heaven
As the Bible begins with a description of the newly created earth, the Bible ends with a picture and promise of the earth re-created and restored to its pristine goodness. It is not about a collection of disembodied souls floating off, one-by-one, to blue-sky cloudland with a soundtrack dominated by harp ensembles. Heaven—as the Bible portrays it—is a real-world place with God living among His people (see Revelation 21:1-5).
This re-creation and new start for this world and for those resurrected only comes into being after the final end of evil and all those who determinedly reject God and His goodness.
The idea of those in heaven trying to enjoy the “heavenly delights” while down below continue the trials and troubles of their friends and family on earth—or perhaps even in hell—is difficult to explain. It does not fit with a picture of the goodness of God or even the goodness of the people who may have reached such a heaven.
Open to the deceptions of spiritualism
The Bible repeatedly warns against those who claim to communicate with the dead. Saul—a king of Israel whose tragic story is told in the Old Testament—was doomed to death by an apparition of a prophet he had respected in life (see 1 Samuel 28:4-22). Seeking encouragement on the eve of battle, Saul was seized with fear at the prophecy of his defeat and death.
Jesus' teaching fits with the rest of the Bible. He confronted evil spirits in people's lives and recognised their power to deceive and lead people away from God. Even in the one story Jesus told that may be construed as supporting an immediate afterlife, Jesus emphasised the lack of good that would come from communications between the dead and the living (see Luke 16:27-31).
Devaluing the Second Coming
The Bible does tell the stories of a few special people who have gone to heaven instead of dying or were raised from death and taken to heaven. Among these are Enoch, Moses and Elijah. But the way these stories are told strongly suggest these are the exceptions. As Jesus taught, the rest of the Bible focuses on His second coming and the resurrection that will take place at that event. Why would this be such a big deal if all but a few of God's people throughout history are already in heaven?
Paul describes this incredible event: “For the Lord himself will come down from heaven with a commanding shout, with the call of the archangel, and with the trumpet call of God [and] all the Christians who have died will rise from their graves” (1 Thessalonians 4:16, NLT).
The mystery of death
Perhaps the major reason there are so many different ideas about death and what happens after we die is because it remains one of the great mysteries of life. Despite multitudes of attempts and theories, we can't explore or scientifically investigate whatever might be beyond death. And for those of us who remain, saying goodbye to a friend or family member is a heartbreaking experience, which deeply challenges everything we believe about what matters in life.
Perhaps that was what Jesus was suggesting when He spoke with the sisters of Lazarus as they mourned their brother's death. Jesus gently emphasised that death was a matter of faith, when after describing Himself as the hope beyond death, He asked, “Do you believe this, Martha?” (John 11:26, NLT).
Belief in our “conditional immortality” with death as a state of unconscious non-being makes sense with a number of other key Christian beliefs. Such a belief can also give us a better understanding of the nature of God, His mercy, justice and goodness—as well as a better theological foundation for reporting on the Oscars, it seems.
But it is ultimately faith in Jesus that makes most sense of the mystery of death. Only His promise to return and to resurrect gives solid hope when facing death and grief. And Jesus asks the same question of us as He did at the graveside of Lazarus: “Do you believe this?”