Humanity has always struggled with the perennial question of an afterlife. Many have searched in vain for proof of life after death. The simple point is, coming back from the grave is not a common occurrence. Therefore, we have no large body of eyewitness accounts with which to draw conclusions.
That has not stopped us, however, from speculating. Throughout all time, our hearts have told us of life after death; that something of us will outlast our bodies. The conclusions that ancients have drawn from that have been both horrific to sublime. They conjured up both eternal miseries and gardens of otherworldly delights. But at the end of the day, most of humanity for all time has believed that we will survive our own death.
There is, however, a growing body of evidence that may be able to bridge the gap between science and religion. Time Magazine did a piece on Dr. Jeffrey Long, an oncologist and author of Evidence of the Afterlife, that has cataloged the stories of some 1,600 cases of near death experiences. His research has shown that there is a surprising similarity between the stories of people that have come close to death and come back. And since his initial research, his website, NDERF, has cataloged a further 300,000 stories of near death experiences – all with similar motifs.
It is intriguing that we would have a semi-uniform experience as our life ends. Tunnels, loved ones, a strong urge to walk toward the light. But near death experiences will not tell us about life after death, only what could happen to us as we approach death. And while Dr. Long’s research points to the fact that a part of us lasts after death, it does not tell us how long or in what state. For that, we must look further in order to better understand the possibilities of our eternal fate.
The past views of life after death:
To better understand what our thoughts are on the afterlife, we must examine what the ancients thought about life after death. Let’s briefly examine three cultures and draw conclusions from them.
Babylon: Most ancient cultures have some form of afterlife. The Babylonians, for example had a dreary view. Theirs was of an Underworld. Those that go down to it never return and all are engulfed in misery, sadness, and emptiness. For them, it was called the “House of Darkness.” It was a place of no escape wherein the dwellers were bereft of light. It was seen as a miserable place where people eat dirt for food, where king, priest, ecstatic, and everyone else all reside in an egalitarian state of shared misery. Echoes of the Mesopotamian Underworld can be seen in our modern understandings of Hell. The torment and misery talked about in these ancient sources come close to what we consider Hell to be. (The Ancient Near East p58-59)
Egypt: 4,000 years ago, the ancient Egyptians too believed that the Underworld was a place of misery. There seems to be a bit of overlap in that point. But for the right price, you could purchase spells and incantations could afford a person a place in paradise. The protective spells were meant to ferry the soul through a series of challenges that would eventually lead them to safety and a type of paradise. They would be seen as worthy before the gods and allowed to pass. If the soul, however, could not safely navigate the challenges, their soul would be judged by the gods, punished, and eventually perish. So here the idea is opened up to the idea that a place of peace awaited, if only for those lucky enough to find it. (The History Of Hell p12-15)
Mayan: The Mayan view of the Underworld was dreary indeed. The human soul, like Egyptian cosmologies, was sent to the underworld but could ascend to paradise. According to the Mayans, your ascension depended on your righteousness while on Earth. In the Underworld specifically, the Mayans envisioned a pantheon of gods ruling over different aspects of human misery known as the Lords of Xibalba. These lords also seemed to have functions on the earth as well since they specialize in such things as lesions, jaundice, stabbing pains, etc. The Mayan conception of life after death repeated the themes of paradise verses misery and pain with gods that ruled through punishment. (Popol Vuh p36)
A Bridge To Our Modern Times
The truth of the matter is, most ancient peoples did not hold out much hope for a better afterlife. Their concepts of death were dismal by many people’s standards today. It was not until we get closer to the Christian era that people begin to perceive a brighter life after death. Interestingly, the Egyptians eventually adopt Osiris as a more benign god of the dead. But it is not until Judaism takes root that we see the rise of the concept of everlasting life free of pain, care, or worry. That is not to say that other cultures did not have their own form of paradise. But the Jewish form of paradise was ruled by a Loving, All Powerful Creator that was not swayed by trickery, charms, or spells. He judged the hearts of men according to His Torah (or Instruction).
But the story does not stop there. Once Jesus comes on the scene, a radical concept was introduced. Jesus enunciated what our hearts already knew, none of us were righteous. We may be good, relatively speaking, but truly righteous – no. He introduced a way to heaven that fulfilled the requirements of Torah but took into account our incapacity to reach it. He gave a way to heaven through faith. Faith that His sacrifice could cover our shortcomings.
So the concepts of life after death have evolved over time. And even today modern thought on the afterlife is changing and growing. Teachings range from everyone will go to heaven to very few; from only some people will achieve eternal life to everyone achieving it; and from most people’s souls will be annihilated to no one’s soul annihilated. But even though there is wide diversity, there are some similarities. The ancient religions that taught that life after death was gloomy and miserable – showed that it was in some way it was deserved. Today, even the religions that teach that we all go to heaven deal with the fact that people make mistakes and the selfish desires must be purged before entrance to heaven is permitted (i.e. reincarnation and the like). Which leaves us with a glaring point, we all recognize that we all want to go to heaven – we just may not deserve it.
It would seem that most of the world’s faiths agree that the human soul has the propensity to achieve eternal life. Most agree that not everyone is deserving of just strolling through the pearly gates. But we are not in agreement as to how one becomes worthy. It is Christianity’s central point that no one is worthy and no one could ever be worthy. For life after death to be a pleasurable experience, we must rely on Someone who is worthy. And for those that accept His sacrifice through faith, His worthiness becomes our worthiness.
So what can we say about life after death? Very little. But the human heart has borne witness from the beginning that we are capable of it, life has the capacity to last forever, and we must be proved worthy to enter into it. It is on that basis Christianity finds its greatest understanding. The human soul is capable of eternal life in Paradise, but our soul must find its worth in One that is worthy of Paradise. Only then will life after death be something worth while.