Is there really a life after death?
An Unhappy Beginning
The early chapters of The Bible provide details of how the first man and woman came into existence: after the man’s physical body was created, we are told God ‘breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being’ (Genesis 2:7). God gave man and woman just one rule: they could freely eat of any of the fruit in the garden, except for that borne by one particular tree, which was forbidden. We later read how the woman succumbed to the temptation to eat that fruit, and how she also gave some of it to Adam. They had broken God’s command, and it carried consequences:
To Adam God said, ‘because you have heeded the voice of your wife, and have eaten from the tree of which I commanded you saying. ‘you shall not eat it’: cursed is the ground for your sake; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life... in the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for dust you are, and to dust you shall return.’ (Genesis 3:17-19).
The consequence of their actions was death—they were going to return to the dust from which they had been created.
A Wise Man’s View
Ever since, humanity has speculated about what happens at the point of death and if there is anything beyond the grave. King Solomon (a famous Old Testament king) had great God-given wisdom, and he decided to look into what really had value in life. He considered many aspects of our lives and wrote about his conclusions. Regarding death, he concluded this:
All things come alike to all: one event happens to the righteous and the wicked; to the good, the clean, and the unclean; to him who sacrifices and him who does not sacrifice. As is the good, so is the sinner; he who takes an oath as he who fears an oath. This is an evil in all that is done under the sun: that one thing happens to all. Truly the hearts of the sons of men are full of evil; madness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead. (Ecclesiastes 9:2-3 NKJV)
So, he confirms that all die, both good and bad alike. He continues with this thought:
For the living know that they will die; but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten. Also their love, their hatred, and their envy have now perished; nevermore will they have a share in anything done under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 9:5-6 NKJV)
After a person has died, then, Solomon tells us they cease to exist and consequently lose all involvement in what’s going on in the earth. But does that mean life is pointless?
God’s Love for His Creation
Thankfully, The Bible doesn’t end at the Genesis curse with its inevitability of death, but God offers His creation more than just a brief life followed by nothing.
In the New Testament, the apostle John explains why God wants to give us a future. In the third chapter of John’s account of Jesus’ life, he wrote this:
For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. (John 3:16-17 NKJV)
God loved his creation so dearly that He ensured we have the chance of more than just seventy years followed by God taking back the breath that he gave in the first place. God wanted the world to be saved from the consequence of the fatal error that Adam and Eve had made, and declared that eternal life can exist after death.
Death is Like a Sleep
For that reason, the Bible frequently talks about death in terms of it being like a sleep. We get a good example of this later in John’s record of Jesus’ life, when he records a highly significant event involving some of his closest friends, Mary, Martha and Lazarus. One day, Jesus received a message that Lazarus had been taken seriously ill, but by the time the message arrives, his friend has died. Jesus tells his disciples about this, but when he describes what has happened to Lazarus, he talks about him being asleep:
‘Our friend Lazarus sleeps, but I go that I may wake him up.’ Then his disciples said, ‘Lord, if he sleeps he will get well.’ However, Jesus spoke of his death, but they thought that he was speaking about taking rest in sleep. Then Jesus said to them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead.’ (John 11:11-14 NKJV)
In this exchange, we see Jesus using the words ‘dead’ and ‘sleeping’ interchangeably. His disciples thought he meant that Lazarus was having a rest, whereas Jesus meant he was dead.
While we are asleep, we have no awareness of what is going on around us, just as Solomon wrote, but a time will come when we shall awake. This way of describing death like a sleep is not unique to the New Testament, but we find a similar metaphor in the Psalms. Psalm 13, for instance, was written during a difficult time for David, when his life was in serious jeopardy. He prayed thus to God: ‘Consider and hear me, O Lord my God; enlighten my eyes lest I sleep the sleep of death.’ (Psalm 13:3). David does not want to die, but knows that if he does, it will be like a sleep; he understood that he wasn’t going to perish forever.
It seems that Lazarus’ sister Martha understood about death and that God didn’t want it to be the final full-stop. After getting the message about Lazarus, Jesus heads to Bethany where Lazarus lived with his sisters Mary and Martha. Martha went out to meet him, and they had this conversation:
Then Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said to Him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.’ Jesus said to her, ‘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. Do you believe this?’ She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believethat you arethe Christ, the son of God, who is to come into the world.’ (John 11:21-27)
When Jesus spoke to Martha and told her that Lazarus ‘will rise again’ (John 11:23), she doesn’t ask ‘when?’ or ‘how?’ but says simply, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.’ So we clearly see that she already understood that there would be a physical resurrection from the dead at some point in the future.
After their conversation, Jesus performed a great miracle and brought Lazarus to life, even though his body had started to decompose, giving a practical demonstration of resurrection (John 11:41-44). It should be noted, though, that when Jesus raised Lazarus, Lazarus was only given a physical body like Adam’s; in the future resurrection, people will have a better, incorruptible body (1 Corinthians 15:44).
The Importance of Baptism
Another thing we see in this passage about Lazarus is the statement that Jesus will be involved in this future resurrection. Jesus said: ‘I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me, though he may die, shall live’ (John 11:25-26). Jesus’ role in this is described in the letter that Paul wrote to the Romans. There, he explained the link in this way:
Do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:3-4 NKJV)
Three days after Jesus’ crucifixion, he was raised from the dead but unlike Lazarus, God gave Jesus a new incorruptible body. Here in Romans, we are told that if we are baptized, we can also be brought back to life in the future just as Jesus was, and given a new incorruptible body like his. Baptism is therefore a vital step.
In another of Paul’s letters, this time to the believers in Corinth, he says the same thing, but also re-iterates that we die because we are descendants of Adam but can all be saved if we link ourselves to Jesus Christ instead. When he uses the phrase ‘those who are Christ’s’, he is referring to those who have been baptized, as he explained in his Romans letter.
For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. But each one in his own order: Christ the first fruits, afterward those who are Christ’s at His coming. (1 Corinthians 15:22-23 NKJV)
So, through an association with Jesus Christ, we can overcome death. In that letter, he goes further and adds that death will eventually be removed altogether: ‘the last enemy that shall be destroyed is death,’ he writes (1 Corinthians 15:26).
Paul then returns to the comparison of death to a sleep when he explains what will happen when Jesus returns to the earth:
Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed—in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’ (1 Corinthians 15:51-54 NKJV)
Here he is quoting from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah (25:8), demonstrating how the two testaments are intrinsically linked.
The Future Holds More than Death
So although all men and women die, and their life-breath returns to God who gave it, the Bible is emphatic that there can be a future beyond that point. God loved his creation so dearly, we are told, that He sent Jesus so that we can have eternal life on this earth after a bodily resurrection from our graves.
Eventually, the work of the Lord Jesus will have removed death altogether. If we have been baptised, we have the chance to live with him in ‘newness of life’ when he returns to set up God’s kingdom.