Christian Beliefs Concerning Death and Life after Death

Donald E Gowan. Handbook of Death and Dying. Editor: Clifton D Bryant. Volume 1. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2003.

The Apostles’ Creed concludes with affirmations of belief in “the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.” In various ways, Christian communities during two millennia have reaffirmed those two clauses, but beyond this, as McDannell and Lang say in their book Heaven: A History (1988), “There is no basic Christian teaching, but an unlimited amount of speculation” (p. xi). In this chapter surveying Christian beliefs, then, I must necessarily be highly selective, but I must begin at the most creative moment.

Surprising new ideas concerning death and life after death appeared in Judaism during the last two centuries B.C.E. They became the basis for almost everything the early church said on the subject, and they have been reaffirmed, elaborated, and at times denied from that day to this. Any study of Christian beliefs must therefore begin with the Jewish literature produced between roughly 200 B.C.E. and 100 C.E. This literature represents a flourishing period of Jewish theology, although the works produced were not accepted as Scripture by the rabbinic Judaism of the Common Era.

The Appearance of the Resurrection Hope

The authors of the books of the Old Testament showed little interest in life after death. They would have known of cults of the dead among their Western Asiatic neighbors, and of the Egyptian preoccupation with death, and their silence may have been partly a reaction to those beliefs and practices. Yahweh was the living God, and the dead were separated from him (e.g., Psalms 88:5, 10-12). They dwelt in Sheol, a kind of universal grave where everyone went, and not a place of reward or punishment (Job 3:17-19). Heaven was God’s dwelling place, and only one person was said to have gone to heaven: Elijah, who did so without dying (2 Kings 2:1, 11). (Enoch also did not die; he “walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him”; Genesis 5:24). It seems that the Israelites ordinarily accepted death without any great theological or psychological problem, and that was because they had their own sense of “immortality.” Their sense of community identity was so strong that when one died at a good old age, with children, then one’s true identity—character, vitality, reputation (in Hebrew, one’s “name”)—lived on in one’s children. To die without children was thus a tragedy—then one was truly dead (Martin-Achard 1960:3-51).

The radical changes in Jewish belief that appear in documents from the second century B.C.E. onward can be easily explained. Earlier, the experience of exile had drastically disrupted communities and families, so the sense of individual identity had of necessity become stronger. The crucial question that was answered by the affirmation that there will be in the last days a resurrection of the dead was more theological than personal, however. It was the question of justice. Prior to the events of 167-65 B.C.E., it was possible to argue, as Job’s “friends” did, that God’s justice is always manifest within one’s lifetime on earth. Suffering is always punishment for sin. But in 167, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who ruled the region from Judea, Samaria, and Galilee in the south to Syria in the north and Mesopotamia in the east, decreed that the practice of the Jewish religion was prohibited, on pain of death (see 1 and 2 Maccabees). The reasons for that need not concern us here, but the ensuing persecution had lasting effects on theology. People were tortured to death (2 Maccabees 6-7), and when it was precisely the most faithful who were suffering the worst, it was no longer possible to say that all suffering is punishment for sin. Faithful Jews maintained their belief in a God who is sovereign and just—in spite of this awful test—by insisting that there would be in the future a resurrection of the dead, when justice for the righteous and the wicked would finally be done. The Book of Daniel, the latest book of the Old Testament, completed in 165 B.C.E., during the persecution, is the only Old Testament book to affirm explicitly the resurrection of individuals (Daniel 12:2; Isaiah 26:19 speaks of resurrection of the righteous, but may refer instead to the resurrection of the nation, as Ezekiel 37:1-14 does).

By the end of the second century B.C.E., resurrection was affirmed at greater length. The resurrection hope enabled the martyrs of 167-65 to endure, says 2 Maccabees 7, and the Wisdom of Solomon (2:12-3:9) takes up a hypothetical case of a righteous man who is attacked and killed by the wicked, but says of the righteous in general: “In the time of their visitation they will shine forth, and will run like sparks through the stubble. They will govern nations and rule over peoples, and the Lord will reign over them forever” (3:7-8). By the first century C.E. the resurrection hope had become so firmly established as a Jewish belief that when Jesus told his friend Martha that her brother Lazarus would rise from the dead, she responded, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day” (John 11:24). The most conservative Jews of the time, the Sadducees, still considered resurrection a newfangled idea (Matthew 22:23), but they were a small minority.

Why the difficult concept of resurrection? Jews in the second century B.C.E. would have known about the Greek concept of an immortal soul, separable from the body, and a much easier way to think about life beyond the death of the body. The understanding of what it is to be human that they had inherited from ancient Israel was very different from that of the Greeks, however, and that explains it. The Jews did not think of human beings as composed of three separable parts—body, soul, and spirit—but as whole, “animated bodies,” rather than “incarnated souls.” The Hebrew word nephesh, which is frequently translated as “soul,” is not used to refer to something that can be separated from the body and live apart from it. In the creation story, God is said to have formed a body, then breathed into its nostrils the breath of life and it became a “living soul,” or, better, a “living person” (Genesis 2:7). To be human required having a body, as the Jews understood it, and so if there could be life after death it must involve a resurrection.

But “in what shape will those live who live in thy day?” Baruch asked (2 Baruch 49:2). In the literature of this period, Jewish authors tried out almost every possible option, and in the paragraphs that follow I try to outline these as neatly as possible. There seem to be four possible answers to the question of what happens to us when we die:

  • Annihilation: It is simply the end.
  • Immortality: An imperishable soul lives on without the body.
  • Resurrection: After an intermediate period, the dead person rises to live again, in a re-created body.
  • Reincarnation: Something of the essence of the dead person is reborn into another form of life.

The authors of the texts that I consider below occasionally spoke of the first possibility, but only for the wicked. They were much influenced by the second, especially as they dealt with the problem of the intermediate period, but did not accept it fully because of their preoccupation with the third. They show no trace of ever considering the fourth.

Where a belief in resurrection is affirmed it is not always universal in scope. Isaiah 26:19 mentions only the righteous, and Daniel 12:2 says that “many” will be raised. Although most later documents speak of a general resurrection, there are some that restrict it to the righteous. Psalms of Solomon 3:13-16 says that sinners fall to rise no more and speaks elsewhere of their destruction on the day when the righteous find life (13:10; 14:6; 15:15). 1 Enoch says that the wicked do not rise but remain where they have been, in great pain (see 91:9-10; see also 2 Baruch 30). Normally, however, the hope of resurrection meant the expectation that at some future time a dead person, after waiting in some sort of intermediate state, would rise to a new life, presumably involving a body of some sort, in order to face a final judgment.

But where do the dead wait? One of the major difficulties of the resurrection hope is the question of the “intermediate state,” and the literature of the period contains a bewildering variety of opinions. Some texts imagine places in the earth (probably an extension of the Sheol concept) where the dead remain until resurrection day (e.g., 1 Enoch 22, 51; 2 Esdras 4:35, 41, 7:32; 2 Baruch 21:23, 30:2; Adam and Eve 41). Little is said about whether they are conscious. 1 Enoch 100:5 says the righteous sleep a long sleep, but Adam and Eve 41 has Adam answer God from the ground. Fairly often the righteous are said to be in the presence of God or in heaven immediately after death. This seems to be true in Wisdom of Solomon 3:1 and in Testament of Asher 6:5-6, where the soul is met at death by an angel of God or of Satan, and the former leads the righteous into eternal life. There is a garden, in 1 Enoch 60:8, where “the elect and the righteous dwell.” On the other hand, the punishment of the wicked often begins immediately, rather than waiting for judgment day (Jubilees 7:29; 1 Enoch 22:11).

Most texts say that after the day of judgment the wicked will be consigned to Sheol or Gehenna for punishment. The latter word came from the Hebrew place-name Ge Hinnom, the Hinnom Valley just west of Jerusalem, which, as the city dump, was a place of everlasting fire, and fire is the typical means of torment described in these passages (e.g., 1 Enoch 48:9; 2 Baruch 85:13; 2 Esdras 7:36). Usually the place of punishment is located in the depths of the earth (e.g., 1 Enoch 90:26), but in 2 Enoch 10 and 3 Baruch 4:4-5 it is the third heaven.

For the righteous, the texts display great variety. Sibylline Oracles 4 says that resurrected men will be “as they were” (vv. 181-82) and will live on earth (vv. 187-91). 1 Enoch 51 says the earth will rejoice and the righteous will dwell on it. The Testament of Dan 5 locates the righteous in Eden and the New Jerusalem, but usually it is a heavenly existence that is expected, and, in keeping with that, the transformed nature of the resurrected body is frequently emphasized. The most interesting passage of this sort is found in 2 Baruch 49-51, which describes a two-step process: First, people are raised just as they were (50:2), then the judgment comes and the appearance of the wicked grows worse while the righteous are transformed “into every form they desire,” into beings like the stars or the angels (51:10). There is a great lack of clarity about where Eden, Paradise, and the New Jerusalem are to be located; often they are heavenly, but occasionally they seem to be a part of the new creation. Paradise was originally a Persian word referring to a garden. It came into Hebrew as a loanword, and then moved into Greek.

Judgment is the most consistent feature of Jewish statements about life after death, and the reason is clearly the issue of justice mentioned earlier. Every eschatological passage affirms unequivocally that justice will ultimately be done, and a great court scene at the time of the resurrection was many writers’ favorite way of bringing their projections of the future to a conclusion, with the deeds of the righteous and the wicked brought to light and appropriate treatment dispensed. (For detailed discussions of these texts, see Cavallin 1974; Nickelsburg 1972.)

The variety of opinions briefly surveyed above seems to justify one conclusion: No one really knew what it is like after death. Two elements of consistency are important, however. First, the question for them was not the modern one, What will happen to me after I die? Rather, the question was one of theodicy, whether God is truly sovereign and just. And second, in spite of the problems involved in conceiving it, resurrection of the body in the last days was the dominant form of hope. Elements of the other ideas I have briefly described reappear in Christianity.

Life After Death in the New Testament

Jesus took for granted the major beliefs about the afterlife that were prevalent in first-century Judaism and did not set out to offer his own authoritative teachings on the subject, as the writers of apocalyptic books were doing in his time. He was interested primarily in this life. The salvation he offered involved healing (to the woman with the hemorrhage: “Daughter, your faith has made you well [Greek: saved you]; go in peace”; Luke 8:48) and forgiveness (to the “sinful woman”: “Your faith has saved you; go in peace”; Luke 7:50). He said that he came that people might have life and have it abundantly (John 10:10). Indeed, the eternal life of which John speaks frequently is said not to begin at death, but in the present, at the moment of decision. “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life” (John 5:24).

Jesus spoke a few times of rewards and punishments in the hereafter. He said the reward for those who are persecuted for his sake will be great in heaven (Matthew 5:12; Luke 6:23), continuing the Jewish martyrdom tradition that began in the second century B.C.E. He never described heaven, but did accept the common association of fire with the place of judgment (Gehenna, or “hell” in most English translations; Matthew 5:22, 29, 30, 10:28, 18:9, 23:15, 23; see also “furnace of fire” in Matthew 13:42). In a parable, he used the idea of two realms set aside for the righteous and the wicked after death, so as to make possible a conversation between the rich man in Hades and poor Lazarus in the “bosom of Abraham” (Luke 16:19-31). The point of the parable is that even if someone were to come back from the dead with a call for repentance it would still be possible for people to disbelieve, so it is not a teaching about what it is like after death. Given that parables sometimes include unrealistic elements to make their points (e.g., a farmer who pays all his workers alike, no matter how long they worked; Matthew 20:1-16), it would be risky to take this as necessarily representing Jesus’ own thoughts about the afterlife.

Once, Jesus spoke of the Last Judgment, when the Son of Man will judge the nations for the way they have treated the hungry and thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and those in prison, saying that those judged righteous will inherit the Kingdom (eternal life), but the wicked will depart into the eternal fire (Matthew 25:31-46). He referred in passing to the resurrection of the righteous (in Luke 14:14 and also in John 5:21-29) and defended the idea against the Sadducees (in Mark 12:13-27 and parallels). He spoke of his own death and resurrection (in Mark 8:31, 9:9, 31, 10:33-34, and parallels). (The much-debated question of what Jesus really said—the “quest for the historical Jesus”—need not concern us, because our interest here is in what Christians believed he said.) Twice he promised that those who believe in him will be with him after death (Luke 23:43; John 14:2-3; “in Paradise” tells us nothing—Paradise had become a synonym for heaven). John emphasized, more than the other Gospels, Jesus’ primary concern for life here and now (as noted above in the quotation of 5:24). In the account of the raising of Lazarus, Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:25-26). This Gospel was certainly written after some believers in Jesus had died, so it must be speaking of a life that transcends the death of the body.

Even the resurrection accounts in the Gospels and Acts do not record any teachings about the afterlife from Jesus, the only person who should know from experience. He did not talk with the disciples about death, but about what they needed to do next. Their testimony concerning Jesus certainly emphasizes his death and resurrection as the key to their good news of forgiveness, but, as one of my teachers once pointed out, their message was not, “You see, this proves it; we’ll live forever.” The emphasis of their preaching was that resurrection was God’s vindication of Jesus, whose life had seemed to be a terrible failure, ending with the desertion of his disciples and a shameful death by crucifixion. Rather, through his resurrection, he was now proved to be the Messiah (e.g., Acts 2:32-36, 3:14-15, 10:39-42).

The first Christians were all Jews who already believed in the resurrection of the dead in the last days, but the resurrection of Jesus gave them a new basis for that hope. In Judaism it was a matter of theology: There must be a time when God will manifest his justice, even if it comes after death and at the end of history. For Christians it was a conclusion drawn from an event: One person has in fact been raised from the dead, and he is the first of many to come (e.g., 1 Corinthians 15:20-23). When the church spread into the Gentile world, where resurrection was a novel idea, Christians needed to say more in order to respond to disbelief and to correct misunderstandings. For our purposes, three texts will suffice as examples of early Christian thinking.

The earliest document in the New Testament is 1 Thessalonians, written circa 50-51 C.E. Christians of that time expected the last days to be imminent, and when some members of the Thessalonian church died, there was uncertainty about what to believe. Paul provided reassurance concerning the promise of resurrection and spoke of the return of the risen Christ as a time when those who are alive “will be caught up in the clouds…to meet the Lord in the air” (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18). This verse is the basis for the much-elaborated scenario of the “rapture” found in some branches of Christianity (see also 1 Corinthians 15:51-52).

In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul dealt with a group of questions that disturbed the Corinthian church. Some members of that church were denying that there would be a resurrection in the last days. Paul’s response was based on his certainty that Christ had in fact been raised (15:3-8) and the conclusion the church had reached based on that: Christ’s resurrection and the eventual resurrection of the dead are irrevocably linked (vv. 12-28). The second issue concerned the nature of resurrection. Several resuscitations are recorded in both the Old and the New Testaments—that is, cases of people who were revived but later died—but resurrection was not believed to be a similar revival of the old corpse. It would be a new creation, of a body with new qualities, and Paul tried several analogies from nature to explain what is in truth inconceivable (vv. 35-56). But note the conclusion to this longest discussion of life after death in the Bible. As in Jesus’ teachings, the emphasis is on this life, not the next: “Be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord” (v. 58).

The Book of Revelation, like Jewish apocalypses, is persecution literature, and like them speaks at length of heaven and hell because life on earth means suffering for the righteous. The souls of the martyrs are said to be under the altar in heaven, at rest until the victory can be won on earth (6:9-11). The Last Judgment will bring Satan’s power to an end forever (chap. 20), and the righteous will enjoy eternal life—not in heaven but in the New Jerusalem, which will come down from heaven (chaps. 21-22). Once again, the theme of life after death is used to vindicate God, as well as those who suffer because they are faithful to him. It has been noted that the New Testament says nothing to describe heaven except in Revelation, and this book has been the source of much of the later Christian speculation about what heaven must really be like. But this is apocalyptic literature, and the language of apocalypse is always symbolic, so it has been a basic error of interpretation to imagine, and even draw, pictures of the world to come based on a literal reading of this book.

Development of a Doctrine of Life After Death

No concept of humanity as bodies temporarily inhabited by immortal souls appears in Scripture, but in post-New Testament literature it is taken for granted. It was the prevailing view throughout the Roman world, and it was assimilated into Christian thinking, apparently without debate, in spite of the fact that it is not found in Scripture and does not fit at all well with the New Testament message concerning resurrection. Much of Christian eschatology has involved efforts to explain how both can be true. Death was assumed by all to be the separation of the immortal soul from the body, so there were no serious questions raised for centuries about whether there is life after death. Rather, the questions focused on what kind of life could be expected. With no experimental evidence available, the reflections were based on the few helpful biblical texts, on the experiences of visionaries, and, for the greatest part, on philosophical reasoning.

The motivation for affirmations about the afterlife drifted from the earlier concern, that God’s justice must surely be manifested one day for the righteous and the unrighteous who had not experienced it in this life. That did not disappear, for judgment played a large role in every scheme, but the fate of the souls of believers became more and more a matter of concern. The crucial problem for those who believe that the dead will be resurrected in the last days is that of time. We die now, but the resurrection will happen in some indefinite future, and what becomes of us in the meantime? That is an especially acute question with respect to the deaths of one’s loved ones (usually more so than with respect to one’s own death): Where are they now? The concept of the immortal soul gave the church a way (or ways) to answer this question. Already, late in the second century C.E. Irenaeus wrote, with reference to the resurrection of Christ, that “the souls of His disciples also, upon whose account the Lord underwent these things, shall go away into the invisible place allotted to them by God and there remain until the resurrection, awaiting that event; then receiving their bodies, and rising in their entirety, that is bodily, just as the Lord arose, they shall come into the presence of God” (Against HeresiesV.xxxi.2). From our perspective, he may seem to have been wise in adding to what he found in Scripture no more than souls “in an invisible place” during the interim before resurrection, for later writers could not restrain their curiosity about that place. Customs surrounding death for the first 1,000 years or so, however, seem to reflect the general idea that the souls of the dead were consigned to the keeping of the church until the day of resurrection (see Aries 1974:1-25). Speculation concerning the nature of heaven and hell was bound to develop during that period, of the sort that eventually appeared in Dante’s Divine Comedy (1321) and in ecclesiastical art depicting the Last Judgment.

The church’s developing “system” for the forgiveness of sins, combined with the concept of the soul, led to the development of the idea of purgatory. (For our purposes we need not delve into the philosophical efforts to define just what a soul is, as in Aquinas’s theology.) The souls of unrepentant sinners were generally thought to go to a place of punishment immediately after death, with the eventual resurrection, Last Judgment, and commitment to hell added on because these were Scripture’s teachings. The soul had to be defined in such a way that it could experience pain, or there would be no punishment. The souls of the saints might pass into the presence of God immediately, but few are good enough to warrant that blessing. Paul’s teaching that sinners are justified by faith, fully reconciled to God by grace apart from human works of righteousness (e.g., Romans 3:21-28, 5:1-11; Galatians 3-4) had largely been forgotten, replaced by a legalistic system in which sins could be forgiven by the church, but the stain of guilt remained on the soul, which needed to be purified by penance. That system eventually became the sacrament of penance in the Roman Catholic Church. For those who died in a state of grace, but without having done sufficient penance for their minor sins, a place was provided where after death their souls could be purified—purgatory. The idea was present at least as early as the time of Gregory the Great (593-94), who wrote, “As for certain lesser faults, we must believe that, before the final judgment, there is a purifying fire (puratorius ignis)” (quoted in McGrath 1995:359). But the doctrine of purgatory was fully developed by Thomas Aquinas in the mid-13th century:

To be sure, the soul is purified from this uncleanness in this life by penance, and the other sacraments, … but it does at times happen that such purification is not entirely perfected in this life; one remains a debtor for the punishment, whether by reason of some negligence, or business, or even because a man is overtaken by death. Nevertheless, he is not entirely cut off from his reward, because such things can happen without mortal sin, which alone takes away the charity to which the reward of eternal life is due….They must then be purged after this life before they receive the final reward. (Summa Contra Gentiles IV.91.6)

He reaffirmed resurrection and judgment in the last days. In his commentary on 1 Corinthians 15, he wrote, “My soul is not I, and if only souls are saved, I am not saved, nor is any man.” As the state of the soul during the interim period had been elaborated, however, resurrection and judgment functioned essentially as ratifications of the judgment of souls shortly after the deaths of individuals. Because they were in Scripture, they had to be retained, but the scenario the church had devised concerning the purgation and judgment of souls immediately after death effectively made them unnecessary. And the concept of the soul was easier for every believer to comprehend than the idea of resurrection.

The doctrine of original sin (developed largely from Romans 5:12-21) stated that the guilt incurred by the sin of Adam and Eve was passed on by procreation from generation to generation. Baptism removed that guilt, but this led the church to concern itself over the fate of infants who died unbaptized. By the Middle Ages, the concept of limbo had appeared, a place where unbaptized infants (and the mentally defective) do not suffer the torments of hell but are deprived of the joy of the presence of God in heaven. The concept was never as fully developed as that of purgatory.

The elaborate system of penance was a major factor contributing to Luther’s break with the Roman Catholic Church. Having become completely convinced of the efficacy of Christ’s redeeming death, Luther concluded that penance was contrary to Christian teaching and that purgatory was thus nothing but a human invention, or, as he put it, “illusions of the devil.” Calvin also taught that purgatory “makes void the cross of Christ; that it offers intolerable insult to the divine mercy; that it undermines and overthrows our faith.” For if “the blood of Christ is the only satisfaction, expiation, and cleansing for the sins of believers, what remains but to hold that purgatory is mere blasphemy?” (Institutes III.v.6). Both Calvin and Luther retained the belief in an immortal soul, however. Calvin wisely advised, “Moreover, to pry curiously into their intermediate state is neither lawful nor expedient … It is foolish and rash to inquire into hidden things, farther than God permits us to know” (Institutes III.xxv.6). Unfortunately, he did not completely follow his own advice.

In the century after Luther and Calvin, the Westminster Confession of 1647 stated succinctly the beliefs held by most Protestants until recent times:

The bodies of men, after death, return to dust, and see corruption; but their souls (which neither die nor sleep), having an immortal subsistence, immediately return to God who gave them. The souls of the righteous, being then made perfect in holiness, are received into the highest heavens, where they behold the face of God in light and glory, waiting for the full redemption of their bodies; and the souls of the wicked are cast into hell, where they remain in torments and utter darkness, reserved to the judgment of the great day. Besides these two places for souls separated from their bodies, the Scripture acknowledgeth none.

At the last day, such as are found alive shall not die, but be changed; and all the dead shall be raised up with the selfsame bodies, and none other, although with different qualities, which shall be united again to their souls forever.

The bodies of the unjust shall, by the power of Christ, be raised to dishonor; the bodies of the just, by his Spirit, unto honor, and be made conformable to his own glorious body. (Chap. XXXIII)

The next chapter of the Confession speaks of the Last Judgment, so the basic teaching of Scripture is reaffirmed, purged of purgatory and emphasizing resurrection, but accepting the notion of the immortal soul as orthodox Christian teaching.

The idea of a soul that represents who one really is, that can survive beyond the death of the body, is so attractive and so much easier to comprehend than resurrection into a new creation at the last days that it has long been considered, in popular religion, the essential Christian belief. Evidence of this appeared in Europe in the 1950s, when the Swiss New Testament scholar Oscar Cullmann published an article titled “Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Dead” ([1955-56] 1965), in which he developed what all scholars know to be the New Testament view. In the popular press, however, he was accused of attacking one of the fundamental beliefs of Christianity.

The rise of materialism and positivism and the development of the physical sciences in the 18th and 19th centuries began to create embarrassment concerning ideas such as heaven, hell, and the soul. Cosmology left no place for heaven above and geology no place for hell below. No experimental evidence could be produced for the existence of a soul. And so beliefs that had been held for centuries began to be challenged, but challengers have not succeeded, so far, in entirely displacing them from the “instincts” (shall we say) of Christians as they face death.

Creativity and Confusion

Churches were founded in North America as it was settled in the 17th and 18th centuries, but it has been estimated that in 1775 only about 5% of the North American population belonged to any church (Littell 1971:37). According to Littell (1971), for most of the 19th century the United States was missionary territory, but that mission work was highly successful. By 1900, church membership had risen to 36%; by 1926, it was better than 50%. The Great Awakening of the mid-18th century and the Second Awakening from the 1790s through the 1840s, followed by the work of revival preachers throughout the century, were major factors in the growth of the Christian religion.

Revivalism is important for this discussion because the primary themes of revival preachers were the condemnation of sin and the offer of salvation from hell and for heaven. There was plenty of sin to condemn. One author described a frontier town as follows:

At New Salem everybody came on Saturdays to trade, gossip, wrestle, raffle, pitch horse shoes, run races, get drunk, maul one another with their fists, and indulge generally in frontier happiness, as a relief from the week’s monotonous drudgery on the raw and difficult farms. (Beveridge 1928:I.110)

Not to be ignored was the social message of those preachers, which led to significant reforms throughout the country. Church discipline was usually accepted by church members, and the influence of churches’ ethical teachings extended beyond their membership into the larger community. The old Christian message concerning life after death became elaborated in the preaching of revivalists as part of a technique to lead sinners to repent, convert, and be saved. (It is a question whether that elaboration led to satiation and contributed in part to the decline of interest in heaven and hell, especially in the 20th century.)

Jonathan Edwards’s sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” preached during the Great Awakening, has become the classic example of a “hellfire and brimstone” revivalist sermon. It is unfortunate that Edwards is remembered primarily for this, given that he was one of the most learned men of his time in America (1703-58), a philosopher, theologian, and the third president of Princeton. But he was also a powerful orator, and the sermon reminds us that this kind of preaching was not confined to poorly educated ministers. A few examples of the depictions of hell presented by later revival preachers serve to illustrate the thinking of the 18th and early 19th centuries. Charles G. Finney (1792-1875) moved his audiences with this:

Look! Look!… see the millions of wretches, biting and gnawing their tongues, as they lift their scalding heads from the burning lake!… See! see! how they are tossed, and how they howl…. Hear them groan, amidst the fiery billows, as they Lash! and Lash! and Lash! their burning shores. (Quoted in Weisberger 1958:115)

Jedediah Burchard elaborated the idea of a lake of fire:

An ocean of liquid burning brimstone, that is daily replenished. It is walled in by great walls guarded by devils armed with pitchforks. High on the crest of the waves of fire, the damned soul is swept toward this wall, where the sinner thinks he may find at least temporary rest, but when at last he has managed to climb part way out of this sea of fire he suddenly finds himself pitchforked back and swept out by the receding tide. (Quoted in Weisberger 1958:135)

Conversion by fear seemed to have great success for about a century, but during the latter part of the 19th century many preachers found the other side—the blessings of heaven—to be more persuasive. Henry Ward Beecher (1813-87) illustrates the transition:

When I come before the Eternal Judge and say, all aglow: “My Lord and God!” will He turn to me and say…”You did not come up the right road. Go down!” I to the face of Jehovah will stand and say: “God! I won’t go to hell! I will go to heaven! I love Thee. Now damn me if Thou canst. I love Thee!” And God shall say, and the heavens flame with double and triple rainbows, and echo with joy: “Dost thou love? Enter in and be for ever blessed.” (Quoted in Weisberger 1958:170)

Elaboration of the joys of heaven included more variety than did descriptions of hell. For some, it was virtual absorption into the Divine, with little concern expressed for the preservation of personality. Others emphasized rest and eternal praise of God. Many who had absorbed the 19th-century ethos of work and progress found that to be unacceptably boring, and postulated a new life of continual activity and development. What made heaven most important for most Christians was the hope of being reunited with their families, and in spite of all that has been lost during the 20th and early 21st centuries, this seems to prevail to the present.

Three offshoots of Christianity appeared in the United States during the 19th century, and I need to discuss them here because of their creativity concerning the afterlife. I refer to them as “offshoots” because although they all honor Jesus Christ in some way, they all also include beliefs never held by any earlier church.

The first of these offshoots, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was founded in 1830 in western New York by Joseph Smith, who said that he had translated the Book of Mormon from gold plates he had discovered there and later returned to a heavenly messenger. That book, plus the Book of Doctrines and Covenants and The Pearl of Great Price, became the basis for the beliefs and practices of the new church, but Mormons believe that church leaders may receive new revelations at any time. The church has extensive teachings about the afterlife. Everyone has existed as spirit children of God before they are born into this life, and at death everyone enters into a new stage of life where the soul may develop until the resurrection. The evil are separated from the righteous and suffer from guilt and fear, but they are given a chance to accept the truths of the Latter-day Saints. The righteous live in a paradise of lakes, forests, and flowers. Family members are reunited, and infants appear as adults. Heaven is an active place, with the righteous devoted to teaching, but the ordinances of the church can be performed only in temples on earth, so church members compile genealogies to enable them to be baptized for their ancestors, who can then make progress in the afterlife. The second coming of Christ will begin the millennium, when Zion will be built on the American continent. The final judgment will lead to a fiery fate for the wicked, and the earth will be re-created as a giant crystal ball. Those who progress furthest in their development in the spirit world can become gods (Doctrines and Covenants 76:5; for sources used in this summary, see McDannell and Lang 1988:313-22).

The second offshoot, Christian Science, is based on the work of Mary Baker Eddy, author of Science and Health With Key to the Scriptures ([1875] 1994), who founded the First Church of Christ Scientist in Boston in 1879. Eddy claimed to have found the true meaning of the Bible, but her teachings are more akin to ancient gnosticism than to orthodox Christianity. God is Mind and God is All, therefore matter is “nothing beyond an image in mortal mind” (Science and Health 116:18). And “Life is God, Spirit, the divine Principle of existence….Life, as so understood, does not enter existence by birth nor leave it by death. It does not come or go. It is eternal. And the individual living identities, created, by Life, God, coexist with Him, indestructible and inviolable” (Christian Science Publishing Society 1990:72-73). Sin, sickness, and death are not created by God, who is all good, so although people are in truth affected by them in this life, Christian Science sets out to prove their essential unreality by its commitment to healing (Christian Science Publishing Society 1990:109-10). Those who die pass through “a belief called death” and then, “Mortals awaken from the dream of death with bodies unseen by those who think that they bury the body” (Science and Health 429:17-18). Eddy thus seems to speak of some sort of resurrection. There is no hell for sinners after death, for she defines hell as “mortal belief;… that which worketh abomination or maketh a lie” (Science and Health 588:1-4). Progress is possible after death. In the dialogue in Christian Science: A Sourcebook, the answer to the question “If I were more of a sinner than you, would you get eternal life sooner than I would?” is “We both already have eternal life, since God is our real Life, but I would be more ready to see that fact and be blessed by it than you would under those conditions” (Christian Science Publishing Society 1990:106). As for heaven, it is “a divine state of Mind in which all manifestations of Mind are harmonious and immortal, because sin is not there, and man is found having no righteousness of his own, but in possession of the ‘Mind of the Lord'” (Science and Health 291:13-18). Note that the familiar body/soul dichotomy is modified in these teachings, as matter is unreal, and eternal life is essentially a given, for the Life we all share is the Life of God.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose group represents the third offshoot of Christianity, also have distinctive beliefs about God and human destiny. The group was founded by Charles T. Russell in 1872, and after his death in 1916 Joseph F. Rutherford assumed leadership and made significant changes in Russell’s teachings. Rutherford’s teachings deny the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, claiming it was promulgated by Satan (Rutherford 1937:48-49). God is one and should be addressed by his biblical name, Jehovah. Jesus is not divine but was created; he is, however, Jehovah’s official representative on earth. The group’s primary interest is eschatology. Rutherford taught that Satan was cast out of heaven in 1914 (Revelation 12:10-12), and Jesus returned to earth and began to reign, but invisibly. The Lord came to his Temple (see Malachi 3:1) in 1918, and the saints were resurrected. The battle of Armageddon (Revelation 16:16) is imminent, and the righteous who will survive it will remain on earth forever (Rutherford 1944:354). The millennium, the 1,000-year reign of Christ on earth (Revelation 20:4), will conclude with a brief reappearance of Satan, after which most of the righteous will live forever on a transformed earth (Revelation 21-22). Only 144,000 of them will go to heaven (Rutherford 1942:100; this figure is based on Revelation 7:4, 14:1, 3). Most of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ eschatology is based on a literal reading of the Book of Revelation.

During the 20th century, the teachings of the mainline churches concerning death and the afterlife changed very little, in spite of the radical cultural changes believers were experiencing. Church members tended to be left with the traditional words, with their churches providing them little help in answering the questions raised by contemporary culture. Many churches developed strong concerns about the ills of society, and social action meant a focus on this life rather than the next. Death became an issue, but because of ethical questions raised by abortion, euthanasia, and medicine’s increasing ability to prolong “life” in ways that scarcely fit the biblical definition of life.

Early in the century, the Presbyterian Church in the United States made a confessional change. Showing a pastoral concern for those who have lost children in infancy, the church added a declaratory statement to the Westminster Confession, saying, “We believe that all dying in infancy are included in the election of grace, and are regenerated and saved by Christ through the Spirit, who works when and where he pleases.”

Individuals continued to raise the same questions and express the same hopes, of course. In his introduction to a chapter titled “Death and Beyond,” Hans Schwarz (1979) indicates his intent to find a way between two frequent temptations: “undue restraint” (asserting that “all we can say about life beyond death is that God who was good to me in life will also be good to me in death”) and a “travelog eschatology” (p. 195). Although the imaginations of individuals certainly continue to produce such “travelogs,” the trend has been in the direction of what Schwarz calls undue restraint.

The eschatology of what may be called, for the sake of brevity, millennial groups has also focused in its own way on this world and this life, more than on the life to come. The messages of many radio and television preachers, as well as the extensive printed and video material of the same kind, emphasize that current events show that we are in the last days, and they combine texts from various parts of the Bible (especially Daniel and Revelation) to create a timetable. Their intent in emphasizing this timetable is to lead people to repentance and conversion before it is too late. Heaven and hell are certainly in the picture, but they do not dominate the message, as they did in the 18th and 19th centuries. For example, in a typical book of this kind, titled Satan in the Sanctuary, McCall and Levitt (1973) begin by demonstrating the necessity for a third temple to be built in Jerusalem, given that the antichrist must appear there for the events of the timetable to continue (2 Thessalonians 2:4); they then describe the antichrist, the rapture, the tribulation, Christ’s return, and the millennium. As for “eternity,” they do little more than quote Revelation 21:1-2, Psalms 102:25-27, Revelation 21:4-5, and Revelation 32:22 (an error on their part—the chapter and verse they mean to cite are actually 22:22). For believers, the rapture will simply take them to “be with God.” For others: “You’ll get a subpoena: you’ll have to appear before Christ on judgment day” (McCall and Levitt 1973:103). Thus millennial groups tend to elaborate the terrors of life on earth during the last days more than they do the terrors of hell.

The question of punishment after death has been a difficult one for Christians throughout their history. Justice seems to require punishment for the wicked who have flourished during this life, and during the many centuries when torture was taken for granted as part of the system of criminal “justice,” it was easy for most to assume that earthly punishments would be magnified in the afterlife. Not everyone has accepted the idea of everlasting pain, however. Some have argued for the destruction of the wicked; others have argued for their suffering and then their destruction. Eventually, universal salvation has come to be espoused by those who believe that mercy triumphs completely over justice in the divine economy. This position does raise the question, however, of how much those who have made themselves enemies of God and have embraced evil will really enjoy God’s presence in another life. So another, cautious way of speaking of the fate of the wicked is to say that they will be separated from God, and thus from all that is good. John Hick (1994) has summarized effectively the now widely accepted argument against the existence of the kind of hell that was accepted for centuries: “For a conscious creature to undergo physical and mental torture through unending time (if this is indeed conceivable) is horrible and disturbing beyond words; and the thought of such torment being deliberately inflicted by divine decree is totally incompatible with the idea of God as infinite love” (pp. 200-201).

By the end of the 20th century, some theologians had rejected not only the traditional hell, but all ideas of life after death. For example, Gordon Kaufman (1968), professor of theology at Harvard Divinity School, disposes of the resurrection of Christ by calling it at best a visionary experience of the disciples, then continues: “Although contemporary reconstruction of Jesus’ resurrection clarifies the ultimate convictions of Christian faith about God’s nature, it completely undermines the traditional basis for hope for individual life after death” (p. 468). He continues: “God created man as a finite being. Each man has his own beginning and end, and his own particular place within the on-going movement of history” (p. 470). He also notes, “We are now in a position to dispose rather quickly of such symbols as the ‘last judgment,’ ‘heaven,’ and ‘hell'” (p. 471).

Those who retain the concept have generally taken the position that Schwarz (1979) calls undue restraint, or, as McDannell and Lang (1988) put it, “From Fundamentalists to post-Christian radicals, theologians have deserted a human-oriented afterlife and have returned to the God-oriented heaven of the reformers” (p. 308). Two examples must suffice here. For the noted Roman Catholic theologian Karl Rahner (1984:118), the afterlife is a “silent emptiness,” but filled with the mystery we call God and the face of Jesus looking at us. In his lectures to pastors on the Apostles’ Creed, the most influential Protestant theologian of the century, Karl Barth (1960), says:

We have no idea either of the life beyond or of the passage of this life into the other. We have only what came to pass in Jesus Christ, in his reign, which is present with us through faith, and which is declared to us. What we dare believe, is that we participate in this change, in the effects of human sanctification that occurred in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. (P. 140)

A few examples of worship materials from one denomination will illustrate this reluctance to say too much, at the congregational level. The “Brief Statement of Faith” adopted by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in 1990 uses only an allusion to Romans 8:38-39 as its conclusion: “With believers in every time and place we rejoice that nothing in life or death can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” The Presbyterian funeral service is called “Witness to the Resurrection” and includes a selection of resurrection texts from the New Testament from which the pastor may choose to read. The prayers use language such as the following, however: “We enter the joy of your presence”; “Because he lives, we shall live also”; “He [she] has entered the joy you have prepared.” There is one allusion to a familiar hope that is not found explicitly in Scripture: “Look forward to a glad heavenly reunion.” Resurrection itself appears in a prayer that quotes the final clauses of the Apostles’ Creed. The words immortal and soul do not appear, but the promise of immediate union with God is the major theme (Worshipbook 1970:71-86). Finally, while I was working on this chapter, I noticed, in the bulletin at the church where I worship, these words: “Then at the last bring us to your eternal realm where we may be welcomed into your everlasting joy.” If one were to look further, one surely would find the word heaven in contemporary worship materials, but note that in these examples it appears only in the expression “heavenly realm.”

The popular literature is less cautious, however, and continues to use language that theological and denominational literature either avoids or uses sparingly. The Golden Book of Immortality (Clark and Davis 1954), an anthology containing hundreds of quotations on death and the afterlife from the works of respected authors, provides a helpful series of examples. Immortality rather than resurrection is definitely the theme. One section of the anthology, “Easter Horizons,” contains references to the resurrection of Christ, but the editors evidently were not interested in including quotations concerning the resurrection of people in the last days. Other section titles reflect the themes of many a funeral sermon, such as “Fear Death? There Is No Death!” and “Dawn!” Author after author affirms the existence of an immortal soul that goes to be with God immediately after death. The bases for their beliefs vary, however, and it is useful to note the reasons they give (as we remind ourselves that no one can cite experimental evidence).

Authority is enough for many. Charles M. Sheldon writes: “I believe in immortality because Jesus taught it and believed it. That is all the proof I need” (in Clark and Davis 1954:188). Many authors use an argument that may or may not be religious: the value of the human personality. Robert J. McCracken argues that because man was created in the image of God, “it is surely inconceivable that death should be the end of everything for him” (p. 31). Charles R. Woodson writes: “When we survey the long and costly course personality has traveled, the belief in immortality is inescapable. Something abiding must come of personality after death, or else the whole creative process of life is utterly purposeless” (p. 42).

The quotations in this anthology reveal several of the perennial reasons human beings continue to believe in life after death, in spite of its incomprehensibility. The feeling that the human personality is so valuable that it should not, and thus cannot, die is reinforced by Christian beliefs in God’s love for every person and his intent to perfect his creation—clearly not yet done. The original, convincing argument, that Jesus was in fact raised from the dead, has not been forgotten (although it has been interpreted in a great variety of ways). The justice question, the original issue for Judaism, tends to be muted now. Another factor, which I have slighted so far in this chapter, is general human misery and the ability to endure in spite of it that the promise of a better life after death has provided. With that in mind, note that there is a certain irony in the “humanist outlook” expressed by F. A. E. Crew (1968): “In a world so organized that everyone equipped to do so would be able to enjoy life at least as much as I have done, there would be very few who would hanker after an existence beyond the grave for the life lived on this earth would be complete in itself” (p. 261).

For Crew, a comfortable and satisfying life seems to be quite enough to hope for; for those who produced the words I have quoted from The Golden Book of Immortality, it is not. In our time, most Christians reaffirm (often without being very specific) the traditional beliefs about life after death, but others have redefined Christianity so as to exclude an afterlife. That position is partly the result of historical skepticism—doubt about the accuracy of the Gospel accounts—and partly due to the effect of a scientific worldview that finds no place for any of this. As early Christians accepted what the world taught them about the immortal soul, so contemporary Christians find it difficult not to accept what the world teaches them about the impossibility of resurrection.

The scientific worldview changed radically during the 20th century, however, and there is a small number of Christians who know something of relativity and quantum mechanics, and who find that the new science affords possibilities for new speculation about the great unknown. Two examples must suffice here to illustrate this kind of thinking. The theologian Austin Farrer (1964) writes:

According to his [Einstein’s] unanswerable reasoning, space is not an infinite pre-existent field or area in which bits of matter float about. Space is a web of interactions between material energies which form a system by thus interacting. Unless the beings or energies of which heaven is composed are of a sort to interact physically with the energies in our physical world, heaven can be as dimensional as it likes, without ever getting pulled into our spatial field, or having any possible contact with us of any physical kind. (P. 145)

Hick (1994:278-96) elaborates a similar idea.

In a recent collection of essays edited by Peters, Russell, and Welker (2002), theologians and scientists take up seriously the issues raised by what contemporary science tells us about the cosmos and about human existence, and begin to explore the possibilities for a new understanding of resurrection. One writer outlines a program:

We must reconstruct Christian eschatology to be consistent with both our commitments to the bodily resurrection of Jesus and thus an eschatology of transformation, and with scientific cosmology regarding the past history and present state of the universe and its basis in such foundational theories as special and general relativity and quantum mechanics. (Russell 2002:24)

Two competing views of the future of the universe prevail today, based on notions of continual expansion or eventual contraction, both of which allow no possibility for the continuance of life billions of years into the future. The two options have been labeled “freeze or fry,” and neither offers any comfort of a hope for eternal life. Theologians may deal with this in at least two ways. For one, they can claim that because the present laws of nature are God’s creative work, God is free to create in new ways, and the resurrection of Christ is an indication that he intends to do so (Russell 2002:19). Another argument is that quantum cosmology allows for the possibility of multiple universes, with natural laws of which we have no knowledge (Russell 2002:5)

Continuity and discontinuity have always been a problem for the resurrection hope. What, exactly, will be raised? Early theologians struggled with the problem of the decomposition of the body and tried various solutions to the question of identity: How can one say it is the same person who will be raised? (For new approaches, see the contributions in Peters et al. 2002, especially Murphy 2002; Schuele 2002.) One scientist proposes a completely theological answer: The “pattern” that is me is perfectly preserved in God’s memory until I am reembodied in the resurrection (Polkinghorne 2002:52). He also considers that what we have learned about time allows for the possibility that there is no intermediate state (p. 53). Einstein’s redefinition of time may allow speculation that although for us there is an intermediate period between death and resurrection, in the world of the resurrection there is no apparent interval.

These authors admit that the dialogue between science and eschatology is currently only a program, and there is no way to predict its results. Whether it will one day offer to Christians in local congregations new ways to think about death and the afterlife remains to be seen.