Death and the Afterlife: Things Christians Say That Aren’t in the Bible 

heaven and hell

One thing the religious have in common with non-believers is the fact that they will someday die. Death is the great equalizer. No matter our wealth and status, or lack thereof, there will come a day when each of us will draw his or her last breath. No second chances, no do-overs. All of us, at one time or the other, have pondered our mortality. The older we get, the more we think about death.

It should come as no surprise then that most people turn to religion to find answers about death and the possibility of an afterlife. All the major religions of the world teach that there is life after death, be it in a resurrected or reincarnated form. Being the rational creatures we are, we can’t bear thoughts of no longer existing. Countless Evangelicals have asked me, surely you believe that there is SOMETHING after this life? Other Evangelicals have told me that they would have no reason to live if there weren’t life after death.

Sunday after Sunday, millions of Americans gather in church buildings to worship a God that purportedly not only forgives their sins, but gives them eternal life in heaven after they die. If religious belief was only of value in this life and paid out no after-death benefits, I suspect many of the people pledging fealty and devotion to the Christian God on Sundays would instead spend the first day of the week engaging in recreation, working in their yards, or relaxing. Remove sin, fear, judgment, and eternal life from the script and I have no doubt that most churches would find themselves not only without congregants, but without preachers too.

Generally, the orthodox Christian belief about the afterlife goes something like this: each of us dies, physically remains in the grave until judgment Day, at which time God will bodily resurrect the just and unjust from the dead, judge them, and either send them to God’s eternal kingdom (Heaven) or the Lake of Fire (Hell) for eternity. The former is a blissful place where there is no sin, pain, suffering, or death, whereas the latter is a dark place where its inhabitants face horrific pain and suffering. Both the just (saved) and unjust (lost) will be fitted with new bodies (creations) that never die, and for those cast in the Lake of Fire, their bodies will be able to withstand never-ending torture and torment.

Now, seek out one hundred Evangelicals and ask them about death and the afterlife, and they will tell you something like this: after death, Christians go to Heaven, and non-Christians go to hell.  Does what I have written here remotely sound like what I wrote in the previous paragraph? Nope. Most Christians believe that the moment after they close their eyes in death, they will awake in Heaven and be in the presence of God. The Bible, supposedly the final authority on all matter pertaining to life, death, and the afterlife, does not teach that Christians go to Heaven the moment they die. Neither does it teach that non-Christians go to hell after death. Every person who has ever died presently lies rotting in the grave, awaiting the resurrection of the dead.

It’s not so sexy to tell people that their reserved rooms in Heaven and Hell will remain empty until Resurrection Day.  Peter? James? Judas? Moses? David? Abraham? Isaac? Jacob? Adam? Eve?  John, Paul, George, and Ringo? Your parents, grandparents? None of them is or will be in Heaven or Hell until the trumpet of God sounds and Jesus returns to earth to judge the living and the dead.

Yet, every Sunday, Christian preachers remind congregants of what awaits them after death: Heaven for the saved, and Hell for the lost. Unsaved people are implored to get saved lest they die and split hell wide open. Christians are encouraged to work hard for Jesus and promised great rewards in Heaven if they do so.  Preachers tell wonderful stories about Heaven and horrific stories about Hell, reminding people that the sum of life is knowing Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

Attend Christian funerals and you will often hear preachers outright lie about the afterlife. I have yet to hear a preacher say that the dearly departed went to hell. In every instance, preachers found some sliver of faith/belief to hang on to, thus justifying their preaching the subject of their funeral sermon into heaven. Worse yet, preachers and family members will speak of Granny running around Heaven or Mom, Dad, and Rover too looking down from Heaven watching their loved ones. I have heard countless Christians say that some close family member of theirs was “with them” as they did this or that. None of these hopeful ideas is supported by the teachings of the Bible. Granny isn’t running in Heaven. Her bodies lies in the grave, awaiting the Resurrection. As nice as it sounds, and the warm, fuzzy feelings such thoughts give, no one is watching us from Pearly Gates.

Of course, as an atheist, I am firmly persuaded that death is the end-all. To misquote Hebrews 9:27And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this … nothing. I have one life to live and it is quickly passing by. It seems like yesterday that my wife and I, ages nineteen and twenty-one, were standing at the front of the Newark Baptist Temple altar, reciting our wedding vows to one another. Youthful in body and ready to take on the world, we had no thoughts of growing old. Yet, here we are, soon celebrating our thirty-ninth wedding anniversary, and in less than a month I will turn sixty. Now our thoughts turn to end-of-life matters: retirement, healthcare, and what to do with the few years we have left.  My older readers know exactly what I am talking about. Who among us hasn’t lain in bed listening to the beat of our heart or the ticking of the clock. We know that each beat and each tick take us one moment closer to our last day among the living.

Bruce, if you don’t think there is life after death, why then did you spend most of this post talking about what Christians believe about death and the afterlife? This post is a plea to preachers to tell people the truth about life after death. First, preachers should tell people that they cannot know for certain whether there is life after death; that all that Christians have to go on is what is written in the Bible; that the belief that people live on after death is solely a matter of faith; that there is no evidence for claims that people live on in eternity after they die. Second, preachers should stop telling people lies about what happens the moment after someone dies. Stop with the whimsical stories about what dead people are doing in Heaven. Tell the truth: Granny lies rotting in the grave until Jesus comes to get her. If preachers are going to tell mythical stories about the afterlife, the least they can do is accurately state what the Bible says on the matter. Of course, doing so might cause people to lose hope, but Christians need to know that there is NOT an immediate payoff after death.

Let me conclude this post with an excerpt from a Time Magazine interview of Christian theologian N.T. Wright:

TIME: At one point you call the common view of heaven a “distortion and serious diminution of Christian hope.”

Wright: It really is. I’ve often heard people say, “I’m going to heaven soon, and I won’t need this stupid body there, thank goodness.’ That’s a very damaging distortion, all the more so for being unintentional.

TIME: How so? It seems like a typical sentiment.

Wright: There are several important respects in which it’s unsupported by the New Testament. First, the timing. In the Bible we are told that you die, and enter an intermediate state. St. Paul is very clear that Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead already, but that nobody else has yet. Secondly, our physical state. The New Testament says that when Christ does return, the dead will experience a whole new life: not just our soul, but our bodies. And finally, the location. At no point do the resurrection narratives in the four Gospels say, “Jesus has been raised, therefore we are all going to heaven.” It says that Christ is coming here, to join together the heavens and the Earth in an act of new creation.

TIME: Is there anything more in the Bible about the period between death and the resurrection of the dead?

Wright: We know that we will be with God and with Christ, resting and being refreshed. Paul writes that it will be conscious, but compared with being bodily alive, it will be like being asleep. The Wisdom of Solomon, a Jewish text from about the same time as Jesus, says “the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God,” and that seems like a poetic way to put the Christian understanding, as well.

TIME: But it’s not where the real action is, so to speak?

Wright: No. Our culture is very interested in life after death, but the New Testament is much more interested in what I’ve called the life after life after death — in the ultimate resurrection into the new heavens and the new Earth. Jesus’ resurrection marks the beginning of a restoration that he will complete upon his return. Part of this will be the resurrection of all the dead, who will “awake,” be embodied and participate in the renewal. John Polkinghorne, a physicist and a priest, has put it this way: “God will download our software onto his hardware until the time he gives us new hardware to run the software again for ourselves.” That gets to two things nicely: that the period after death is a period when we are in God’s presence but not active in our own bodies, and also that the more important transformation will be when we are again embodied and administering Christ’s kingdom.

Wright: Never at any point do the Gospels or Paul say Jesus has been raised, therefore we are we are all going to heaven. They all say, Jesus is raised, therefore the new creation has begun, and we have a job to do.

TIME: That sounds a lot like… work.

Wright: It’s more exciting than hanging around listening to nice music. In Revelation and Paul’s letters we are told that God’s people will actually be running the new world on God’s behalf. The idea of our participation in the new creation goes back to Genesis, when humans are supposed to be running the Garden and looking after the animals. If you transpose that all the way through, it’s a picture like the one that you get at the end of Revelation.

TIME: And it ties into what you’ve written about this all having a moral dimension.

Wright: Both that, and the idea of bodily resurrection that people deny when they talk about their “souls going to Heaven.” If people think “my physical body doesn’t matter very much,” then who cares what I do with it? And if people think that our world, our cosmos, doesn’t matter much, who cares what we do with that? Much of “traditional” Christianity gives the impression that God has these rather arbitrary rules about how you have to behave, and if you disobey them you go to hell, rather than to heaven. What the New Testament really says is God wants you to be a renewed human being helping him to renew his creation, and his resurrection was the opening bell. And when he returns to fulfil the plan, you won’t be going up there to him, he’ll be coming down here.

TIME: That’s very different from, say, the vision put out in the Left Behind books.

Wright: Yes. If there’s going to be an Armageddon, and we’ll all be in heaven already or raptured up just in time, it really doesn’t matter if you have acid rain or greenhouse gases prior to that. Or, for that matter, whether you bombed civilians in Iraq. All that really matters is saving souls for that disembodied heaven.

TIME: Has anyone you’ve talked to expressed disappointment at the loss of the old view?

Wright: Yes, you might get disappointment in the case where somebody has recently gone through the death of somebody they love and they are wanting simply to be with them. And I’d say that’s understandable. But the end of Revelation describes a marvelous human participation in God’s plan. And in almost all cases, when I’ve explained this to people, there’s a sense of excitement and a sense of, “Why haven’t we been told this before?”

What are some of the other things that Christians say about death, heaven, and hell that either aren’t in the Bible or are distorted by preachers? Please share them in the comment section.

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17 Comments

  1. Geoff

    However resurrection is supposed to happen, it’s an idea that is riddled with inconsistency and paradox. For example, does the resurrected body ‘reclaim’ its original molecules and atoms? If so, at what point in the life of the resurrected person would this be, given that we are constantly gaining and losing body cells? If it’s the same atoms, then what happens to the people who now have our discarded atoms in their own bodies? And at what equivalent age are we resurrected? Is it age 5, or perhaps after we’ve developed dementia?

    Belief in resurrection is more interesting as a study of those who believe such nonsense, than it is in the belief itself. But as you say, Christians don’t even seem to adhere to what their bible actually says so presumably seldom consider the implications of their belief.

    Reply
    1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      The only Bible verse that seems to even remotely support immediate entrance into heaven is II Corinthians 5:8 where Paul says “absent from the body present with the Lord.” Unanswered, of course, is WHAT is present with the Lord. Most Evangelicals would say our souls go to heaven immediately, awaiting their reuniting with their bodies. If this is so, what are these souls presently doing? Can souls feel? Or is it our spirit that returns to God. So many questions with ZERO answers. 🙂

      As you say, “Christians don’t even seem to adhere to what their bible actually says so presumably seldom consider the implications of their belief.” Surely theological beliefs should be logical and consistent, yet when it comes to matters of death and the afterlife, they are anything but logical and consistent. I’m convinced people believe what they want to believe about the afterlife because it gives them comfort and peace. Saying, you live, then you die, end of story, doesn’t have much appeal (as is often the case with facts). Personally, I prefer the naked truth. Knowing that I am going to die sooner and not later, and that this life is all I will ever have, allows me to focus on what matters.

      Reply
      1. Melody

        “that this life is all I will ever have, allows me to focus on what matters.”

        ^^^This. Christianity doesn’t give you that choice because it sells a fantasy of happily ever after. It’s a nice dream, for sure, but it can let people dream and not invest in their actual lives, right here and now. That’s what’s so horrific about it. It takes away chances by peddling a better life to come – one that no-one has actually seen or witnessed.

        Reply
    2. Troy

      Since early Christians demanded burial because cremation would interfere with resurrection, it is easy to see the molecular hypothesis you mention isn’t what was generally believed. Basically what Christian theology seems to be suggesting is more akin to a mass zombie reanimation. It wouldn’t have occurred to early Christians that the brain was the seat of personality totally dependent on timely delivery of glucose and oxygen.
      Early Christians could believe this and propagate this uncomfortable truth in their theology because the return of Christ wasn’t going to take millennia, in fact they expected it in their very generation.

      Reply
  2. Matilda

    I attended 2 services in a UK cathedral recently. Not from choice but a family member was being inducted to a position there. I found I liked the prayers for the dead. As a former fundy, highly suspicious of anything even faintly Roman Catholic, I felt they were sensitive and dignified. ‘We pray for those who have died in faith and for those whose faith was known only to God.’ OK, so I may not believe in an afterlife, but for those who do,these prayers were compassionate and comforting, unlike rants from fundy only-I-know-the-mind-of-God pastors who are sure they know better than we ourselves what our ‘eternal status’ will be.

    Reply
  3. Melody

    It’s one of the things that makes me angry about religion. It can spoil (parts of) someone’s life on earth with promises of a better afterlife that does not exist. So it’s a sort of hope but it won’t be realized.

    So you get to have a sucky life now and no promised good and great afterlife which means you get screwed over twice. Isn’t that just fun? /snark

    I remember when I encounter this other evangelical and she thought that the dead were sleeping until the resurection. That’s not what I’d been taught; it was dead and immediately you would know where you’d ended up. The final judgement would still come, but you would already know anyway. So the judgement was more a way for God to pour salt into wounds once again – such a “just” god….

    Reply
  4. anotherami

    “I have yet to hear a preacher say that the dearly departed went to hell.”

    Sadly, I have. The middle one of three brothers I knew had been struggling with addiction and depression, going in and out of counseling. He was faced with a particularly prolonged bout, in spite of the counseling and drug therapy. He got involved with some sort of extreme fundamentalist church and quit both his medication and counseling, depending on Christ to heal him. He committed suicide less than three months later and his own preacher stood in front of his grieving widow, children and family and told them that David was in hell at that very moment and that they could be next.

    We were all horrified. It took his older brother about 15 minutes to control the fight between his grief, his outrage and his concern for his mother’s sense of dignity. He finally stood up and moved to the side to the podium where this asshole was preaching his best fire-and-brimstone sermon and it didn’t take long for that long-haired guy with the tattoos showing at the neck and cuffs of his suit to intimidate the windbag into winding it up. Said preacher was not at the graveside and the long-haired guy, known as “Preacher” in his bike club, said the final prayers over his brother’s grave. Rumor had it that the fundie dude had barely escaped without getting an ass-whippin’, but I know for a fact that David’s widow put a stop-payment on the check she had written as the honorarium for conducting the funeral.

    Reply
    1. Brian

      “What are some of the other things that Christians say about death, heaven, and hell that either aren’t in the Bible…”

      Gerencser, you silly silly: EVERYTHING is in the Bible. You are a truly fallen creature. How dare you even touch HIS holy WORD.
      (As my brother used to say to me upon realizing I had done something ‘wrong’: Boy, are you ever going to get it now!”)
      He didn’t mean the indwelling.

      If I find my Bible covered with a billion flies, is it because the rot is irresistable or because it has been smeared with the sweetest of honey?
      Or better said, are you fundamentalist evangelical or non-denominational uni-sumthin’?
      (There’s a wee bit of the old black and white to have with your coffee!)

      Reply
  5. Pingback: Death and the Afterlife: Things Christians Say That Aren’t in the Bible – FairAndUNbalanced.com

  6. Scott

    Dear Bruce. Wright has become a controversial figure in evangelicalism and at one point I was very much in agreement with his thesis.
    You have quoted him from the Time article without any critique. His arguments seem sensible (from a new evangelical approach. Not that I agree, having come out of calvinistic dogmatism into secular humanism). What say ye, about NT Wright?

    Reply
    1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      Scott,

      I was a big N.T. Wright fan towards the end of my time as a pastor. While I question whether he is actually an Evangelical, I do think in the case of death and the resurrection he holds the historic orthodox position. Negative Evangelical reaction to Wright just reflects the level of Biblical/doctrinal ignorance within Evangelicalism.

      Reply
      1. Scott

        So true!

        Spong has a better take.

        I wonder what Bell says? Though he’s a great one on hell.

        Christendom…. you’ve got to love (or question) it!!!
        I wonder how many churches claim to be the one true church??? !!! Reformed had it right. … doctrine, discipline and distribution. (Oops off topic.)

        Reply
  7. Scott

    Dear Bruce. Wright has become a controversial figure in evangelicalism and at one point was very much in agreement with his thesis.
    You have quoted him from the Time article without any critique. His arguments seem sensible (from a new evangelical approach. Not that I agree, having come out of calvinistic dogmatism into secular humanism). What say ye, about NT Wright?

    Reply
  8. Van

    Doesn’t Luke 23:43 support the “immediately to heaven” position?

    Reply
    1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      I don’t think so. I plan to write a post about this verse in the next couple of days. You are the second person who has asked me about it. Thanks!

      Reply
      1. Melody

        Looking forward to that 🙂

        I’m curious at to what other explanations there are.

        Reply
        1. Troy

          I look forward to this as well.

          Reply

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