Here is another guest post from Dana Horton, this time looking at Jesus’ claims regarding life beyond death (thanks Dana!):
What does Jesus say about the afterlife?
A lot of us in a western Christian culture just assume there is an afterlife. It is what we grew up believing. So that means the afterlife is clearly spelled out in the New Testament, right? Ummm, not exactly. Let’s take a look.
What did Christians in Palestine think at the time of Jesus?
- First we need to point out that there were no Christians in Palestine at the time of Jesus. Christianity did not evolve as a separate religion until well after the destruction of the Temple in the 70s CE. Jesus grew up in the Jewish tradition. And he fully thought his preachings could be incorporated into Jewish thought.
- Further, we have no first hand accounts of what Jesus actually said on the matter. Paul’s letters were written in the 50’s CE, 20+ years after Jesus’ death. And the four gospels were written 20-50 years after Paul. So if we are looking for the Christian roots of the afterlife, we need to examine what the Jews were thinking at the time.
OK, what were the Jews thinking about the afterlife at the time of Jesus?
- Even within the Jewish community we have differences.
- Soul lives on. According to Josephus, the Essenes believed that the body decayed at the end of life, but the soul went on in eternity. This was a very Greek way of thinking.
- Nothing lives on. The Sadducees (vilified in the New Testament) took a more traditional view that the soul and the body both ceased to exist at death. Done. That’s it.
- Soul & Body live on. The Pharisees (also vilified in the New Testament) had a similar view about the end of the soul at death. But they left open the possibility that the soul lived on in another body after death. This could be interpreted as either a form of reincarnation or a description of a mass resurrection at the end of times. Hmmm.
What did Jesus think?
- Jesus was likely in the camp of the Pharisees, thinking that the soul and the body both ceased to exist at the time of death, but would come back ‘at the end of times.’
- This is significant: For Jesus, the ‘end of times’ was soon. Maybe next month. For example, in Mark 9 he tells his disciples, “Some of those standing here will not taste death before they see that the Kingdom of God has come in power.” Ultimately, that became a problem when the Kingdom of God did not return and people started dying off. We’ll discuss in a later post how the Christian movement got around that challenge.
- And that does not even begin to address what Jesus said about heaven and hell. But for now we will stay focused on the belief (or not) in the afterlife.
So, again, what did Jesus think?
- We’re not exactly sure. Jesus did not write these things down. And despite the views of many believers in the Christian community, the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life and Jesus’ sayings are … how do we say … inconsistent at best.
- There are two significant concepts that Jesus seems to emphasize in the Gospels. First, Jesus does not limit eternal life to Jews only. Everyone has the potential to experience the afterlife.
- The second concept is more difficult to get our mind around. In the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew, it appears that maybe only ‘good’ people get to have eternal life. The others remain in darkness. We are not sure if that means eternal hell and damnation, or just that they never come back at all — cease to exist. Although neither of these interpretations is appealing, we think the second alternative of a quick-but-conclusive death would be preferable if you are at risk of being classified in the ‘non-good’ category.
Conclusion? The religious implications of the afterlife have been debated (and will continue to be debated) ad infinitum. But it looks like Jesus definitely embraced the concept of an afterlife, especially if you were a good person. It also looks like Jesus thought that both soul and body would be resurrected in an imminent ‘end of times’ event.
Acknowledgement. Much of this information came from a great book on religious thinking about the afterlife entitled Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife by Professor Bart Ehrman. Check him out here: https://ehrmanblog.org/
Dana Horton is from Ohio, United States and has recently retired as Director of Energy Markets a large utility company. In August 2019, he earned his ministerial license through a New Thought religious organization called Centers for Spiritual Living based in Denver, Colorado. He acted as interim minister at the Columbus Center for Spiritual Living for several months afterward, where he learned a lot more about religious and spiritual organizations. At this time has no interest in returning to any formal religious structure. But he enjoys investigating spiritual principles, how they originated, and how they might be applicable to everyday living.
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