Wednesday, February 22, 2017

How can we know if there's life after death?

If there’s no life after death, why should I bother living as a Christian? That seems like a good question. If there is no heaven, hell, or god, we may as well eat, drink, and be merry. Why waste my life serving a god who does not exist? The underlying presupposition in the question is that I would have much more enjoyment in life by not living according to the Bible. Is that true? Is the belief behind this statement that I need to do things that are immoral or illegal to have fun? And, what if I did “waste my life” by following principles in the Bible such as:  be honest, treat others as I want to be treated, work hard at my job, be faithful to my wife, be a good father, and help those less fortunate. Which of those lifestyles would anyone disagree with? Would it really be so bad to live according to these principles in this life? Then, what about the next life?

Why does it matter?
Someone may say that believing in the afterlife is like believing in something that cannot be proven. Like aliens living in another galaxy, I have no empirical evidence that they exist and it has no impact on my life, so why should I care.  The problem with that logic is that death is certainly something that will affect me. The death rate among humans is 100%. Even if I live 95 years, I’ll be dead forever and, if my soul is eternal, that’s a very long time. People spend much energy planning for retirement which lasts a few years, but expend little or no effort planning for eternity. Some say they will just see what happens when they get there. That’s crazy! If there’s a chance I may spend eternity in hell, I’m going to do my best to determine if heaven and hell are real. Eternity is a lot longer than retirement. It just makes sense to be sure.

How can we know?
What kind of proof would be valid for life after death? Because we do not have access to the other side, direct observation is out of the question. We cannot prove one way or the other through scientific empirical testing. So, how would we know? Philosophy professors Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli list 25 arguments for life after death.[1]  Some of these are, as one might expect, not very convincing, whereas others are intriguing. Two thought-provoking philosophical arguments will be mentioned here very briefly and two rather convincing arguments with an evidentiary basis will be mentioned in more detail. 

Arguments for the afterlife
The “argument from consensus” reasons that nearly all cultures and the vast majority of all individuals who have ever lived have believed in life after death.  If this was merely a Judeo-Christian concept, one would not expect such a broad spectrum of belief.  If, as atheists claim, this life is all there ever was and will be, why do people almost uniformly believe there is more to life?  Some validity is added to this argument from the fact that believers in the afterlife have no experience on which to base that belief.  So, where did they get the idea?  Some may claim this belief is derived from the Bible, but the Bible was not the basis in most cultures (Hindus, American Indians, ancient Egyptians, Persians, Babylonians, and Greeks).  Though the “argument from consensus” proves nothing, it causes us to question the origin of this nearly universal belief. 

The “argument from desire” is basically the same argument for God’s existence:  Every innate desire within humans corresponds to a real object which may satisfy that desire. We desire food and may eat to fulfill that. Humans thirst and desire water, grow tired and desire sleep, become amorous and desire sex, become lonely and desire company, and so on. This does not necessarily indicate the desire will be fulfilled, rather that it could be fulfilled. We have a concept that there must be something more than this life. Because humans have a desire for something beyond this life, it seems reasonable that there is a possible way to fulfill that desire. Interestingly, the Bible states that God has “set eternity” in the hearts of people (Ecclesiastes 3:11). 

What about after-death experiences?
Certainly we must exercise caution when evaluating these accounts. A number of books have been written on this subject, most detailing positive experiences by those who claim to have glimpsed the other side. Several factors may improve the reliability of some afterlife reports:  medically verifiable death, absence of mind-altering substances, witness reliability, and amount of time between the experience and the report. If medical evidence showed that the subject’s heart had stopped for a period of time, no drugs were involved, and the interview was conducted very shortly afterward, the recollection would have some basis for believability.

Cardiologist Maurice Rawlings had the opportunity in his medical practice to resuscitate a number of patients who had clinically died in his presence.  He recorded some of these after-death experiences reported by the patients within minutes of resuscitation. Dr. Rawlings was surprised to find that many of the “bad experiences seem to be so painful and disturbing that they are removed from conscious recall so that only the pleasant experiences – or no experiences at all – are recollected.”[2]  In one particular case, a patient had a cardiac arrest during a stress test and dropped dead in his office. Rawlings reported that, “each time he regained heartbeat and respiration, the patient screamed, ‘I am in hell!’”[3] On the other hand, some very pleasant experiences commonly reported by patients included:  feeling no pain, going through a tunnel, seeing dead loved ones, beautiful sights and fragrances. One point of difference Rawlings noted between his patient interviews and those by others was that:
“so far as I know, [no other interviewer] has ever resuscitated a patient or had the opportunity of recording immediate on-the-scene interviews. After many interrogations of patients I have personally resuscitated, I was amazed by the discovery that many have bad experiences. If patients could be immediately interviewed, I believe researchers would find bad experiences to be as frequent as good ones.”[4]  

Someone did actually return from the dead.
Fortunately, we have very strong historical evidence, including eyewitness accounts of someone who was certified to be dead, placed in a tomb for three days, then was seen alive again afterward. John, Matthew, and Peter were eyewitnesses of the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth.  Luke, a physician, investigated the death and resurrection of Jesus, then wrote about it.  Paul, formerly Saul of Tarsus, was well aware of the death of Jesus as a Jewish religious leader and, in fact, persecuted early Christians. Paul then recorded that more than 500 people saw Jesus alive again after the crucifixion.  At the time of Paul’s writing (ca. A.D. 55), most of the 500 were still alive to refute the story if it were not true.[5] Because there is legitimate historical evidence that someone did rise from the dead, this person, Jesus of Nazareth, is qualified to speak of the afterlife. He told His disciples, “I lay down my life so that I may take it again. No one has taken it away from Me, but I lay it down on my own initiative I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again” (John 10:17-18). Jesus has the authority to speak of these matters, as He stated, “I was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of death and of Hades” (Revelation 1:18). In fact, Jesus spoke many times of life after death.

What does the Bible say about life after death?
The Bible contains so many clear references to life after death that it would require too much space here to recount all.  The NASB contains 43 instances of the term “eternal life” in the New Testament alone and the word “forever” is used 318 times in the Bible. The Bible states, “it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). Jesus said, “These (the unrighteous) will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life" (Matthew 25:46). Daniel spoke of the resurrection on the last day when he stated, “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt” (Daniel 12:2). The Bible is very clear that all people will live forever in one of two conditions:  everlasting life or everlasting condemnation.  A vision of the future of all humans is given in Revelation 20:12-15:
“I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds. And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them; and they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.”

Reasonable evidence exists for life after death. The Bible plainly informs us that we have the opportunity now to decide our fate for eternity. Even if the evidence is not 100% convincing, is it really worth taking the chance of spending eternity in hell and missing the indescribable joy in heaven for believers? It is a very simple matter to have one’s name written in the book of life: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31). “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Acts 2:21).

(Biblical references are from the NASB version.)

[1] Peter Kreeft & Ronald Tacelli, Handbook of Christian Apologetics, (Downers Grove, IL:  Intervarsity Press, 1994), 227-256.
[2] Maurice S. Rawlings, M.D., Beyond Death’s Door, (New York, NY:  Bantam Books, 1978), 47.
[3] Rawlings, 1-3.
[4] Rawlings, 47.
[5] “He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also.” (1 Corinthians 15:4-8)

No comments: