LIFE BEFORE LIFE AFTER DEATH
Written by Doug Ponder on March 3, 2013
The Presence of the Future
What you believe about the future shapes and determines how you live in the present.
This is why when someone finds out that they have a terminal illness, everything changes. Once they learn that their future is different than they once thought, they begin to think and live differently. Every moment now seems infinitely more precious because, tragically, it could be their last.
What you believe about the future shapes and determines who you live in the present.
That’s even true when our beliefs turn out to be wrong. Everyone who boarded the Titanic on April 10th, 1912, soon found out that their unsinkable cruise ship wasn’t what it claimed to be.
What they had believed about their future, though ultimately wrong, still shaped and determined their lives in the present.
Paul the apostle understood this truth better than most. That’s why, when faced with an unfair trial with little hope for escape, he brought up the one issue that he knew made all the difference: the hope of the resurrection.
Resurrecting an Old Debate
The Pharisees and Sadducees, the leading parties of the Jewish ruling council where Paul was being tried, were bitterly opposed to each other on just about everything (except for their dislike of Paul and his message). Whether they were aware of it or not, Paul knew that one of the main reasons for their many differences stemmed from their opposing views of what happens after we die.
The Sadducees were convinced that this life is all you get. After you die you are no more, so you’d better live it up while you’re here. (Strangely enough, the Sadducees did believe in God, but only as a means of getting ‘their best life now’.)
The Pharisees, in contrast, believed that all people—good and bad—would be resurrected at the end of the world. Those who were good enough, moral enough, pious enough, and obedient enough would be rewarded by God. Those who were too bad, too immoral, too impious, and too disobedient would be punished by God forever.
These two basic views of the future are still with us today in various forms. But neither were the view of Paul, of Jesus, or of the Scriptures. These flawed views of the future are not only wrong, they’re also destructive. And because what you believe about the future affects how you live in the present, getting this right makes all the difference.
You Only Live Once
Like the Sadducees, “you only live once” is the motto of our time. In its shortened form, “YOLO” (You Only Live Once) functions as the ultimate justification for living as if there are no consequences. Do what you want, because you only live once. Might as well enjoy life while you can. Live while you’re young. Die young if you want to. We just want to live while we’re alive.
John Lennon sung about this way of looking at the world in his famous song, “Imagine”. He sang, “Imagine there’s no heaven / It’s easy if you try / No hell below us / Above us only sky / Imagine all the people / Living for today.”
In this way of thinking, the ultimate “sin” is not living for today. Which means, apparently, that you live as if there are no real consequences to what you do.
Well, the hard truth is this: If you only live once, then when you die, you rot. That’s it. You’re life is just a memory. And even that will fade after the Sun enters its red giant stage and engulfs the Earth in flame. So much for your memory. So much for humanity. So much for any meaning, or purpose in life. Everything you ever did won’t exist. Everyone you ever loved or cared about doesn’t matter. Life is bleak, pointless, sad, and ugly.
Moreover, if there is nothing after life in this world, then there is no justice, as the German philosopher Immanuel Kant pointed out. The reality is that some of the wickedest people on the planet get away with murder, theft, rape, and torture. If there are no consequences for our actions, then there is no real justice in the world.
Good People Live Twice
The Pharisees had other problems. Like most Jews in their day, they believed that at the end of history God would raise everyone from the dead. Good Jews who were faithful and obedient to God would be raised to a life of rewards. Everyone else—Gentiles (non-Jews) and unfaithful, disobedient Jews—would be raised to a life of judgment.
You’d think that this would’ve made the Pharisees very decent, well-behaved people. Some of them probably were, but many of them were deeply prideful and horribly hypocritical. In one of the Gospel’s stories we see a Pharisee standing on the corner praying a prayer like this: “God, thank you that I am better than that sinner over there.” People who think this way believe that there is an afterlife, and that they deserve to take part in it, while others don’t. But Jesus said that people like this way don’t know the first thing about God’s grace and forgiveness.
Sadly, this is the majority view in our country. If you ask someone what happens after death? More than ninety percent of people will say, “You go to heaven when you die.”
But you ask them if everyone goes to heaven when they die, you’ll get one of two answers. Some people will say that only good, moral people will spend eternity with God. But others will say that there is no such thing as hell, or judgment, so everyone ends up in a place like heaven.
Both of these views are profoundly at odds with what Jesus taught, and both of them produce terrible consequences in the lives of those who adhere to them. Remember, what you believe about the future shapes and determines how you live in the present.
People who believe that “good, moral people” go to heaven when they die, are modern-day Pharisees. They believe that they are good enough, moral enough, and well-behaved enough to earn God’s love, acceptance, and approval—while others, aren’t. This is called pride, and it’s why Jesus says people who think this way won’t spend eternity with God. The other tendency common in the lives of people who think this way is that they live guilt-ridden and fearful lives, never sure they’ve done enough to earn God’s favor. There is no joy in their life when it comes to thinking about death, for they are fearful of what will happen to them.
People who believe that everyone goes to heaven, or that everyone makes it in the end, are called “universalists” (meaning that everyone in the universe will eventually be saved). The real problem with this view—in addition to contradicting what Jesus taught—is that it makes your life a cosmic chess game where the choices you made didn’t matter at all. It’s like you get to the end of your life and God says, “That was fun. Now let’s put the pieces back and do something different.” But the choices we make really do have significance; they really matter, and everyone intuitively knows that they do. Worse than that, the “everyone makes it in the end” view makes a mockery of sin and evil. It says tjat judgment is bad, but that’s completely untrue. Judgment is the declaration that one thing is good and to be upheld, while another thing is evil and to be avoided. Murder, child molestation, rape, racism, greed, pride—all these are sins that will be judged and set straight. God won’t leave the world as it is now, and that’s a good thing.
What about Paul?
Paul was originally trained as a Pharisee, so he believed in life after death. He used to believe that he got there based on his own achievements. That’s why he boasted in his lineage, his training, his zeal for the law, and his persecution of the Christian church. All changed when he met the risen Jesus.
He realized that if Jesus really had been raised, then he needed to rethink everything about the future. Yes, of course, there was life after death. He already knew that. Of course there was justice. Of course the choices we make actually matter. But now, for the first time, he realized he wasn’t going to spend eternity with God because of anything that he had done. Paul would be rescued, like anyone else who is rescued, because of his trust in Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Jesus really is raised, therefore, the Sadducees were wrong. YOLO is wrong. There is life after death. You don’t just live once. What you do in this life matters. Living like there are no consequences is the way of death. But it also means that there is It also means that life isn’t pointless, brutish, nasty, and short. Life does have hope, meaning, beauty, and goodness. There is justice, after all.
Jesus is raised, therefore, the Pharisees were wrong too. The resurrection at the end of the age couldn’t be based on our individual efforts to earn God’s favor, because Jesus himself had said that God’s grace wasn’t for sale, and that forgiveness of sins is only received through his name.
Jesus is raised, therefore, we should rethink life before life after death. Our lives is in this age are short. We were made to know God and make him known. Don’t waste your life. We can live in faith, not fear, knowing that Jesus took judgment in our place and rose again to give us life. We also know that God is setting the world straight and making all things new. We are called to live as resurrection people now, anticipating that day by living lives that point to how things will be when God sorts everything out in the end.
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.