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“The cycle of Life, Death and afterlife in Judaism, Christianity and Islam: A
Christian perspective”
ACU 7th April 2010
Christian theology is profoundly influenced by the reality of death. It has been
described as ‘the point where all prognosis and planning, interpretation and
identification, action and passion come up against an absolute, insurmountable
frontier.’1 In addressing this frontier of death, which also includes the questions
around the sacred nature of life, mainstream Christian denominations have one
common basic understanding, and that is the centrality of the birth, life, death and
resurrection of Jesus Christ. Each Christian tradition has its own distinctive way of
remembering the Christ event, however, and just as there is no simple agreed
theological formulation of the meaning of death of Jesus, there is also no common
understanding of the nature of human life after death. Each Christian communion has
its own doctrinal position, and some of these positions can appear to be in direct
opposition to others. Furthermore, what a denomination believes and even may state
dogmatically does not always reflect the majority views of their parishioners. A recent
Australian Community Study amongst church attendees conducted by the National
Church Life Survey in association with Edith Cowan University showed that while
74% affirmed their believed in God, only 45% believed in some sort of life after
death. The same survey found that 43% of respondents believe in Jesus’ resurrection,
53% believe in heaven, 33% believe in the devil and 32% believe in hell. 2 The
researchers concluded that, ‘The life expectancy of Australians has increased greatly
during the last century and it would seem a likely corollary that as earthly life
expectancy increases, the perceived urgency of eternal life decreases.’3
Before discussing distinctive Christian perspectives, it is important to note that
Christianity, as a religion, grew out of Judaism and was profoundly influenced by
Jewish concepts of life and death during the first few centuries of our Common Era.
In fact in its earliest manifestation the Christian movement can be seen as a sect of
1
Hans Küng, On being a Christian.New York: Doubleday, 1984, 343.
‘A question of beliefs,’ Australian Community Survey 1996 www.ncls.org.au accessed 6 April 2010.
Thus was a survey done by the National Church Life Survey and Edith Cowan University of the wider
community values of 8,500 Australians from about 80% of congregations in diverse regions of Australia.
3 Australian church growth and decline www.ncls.org.au accessed 6 April 2010.
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Judaism,4 but with some of its expressions being influenced also by Egyptian and
Greco-Roman cultic understandings.5 For instance, the Aristotelian idea that weak,
disabled people ‘should be killed at an early age’ is confronted directly by stories of
Jesus compassionate healing of those who suffered and struggled.6 Such narrative
language in the Christian Scriptures facilitated appropriate communication about
issues of life and death not only with those of a Jewish background, but with Gentiles
also. As a consequence it reinforced group compliance and helped to maintain
continuity in the face of fluid social, political and religious circumstances, especially
when these faith communities were small and vulnerable to change. 7 Many of these
understandings have continued to be retained in the global Christian community and
this paper will explore three broad Christian presuppositions about the cycle of life,
death and after-life that are held by today’s followers of Jesus. The first approach sees
the after-life being the primary purpose for appropriate living in this life; the second
presupposition is that death is a point of transition between this life and the next; and
the third position is that this life is all that is.
1. The afterlife is the primary purpose of being in this life.
The earliest Christian Church was founded at a time when a flat earth was assumed
with heavens above where God, angels and the Saints dwelt while beneath the earth
was an underworld, known as Hell or Hades, and ruled by antagonistic entities. These
ancient understandings provide a context for reading the teachings of Jesus in the
Christian Gospels. The early centuries of the Common Era was also a time when
imperial persecution and suffering was inflicted on those who were being perceived to
give priority to the Lordship of Christ over the Emperor. As a consequence there was
always comfort and hope in the concept of an after-life where the faithful who
suffered in this life are rewarded in heaven, and where mothers and babies who died
during birth or soon after would go to a safe and nurturing place in the presence of
God and the angels. Metamorphosis, or transition between life and death, was an
unquestioned given and was important in terms of individual honour, communal
identity, and sometimes affirmation of a particular ethnicity under persecution. The
4
Küng, On being a Christian, 344.
Lorenzen, 257.
6 Nan Hill, ‘Helping the handicapped,’ Journal of the Christian Medical Fellowship 34, 1 (1988) 4-6.
7
Turid Karlsen Seim, and Jorunn Økland (eds.) Metamorphoses: Resurrection, Body and
Transformative Practices in Early Christianity. Berlin: de Gruyter, 2009.
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dominant understanding was that compliant holy and good people went to heaven
while the unholy, sinful individual, after appropriate judgment, would be condemned
to an afterlife of never-ending torture in hell or to one of temporary arrest with the
hope of vindication and ultimate welcome into a new dimension of being that would
last forever.8 It is not necessarily a division between religious and non-religious,
however. In fact, the Christian Scriptures are quoted as justifying the divine
preference for some Christians over others. To support this perspective, the saying of
Jesus recorded in Matthew’s Gospel is frequently cited: ‘Not everyone who says to
me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the
will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me “Lord, Lord, did we not
prophesy in your name and do many deeds of power in your name?” Then I will
declare to them, “I never knew you; go away from me you evil doers”.’9
The rise in fundamentalist movements within Western Christianity over the past
century has resulted in an increasing emphasis on the prime purpose of life being a
time of temporary testing before the more important after-life. Largely dependent on
the apocalyptic sayings of Jesus and the Book of Revelation, this life is seen as
providing the opportunity for a person to enter successfully into a more important
everlasting life that will overcome death in a heavenly realm. In this scenario, death is
seen as the moment of transition between the temporary now and the eternal then,
with a well-documented personal faith commitment being the guarantee of entry into
a heavenly realm where visible engagement with God occurs and reunion with past
friends and relatives will be experienced. Baptism is seen as an essential sacrament
providing the opportunity for a public confession of sin that is then followed by a
statement of forgiveness from an appropriately appointed apostolic leader.
For some Christians holding this view, the proof of true faith involves a commitment
to the active conversion of others, in order lovingly to save them from the perceived
inevitable judgment of hellfire and brimstone. Australian theologian, Val Webb,
describes these kinds of understanding as offering ‘certainty through unquestionable
unchanging truth. They also offer for people in times of change a close fellowship,
held together by allegiance to common truths. They are attractive to those who feel
8
The Egyptian Book of the Dead. Or, The Papyrus of Ani. (trans.) F. A. Wallis Budge
www.forgottenbooks.org, 20. accessed 3 March 2010
9 Matthew 7:21-23 and Luke 6:46; 13:25-27
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alienated from society.’10 It is a theological stance that continues to have significant
social, political and religious impact. Heaven is ‘above’ and heavenly beings ‘look
down’ upon those on earth following their every move, hearing their prayers, keeping
records of their faith adherence. However, Daniel Migliore, a Professor of Systematic
Theology at Princton University points out that this ‘traditional theology . . . has often
counselled the poor to accept their lot as ordained by God.’11 It is also a theological
framework that tends to dismiss modern cosmological concepts, rejecting
evolutionary understandings and diminishing the validity of environmental challenges
on the basis that concern for this damaged earth is unnecessary when this earth will be
replaced by New Heavens and a New Earth at the Second Coming of Christ who will
bring ultimate judgment on all who have chosen to live their lives outside of that
salvific framework. Death, then, is to be rejoiced in as the beginning of a more
significant life in the hereafter for the Christian believer. But it is also a devastating
experience for a parent, sibling or close friend who dies without having embraced
Christian faith in this way.
2. Death is the transition between this life and another
Widely accepted is a less literal and more symbolic Christian understanding of death.
It is one that sees spiritual and ethical profundity in the Scriptural statements about
Christ’s return, the resurrection of the dead, the last judgment, the promise of eternal
life and the danger of eternal death.12 This kind of understanding recognises that an
element of mystery surrounds the concept of an after-life, but also ‘brings to our
activities and struggles in this life the passionate expectation of all-encompassing
renewal.’13 The Catholic theologian Hans Küng, reflects this position noting that,
It is clear that the blue firmament can no longer be understood, as in biblical
times, as the external side of God’s presence chamber. But it can certainly be
understood as the visible symbol or image for the real heaven, the invisible
domain (living space) of God. The heaven of faith is not the heaven of the
astronauts. . . It is not a place, but a mode of being: not one beyond the earth’s
confines, but bringing all to perfection in God and giving a share in the reign of
God.14
10
Val Webb, In defense of doubt. An invitation to adventure. St Louis MS: Chalice Press, 1995, 30.
Daniel L. Migliore, Faith seeking understanding. An introduction to Christian theology. Grand Rapids
MI: Eerdmans, 1991, 116, citing John Calvin, Institutes of Christian religion 1.16.6.
12 Migliore, Faith seeking understanding, 247.
13
Migliore, Faith seeking understanding, 247.
14 Küng, On being a Christian, 352.
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The Anglican funeral liturgy reflects the relational elements of this concept. It speaks
of disposing ‘reverently of the mortal body’ but at the same time recognises that
‘those who die in Christ share eternal life with him.’ To ‘die in Christ’ is predicated
on the belief that ‘Christ is risen, that those who believe in him will rise with him, and
that we are united with them in him.’15 The Roman Catholic Liturgical Commission,
similarly, recognises that ‘Death, whether expected or unexpected, brings grief and
disorientation. The death of a Christian, however, calls the faith community to
proclaim in hope and trust that, because of the saving death and resurrection of Jesus,
life is changed, not ended.’16 John Donne, the famous poet, who was also a 15th
century Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral London, suffered an early death probably from
the Plague or Typhus. He exemplifies this theological position of hope, stating in his
final sermon:
Our last day is our first day; our Saturday is our Sunday; our eve is our holy
day; our sunsetting is our morning; the day of our death is the first day of our
eternal life. The next day after that . . . comes the day that shall show me to
myself. Here I never saw myself, but I shall see God too . . . Here I have one
faculty enlightened, and another left in darkness; mine understanding sometimes
cleared, my will at the same time perverted. There I shall be all light of joy, and
my body in the light of glory.17
This understanding is predicated on the belief that resurrection recognises that ‘the
life of God is stronger than the estranging power of death’ and that ‘the resurrection
of Jesus means the ultimate death of death.’18 For Karl Barth, it is to be seen as
‘God’s Yes!’ to the prayerful request of Jesus’ on the cross, ‘Father forgive them
because they do not know what they are doing.’ 19 It is an understanding that Dying is
not something to be dreaded, but can be the beginning of a new mystical security
birthed in faith and hope.
3. This life is all that is important
In the late 19th century Ludwig Feuerbach wrote The Essence of Christianity in which
he argued that the idea of God arises from human experience, that God is the longing
15
Australian Prayer Book. Sydney NSW: General Synod of the Church of England of Australia, 1978,
583.
16 www.litcom.net.au/liturgy_lines/displayarticle.php?llid=289 accessed 31 March 2010.
17 John Donne, Sermons, cited by Philip Yancey, Soul survivor. How my faith survived the church.
London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2003, 213.
18 Thorwald Lorenzen, Resurrection and discipleship. Interpretive models, biblical reflections,
theological consequences. Maryknoll NY: Orbis, 1995, 257.
19 Luke 23:34. Karl Barth, Evangelical theology. An introduction. Edinburgh: T & T. Clark,1963, 154.
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of the human soul personified and that the doctrine of the resurrection of Christ is an
echo of the deep human longing for immediate certainty of personal immortality.20
This third way of thinking about death has gained more momentum over the past
century as increasing concepts based on individualism and rationalism are influencing
human thought. It perceives the thought contained in the previous two understandings
as dualistic and prefers a framework of understanding that provides a continuity, or
‘process,’ between and among all that exists.21 It is not necessarily an atheistic
concept as the New Testament Gospels are consulted frequently for the ‘verbal
constructs’ of Jesus they offer. That means Jesus can ‘be discovered, recognised,
identified, and apprehended in circumstances subsequent to Calvary’ as a meaningful
and inspiring component of ordinary everyday of life.22 It is an understanding that
God is present, immediately and intimately, in the here and now. Furthermore, it
perceives the entire world as ‘the body of God,’23 a world that continues and thrives
on the continuity of all life cycles- agricultural, animal and human.
Death is seen as a final personal human experience and after the ‘final breath’ there
will be no further experiential moment except amongst those who both grieve their
loss and at the same time rejoice in the inspiration of a life well-lived. The meaning of
that life is affirmed as their travelling companions continue the active participation
with God’s search for social justice, along with the love-filled sharing of life with
family, friends and the wider community. At death the baton is passed on to others
who have been influenced along the way and that Easter-flavoured baton, as Michael
McGirr stated in last Saturday’s Melbourne Age, ‘points to a life too big to live on our
own terms.’24
Conclusion
We have looked at three broad Christian understandings of death, dying and after-life.
For some Christians the whole of life is a focus upon death; constant living with ‘one
20
Ludwig Feuerbach, The essence of Christianity. 2nd ed. George Elliot (trans) Charlston SC:
Bibliobazaar, 1999. Originally written in 1841 and published in German.
21 See Robert B. Mellert What is process theology? An introduction to the philosophy of Alfred North
Whitehead and how it is being applied to Christian thought today. New York: Paulist Press, 1975.
22 Marianne Sawicki Seeing the Lord. Resurrection and early Christian practices. Minneapolis MN:
Fortress Press, 1994, 8.
23
Sally McFague, The body of God.An ecological theology. Minneapolis MN: Fortress, 1993.
24 Michael McGirr ‘Light in dark places,’ The Age. Easter edition. April 2-3, 2010, 15.
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eye on eternity.’25 For other Christians, death is the transition point of eternal living
where earthly life is transformed into an ‘eternity already in their hearts.’26 Then for
some other Christians the whole direction of human life is a ‘being toward death,’27 it
is about the ‘travelling towards rather than the arriving.’ 28
Christian theology offers many pathways to think about death and dying.
With the majority of church attendees ageing rapidly, funerals in traditional Christian
churches and funeral homes will be frequent occasions for conscious reflection on the
meaning of life, even though many of those participating will be people who may no
longer identify with a particular Christian affiliation.29 In fact, recent research shows
that it is not in traditional places like churches or cemeteries that people find the most
spiritual comfort after a death. Rather, mourners prefer to gather around the actual
spaces where people lived and died, placing flowers at roadside accident sites, or
fixing memorial art installations and memorial plants in the family home. They are
extremely conscious of the mystery that surrounds birth, life and death, and their
capacity to find deeper wells of meaning and to mature physically, psychologically,
emotionally and spiritually will continue to challenge an appropriate Christian
response from today’s Christian church.30
25
David Winter, Hereafter. A new look at an old question: What happens after death? London: Hodder
&Stoughton / SPCK, 1972, 14.
26 Winter, Hereafter, 90.
27 Marianne Sawicki Seeing the Lord. Resurrection and early Christian practices. Minneapolis MN:
Fortress Press, 1994, 335. Citing Martin Heidegger, Being and time. John Macquarrie and Edward
Robinson (trans.) New York: Harper & Row, 1962.
28 Charles Birch and John B. Cobb Jr, The liberation of life: From the cell to the community.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984, 109.
29 John Bellamy and Keith Castle, 2001 church attendance estimates. NCLS Occasional Paper 3.
Februrary 2004. www.ncls.com.au accessed 6 April 2010.’ The age profile of each denomination
provides the strongest indication of future trends. It is now unlikely that the large mainstream
denominations, with their older age profiles, will be able to replace the large percentages of attenders
who will inevitably be lost to death or infirmity in the coming years.’
30
Catherine Cook and Philip Hughes, ‘Youth spirituality: How young people change,’ Pointers 16, 3
(2006) www.cra.org.au accessed 6 April 2010.
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