Is it possible to be a Christian and not believe in life after death? Can one be a Christian and not believe in an afterlife? The clear and simple answer to those questions is. “No.”
But it is possible now -as it was also possible at the time of Jesus- to be a Jew and not believe in an afterlife. A sect within Judaism called the Sadducees accepted the authority of only the first five books of the Old Testament. Those books did not seem to talk about an afterlife, so the Sadducees did not believe in it.
Other Jews pointed to various passages in the books of the prophets to indicate that there is life after death for the people of God. But even some of those passages seem to talk more about the survival of the whole nation of Israel after military defeat than about the survival of individual people after death. So the Jewish view on the subject in Jesus’ time was muddled.
For Christians, the resurrection of Jesus is the most convincing evidence about the afterlife. Jesus survived death in a body, and then he ascended to heaven to live forever with God. The promise we Christians have is that since we have been baptized into Jesus’ body, we too shall come back from the dead in bodies to live with God forever.
The question of the afterlife came up, of course, during the three years of Jesus’ earthly ministry that preceded his death and resurrection. Jesus made it clear that he not only believed in life after death, but that he was also the person to deliver it.
When the Sadducees ask him a trick question to try to get him to admit that believing in an afterlife is crazy (or so much “pie-in-the-sky” as Fr. Scarlett put it in his sermon last week), Jesus reminds them of what God said to Moses at the burning bush. When Moses lived, the Hebrew patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had been dead for hundreds of years. Yet God told Moses, “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” If Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were not living on in some way, if their relationship to God was not continuing somehow, even though they were dead — God would have told Moses, “I was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”
Jesus also performed three resurrections which the gospels describe for us. They are not exactly like the resurrection that he experienced, or the ones that we will experience. His resurrection was permanent, as ours will be. We will get new bodies like his — bodies which will never die.
Obviously, the people in the gospel miracles died again later on — or else they would still be here, writing memoirs and appearing on talk shows. But the same power that raised them is the power that will raise us.
There are several things about these miracles worth looking at — along with the obvious value they have as previews of the great resurrections to come. In today’s gospel Jesus is going into a city called Nain which was not far from where he had grown up. He and his entourage run into a funeral procession which is coming out of the city gate.
The dead man is the only child of a widow. It was sad enough that she lost her last close relative, but he was also her only source of financial support. Jesus feels sorry for her and tells her to stop weeping.
Then he goes over to the stretcher on which the dead man was being carried and he touches it. That was shocking, because touching a dead body or anything associated with a dead body made one unclean, and Jesus was known as a holy man.
Jesus then addresses the corpse, saying, “Young man, I say unto thee, ‘Arise.” At that point the man sits up and starts talking, though, regrettably enough, St. Luke doesn’t tell us what he said. Jesus hands the man over to his mother, the crowd praises God, and the news about what Jesus can do spreads through the whole country.
It seems clear to me that the person for whom Jesus performed the resurrection was the widow of Nain — not her dead son. There is no implication in anything Jesus teaches or in anything Jesus does, that being dead is in and of itself a particularly bad thing. In each resurrection miracle there is a family member who is in anguish: the mother here; the father of a dead little girl in a second story; and Mary and Martha, the sisters of the dead man Lazarus, in a third.
In each case, the resurrection is Jesus’ response to the grief of the family members. That suggests that grief is a sorrier state than death. It also reminds us that the resurrection at the last day promises not only individual survival, but also the reunion of families and the reconstitution of friendships.
And in case that casts a faint pall over an otherwise glorious future, remember this: the family members you dread inviting over for Thanksgiving and the ones you are mortified to run into at weddings will either be in hell where you won’t have to worry about them anymore or, just possibly, yours and their newly perfected natures will make you glad to see each other after all.
When it comes to the afterlife, Christianity does not teach that the soul lives on in some filmy way. The New Testament teaches that our bodies will be raised up. We shall survive death just as Jesus did — in bodies, ready for the life to come, where we shall enjoy God forever.