The basis for Christian belief in a life after death centres on the belief that Jesus died and rose again. He taught that his death would prompt God to establish a new kingdom, and that through belief in him, his followers would have a place in the new kingdom: “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he dies, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die”. (John 11:25-26)
However, his eschatology was ambiguous and arguably even mistaken at points. Jesus often spoke of the Kingdom of God as imminent, “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God has come near” (Mark 1:14) and early Christians expected the parousia and subsequent Judgement within their own lifetimes. Bertrand Russell argues in his essays ‘Why I am Not a Christian’ that the Early Church community was not wise and Christ was not superlatively wise because his claims that the Kingdom of God was imminent were wrong. Was then his eschatology futuristic in that it would take the form of a new place or spiritual state after death? Was it renewal of life on earth, realised through the coming of Jesus? What then can be expected of it final and complete fulfilment? Moreover, how does the Kingdom of God link to our moral lives in the here and now? Are we able to freely influence our final destination, or do the doctrines of election and predestination make life after death a pointless concern?
At the heart of Jesus’ announcement of the coming of the Kingdom of God was the call to repentance. It is more than saying sorry, but a subsequent desire to change a whole way of life (translated from ‘metanoia’) and thus it would be difficult not to concern one’s self with the afterlife when there appears to be a demand for a living response: “Therefore you also must be ready; for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” (Matt 24:44)
The Gospels present the coming of God’s Kingdom as a call for moral and spiritual reform now. Inaugurated eschatology takes the view that Jesus seemed to claim that the new society had already arrived in his own person. It was very different from the Jewish expectation of a political force that would overthrow Roman rule, but rather it was presented as a loving community of those whose only allegiance was to God himself. God’s reign over Earth through direct intervention is to be seen not only in the life and teaching of Jesus, but also in his death, the resurrection and the gift of the Holy Spirit to his church, and this would fulfil Jesus’ claim that some of his disciples would see the new Kingdom coming with power before they died (Mark 9:1). This view of Jesus’ eschatology emphasises the ‘nowness’ of the Kingdom as a time to act to overcome social injustices and failed religious practices as preparation for the afterlife.
However, other aspects of Jesus’ eschatology are more traditional in that the Kingdom is presented as a future redeemed state in which the righteous will be reunited with God, in what is often presented as a time of perfection and completion of the God-human relationship. There is so much variety in the language used by Jesus to describe the Kingdom of God that it is likely impossible to comprehend. It can arrive secretly, like the yeast working in the dough (Matt 13:13); or it can come by the sudden appearance of Christ in glory at the parousia (Mark 13). However it is interpreted, that it will happened, and that a response in the here and now is necessary, is key to Christian eschatology.
But what is that response? There is tension in Christianity between ‘faith’ and ‘good works’ as necessary for entry into heaven. Most Christians will argue that both are required; the person who accepts that Jesus was the Son of God and who goes to church every Sunday but does nothing for anyone else is not going to heaven, and neither is the person who raises a lot of money for charity but has no Christian faith. This is not a universal Christin view, however: some will argue that a deathbed conversion where there is no time left to do any deeds, good or otherwise, will be sufficient for entry to heaven; and some will argue that a God of love would not give eternal punishment to people who have spent their lives caring for others, whatever their beliefs. Others, also, might argue that if someone is devoted to helping those in need, he or she is an ‘anonymous Christian’, living a Christian life without explicitly recognising it.
Some critics argue that desire for heaven and fear of hell should not be used as the motivation for moral behaviour. If someone looks after people in need only because he wants to be rewarded in heaven, perhaps it is not moral behaviour but thinly-disguised selfishness. Immanuel Kant, for example, argued that the only right motivation for doing good is because it tis the right thing to do, there should not be any other motivation at all.
Despite the ambiguity of Jesus’ teachings and the subsequent variations in Christian beliefs concerning the afterlife, and the precise nature of the response it calls for, there are however a number of key themes that underpin Christian eschatological teaching.
Firstly, that God will Judge humankind prior to the arrival of the Kingdom in its full glory. For the individual, then, a belief in heaven and hell will affect moral behaviour, because the individual will have an expectation of standing before God in judgement as a sole agent, personally responsible for his or her own choices. The parable of the Sheep and Goats suggests that eternal life is on offer to those who have lived righteously, and righteous living in Christianity is regarded as following the example of Jesus, i.e. to pursue justice for the marginalised, the oppressed and the poor. This particular parable also teaches that the righteous can come from all people, and not just those with faith in Christ. However, the necessity of belief in Christ is believed by many, alongside the need for repentance as the required response to concern for the afterlife. Either way, a response is required, and one therefore should be concerned with matters of life after death.
This however raises a contentious aspect of Christian theology which is the question of who will achieve salvation and the reward of heaven. To suggest that we are in control of this through the choices we make is to take power and control from God. This raises the issue of election, be it limited or unlimited. If God has foreknowledge of who will achieve salvation then this appears to diminish human moral responsibility and the validity of trying to live the good life. If we cannot alter our final destination, surely it would be right not to concern one’s self with it? If we are predestined for heaven or hell, then perhaps we can behave however we like, as we cannot change anything about the end result. Conversely, John Hick argued against the idea of election, favouring the view that a loving God will save all people, whatever their beliefs and moral choices. However, this universalist position does no more to make concern for the afterlife anymore necessary – in the end we all achieve a place in heaven and so concern over the afterlife would remain pointless.
Whilst there are many different interpretations surrounding the experience of the afterlife, it seems apparent that it demands, at the least, an effort to live righteously, and for many this must entail belief in Christ. Subsequently there is a link between the afterlife and one’s moral human behaviour in the here and now. It would therefore be impossible for a Christian not to concern themselves with it – it underpins the basis of Christian faith in that Jesus’ own resurrection provided evidence of his incarnation, and that his sacrifice for the redemption of humankind had been accepted by God. Such belief demands a living response, and whilst Christians should not act in order to receive reward, to believe in Christ and his resurrection is to live according to his teachings and in hope of salvation, whatever manifestation that may take. As Karl Barth argued, it is not for humans to speculate on the mystery of salvation and the fate of individuals, but to have faith in Christ, the reconciler of all.
Author: A Meredith