Thursday, July 28, 2005

The Afterlife (Part I)

Last week I noted the death at age 85 of actor James Doohan, who was known for his role in the Star Trek series as the Enterprise’s chief engineer, Scotty, and whose cremated remains were shot into space where, in the words of his agent and friend, he can “be there with his buddy,” the Star Trek creator whose remains were also given a “space memorial.” This prompted me to reflect on the many and varied views of the afterlife but, most particularly, on how American Christians are appropriating pagan and New Age views in their understanding of the afterlife to create a feel-good but ultimately vacuous “theology.” I then promised you that I would “write more about this in the coming weeks.”

Your long and agonizing seven day wait is over.

Let’s dive in because this is important stuff. Consider four key elements of the Christian view of the afterlife: 1) Christ’s second coming, 2) the resurrection of the dead, 3) judgment, and 4) the end of the present world order. Following is a basic summary of my understanding of what is considered historic, orthodox Christian theology. Christ will come again at a time of God’s choosing which cannot be known by us (Mark 13, Matt 24, I Thessalonians 4). This second coming (or “parousia”) will bring about a transition from the present world order to “a new heaven and a new earth” (2 Peter 3:13, Revelation 21:1ff). The dead will be raised and judgment will take place (John 5:25-29, II Corinthians 5:10-11).

Let’s pause here and unpack some of this. One of the misconceptions I hear among many Christians is the belief that when a believer dies he or she is immediately with God in heaven. This is quite comforting to imagine and I usually refrain from saying anything because I don’t see much harm in it, but it does not conform to New Testament teaching per se (see I Corinthians 15:50-54), which proclaims that there will be a resurrection of the dead at Christ’s second coming, and until that time the dead are, well, dead (Note the New Testament euphamism of being “asleep”). They have no consciousness, no bliss or torment. And indeed from their perspective the resurrection is instantaneous. So that’s a small but perhaps not insignificant point.

The New Testament teaches that some will receive the “resurrection of life” and some the “resurrection of condemnation” (John 5:29; see also Matthew 25:31-46, II Thessalonians 1:4-9). Edward Fudge (, a Biblical scholar and church elder whose teaching I respect enormously, calls this judgment “the dark side of divine justice.” It is not pretty to talk about and is easy to avoid, but we really can’t ignore it and call ourselves Christians. One of the signature scriptures about God’s passionate love for the world (John 3:16f) declares that God sent his Son “not to to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through him,” and then goes on to note that some people condemn themselves by their life choices (v. 18).

I’ll resume next week with this idea of judgment. In the meantime, think on these things.


Post a Comment

<< Home