What happens to us after we die? Recently, a sister asked me this question after the church service, and I thought it might be good to provide a short answer to that question here. This is a question that would have been on the mind of every human to exist since none have passed through the doorway of death and return to tell their tale. Of course, some have stood at the doorway and peered in—those who had come close to death and have had Near-Death Experiences (NDEs)—but no adventurer who cross the threshold returns. Life after death is shrouded in thick darkness and is a source of anxiety to the living: who knows what would meet us there? Therefore, myth stories about the afterlife and rituals dealing with death are part of every human culture. They ease existential anxiety by giving meaning to death or details about the afterlife so that reluctant adventurers may depart in peace and kin of the departed may be comforted.
Surprisingly, Scripture refrains from speaking too much about the afterlife. If you are expecting a concrete description of it then you would be disappointed: we find only abstract notions and figurative imagery in Scripture. However, these are sufficient for the church to posit a two-stage afterlife. The first would be the intermediate period between our deaths and “the resurrection on the last day.” The second would be after the resurrection. The New Testament (NT) speaks of the resurrection as an event before the final judgment where the dead will be raised with new bodies, while those who are still alive will have their bodies transformed. This resurrection event is what “splits” the afterlife into two stages.
Between our death and our resurrection, we do not cease to exist but continue existing in a disembodied (bodiless) form. When Christ was dying on the cross, he said this to the believing bandit crucified next to him: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” Of course, the immediate question would be, where is this “Paradise?” Laying aside this question for now, what we can be certain from Christ’s words is that he and the believing bandit would live on in some manner in Paradise after dying on the cross. Whether you call this kind of existence soul or consciousness, it is something immaterial (non-physical) but essential to humans (making up the core of who we are) that perdures after death. Hence, physical death is not the end to our existence.
So where is Paradise? The word “paradise” has its origins in Persian, and it originally referred to “a part of domesticated nature, a garden or a park where the king or another lord can rest or go hunting.” Here, it refers to an Edenic place where the righteous dead reside in a blessed state, not unlike the Elysian Fields in the Greco-Roman myths. This same idea is also reflected in Christ’s parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man (Luke 16:19-31), although the word “paradise” is not used.
In this parable, Lazarus, a poor man who endures much suffering in life, ends up in the kolpos of Abraham where he receives comfort (Luke 16:22). What is the kolpos of Abraham? In Greek, kolpos may mean the anatomical chest, hence most translators render the phrase as “Abraham’s bosom” or simply “Abraham’s side,” implying that Lazarus ended up with Abraham in the afterlife. However, this translation is problematic because Abraham’s kolpos becomes plural in verse 23 (kolpoi)! Surely Abraham has only one chest‽ Most modern translations resolve this problem by simply ignoring the plural.
However, one scholar suggests that a more plausible translation may be “the vale of Abraham,” since kolpos also can mean a space enclosed by mountains, like a valley or vale. This means the kolpos of Abraham is not anatomy but spiritual geography; it is Paradise, the place where the righteous dead like Abraham go, and where the believing bandit will follow Jesus to. In verse 23, the rich man simply sees Lazarus wandering around the different spaces in Paradise, hence the plural. This translation is more plausible since “the vale of Abraham” is contrasted with hades, the place of torment where the rich man went.
It is not appropriate to conclude too much about the afterlife from this parable since stories like these are not meant to be literal accounts but serve to make a point. Here, Christ is not lecturing his hearers on the afterlife but exhorting them to be generous to the poor. Moreover, since we will not possess bodies in the interim between our deaths and the resurrection, we will certainly not be physically sauntering in gardens like Lazarus in the parable.
Be that as it may, when the parable is considered along with Christ’s promise to the believing bandit, it does suggest that the experiences of the faithful and unfaithful will be different in the intermediate state. This assumption is not unwarranted because the faithful are united with Christ in life and death. “[In] the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body” (1 Cor. 12:13)—the body of Christ. Therefore, we are “united to the Lord” in one Spirit (1 Cor. 6:16) and “neither death, nor life… will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:38-9). Hence, Paul had no fear of dying because he knew death would not separate him from Christ. Rather, he welcomed it because he knew he would experience blessed consolation from Christ (Phil. 1:21-3). The same cannot be said for those who die without Christ.
Of course, the dead would not remain disembodied forever since we are meant to be embodied creatures. In the second stage of the afterlife, we will receive our resurrection bodies. “The hour is coming,” Jesus said, “when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and will come out—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation” (John 5:28-9). As for those who are alive, their bodies will “all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye” (1 Cor. 15:51-2). The resurrection bodies are spiritual bodies that are imperishable, while our present bodies are perishable. As one commentator puts it, “resurrection for Paul is not a simple resuscitation of the sort of material body one has in the fallen world, but a radically different kind of life.” It is “a kind of life not bound to death or to the irrational faculties of crude nature, inherently indestructible and incorruptible… stronger, more vital, more glorious than the worldly elements of a coarse corruptible body compounded of earthly soul and material flesh.” In other words, it is a completely different kind of bodily life impervious to sin, death, and suffering, yet bodily, nonetheless.
How would Paul have known this? That’s because Christ is the first person to be resurrected— “the first fruits of those who have died” (1 Cor. 15:20). While Paul did not personally encounter the resurrected Christ in the body, he would have heard the accounts from the Apostles and some of the five hundred early believers who did. We have their experiences recorded for us in the gospels: the resurrected Christ appeared and disappeared at will (Luke 24:31; 36); he passed through closed doors (John 20:19); his outward form was different from before (John 20:14); he ate (John 21:15); and wounds of crucifixion remained on his body, yet in a non-life-threatening way (John 20:27). Strange as it may be, such is the spiritual body that Christ possesses after his resurrection. It shares similarities with his physical body, but is, at the same, radically dissimilar. This is also what we shall possess at the resurrection.
Not only will our bodies be transformed, but creation itself will be transformed as well, “set free from its bondage to decay” and obtaining “the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21). There will be a “new heaven and new earth” (Rev. 21:1) similar to the previous one, but at the same time radically dissimilar because it will no longer contain threats to human life: there will no more natural disasters, diseases, predators, pests, etc. In other words, whatever evils we now experience from the natural world will cease and there will be creaturely bliss.
Certainly, much more can be said about the afterlife, but space only permits thus. I hope this sketch suffices as a summary of what Christians believe about the afterlife. In my experience, death and the afterlife are taboo subjects in many Asian cultures, because they are sources of anxiety for the living. As the limit to human experience and existence, thoughts of death inevitably stir up angst or dread. Yet as Christians, we celebrate the death of a man every week in our liturgy! We hold death before us, not so much because we have an odd penchant for the morbid, but because it is only through death that we have life in Christ. This is the cruciform paradox of our faith. Through Christ’s death, God subdued death and removed its sting. So, while it used to be dreaded as the terminus to our existence, a deadly foe of humanity, death is now metamorphosis, and we are all chrysalids[*]. We do not forget that while our baptism is a baptism into Christ’s death so we may live in newness of his resurrection life, it is also an anticipation of our own deaths through which we will receive the fullness of life in the resurrection. In Christ, death is now but a passage to life everlasting.
[*] The pupa stage of an insect enclosed in a cocoon before metamorphosing into a butterfly or moth.
Pr Png Eng Keat
July 4, 2021