The idea that human beings can live forever is a very old one, being part of a number of ancient religions. The Egyptians, for example, believed there was an afterlife and that where you spent it was determined by a post-mortem judgement. Christianity would later embrace similar notions of judgement and everlasting life.
The idea is, however, largely absent from Judaism. Ecclesiastes in the Christian Old Testament (‘Kohelet’ in Judaism) has this to say about death and its aftermath:
I said in my heart with regard to human beings that God is testing them to show that they are but animals. For the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and humans have no advantage over the animals; for all is vanity. All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again (Ecclesiastes 3.18-20).
This seems to me to be an entirely realistic, if somewhat pessimistic, view of life and death. (And humans as animals! Today’s believers still have trouble accepting this, even when their holy book spells it out for them.) Later writing – the book of Daniel, for example – begins to toy with the idea of eternal life, but it isn’t until we get to Jesus’ time that the idea really takes off.
As the writer of Ecclesiastes knew, and as I suggest here, there is no evidence we survive death. Death would hardly be death if we did. The dessicated bodies of those Egyptians, mummified so their ‘owners’ could reclaim and re-use them on the other side, are still with us. There’s no evidence either that a special part of us – a soul or spirit – makes the transition. In any case, this is a predominantly pagan idea and is not what the New Testament offers. Both Jesus and Paul are firm believers in bodily resurrection here on the Earth.
The desire to live beyond the brief few years that our physical bodies last is understandable. It’s hard to imagine that one day every single one of us will no longer exist, that our consciousness, personalities, thoughts, memories, emotions – everything that makes us who we are – will simply no longer be. That’s why, I suppose, people in the past rebelled against that inevitability and fantasised about a continued existence once this one came to an end. Eventually religions came to offer such compensatory life-after-death, provided of course
suckers people believed the right things.
Such is Christianity.
When you think about it, what a truly absurd notion it is; that believing in a magic formula will defeat death and enable you to be resurrected on the Earth to live in God’s new Kingdom here, or (when that didn’t quite pan out) taken up to Heaven to live there. All you have to do is believe the right things and God will do this for you. Death will be defeated by the simple expedient of your belief. We’re so used to the idea after 2,000 years of Christianity that the absurdity ceases to register – but absurd it surely is.
to be continued