A few months ago I had a conversation with someone very close to me. We were sitting on a couch together and began talking about what life will be like after we die. Since we both experienced losing someone close to us, it seemed an appropriate conversation to have at the time. Through the conversation, however, I was intrigued to hear how the person I was conversing with thought of what life will be like.
I don’t remember exactly what was said, but I do remember some key points in our conversation. The main ideas my partner had about the afterlife were as follows (If this person is reading this, please forgive me if I am remembering them wrong): We will not recognize people, and we will have no memories of our life on this earth. A third idea that others tend to add on to this list is that we will not have a physical existence; we will exist solely in spirit.
When I preach, I often say a simple phrase at one point in my sermon when I am expounding on a Scriptural idea. The phrase is this: “If we take this seriously, then what does that mean for us?” In this instance, I want to use it in light of the resurrection of Jesus Christ: “If we take the resurrection of Jesus Christ seriously, then what does that mean for us in terms of life after death?” This is a critically important part of theology, not only because it talks about Jesus, but because Jesus was fully man and so what he experienced shows us what we as humans will experience. If Jesus’ resurrection doesn’t show us what our future existence will be, then his resurrection really doesn’t mean anything.
So, what did Jesus show us about life after death in his resurrection? Well, for starters, he recognized people. When Jesus rose from the dead, he went to meet with the disciples and had conversation with them. He knew their names, and they knew his. They recognized who Jesus was. In fact, Jesus referenced previous conversations with the disciples as we see in Luke 24 (verse 44 specifically). He knew who people were, and death did not sever his relationship with them.
Also, Jesus did not have his memory wiped upon his death. He could clearly recollect people, conversations, and memories. At one point, while he was talking along the road to Emmaus, he went through the entire Old Testament to show the people he was walking with that this man who died was the Messiah. What he referenced from the Old Testament was what he learned as a Jewish student while he was growing up. I find it difficult to say much more because John 20 and Luke 24 so clearly portray Jesus as not only recognizing people but he was also able to clearly remember things from his life before death.
Lastly, Jesus had a physical existence. It’s not as if Jesus resurrected in a spiritual ethereal form. he even directly says to his disciples, “Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.” (Luke 24:39) He was able to eat, walk on solid ground, and be touched by others (John 20:27). God himself took on a physical, material existence even after he had died, although for whatever reason we tend to demonize the material world as insignificant compared to the spiritual world. Jesus shows that both are significant.
So, let me ask again, “If we take the resurrection of Jesus seriously, then what does this mean for us?” For one, it means that when we die we will not have our memories erased. We will be able to recognize people and share memories with others. Second, it means that we can look forward to a material existence. We will have physical bodies, and our life will be just as real as it is now. God himself created the material and the physical and saw that it was “good,” so why would he abandon it and have us live in purely spiritual forms? (By the way, this notion that a solely spiritual existence after death is what we can expect is not a Scriptural idea. It stems from Plato’s teachings, not Jesus)
I will admit, it is difficult for us to contemplate having memory after we die. How can we really enjoy the presence of God if our memories consist of sin, brokenness, pain, loss, and imperfection? I contend that it is in light of our imperfection that we can better see who God is. If we have no memory after we die and join the community of Faith that has gone before us, then God means nothing to us. Why would we need to worship God? What would make God worthy of our praise if we knew absolutely nothing of our sin and need for grace? Why would we need a savior, and what makes Jesus so significant?
in truth, if we have no memory after we die then God is a cruel being. People would exist in Hell with no idea of why they are suffering eternally, except to know that God sentenced them there. Likewise, people would exist in Heaven without knowing what brought them there in the first place. Also, it nullifies the Judgment. How can someone who has their memory erased care about having their deeds read back to them during the Final Judgment, as if they can associate themselves with their earthly actions? This brings me to my next point.
If we have no memory when we die, then our existence on this earth does not mean anything. We would merely be pawns of God, doing things that carry eternal significance without even remembering the joys of participating with God in redeeming the world.
I want to be careful here, because I know that many people hold these ideas very dearly, and the person I had a conversation with is someone I deeply love and respect. I am, however, concerned with our general lack of appreciation in what the resurrection of Jesus means. Our future life is something to anticipate and be excited about, not just because we will be in perfect relationship with God (although that is certainly a major part of it), but because we will be reunited with our loved ones and we will be able to talk with one another just as we have here in this life. In truth, we give death far too much power if we think that it can separate us from one another indefinitely. When we carry the belief that “when someone dies that is the end of our relationship with them”, we are neglecting the unifying power of God and the incredible unity of the community of believers. God created the Church to be a family of believers that not even Hell can prevail against. Death cannot sever our relationships with loved ones, because the bond of the Spirit is greater, and Christ showed us that in his resurrection.
One final thought here. I anticipate that some will be tempted to say, “well, it’s all well and good to say those things about the resurrection, but Jesus was God.” True, but Jesus was also fully man. As I said in my previous post, either we accept that everything Jesus did expressed both the fulness of his divinity and the fullness of his humanity, or we need to throw the crucifixion and resurrection out the window because they won’t mean anything otherwise.
Do we really take the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus seriously?