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“How does your worldview answer the question ‘What happens when we die?'”

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By Eric Chabot, CJFM Midwest Representative  

Worldview is a buzzword people hear throughout their lives. But while it may be a buzzword, everyone does have a worldview, or they are in the process of forming their worldview. A worldview is the way we view reality. A worldview answers large questions such as origins, purpose, morality, and destiny. Parents, educators, peer groups, social media, religious upbringing, and even personal experience can all play a large role in determining a worldview. One worldview question is the following: “What happens to a person at death?” 

While some atheists don’t consider atheism to be an actual worldview, atheism has been associated with what is called naturalism. Ronald Carlson offers a clear definition of naturalism:

A person who does not affirm the supernatural— God, gods, ghosts, immaterial souls, spirits— is a person who affirms naturalism. For naturalists, nature is all there is. And if it is not science, then it is nonscience (i.e., nonsense). Most naturalists put stock in empirical, evidence-based ways of justifying opinions about what is real; this is exemplified by science.  Naturalists think such beliefs are more reliable and objective than those based on intuition, various kinds of revelation, sacred texts, religious authority, or reports by people claiming to have had religious experiences.[1]

Philosophical naturalism became a dominant view for many modern scientists and thinkers but at great existential cost. Some atheists have been straightforward about their views of the afterlife. During a debate with Intelligent Design advocate Phillip Johnson, the late William Provine said the following:

Let me summarize my views on what modern evolutionary biology tells us loud and clear — and these are basically Darwin’s views. There are no gods, no purposes, and no goal-directed forces of any kind. There is no life after death. When I die, I am absolutely certain that I am going to be dead. That’s the end of me. There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning in life, and no free will for humans, either.[2]

The late theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking echoed these doldrums, befitting his atheist convictions as well:

I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.[3]

Finally, the late famous astronomer and cosmologist Carl Sagan said this about the afterlife:

I would love to believe that when I die I will live again, that some thinking, feeling, remembering part of me will continue. But as much as I want to believe that, and despite the ancient and worldwide cultural traditions that assert an afterlife, I know of nothing to suggest that it is more than wishful thinking.[4]

Is Death the End?

In sharp contrast to these comments from atheists about the afterlife, the Bible offers an alternative to what happens to us at death. This leads us to an important word: salvation. I know from personal experience the word “salvation” can be rather confusing. When I first visited a local congregation several years ago, an eager young man walked up to me and asked me, “Are you saved?”  I was at a stage of my life when I was examining my own beliefs. But as I drove home that night, I couldn’t help thinking to myself, “What did this man actually mean when he asked me if I’m ‘saved?’” Jewish people (as well as others), tend to view belief in Jesus as important for one reason and one reason only– the afterlife! In other words, it seems the only thing is what happens to people after they die. Committed followers of Jesus ask people “If you were to die today, do you have assurance you are going to heaven?” This line of thinking is problematic because heaven isn’t really the focus of the resurrection. Now let’s be clear: the issue of heaven is not irrelevant. It matters!  As N.T Wright says,

When Jesus declares that there are many dwelling places in his father’s house (John 14: 2), the word for dwelling place is monē, which denotes a temporary lodging. When Paul says that his desire is “to depart and be with Christ, which is far better,” he is indeed thinking of a blissful life with his Lord immediately after death, but this is only the prelude to the resurrection itself.[5]

Wright’s work has offered a correction to the traditional view that states that heaven is the final destiny. As Wright notes, resurrection is “life after life- after- death.” [6] Resurrection occurs after life after death.

We must remember that eternal life is a quality of life (i.e., in union with Jesus), and is a quantity of life (unlimited) that starts in this life (John 17: 3). So no, eternal life doesn’t start when we die. It starts the minute we come to trust in Jesus and we turn our lives over to him.

You might wonder about cases in the Bible where we see people brought back to life after they died.  Though these instances of raising individuals from the dead are important illustrations of how God works, these people still had to face a second deaththey would go onto die at a later date which makes them simply revivifications or resuscitations of the dead. Jesus is the only person in history that has raised from the dead never to die again. This has important implications in our personal lives, because one day, all of us will die physically. However, some of us will die not only physically, but spiritually as well. But what does it mean to “die spiritually?”

The Hebrew word “shalom” means peace, completeness, or wholeness. It refers to peace between two entities (especially between man and God, between two people, or between two countries). Our failure to do what’s right (sin) not only impacts our relationship with God but has negative consequences for others, which is why we lack this wholeness and connection to God. This lack of wholeness causes us to be fragmented. And it gets worse. If we continue to choose sin, our hearts harden towards God, making it even more difficult to change course. The good news is the death and resurrection of Jesus has made a reconnection to God possible, so we don’t have to die a spiritual death. To repeat what we just said, resurrection is “life after life- after- death.”[7] The resurrection occurs after life after death, one day we will be physically alive againBut the resurrection guarantees we can have shalom in this life as well. To see more on evidence for the resurrection, see here. Or, see my new book “The Resurrection of the Jewish Messiah.” 

Sources”

[1] R.F. Carlson, “Naturalism” featured in Dictionary of Christianity and Science, Paul Copan, Tremper Longman III, Christopher Reese, and Michael G. Strauss (Grand Rapids: Zondervan. 2016), 470.

[2] “Darwinism: Science or Naturalistic Philosophy?”: A debate between William B. Provine and Phillip E. Johnson at Stanford University, April 30, 1994, available at  http://www.arn.org/docs/orpages/or161/161main.htm, accessed April 21, 2019.

[3] I. Sample,  Stephen Hawking, “There is no heaven; it’s a fairy story’ available at https://www.theguardian.com/science/2011/may/15/stephen-hawking-interview-there-is-no-heaven, accessed April 18th, 2019.

[4] C. Sagan, “In the Valley of the Shadow,” Parade (March 10, 1996), 18-21.

[5] N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (New York: Harper One. 2008), 41.

[6]  Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, The New Testament and the Question of God 3(Minneapolis: Fortress. 2003), 86.


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