Is it possible to know what happens after death?

Remember the social media thread I shared the other day about the supposed lack of curiosity from evangelicals and how we don’t have questions.  Well, the follow on conversation was fascinating. As is often the case, people who insist that there is no place for certainty appear to become very certain about that.

Take this example:

When I began to ask a few questions, particularly around what exactly it was that made them so certain that we could not be certain about what happened after death, they didn’t seem so happy to have an evangelical with questions.

But the question about what happens after death is an important one and I suspect with the recent death of Queen Elizabeth II and the memories that brings back of loved ones we have all loved, that the question is on many people’s minds. Indeed, this is one of those occasions when questions are less to do with intellectual curiosity and more to do with the need to hear answers for practical and emotional reasons. Is there any true comfort for those who mourn?  Is there hope for us, anything to look forward to in the face of our own impending deaths?

Now, it’s worth observing that the person is not simply insisting that we cannot be certain but that no one can know. That’s what makes the statement even more absolute. They are excluding the possibility of anyone knowing but they are also excluding the possibility of any level of knowledge.  That however is not how knowledge works.

Let me go back to the pandemic for an example. Back in early 2021, we were told that a vaccine was now available. It had been through various lab tests and field trials and so based on that, the vaccine providers were pretty confident that it would be successful in bringing the pandemic to an end.  They were not claiming that the vaccine was 100% effective at stopping transmission but they had a level of confidence that it would significantly reduce the risk of succumbing to COVID-19 and an even greater reduction in the risk of serious illness, hospitalisation and death.

At the time, there were some people who were insisting that we could not possibly know if the vaccine would work. Some of them used this as an argument against us taking the vaccine. Others used it to argue for restrictions being kept in place much longer. In fact, our government were criticised as reckless for lifting restrictions.  The argument was that we didn’t know what would happen after restrictions had been lifted and whether or not we’d see huge numbers of people dying again.

Well, the reality is that the vaccine was effective -as predicted because the people who had invented it were right. They did know how it would work. That doesn’t mean that they had 100% certainty that it was guaranteed to work or that they knew the exact details but they did have a pretty good idea and our doubting of their claims at the time doesn’t undermine the veracity.  Of course at the time, there were those who were 100% confident in their insistence that the vaccine was a sinister plot to programme us into the anti-Christ via Bill Gates, were still wrong even if some people had confidence in them.

The reality is that some people did know what would happen and some people didn’t, even if we didn’t know if they knew or not.

This is important because the answer to the question about death is that some people do know.  Now, there are competing beliefs about death expressed with strong certitude.  Some people are adamant that when you die, your body decomposes. Others are adamant that when you die you get reincarnated and work through a cycle of lives until you eventually become one. Christians believe that if we believe in Jesus then when we will die, we will be with him and that we have the sure and certain hope of resurrection.

The temptation might then be to say “well there are lots of views and we can’t be sure, so we just have to remain agnostic on this.” However, that’s not the case. Strongly held, passionately held positions doesn’t mean that it is impossible for us to come to a decision. 

Just at a human reasoning level, I think we can come to a level of certainty.  This doesn’t mean that you will necessarily be 100% sure of exact details. However, you can consider the likelihood of particular outcomes, just as the inventors of the COVID vaccines were. 

For example, is it more probable that we have an awareness of eternity, even angst around it because we are created with eternity in our hearts or that this is a bit of the evolutionary code malfunctioning?  I would argue that the former makes more sense.  Faith in God and belief in an afterlife simply isn’t useful to the evolutionary process. Indeed, as I’ve argued before, much of what we know about life and many of the decisions we make only make sense in the light of eternity.

The other clue we have is that the first Christians were willing to risk their own lives for their message. What was it that took away their fear of death?  It seems more likely that they had encountered the risen Jesus than that they’d made the whole thing up.

Then there is the question of evidence. The usual argument against eternal life and heaven is that no-one has come back from the other side. However, the fundamental claim of Christianity is that someone has and that is Jesus.  Now, this means that you have to decide whether or not to allow the evidence as admissible.  That decision will depend on your presuppositions including:

  1. Do you believe that a God, miracles and resurrection are possible? Note, this isn’t about saying that you believed that they did happen but rather that you are prepared to consider it possible.
  2. Are you prepared to accept the possibility of revelation from such a God?
  3. Do you consider the Bible to be a reliable witness.

That accepting the evidence requires acceptance of certain presuppositions too doesn’t take away from the validity of the evidence. Accepting all evidence is dependent on certain presuppositions. The crucial question is as to whether or not your presuppositions are sound.

I believe that those presuppositions are sound.  In fact, I not only would argue that a God and miracles are possible but that they are likely.  I would argue that the Bible has long been proven to offer a reliable and credible witness. It is worth paying attention to. So, when the Bible says that there is life after death, that there is heaven and there is resurrection, we should pay attention to it.

Does that mean that we have all the details about the life to come? Of course not. Does that mean that Christians never have doubts, anxieties or questions? No.  However, it does mean that it is possible to have sure and certain hope of the resurrection.

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