(This is #10 in a series of book excerpts from Objections to Christianity derived from Chapter 10 in *Dr. R.C. Sproul’s fantastic book Reason To Believe, [originally entitled Objections Answered] Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982)
Death is obscene. It runs counter to the vibrant flow of life. When we encounter it we shrink from it in horror. We use our finest cosmetics to disguise its impact. When death strikes it always leaves the question, “Is this the end?” Is there absolutely nothing more to hope for?
Perhaps the most ancient question of all is the question, “Is there life after death?” We think of Job in the throes of his misery crying out, “When a man dies, will he live again?” (See Job 14:14). We think of Hamlet musing over the question of suicide in his classic soliloquy, “To be, or not to be?” He contemplates the mystery of the grave and weighs the burdens of the alternatives of life and death. He retreats from suicide asking if man would “rather bear those ills we have than fly to others we know not of?” (Hamlet, act 3, sc.1). From Job to Hamlet to the present day the question persists, “Is there life after death?”
A negative spirit of skepticism has made itself felt in the cultural atmosphere of our age. A sense of despair and hopelessness characterizes much of our culture. We hear such statements as “When you’re dead, you’re dead”; “This is the Pepsi generation, the now generation.” The television commercial exhorts to live our lives with gusto because we only go around once. Those who persist in their hope of a future life are regarded as weaklings who are clinging to naïve superstitions that are outmoded. Christians have received their share of scorn and ridicule for hoping in fantasies of “pie in the sky.” But the issue is not simply a religious question. The issue is far more significant than that. It is the issue of the meaning of all of life. If death is ultimate then life becomes a cruel and mocking joke.
From ancient times the keenest minds of mankind have sought intellectual evidence for the survival of the soul or spirit beyond the grave. Charlatans and magicians have plied their arts couching their tricks in a garb of pseudo-intellectualism. Scholars have given the question serious attention because it is the most serious of all questions. But for the most careful and sober scholar the issue of death has strong emotional overtones. No one can face the question dispassionately for it touches each one of us in a final way.
Does Nature Teach that There Is Life After Death?
Plato faced the question in a deeply personal way when he visited his beloved mentor, Socrates, in his prison cell. As Socrates prepared himself for execution by enforced drinking of hemlock he discussed the question of immorality with his students. The Socratic argument for life after death is recorded by Plato in his famous Phaedo Dialogue.
Plato explored the question primarily from the vantage point of analogies found in nature. He detected a kind of cycle that was common to nature. He noted that spring follows winter which in turn moves inexorably toward another winter. Winter does not terminate in itself but yields again to spring. The cycle goes on as day follows night and heat follows cold. The pattern continues. He examined the drama of the germination of the seed into flowering life. For the seed to bring forth its life it must first go through a process of rotting. The shell of the seed must decay and die before the life that is locked within it can emerge. He saw here an analogy to life and death. Just as a seed must die and disintegrate before the flower emerges, so the human body must die before the life of the soul can come forth.
Plato looked beyond the realm of flowers to the animal kingdom and was stimulated by the drama of metamorphosis. The beauty of the butterfly begins in the grotesque form of the caterpillar. The caterpillar appears as a worm, bound to the earth, virtually immobile and unattractive. The worm forms for itself an insulated cocoon, withdrawing from the outside world. The cocoon remains dormant and inert for a season. In time the drama mounts as a new creature begins to scratch and stretch its way out of the cocoon. Wings and a body begin to appear and suddenly the woven prison yields a magnificent soaring creature of multicolored beauty. From the “death” of the caterpillar comes the new life of the butterfly!
These analogies from Plato do not present compelling evidence for life beyond the grave. Plato understood that they were but analogies that provide hope in the face of mystery. He was aware that butterflies do not live forever, but he pointed to the complexities of the various forms of life that surround us to cause us to move with caution in the face of unbridled skepticism.
Must We Live as If There is a God?
In later times another philosopher approached the question form a different perspective. Immanuel Kant was perhaps the most weighty and significant philosopher of all time. Certainly his massive work has been a watershed for the development of modern thinking. Though skeptical about man’s ability to prove immortality by reason alone, he offered an ingenious argument for life after death. His argument offers practical “evidence” for the existence of God and for life after death.
Kant observed that all people seem to have some concern for ethics. Though morality differs from person to person and society to society, all people wrestle with questions of right and wrong. All human beings have some sense of moral duty. Kant asked, “What would be necessary for this human sense of duty to make sense?” Are our moral senses merely the by-product of parental discipline or the imposition of society’s standards? Kant thought it went deeper than that. Still the question of the origin of moral sense is different from its ultimate meaning. He noticed that we have a sense of duty and asked what would make it meaningful? Kant answered his own question by saying that ultimately for ethics to be meaningful there must be justice. From a coldly practical perspective he asked, “Why be ethical if justice does not prevail?”
Kant saw justice as an essential ingredient for a meaningful ethic. But he noticed at the same time that justice does not always prevail in this world. He observed what countless others have observed, that the righteous do suffer and the wicked do often prosper in this life. His practical reasoning continued by arguing that since justice does not prevail here in this world there must be a place where it does prevail. For justice to exist ultimately there must be several factors accounted for.
We must survive the grave. For there to be justice, there must be people o receive it. Since we do not receive it in this world, we must survive the grave. Justice demands life beyond death, if ethics are to be practical.
There must be a judge. Justice requires judgment and judgment requires a judge. But what must the judge be like to insure that his judgment is just? Kant answered that the judge himself must be just. If the judge is unjust then he would be prone to pervert justice rather than establish it. The judge must be utterly and completely just to insure ultimate justice. But even just judges are capable of perpetrating injustice if they make a mistake. Honest judges have convicted innocent people who were framed or surrounded by an overwhelming amount of circumstantial evidence. Our just judge must be incapable of such mistakes. To render perfect justice, he must have a perfect knowledge of all the facts and mitigating circumstances. A perfect judge must be nothing less than omniscient.
There must be a judgment. A perfectly just and omniscient judge is necessary for justice but it is not enough to insure it. Once the perfect judge offers his perfect verdict, the sentence must be carried out. If proper rewards and punishments are to be meted out, the judge must have authority and the power to carry them out. If our just and omniscient judge is impotent then we have no guarantee of justice. Perhaps an evil power would prevent the judge from carrying out justice. Thus the judge would have to have perfect power of omnipotence.
Thus, for Kant, practical ethics require life after death and a judge whose description sounds very much like that of the God of Christianity. Kant recognized that his arguments were of a practical nature. He did not think that he had provided an airtight case for the existence of God or for life after death. But he did reduce the practical options for man to two. He said we have either full-bodied theism with life after death or we have no meaningful basis ultimately for our ethical decisions and actions. Without ethics life is chaos and ultimately impossible. Without God ethics are meaningless. Thus Kant’s conclusion was: “We must live as though the were a God.” For Kant, life was intolerable without a solid basis for ethics. If death is ultimate then no ethical mandate is really significant.
What If Life is Meaningless?
Kant’s practical optimism was not universally welcomed. The existentialists of modern culture have taken the option Kant refused. They’ve dared to ask the unaskable question: “What if life is meaningless?” Shakespeare’s Macbeth says despairingly:
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing (Macbeth, act 5, sc. 5).
Maybe there is no justice. Maybe there is only the tale of the idiot. Perhaps ultimately so much sound and fury that is empty and void of significance. Why should we live as though there is a God if in fact there is no God? These are the penetrating questions of modern man. All attempts to maintain faith in God and faith in life after death may be only exercises of wish fulfillment for those not courageous enough to face the grim facts or our sound and fury.
Ingmar Bergman states the dilemma of modern man in a dialogue contained in his film The Seventh Seal. Here a conversation ensues between Knight and Death:
Knight: “Do you hear me?”
Death: “Yes, I hear you.”
Knight: “I want knowledge, not faith, not supposition, but knowledge. I want God to stretch out his hand towards me, to reveal himself and speak to me.”
Death: “But he remains silent.”
Knight: “I call out to him in the dark, but no one seems to be there.”
Death: “Perhaps no one is there.”
Knight: “Then life is an outrageous horror. No one can live it in the face of death knowing that all is nothing” (Taken from Donald J. Drew, Images of Man: A Critique of the Contemporary Cinema, Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1974, 74).
Long before existentialism was in vogue and playwrights and novelists began to flood our nation with cries of despair, America listened to the painful poetry of Edgar Allen Poe. Some say he was brilliant; others that he was demented. Still others maintain that he was a little of both. One thing is certain; he had a unique ability to express the anguish of the human soul who experiences the loss of a loved one. His poetry is filled with mournful groans of the bereaved. Consider his short poems such as “Annabel Lee” or “Ulalume.” But it is in “The Raven” that the urgency of the issue of life after death is most clearly expressed. The poem begins:
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“ ‘Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door;
Only this and nothing more.”
Ah, distinctly I remember, it was in the bleak December,
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow; vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow, sorrow for the lost Lenore,
Nameless here forevermore.
In the introduction Poe sets the scene of his midnight remorse crushed by his loneliness and the fear of the morrow. With the appearance of his nocturnal visitor who comes from the shores of hell, the poet asks the burning question, “Will I ever see Lenore again?” The reply of the fiendish bird is always the same, “Nevermore.” The poem moves along to the point where the tormented man screams in anger at the visitor:
“Prophet!” said I “think of evil!—prophet still, if bird or devil!
Whether tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,
Desolate, yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted—
On this home by horror haunted—tell me truly, I implore:
Is there—is there balm in Gilead?—tell me—tell me I implore.”
Quoth the raven, “Nevermore!”
And the raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming;
And the lamplight o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted—nevermore!
The poem ends in despair. No hope is given for the future. Such an ending is intolerable for many. The current rage of occult films and deep fascination with parapsychology are evidence of the protest of modern man to the prophets of despair. New interest in the recollections of people resuscitated from clinical death have spawned hope that tangible evidence of survival may be available from science.
What is the Biblical Case for Life After Death?
The strongest and most cogent case for life after death comes to us from the New Testament. At the heart of the proclamation of the ancient Christian community is the staggering assertion that Jesus of Nazareth has survived the grave.
Christ was resurrected from the dead. In a classic treatment of the question of life after death, the apostle Paul summarizes the evidence for the resurrection of Christ in his first letter to the Corinthians. His Epistle comes partly in response to skepticism that arises in the Corinthian church. Note how he deals with the question:
Now if Christ is preached as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised (1 Corinthians 15:12,13).
The logic of this assertion is almost humorously simple. If Christ is raised, then obviously there is such a thing as resurrection from the dead.
On the other hand, if there is no resurrection from the dead, then Christ cannot be raised. The question of Christ’s resurrection is crucial to the entire issue of life after death. The apostle follows with an interesting line of reasoning. He considers the alternatives to the resurrection of Christ. He uses the “if-then” formula of logical progression.
If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching I in vain and your faith [also] is in vain (1 Corinthians 15:14).
Paul gets to the heart of the matter quickly. If Christ is not raised then it is clear that the preaching of the early church is an exercise in futility. The preaching becomes empty words and the faith that follows is worthless.
Moreover we are even found to be false witnesses of God, because we witnessed against God that He raised Christ, whom He did not raise, if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. Then those who also have fallen asleep in Christ have perished (1 Corinthians 15:15-18).
The implications of the Corinthians’ skepticism continue. If Christ is not raised then the apostolic witness is a false one. God has been implicated in a spurious historical claim. Again Paul mentions the futility of faith and adds to it the serious result that man is still without a redeemer. Then, almost as an afterthought, Paul touches the emotional nerve of his readers by reminding them of the fate of their departed loved ones. They have perished. At this point the apostle sounds a bit like the “Raven.” He is saying that, without resurrection, death is final.
The madness of the concept of the finality of death came home to me in somewhat unusual fashion. On July 1, 1965, my wife gave birth to our son. I remember the exhilarating experience of observing him through the nursery window at the hospital. All of the dynamism of life seemed to be captured in the animated action of this newborn child. I was thrilled to behold one who was “flesh of my flesh and bone of my bone.” I experienced the inordinate pride that so often attends fatherhood.
The experience of birth was by no means unique or even unusual. What followed, however, was not commonplace. The first visitor to the hospital was my mother. Her delight witnessing her grandson was unbounded. I took her home from the hospital and spent the night in her house. The following morning I went into her bedroom to awaken for breakfast. There was no response, no movement. As I touched her hand to rouse her, I felt the chill of death. Her body was hard and cold. She had died during the night. Within the space of a few hours I witnessed the birth of my son and the corpse of my mother. As I stood stunned by her bedside, a sense of surreal came over me. I thought, “This is absurd. A short time ago she was a living, breathing, dynamic human being, filled with warmth and vitality. Now there is only coldness and silence.”
But as Paul points out, if Christ is not raised then our loved ones have perished. The Raven has the last word.
Paul continues his discourse by saying, “If we have only hope in Christ in this life, we are of all men most to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 15:19).
Perhaps you are not a Christian. Maybe Christians tend to annoy you. Perhaps you become angry when Christians try to force their religion upon you. But if you do not believe that Christ has been raised, don’t be angry with poor deluded Christians. Pity them. They have put all their eggs in a basket that cannot hold any eggs. If all the Christian has is hope with no historical reality to undergird that hope, he is committed to a life of futility. Christians need your sympathy, not your hostility.
Paul concludes his exercise in “what if” thinking by saying, “If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die’” (1 Cor. 15:32). No resurrection? Then we may as well sleep in tomorrow. Eat, drink, and be merry while you can. Get your gusto now before it’s too late.
There is a striking similarity between the way apostle Paul approaches life after death and the approach of Kant. Both are keenly aware of the grim alternatives to life after death. However, Paul does not leave us where Kant does. Kant reduces the options to two and then encourages us to choose the more optimistic one. Paul examines the grim alternatives to resurrection but does not build his case on those frightening options.
Rather he says:
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me (1 Cor. 15:3-8).
Now Paul speaks in a fashion that moves beyond speculation. He doesn’t play with the occult or rest his case on analogies drawn from nature. He offers two kinds of evidence: First, he appeals to the prophetic predictions of the Old Testament Scripture that are fulfilled with uncanny accuracy in the person of Christ. Secondly, he offers the testimony of numerous eyewitnesses to the event. Christ does not appear on one occasion to a secret audience, but manifests Himself on several different occasions. One occasion involves an audience of over 500 persons. Paul’s final appeal is that he beheld the risen Christ with his own eyes. As John remarks everywhere, “We declare to you what we see with our eyes and hear with our ears” (see John 1:1-3). Paul then rehearses the history of his personal life following his sight of the risen Christ. He speaks of his trials, his imprisonments, his labors, all of which give credence to the impact his visual experience of the resurrected Jesus had on him.
The best argument for life after death is the record of history. The act of resurrection is as well attested to as any event from antiquity. Those who deny it do so invariably from the perspective of a philosophy that would rule the evidence out arbitrarily. Jesus Himself predicted it and spoke in an authoritative way concerning our own future life. He said, “In my father’s house are many mansions, I go to prepare a place for you. If it were not so I would have told you” (see John 14:2). For those who think Christ credible, His words are overpowering. “If it were not so—“ Jesus is saying in this discourse had his disciples believed in an empty hope for the future, Jesus would not hesitate to correct it. The victorious implications of Christ’s resurrection are summarized by Paul:
Lo! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable nature must put on the imperishable, and this mortal nature must put on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting?” The sting of death is sin, and power of sin is the law (1 Cor. 15:51-56).
Your labor is not in vain. That is the essence of the New Testament message. Death is not ultimate. The answer of the Raven is “Nevermore.” The answer of Christ is “Forevermore.”
Key Points To Remember:
(1) Nature, as Plato suggests, offers analogies that give evidence and hope for future life.
(2) Kant argued for life after death out of a practical concern for ethics. His argument says that universal moral sense would be meaningless apart from ultimate justice: we must survive the grave; there must be a judge; there must be a judgment.
(3) If death is final then life has no ultimate meaning. How we deal with the question of death will reveal how seriously we regard life. Existentialism and the poetry of Poe illustrate man’s sense of hopelessness and futility.
(4) The Bible definitely says, “Yes, there is life after death.” Without Christ, men are without hope. Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live” (John 11:25).
(5) The biblical claim for life after death rests on credible eyewitness testimony of historical event. The eyewitnesses were men whose work reflects sober judgment, judgment, whose contemporaries offered to refutation and whose conviction of the truth of their testimony made them willing to die for it.
(6) The ongoing power of Christ to transform human lives gives corroborative evidence to the assertion that He lives in a more real and powerful way than as an inspiring memory.
Dr. R.C. Sproul is the founder and chairman of Ligonier Ministries, an international Christian education ministry located near Orlando, Florida. His teaching can be heard on the program Renewing Your Mind, which is broadcast on hundreds of radio outlets in the United States and in 40 countries worldwide. He is the executive editor of Tabletalk Magazine and general editor of The Reformation Study Bible, and the author of more than seventy books (including some of my all time favorites: THE HOLINESS OF GOD; CHOSEN BY GOD; KNOWING SCRIPTURE; WILLING TO BELIEVE; REASON TO BELIEVE; and PLEASING GOD) and scores of articles for national evangelical publications. Dr. Sproul also serves as president of Ligonier Academy of Biblical and Theological Studies and Reformation Bible College. He currently serves as senior minister of preaching and teaching at Saint Andrew’s in Sanford, FL.