Some Modern Christian Afterlife Myths:
1. Last week a Christian woman who - had just lost her year old daughter (her first and only child) - was interviewed on TV. She said that at the time of her daughter’s death, she begged God to kill her so she could go to Heaven and be with her daughter.
2. Southern Gospel songs such as “When We All Get To Heaven”, “I Won’t Have To Cross Jordan Alone”, “I’ll Fly Away” as well as the Carter Family’s favorite, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” were written and sung based on the belief that at death, the righteous human soul goes immediately into the presence of the Lord (God / Jesus) in Heaven to be joined for eternity with loved ones.
3. Christian testimonial stories abound were the newly departed human soul either hovers above their body or is “ascended to Heaven or descended to Hell” only to be called back to the body doing resuscitation as a testimonial. This legend is then peddled to promote “proof” that an afterlife does exist and usually nets the claimant thousands of dollars as they travel the Christian circuit giving hope and inspirational talks on the Near Death Experience .
4. Based on two of the largest Christian denominations (Roman Catholic and LDS Mormon), one is given the theological legend that Christian dead go immediately to Heaven being reunited with their loved ones (though at just what age and state of metal maturity is open to question, that is; will dad be a child, young man or an elderly person as he was known before he died which begs the question as to how Christian dead will know one another?).
5. On the other hand, I’ve also heard believers project an afterlife in order to get justice on corrupt politicians or evil people with statements such as; “They got away with it here, but they won’t get away from the judgment of God.”; thus again vindicating an afterlife. With the theme of Heaven being the largest selling points of Christianity, it is little wonder that pop Christian culture keeps this theological myth alive.
6. Finally, the common Christian statement on the death of a loved one: “They are in a better place now.”
For the purpose of this post and for the sake of argument, let’s assume the Bible is an inspired book from God that contains revelations on the State of the Dead. As such, I’ll list a Biblical timeline on how the popular view of an afterlife evolved followed by some major Christian dogmas on the subject.
A Chronology of the Evolution of the Christian Afterlife
A. Pre-Exilic Israel (9 – 8 century BCE to 586 BCE): Like all her neighbors, Israel (a term used by the Northern Kingdom (exiled 722 BCE) and taken over by the Southern Kingdom of Judah (exiled 586)), or the Hebrews believed the souls of all people (both good and bad) continued to exist in Sheol - a place darkness and loneliness under the earth and opposite from the gods who lived on top of a sacred mountains (such as Sinai).
B. Exilic / Post-Exilic Israel 586 BCE to the Hellenistic Period 332 BCE: Theological monotheism theism (Yahweh only party) suppresses Pre-Exilic theology’s polytheism and human sacrifice. Ancestral cult worship (divinatory and magical practices with the dead) are prohibited in both the Torah and the Deuteronomistic History. Persian theological influence began to shape the ideas of good and evil and an afterlife. Now at death, there is no consciousness in Sheol nor is there any contact there with this world and God (Psalms 6:5, 30: 8 – 10, 88: 3-12, Job 3: 11-19, 14: 10 – 14, 21: 19 – 21; and Ecclesiastes 9: 3-10).
C. Hellenistic Period 332 BCE to the Roman Period 63 BCE): The view that the righteous Jew will be either rewarded while the unrighteous Jew will be punished is made theologically orthodox in such forged texts as the book of Daniel (especially Daniel 12: 2 “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt.”) Theologically, this verse in Daniel was in direct conflict with the afterlife position of the Testament of Abraham which teaches that immediately at death, Jewish souls receive judgment before Abel (Adam’s son) for either salvation or fiery torments (Test. Abraham 12 -13). Text such as Trito-Isaiah 66: 24 ("Then they will go forth and look on the corpses of the men Who have transgressed against Me. For their worm will not die and their fire will not be quenched; and they will be an abhorrence to all mankind.") will influence the writer of the Gospel Mark to have Jesus state in “Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.” (Mark 9: 48) Also Paul uses the theology of the Hellenistic book of the Wisdom of Solomon to paint the human race with Original Sin.
D. The Roman Period 63 CE to the Council of Nicaea 325 CE: The conflict and tension of the theology of the so-called “Intertestamental Period” with its forge texts in the names of famous Israelite Patriarchs continued the confusion of an afterlife for Christianity with Paul's view of an "End Time Bodily Resurrection" by stating in his final theological work of Romans 8: 10- 12 “But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you. So then, brethren, we are under obligation, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh” now contrast with that of the late Gospel of John having Jesus state that the Christian’s soul has eternal life immediately ““Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life.” (John 5: 24). However, Christian eschatology remains in contradictory tension in that if the righteous soul is ALREADY with God in Heaven, then why would there ever need to be a resurrection of the body? Thus, Christians must face the fact that the majority of the New Testament (likely 99%), especially Paul’s letters and the Book of Revelation both teach that all souls (both good and evil) sleep in the earth (much like the Israelite dead did in Sheol) until the general resurrection and Final Judgment when Jesus returns. Soul Sleep is also the theme of other the Nicaea Creed and other Christian Creeds. Finally, the Bible never tells us how a place under the earth where all the dead go (Sheol) becomes modern Hell or how Christians go up into the sky to live with God (proof positive that a the theology of an afterlife is “subject to change without notice!).
E. Beginning with Cyprian of Carthage (died 258 CE) some theologians came to view Heaven as a place where people will meet their relatives and friends forming an eternal society with them.
F. Purgatory: This Catholic dogma as founded by Pope Gregory the Great (540 – 604) and is an afterlife place where all souls of the faithful must be purified before being allowed into Heaven.
G. Limbo: To counteract the claim of St. Augustine that all unbaptized infant are damned, a state of both none suffering and no Heaven was invented. This place for unbaptized babies has basically been discontinued since 1950 when Catholic dogmas on non-baptized babies were changed.
H. The Peal of Great Price: The Latter Day Saint Books of Moses and especially Abraham (as “translated” by Joseph Smith) that states that all faithful Temple Mormons can become gods in the afterlife and populate other planets with “Spirit Children” just like the Christian God is doing now on earth.
Though the Bible tells us that in Hebrews 13: 8 “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” apparently the doctrine of an afterlife never was!
So as an atheist, I must say: Welcome to the grave Christian . . . you’re not alone!