What Does the Bible Really Teach About Death?
Last year I lost a dear friend I will call “Susan” when she was on a high-altitude hiking adventure. She had spent most of her life in a fundamentalist Christian religion. But in recent years she had come to realize that religion is “just a bunch of made up stories.”
When she died far too young, a memorial was held, presided over by a Christian minister. He assured those who loved Susan that she was going on to a better world. When it was over, I asked the minister if he had ever read Ecclesiastes 9.
He did not know and asked me to say what I meant. I said that this Bible passage made it clear that when you are dead, you are dead. There is nothing after life.
It says, “where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.” Furthermore, it makes no difference what you did in your life; you end up in the same place. “All share a common destiny – the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad, the clean and the unclean.”
Life is precious because when you are dead you have nothing. “Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart… Enjoy life with your wife.” “Even a live dog is better off than a dead lion!”
It is like nothing to be dead and only the living can act in the world. “The living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing… never again will they have a part in anything that happens under the sun.”
The minister was uncomfortable. He said he would look into this and get back to me with the “proper interpretation” of this. It has been a year. Never heard from him.
Why does this matter? Because one widespread interpretation of Christianity is based on the idea that this world is merely preparation for what is really important: The afterlife.
John 3:16 says “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
According to the John quote, it doesn’t even matter what you do on Earth. It just matters that you believe in Jesus as your savior.
And why does that matter? Because it means that worldly concerns like social justice or preserving the environment do not matter. For these Christian believers, all justice happens in the afterlife, not on Earth. And the paradise of the afterlife makes Earthly forests and oceans pale in comparison.
For some it is consoling to imagine that your loved one is headed to such an afterlife. But for those who do not believe, it is frustrating that their grief is dismissed. It also reduces the desire to prevent death if death is just a gateway to a better world.
“Recycling, Relatedness, and Reincarnation: Religious Beliefs About Nature and the Afterlife as Predictors of Sustainability Practices” was a 2021 study by Arizona State and University of Wyoming researchers.
They found that Christians were less likely to follow sustainable practices than those from Eastern religions that believed in reincarnation. The latter believed that it was important to preserve the Earth’s resources as they will be returning to Earth after death.
There is one more reason that I find this of interest: For tens of millions of fundamentalists, evangelical believers, spreading the word of their version of Christianity is the most important thing for them to do. I find it odd that they can have so much passion, yet not take the time to read the very Bible that they think is the source of all wisdom.
Christianity was not invented by Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus was a Jewish rabbi or teacher. When he asked his followers to follow the word of the Bible, he was talking about the Jewish Bible. That was the only Bible for Jesus.
When Jesus was executed by the Romans, his followers first felt betrayed. How could Jesus be the Messiah (Christ in Greek) if he could be killed like any mortal? Some of them invented a story of resurrection. The Easter story. Jesus himself claimed that he would return in the lifetime of his followers.
I grieve the loss of Susan and agree these are “made up stories.” But if you are a believer, can you please get your stories straight?