Death and life after death
(Edexcel RS IGCSE section A)
The Edexcel IGCSE section on death and life after death relates to the section A topic of human nature and the human condition and to the section B topic the meaning and purpose of life. You will find that various elements of the IGCSE relate to each other and something that you learn for one topic may well be relevant in another. Try to think synoptically!
The Edexcel IGCSE RS specification says:
Religious and non-religious beliefs/teachings, and (differing) views about death and human destiny; whether or not there is an afterlife; and why some people believe in life after death, while others do not. Religious beliefs/teachings about the nature of life after death; linear and cyclical views of human existence; resurrection; rebirth; judgement; and the law of cause and effect in relation to life after death.
Christian beliefs/teachings about heaven and hell; judgement, resurrection; and the Last Judgement.
Continuation of existence after death
Cyclical (view of human existence): (The belief that) time has no beginning or end and that the
soul of human beings is reborn again and again
The future of human beings/what happens to them when they die
Judgement (by God):
The decision of God about the destiny of human beings
Law of cause and effect (in relation to human actions): (The belief that) every human
action has an automatic consequence
Linear (view of human existence): (The belief that) time has a beginning and an end, and that
human beings live only once on earth
(The belief that) the soul is reborn into another body
(The belief that) after death, the body stays in the grave until the end of the
world when it is raised
Why do some people believe in life after death?
There are various reasons why people believe in life after death. The philosopher Feuerbach said that religion is based on wishful thinking and many atheists believe that religious people only have faith that there is life after death because they are scared of the alternative.
If you already believe in a loving God then the idea of life after death makes a lot of sense. Why would God create life only to have it end at death? Many people think that the world is very unfair; often good people suffer while bad people seem to get away with acting immorally. It seems impossible for a loving God to allow things to be this way unless there was some way that things are made right after death. Belief in life after death seems to follow on naturally from belief in God.
Many religious people argue that there is evidence to support the idea of life after death and they use this to justify their beliefs.
24 Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”
But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”
26 A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!”27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”
28 Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”
29 Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
For Christians, one of the greatest pieces of evidence for life after death is the account of Jesus' resurrection. The gospels describe how Jesus was crucified, died on the cross and was placed in the tomb on the Friday evening. On the Sunday morning a group of Jesus' female followers went to the tomb to anoint the body and found it gone. An angel (or two angels depending on the account) told them that he had been resurrected. Various people then saw the risen Jesus. Exactly who saw him and when varies from account to account but all the gospels make it clear that the resurrection had multiple witnesses. St Paul also makes reference to resurrection appearances including one to five hundred people at once (1 Corinthians 15:6).
The story of doubting Thomas is particularly interesting. Jesus appeared to his disciples who then accepted that he had been resurrected. However, Thomas was not with them. When they told him the story he said he would not believe it unless he sawvthe risen Jesus for himself and touches him. Jesus then appeared to Thomas and invited him to put his finger in the holes in his hands. Thomas then believed.
If Thomas could touch Jesus then he must have existed in a physical resurrected way. He could not just be an illusion or a ghost. In Luke's account Jesus ate fish in front of his disciples and told them to touch him which also emphases that he is alive in a bodily sense.
Is it good evidence?
Christians obviously believe it is good evidence. They might argue that:
- There were multiple witnesses to the resurrection.
- Many of the early disciples were willing to die for their faith so they must have had good reason to be convinced by what they had seen or heard.
- The first witnesses were women. During biblical times women would not have been considered reliable witnesses. If the early Christians had made up the story then they would not have chosen to have women deliver the news. Thus if women are the first recorded witnesses it must be because it was true.
However, skeptics argue that:
- The account comes from 2,000 or so years ago. There is no way we can be sure of the reliability of the accounts. Most scholars do not believe that the gospel writers were themselves eye-witnesses. They were editors compiling earlier accounts.
- It is more likely that there is a rational explanation than that a miracle occurred. Perhaps Jesus survived crucifixion? It has been claimed that the herbs that the women took to the tomb were not used for anointing a dead body but were used for reviving people who had fainted. Alternatively, perhaps Jesus was not ever on the cross. The Qur'an says that Jesus was not crucified, rather someone else died in his place.
The Bible says so:
The Bible says a lot about life after death. Jesus resurrected Lazarus, Jairus' daughter and the widow of Nain's son. He warned people about judgement day and promised eternal life to those who believed in him and trusted his message. The apostle Paul entered into discussion about the nature of resurrected life. If the Bible is the inerrant word of God (as fundamentalists claim) then whatever the Bible says must be true and if the Bible promises life after death then it exists.
Is it good evidence?
That entirely depends on what you think about whether or not the Bible is reliable! Those who believe it is not the literal word of God might say that the Bible appears wrong on other issues (the account of creation for example) and thus there is no reason to trust it on this.
Near death experiences:
The first recorded Near Death Experience (NDE) was written down by Plato. Since then the term 'near death experience' has been used to cover a variety of different experiences. Typically, an NDE involves a person who is very ill or involved in an accident will have an experience which occurs during the time they were unconscious in which they believe that they have visited the after life.
There are various features that seem common to NDEs
- Out of body experience in which the consciousness leaves the body often rising above it and moving around the room. The experience often ends with a sensation of being jolted back into the body.
- Strong emotions. This might be a sense of love/joy/happiness but it could equally well be a sensation of panic, of not wanting to leave or an overwhelming awareness of sinfulness.
- Bright light or a tunnel and a sensation of being pulled towards it.
- Visions of dead relatives or religious figures.
- Life changing. Often people who have had NDEs re-evalutate their whole take on life and might make some radical adjustments to their lifestyle.
Is this good evidence?
Generally skeptics argue that NDEs are just the result of the brain's way of dealing with trauma. A sense of euphoria could be accounted for by a release of endorphin or a side effect of medical treatments. The tunnel of light might be the result of an over-stimulated visual cortex. We experience out of body experiences and 'visions' all the time in dreams. Dr Susan Blackmore has studied NDEs in depth and concluded that there is nothing in an Near Death Experience which does not have a rational explanation.
However, occasionally there are anecdotal reports of near death experiences (NDEs) that are more difficult to explain away. For example, if a patient effectively 'dies' on the operating table and have no heart beat then it is more difficult to say that the experience is obviously caused by the brain. If the heart is not beating then the brain is not getting oxygen and if the brain is not receiving oxygen then it is not functioning. Occasionally such patients seem to be able to describe what happened to them whilst they were dead. If what they describe matches up with what the medical staff remember then some people find this very compelling evidence for life after death.
Those who find Near Death Experiences convincing often argue that:
- The experiences are sufficiently similar to suggest that people are experiencing the same thing.
- Those who have NDEs are usually convinced by them. There are reports of hardened atheists converting following a Near Death Experience.
Remembered past lives:
Buddhists and Hindus believe that when we die we are reincarnated on earth. Occasionally there are people who claim to be able to remember the past lives that they have led. Sometimes there are annecdotal stories which claim that people remembering past lives have access to knowledge that they would not otherwise know, such as an ability to recognise and navigate around an area that they had not visited. Or the ability to know things about people they had not met.
One particularly interesting case involved James Leninger who as a small boy claimed to remember being a WWII pilot shot down by the Japanese. It was reported that he
- Had dreams about crashing on fire
- Recognise technical features of an aeroplane
- Named the type of aeroplane (Corsair) and specific aircraft carrier (Natoma) as well as naming a fellow pilot (Jack Larson)
Research by his parents seemed to imply that all the details revealed by James matched up with the historical evidence and the sister of the downed pilot believed that he was indeed the reincarnate soul of her brother.
Is it good evidence?
That depends on how much faith you have it the person repeating the story. Those convinced by accounts like James' might say that
- A small boy (2 when he first started to 'remember') would not be able to make up and remain consistent to such a complex story.
- There is no rational explanation for his knowledge.
Skeptics would reply that
- Children are imaginative and respond to attention. Once his parents showed interest in his stories he would add more detail. As his parents began to research his claims they subconsciously began to feed him details.
- The fact that details matched up might be a lucky coincidence.
Mediums who claim to contact the dead, stories of ghosts and personal spiritual experiences might all also be used to support the idea of life after death in some (not necessarily Christian) form.
However, many people would say that all the evidence for life after death is weak evidence. A lot of it is anecdotal. The very nature of things like NDE means that they cannot easily be tested as they cannot be replicated under controlled conditions. There is always the possibility that your witness is lying or at the very least has misunderstood what they experienced. Non-religious people find the idea of an afterlife very problematic. For a start there is the problem of where is heaven (or whatever place people exist in the afterlife)? If there is an afterlife then what is the point of this life?
What do Christians believe happens when we die?
1 Corinthians 15
35 But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?”
...42 So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable...44 it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.
... 50 I declare to you, brothers and sisters, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. 51 Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— 52 in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. 53 For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality.
Traditionally Christianity has taught that the resurrection will be bodily and physical (just as Jesus' was). Medieval paintings of judgement day showed the dead literally climbing out of their graves (which was why historically Christians were not cremated).
That said, Christians have long been confused about exactly what the form the resurrection will take. St Paul wrote what seems to be a reply to a question about the type of resurrected body in which he says that the perishable will become imperishable (i.e. the resurrected body will not get ill, old or die). He says that earthly bodies will become heavenly bodies. Whilst Paul probably fails to answer the question with great clarity it is evident that he believes that the resurrection will be physical, but different to earthly physical.
Many Christians today tend to see resurrection as more of a spiritual affair and the Anglican funeral service the soul is commended to God and the body to the earth. However, there is also a certain amount of ambiguity as to whether or not the soul is naturally immortal or whether it too needs to be actively resurrected by God.
The key thing to remember about resurrection is that whatever exact form it takes (and whatever logistical nightmares it presents God with) the resurrected you is still you; i.e. resurrection is not the same as reincarnation. You do not come back as someone different but as yourself.
Parable of the Sheep and the Goats
31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
Christians believe that when people die they will fact judgement. The Apostles' Creed says that Jesus 'will come to judge the living and the dead' and the Bible says 'we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ' (2 Corinthians 5:10)
An important question for Christians to ask is what criteria does Jesus use when judging? The Bible suggests that two different things are taken into consideration:
Mark's gospel states that 'Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.' (Mark 16:15-16). Some Christians believe that regardless of whether or not you lead a good life you will only get to heaven if you actively believe in Jesus. This is because only by believing in Jesus do you accept the gift of salvation that he offers. Christians who believe that you must be Christian to be saved are called exclusivists and they usually believe that Christians have a duty to proselytise and to try to convert others. There are other Biblical teachings besides the verses from Mark which could also be used to support this view point.
However, in other places the Bible implies that people are judged on the basis of their actions. In the letter to Romans St Paul wrote that 'He [God] will give to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury' (Romans 2:6-8). The parable of the Sheep and the Goat (also known as the Parable of the Judgement of Nations) Jesus said the same thing and used the analogy of a shepherd dividing up his flock to explain what will happen. The 'goats' will be sent away because they have not fed the hungry, taken care of the sick and visited those in prison. The sheep will be rewarded with eternal life because they have done these things. Jesus says that whenever one person helps another in need they are helping him. Christians who believe that you do not necessarily need to have explicit faith in God to get to heaven are called inclusivists. Karl Rahner is a Catholic inclusivist who developed the idea of an anonymous Christian. An anonymous Christian is someone who acts as a Christian should act and seems to do what God would want even if they do not have explicit Christian faith. Rahner said that anonymous Christians would be saved because their lives showed evidence of the Holy Spirit acting in them.
Most Christians regard both faith and action as important and the Bible specifically says that faith should lead to actions. Jesus used the illustration of a tree. A good tree bares good fruit, a bad tree bares bad fruit (or no fruit!). Faith should lead to good works.
Day of Judgement:
Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done.
A final question related to the issue of judgement is when does it happen? Immediately a person dies or at the end of time. When Jesus was crucified the Bible says that he turned to the penitent thief and said 'today you will be with me in paradise' which implies that judgement happens fairly immediatedly. However, in the book of Revelations (the last book of the New Testament) Jesus is described as coming at the end of time when the dead are raised.
Most Christians now adays believe that people are judged when they die, but that there will also be a general day of judgement when Jesus will return to those still living on earth and judge them.
Of course, from the point of view of any individual whether you are resurrected and judged immediately after you die or as part of a general revelation at the end of time makes little difference. Until you are resurrected you are dead and therefore not experiencing anything so resurrection at the end of the world would seem exactly the same as immediate resurrection.
The traditional medieval Christian view of Hell is that it is a place of fire, darkness and punishment where sinners will be cast for eternity. This view is based on various biblical verses which speak of 'the unquenchable fires of hell' (Mark 9:43) where there will be 'weeping and gnashing of teeth' (Matthew 13:50).
However, not all Christians still believe in a traditional view of hell.
- Some see Hell as an absence of God where people who have rejected God throughout life are rejected by him after death. This version of hell lacks the traditional tortures and torments so popular in medieval judgement day paintings but may be 'hell' by comparison with the perfection of heaven. 2 Thessolonians 1:9 says that sinners will be 'forever separated from the Lord'.
- Other liberal Christians interpret Hell in terms of the psychological pain caused by the conscious when people finally face up to their own sins.
- Still others believe that God does not resurrect sinners to eternal punishment. The often quoted lines from John's gospel 'For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life' could be used to support this. Jesus saves people from death. Resurrection is for those who believe in Jesus.
Some liberal Christians totally reject teachings about hell and believe instead that a loving God would save all human beings.
The Christian view of the afterlife is LINEAR. Too often pupils think that a linear view is not believing in an afterlife.
Pupils often seem to mistakenly believe that purgatory is the place people go before they are judged. This is wrong! Christians who believe in purgatory (and not all of them do) believe that it is a place that the saved go on route to heaven. It is a place of punishment (like hell) but the punishment is temporary. In purgatory the saved are punished for sins that they did not confess (and therefore were not forgiven for) on earth.
The idea behind the concept of purgatory is that the perfection of heaven means that a person cannot enter into heaven until they are entirely sinless. Purgatory is therefore a bit like a place of quarantine.
Purgatory is not mentioned in the Bible. It is most likely to be believed in by Roman Catholics.
The heavenly city of Jerusalem:
10 And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. 11 It shone with the glory of God, and its brilliance was like that of a very precious jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal. 12 It had a great, high wall with twelve gates, and with twelve angels at the gates. On the gates were written the names of the twelve tribes of Israel. 13 There were three gates on the east, three on the north, three on the south and three on the west. 14 The wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.
... 18 The wall was made of jasper, and the city of pure gold, as pure as glass. 19 The foundations of the city walls were decorated with every kind of precious stone. The first foundation was jasper, the second sapphire, the third agate, the fourth emerald, 20 the fifth onyx, the sixth ruby, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth turquoise, the eleventh jacinth, and the twelfth amethyst. 21 The twelve gates were twelve pearls, each gate made of a single pearl. The great street of the city was of gold, as pure as transparent glass.
22 I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. 23 The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp.
The Bible does not give detailed descriptions of Heaven. For Christians, Heaven is paradise and a lot of people seem to implicitly draw on descriptions of Eden before the Fall when they imagine Heaven. The book of Revelation contains a description of the heavenly version of Jerusalem recreated at the end of the world which gives an impression of what heaven might be like. In the Old Testament Ezekiel has a vision of heaven in which he supposedly saw Seraphim (a type of angel) constantly praising God by singing 'Holy, holy, holy'.
Christians believe that Heaven is:
- A place of union with God.
- A place of harmony and peace where 'the lion shall lie down with the lamb and a little child shall lead them' (Isaiah 11:6)
- A place without suffering, illness or death. (Remember what Paul said about the resurrected body - see above).
- Plenty of room! Jesus said 'In my father's house their are many mansions' John 14:2)
- A place of hope and justice in which 'the first shall be last and the last shall be first' (Matthew 20:16)
- A place where they will meet those who died before. However, relationships seem a little different in heaven. Jesus was asked if a widow remarried then who would she be married to in heaven. He replied that 'At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven' (Matthew 22:30)
The doctrine of predestination is relevant to the issue of death and life after death. You will find notes on predestination in the free will, determinism and predestination section.
What do other religions say about life after death?
Buddhist and Hindus have a cyclical view of life after death.
- Throughout your life you get karma for voluntary actions.
- When you die your atman will be reincarnated and the type of reincarnation you gain depends on the type of life you have lived and the karma you gained.
- Good karma = positive rebirth, bad karma = negative rebirth.
- For Hindus, the best type of reincarnation is to be born into a Brahmin (priestly) family.
- From there you can escape Samsara (the cycle of rebirth) and reach Moksha
- Moksha is union with Brahman. Your atman returns to Brahman like a drop returning to the ocean.
The principle of karma is also referred to as the law of cause and effect (Edexcel IGCSE key term!). Karma is different to judgement. There is no need for any god or goddess to enforce karma, it just exists. Bad karma is the inevitable and natural consequence of bad actions, just as good karma automatically comes from good voluntary actions.
Which is more appealing, linear or cyclical?
The case for linear:
The advantage of the linear view is that you get to remain you in the afterlife! You don't have to keep being reborn and making the similar mistakes in each new existence.
The case for cyclical:
You get multiple chances to get life right whereas certain versions of the linear view mean that if you make the wrong choices in life you will be condemned to hell for eternity. The idea of being reborn on earth might be appealing because it is familiar whereas heaven is not.
Report on NDEs found here.
Neurosurgeon's own NDE here.
Dr Susan Blackmore's (very detailed) analysis of NDEs here.
Detailed account of James Leniger's past life here.