Is There an Afterlife?
Tom wrote, “How can we be sure there is an afterlife other than from biblical references?”
Tom, thanks for the great question. I will do my best to respond to this with a thoughtful answer, but I want to undergird the reality that every worldview requires faith. Even atheism, which definitively states that there is absolutely no god, requires faith. Atheism assumes that, given what humans know about everything, there is no possibility, remotely, that we will ever learn anything that would prove the existence of a higher power. Since not a single person alive would claim that humanity does, indeed, know 100% of everything there is to know in all of reality, that mental leap of commitment requires faith. So, “How can we be sure”, as you stated, is tricky.
In the ancient world, the idea of a resurrection was something that only existed in myths. Resurrection, defined, is unique because it carries with it the idea of being returned from death to eternal life, as compared with revivification which would simply be coming back to life only to die again. Even the Jewish people weren’t all on the same page concerning the resurrection, but were divided into two camps of the Pharisees and Sadducees. I bring this up because the resurrection of Jesus is, in my opinion, the most compelling evidence for the existence of an afterlife. If the resurrection is real, then the afterlife is real. If the resurrection of Christ is false, then the afterlife seems to me to be a myth. My goal here is to argue for the resurrection from outside of biblical references, and in so doing argue for an afterlife.
Extrabiblically, the most compelling evidence of a resurrection is found in the apostles willingness to die for their faith. Prior to the empty tomb, Jesus’ disciples were timid, fearful men hiding behind closed doors, but afterwards, they were transformed into bold witnesses. So bold were they, and so real their faith in this resurrection and afterlife, that they were willing to be killed for it like sheep led to be slaughtered. Take a look at the traditional accounts of the martyrdom of Jesus’ early followers:
The Apostle John was boiled alive in a huge basin of oil during a wave of persecution in Rome, but he miraculously survived and was exiled to work the mines on the prison island of Patmos.
Jesus’ brother, James, was thrown 100 feet from one of the pinnacles of the temple when he refused to deny his faith in Christ (speaking of James, try convincing your brother that you are the Messiah!). Having survived the fall, his persecutors beat him to death with a club.
It is believed that Andrew was crucified on an x-shaped cross in Greece. After being whipped and beaten, he was tied to the cross, rather than nailed, so as to prolong his death. As he was led to the cross, his followers recorded that he said: “I have long desired and expected this happy hour. The cross has been consecrated by the body of Christ hanging on it.” He continued to proclaim the Good News of free forgiveness in Jesus Christ to his tormentors for two days until he died.
Matthew was killed by a sword wound in Ethiopia.
Nathanael witnessed in present-day Turkey and was killed by being flayed to death by a whip.
Thomas was stabbed with a spear while trying to establish a church in India.
Matthias was stoned and then beheaded.
Lastly, the apostle Paul, who wrote half of the New Testament, was tortured and beheaded by the evil Emperor Nero, who used to attach Christians to giant wooden stakes and set them on fire to use as lawn ornaments during his garden parties.
Simon Greenleaf, a professor of law at Harvard said that it was, “impossible that [the disciples] could have persisted in affirming the truths they have narrated, had not Jesus actually risen from the dead, and had they not known this fact as certainly they knew any other fact.” In other words, if they had invented the resurrection, then they wouldn’t have been willing to die for it. The traditions of their martyrdom recorded throughout history, stand as a testimony to the reality of the resurrection of Jesus, and, therefore, the afterlife.
At the end of the day, I am arguing for an afterlife based upon the fact that a group of uneducated people believed in a man named Jesus, a man who claimed to be God, who they say died and rose from the grave, and then ascended into the clouds. They believed in his message and person so much so that they turned the world upside down and willingly died for their faith. People don’t die for something they don’t believe in, and they definitely don’t die for something they made up. The men and women who observed the resurrection firsthand, the men and women who were convinced of the reality of an eternal afterlife, were so compelled that they were willing to live differently, to love different, and even to die differently.