Religious Studies

Christianity: beliefs about life after death

Death is the one thing in life we can be sure about and that is why religions have beliefs about what it means! Everything else ‘might’ happen to us: we might get married, be rich, be happy, have children, open our own business or travel the world, but the only real certainty is that we will die.

Faith and death

It is not surprising that people have always asked questions about what, if anything, happens after they die.

Although some people claim to have had ‘near-death experiences’ (NDEs), and others claim to be able to talk to the dead, or to have seen ghosts, there is no scientific proof that such experiences actually provide a glimpse into a possible afterlife. It is possible, therefore, that when people die, they simply stop living and that there is nothing beyond this life.

Ideas about what happens after death, and its connection with how life is lived on earth, is a fundamental part of all religions. The details may differ between religions, but belief in an afterlife almost always:

  • helps people to make sense of life, particularly when life seems unfair or at times of suffering (their own, and other people’s)
  • gives support and comfort at times of loss and bereavement
  • provides a purpose to life

Christian teaching

Christians believe there is an afterlife. Although the body dies and is buried or cremated, they believe that their unique soul lives on and is raised to new life by God.

Their belief that Jesus rose from the dead three days after his crucifixion (a Roman method of execution) gives Christians hope that if they follow Jesus’ teaching and accept him as their Lord and Saviour, then this new resurrection life awaits them. By being born as a human being (the incarnation), and then dying on the cross, Jesus made this new ‘life after death’ possible for all.

Jesus said, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies.’

John 11:25-26

God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

John 3:16

Heaven, hell and purgatory

Christians believe that God is just and fair, and so cannot let evil go unpunished. Most believe in the idea of judgement after death, and that God will treat people in the afterlife according to how they lived their life on earth.

  • Although heaven is often mentioned in the Bible, it is rarely described. Christians therefore have very different ideas about it. Some believe that heaven is a physical place, where their body goes after death. Others believe that it is their soul that lives on, and that heaven is a state of being united with God.
  • The Bible is even less specific about hell, and Christians have very different ideas about this too. Some Christians believe that hell is a place of suffering, and of separation from God. Others (perhaps most) believe that hell is a spiritual state of being separated from God for eternity.
  • Some Christians, including Roman Catholics, believe in purgatory. This is an in-between state for the majority of people of waiting for heaven, a time of cleansing from sin and preparing for heaven.

Many Christians believe that there is a place in the Kingdom of God for members of other faiths, and for many who have not even believed in God on earth but have ‘done the will of God’ in many ways without knowing it.

Some Christians believe in the Second Coming (Parousia) - the anticipated return of Jesus Christ from heaven to earth. This will herald the general resurrection [Resurrection: The rising from the dead of Jesus Christ on the third day after his crucifixion. ] of the dead, the last judgement of the dead and the living, and the full establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth.

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