What happens when you die? Countless millions hope to extend their physical lives— but for what purpose? Few truly understand the Bible's promise of eternal life—but you can!
If there is an afterlife, what is its purpose? You can know!
Will you live forever? Many people believe they will. But have you ever asked yourself: "What for?" Is there a great purpose for life, now and forever? Is there a reason to live on into eternity? If there is, does the Bible hold any clues not only to the what of the afterlife, but also the why?
The debate about life after death has raged for millennia, and is as important today as it was centuries ago. A 1991 International Social Survey Program study found that 78 percent of Americans believed that the existence of an afterlife was either "definite" or "probable." By contrast, only 39 percent in Russia and 14 percent in what was then East Germany believed in an afterlife. The survey found that Americans were "over 25 percentage points more likely than the British and New Zealanders to believe in heaven and more than twice as likely to believe in hell."
But what do people believe they will be doing in the afterlife? Will they gain "oneness" with the "world soul"? Will they achieve supreme happiness? Will they simply gaze at the glory of God? Many conflicting opinions exist. But we can look beyond opinions, and find what God's word says on the subject!
For many years, scientists have sought to find ways to extend the human lifespan. Great strides have been achieved in the last century through better nutrition and health care. But some scientists are searching for ways to actually attain "eternal life" in the flesh. Aubrey de Grey, founder of Strategies for Engineering Negligible Senescence, believes he has identified "the seven causes of aging—seven types of molecular or cellular damage—each of which 'is potentially fixable by technology that already exists or is in active development."
Other scientists accept the inevitability of death in the present, but seek to arrest the corruption of the body through cryogenics until better technology is available. For a fee of $28,000 to $35,000, the Cryonics Institute offers to "freeze" its members at death, in anticipation of better healing technology in the future. "When and if future technology allows, our member patients hope to be healed, rejuvenated, revived, and awakened to a greatly extended life in youthful good health, free from disease or the aging process."
But is that really the ultimate goal—just extending physical life for hundreds of years? What about individuals who are plagued by pain, heartache, regret, and loneliness? The Bible reveals that for the first 1,500 years or so of human history, lives routinely lasted for centuries. Adam—the first created man—lived for 930 years; Seth, his son, lived for 912 years; Enosh next lived for 905 years; Cainan for 910 years; Mahalaleel for 895 years; his son Jerod for 962 years; his grandson Methuselah for 969 years (apparently dying in the Flood; see Genesis 5:5–27).
Did these long lives bring utopia, with happiness and contentment for all? Was there peace throughout the world? No! "Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart" (Genesis 6:5–6). A lengthened life does not by itself mean a fulfilling, purposeful life.
Of course, human beings have a natural desire to try to avoid or escape death. But regardless of our attempts to create eternal life in the flesh, "it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment" (Hebrews 9:27). Death truly is an enemy of mankind (1 Corinthians 15:26). But death will finally be destroyed. Human beings' destiny is not to live forever in the flesh, but those who willingly submit to God and His ways can live forever, because of their Savior, Jesus Christ. As Jesus said, He is "the way, the truth, and the life" (John 14:6).
But just what is the purpose of eternal life? Is it somehow to join (or re-join) a cosmic life force? For many in the Western nations, the idea of a "personal" resurrection is losing ground to Eastern ideas of spirituality. Buddhists believe in continual reincarnations; what author Gregg Stebben calls "the complex path, through life after meaningless life, to nirvana, a state of blissful nothingness, a cosmic void," being "at one with the world soul" (Everything You Need To Know About Religion, p. 10). Increasing numbers of Americans are adopting a version of this doctrine; author Bill Newcott points out that one recent survey showed 23 percent of AARP members believe in some form of reincarnation. According to Jeffrey Burton Russell, professor emeritus of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, this is a sea change in American religious beliefs. "If you took this study 50 years ago, the belief in reincarnation would be down at about 1 percent. Generally, the traditionally clear Christian vision of heaven has declined, while the vaguer visions of the continuation of life have taken its place" ("Life After Death," AARP The Magazine, Sept.-Oct. 2007).
The idea of "becoming at one with the cosmic essence" at death has been around for millennia. In ancient times, some believed that the souls of their kings, at death, entered the heavenly bodies such as the planets, moon, and sun. "Plutarch states that the Egyptian priests expressly taught 'that Cronus, Osiris, Horus, and all their other principal deities were once mere men, but that after they died their souls migrated into some one or other of the heavenly bodies, and became the animating spirits of their new celestial mansions'" (The Worship of the Dead, Garnier, p. 14).
The Bible does describe a greater oneness with God, which the saints will achieve at the resurrection. Jesus Christ prayed for His disciples: "And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one" (John 17:22–23). However, people who become spirit beings will also have distinct spiritual bodies and personalities. They will not just be part of a dumb and blind cosmic force. The Apostle Paul explained what will happen to a person's body buried in a grave in the ground: "It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body" (1 Corinthians 15:44).
Eternal life is not just about changing to another energy state—it is about having a real, obedient relationship with a real, personal God (John 17:3)! But what will the saints be doing for all eternity?
Perhaps attaining happiness is the purpose of eternal life? Will that be the highest goal for the saved? Many believe so. But who defines happiness—and how it is achieved?
Many equate eternal happiness with sensual, terrestrial pleasure—good food, beautiful sights and even sexual fulfillment. The ancient Irish believed that the good traveled at death to a "land of eternal youth, where the sun was never hidden behind the clouds, and where all the Irish women were beautiful" (Stebben, p. 16). The Qur'an pictures Muslims spending eternal life "on lined couches, reclining therein face to face. There wait on them immortal youths with bowls and ewers and a cup from a pure spring wherefrom they get no aching of the head nor any madness, and fruit that they prefer and flesh of fowls that they desire. And [there are] fair ones with wide, lovely eyes, like unto hidden pearls, reward for what they used to do" (Surah 56:15–24).
Sensual happiness in the afterlife—especially regarding sex—is a widely embraced idea. Author Newcott cites Barnard College professor of religion Alan F. Segal, who writes: "Americans see life after death as a very dynamic thing. You don't really hear about angels and wings, sitting on clouds playing melodies… They talk about humor in the afterlife, continuing education, unifying families—like a retirement with no financial needs… A lot believe there will be sex in the afterlife, that it'll be more pleasurable."
Christ did say that the future for resurrected saints would be terrestrial, not celestial, and that it would be exciting and fulfilling! In the parable of the talents, He referred to the Kingdom as "the joy of your lord" (Matthew 25:21). In Matthew 5:5, He taught, "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth"—not heaven! Revelation 21 describes a "new earth," with the "holy city" coming down to earth, to be the habitation of God forever. After His resurrection, Jesus appeared to His disciples in human form, and even enjoyed a meal of fish and honey with them (Luke 24:42).
The physical creation will be a beautiful and enjoyable dwelling place for the resurrected saints to dwell in with God. Yet satisfying the senses will not be the ultimate goal of resurrected Christians living on earth! Christ explained, for example, that sexuality will not be a part of the resurrected saints' experience; that "in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels of God in heaven" (Matthew 22:30; see Galatians 3:26–29).
Living in the Kingdom of God—under God's laws, through His Spirit—will be a joyful experience! But happiness in itself will not be the ultimate goal and purpose for eternal life.
If the ultimate goal of eternal life is not satisfying sensual pleasures, is it achieving spiritual bliss through looking into the face of God, or floating on clouds forever? In 1336, Pope Benedict XII described the Roman Catholic idea of the afterlife: "And after such intuitive and face-to-face vision and enjoyment has or will have begun for these souls, the same vision and enjoyment has continued and will continue without any interruption and without end until the last Judgment and from then on forever" ("Benedictus Deus: On the Beatific Vision of God," The Christian Faith in the Doctrinal Documents of the Catholic Church).
Looking into the face of God will be an awesome and thrilling experience, as the Apostle John explained: "Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is" (1 John 3:2). To see God the Father on His throne, and to see Jesus Christ—whose face shines like the sun—will be exhilarating! But will the saints simply gaze at them, unendingly, for all eternity?
Commentator Anthony Hoekema observed, "Life in heaven sounds downright boring, if some descriptions are to be believed… This future life is often seen as an eternal existence without bodies. Also, it is thought of as 'above,' somewhere off in space, far removed from this earth—an escape, in fact… Are we then to spend eternity in space, disembodied spirits who flit from cloud to cloud, plucking golden harps in an endless day off?" ("Heaven: Not Just an Eternal Day Off," Christianity Today, September 20, 1985).
Certainly, the resurrection of the saints has a greater purpose than just staring at God, or lounging around on clouds. But what is that purpose?
To understand our spiritual destiny, we must recall the commission God gave when human beings were first placed on the earth. God gave Adam and Eve "dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth" (Genesis 1:26). The human family was given responsibility to govern—to rule—over God's creation. In turn, Adam was to dress it and cultivate it. He and his descendants were to help in God's creative work of enhancing and beautifying the earth!
Adam failed the test of obedience, and Satan the Devil was able to ensnare and entrap all of humanity (Revelation 12:9). But through the work of the Messiah—Jesus Christ's life, sacrifice, resurrection and second coming—the Devil will ultimately be overthrown (Revelation 20:2, 10). At Christ's second coming, the earth will be returned to a millennial, Eden-like state (Isaiah 51:3).
But whom will God use to restore the world? The resurrected saints! Scripture clearly describes their role: "[You] have made us kings and priests to our God; and we shall reign on the earth" (Revelation 5:10). God also instructs His saints: "But hold fast what you have till I come. And he who overcomes, and keeps My works until the end, to him I will give power over the nations" (Revelation 2:25–26).
In the parable of the minas, Christ explained the leadership role the resurrected saints will be given, as a reward for their faithful service: "Then came the first, saying, 'Master, your mina has earned ten minas.' And he said to him, 'Well done, good servant; because you were faithful in a very little, have authority over ten cities'" (Luke 19:16–17). The saints' role will be to rule over the earth with Christ (Revelation 3:12, 21).
As commentator Hoekema explains, "…The Old Testament reveals that the ultimate destiny of man is an earthly one… According to the parable of the talents, the master's reward to the faithful servants is this: 'You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things' (Matthew 25:21, 23, NIV). 'Being in charge' or 'ruling over' (KJV) many things suggests a busy program of administrative activity… In these… parables, the reward promised consists not of idle rest but of service."
But what will happen after the general resurrection, after the Millennium—the prophesied thousand-year reign of Jesus Christ on the earth—has ended (Revelation 20:4, 12)? What will the saints do after obedient and converted human beings have been glorified, and the incorrigible have been reduced to ashes in a lake of fire (Malachi 4:3)?
God inspired the Apostle Paul to write about our ultimate destiny: "For He has not put the world to come, of which we speak, in subjection to angels. But one testified in a certain place, saying: 'What is man that You are mindful of him, or the son of man that You take care of him? You have made him a little lower than the angels; You have crowned him with glory and honor, and set him over the works of Your hands'" (Hebrews 2:5–7). The resurrected saints will not only help God rule over the earth; they will also "judge"—govern, or manage—the angels (1 Corinthians 6:2–3)!
There is more! Paul wrote further, "You have put all things in subjection under his feet" (Hebrews 2:8). What did Paul mean by "all things"? The Greek used here, ta panta, is all-inclusive, meaning "every, the whole" (Strong's Dictionary). The Weymouth translation renders "all things" as "the universe." All things will be put under the dominion of the resurrected saints, working through God's Kingdom.
In other words, even though all things—the whole universe—are not currently under humanity's dominion, they will be (Hebrews 2:8)! Can we grasp that? Just as God originally gave human beings dominion and rulership over the earth, His ultimate goal is for us to rule over the entire universe! In the same way that we were meant to work on and beautify the earth, God has also called us to assist Him in refashioning and "planting" the desolate planets throughout the vast universe (Isaiah 51:16).
But why has God created human beings to help Him rule the earth—and the universe?
When God created man and woman, He created them "in His own image" (Genesis 1:27). While the animals were made after the animal kind, human beings were made after the "God" kind! All members of the human family, created by God, are rightly called His children. But through the indwelling of His Spirit, and actually being born again, human beings can become part of God's spiritual family. As Jesus told Nicodemus, "unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God" (John 3:3).
When does this "second birth" occur? At the resurrection! Jesus Christ became the "firstborn" from the dead at His resurrection (Colossians 1:18; Revelation 1:5; Romans 8:29). Since He is the "first," this implies that others will follow! Paul explained that Christ is "declared to be the Son of God with power… by the resurrection from the dead" (Romans 1:4).
God wants to share the "family business"—rulership over the entire universe—with His children! Human beings' destiny is to be born into the family of God, as the "heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ" (Romans 8:17).
Eternal life—the greatest gift God could bestow on His children—will have a great and awesome purpose! Eternal life is not just for human existence indefinitely. It is not for joining the "world soul." It is not to pursue sensual pleasure or even to achieve "heavenly bliss." As members of the divine family of God, obedient, faithful and resurrected saints will share in the work and mission of the family—governing and beautifying the entire universe in peace and righteousness, forever!
Thank God for our awesome destiny—and God speed the day when His plan for each of us is complete!