Apologist Joel Furches explores one of life’s biggest questions

Religion is a fascinating and often controversial subject, so it should be no surprise that people frequently turn to the internet to ask their questions, voice their opinions and learn more about the subject. However, of all the religious questions asked online, the most frequently Googled one regards life after death. Phrased as “what happens when you die”, this question has received over 74,000 Google inquiries in one year alone. Everyone dies, and the idea that life extends beyond death is almost a universal concept across history and cultures.

If life is merely a physical property of matter and energy, then when a person dies, they cease to be. There is nothing left of that person except in other people’s memories, and whatever dents and fingerprints they may have left behind.


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Religious perspectives 

Of course religions as a rule tend to differ in their opinions of the afterlife. One thing consistent across all known religions is the idea that some part of that person continues beyond their body. Eastern religions tend to think that some part of that person’s soul merges with the Universe or returns in a new body to live out an endless cycle. 

Most ancient pagan religions depict some kind of shadowy spirit world wherein the departed continue to exist for eternity – be it the ‘Land of the Dead’ of Egyptian lore, the Underworld of Grecian mythology, or the ‘Hel’ of Norse legend. Islam has a heaven/hell model familiar to most people in Western society. Jewish teachings are somewhat unspecific about the destination of the dead, but generally teach that there will be a physical return to Earth – a resurrection – at the coming of the Messiah.

Christian thought on the afterlife can be a bit schizophrenic. Biblically, the Christian model resembles the Jewish one: that there will be a physical resurrection and a re-creation of the Universe, such that death is but a way-station on the path to a perfected Universe. However, across the centuries, this biblical model of bodily resurrection has been replaced in the popular mind with the familiar ‘heaven/hell’ model of a merely spiritual eternity. 

This has had unfortunate consequences, as critics of Christianity find the prospect of sitting about in some spiritual realm for eternity to be uninteresting. Given that the biblical model in both the Old and New Testament suggests a resurrection to a perfected Earth, this is likely the most scriptural view, suggesting that eternal life will not be unlike earthly life, except without death, suffering, or the bad behaviour we currently undergo.

This is not, mind you, to argue that there is no heaven. In the Bible, the word ‘heaven’ is most commonly put to task as a description of the realm in which God dwells and where his perfect will is law. During Jesus’ ministry on Earth, he frequently spoke of the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ coming down to be established on Earth. There may be something like a spiritual heaven in which souls without bodies dwell, but it does not represent the ultimate eternal life in the biblical schema.

The soul

Among the reasons that cultures around the world have come to the conclusion that there is some part of a person which exists beyond death is the conclusion that human beings are more than just a body. There is a you that peers out from behind your eyes, can observe yourself make decisions and then reflect on those decisions, can think back on a time when you were younger and knew less things than you do now, and who does not change even as you have surgeries to remove your appendix, your body ages and your brain isn’t able to think as well as it used to.

But is there some way to demonstrate that you are more than just your body? One of the simplest ways to demonstrate this is the fact that you and your body don’t always want the same things. Consider the breaking of addictions. Addiction studies have been done on animals, and in none of these studies do animals attempt to break the addiction or fight the urge to give into the addictive behaviour. 

Now pursuing an addiction to its end is exactly what one would expect if we were following merely biological urges. That human beings have the ability to fight against the biological urges that bring pleasure or gratification is surprising, and indicates some motivating force fighting against biology. Clearly, it is neither common nor easy for a person to break their addiction, but it has happened.

Human relationships

Another example of this can be seen in faithfulness in marriage or relationships. Only three to five per cent of all mammals mate for life. This puts humans in a pretty exclusive club. However, the truly defining difference is the vast range of sexual behaviours of humans around the globe. Sexual pleasure is arguably the strongest motivator of human behaviour. So much so, that large amounts of money and resources – in both the private and public sectors – are devoted to separating the act of sex from its purely biological purpose of procreation. 

For humans, there seems to be something about sex that transcends mere biology. Clearly the temptation to sexual promiscuity is strongly ingrained in human biology – and yet many humans decide to pursue values like loyalty and fidelity above the urge to pursue pleasure.

More telling, however, is that neither fidelity nor infidelity are universal human behaviours. Whereas with all other animals, the entire species tends to either mate for life or not, only in humans do behaviours vary so widely.

Human suffering

Perhaps most interesting is that, in humans, experiences of bodily pain and pleasure are not always connected to feelings of personal fulfilment.

On a purely biological model, one would expect that people suffering from chronic pain or physical disabilities would mostly be emotionally depressed. One would also expect that people who experience biological pleasure – such as frequent sexual experiences – would mostly be happy or content. However, the studies suggest that this is not nearly as straightforward as it would seem.  Many studies – such as ‘The relationship between religion/spirituality and physical health, mental health, and pain in a chronic pain population’ – have found that certain kinds of religious beliefs and practices help people to cope with their chronic pain.

People that have disabilities or medical conditions in which they experience chronic pain can be content and fulfilled. This becomes obvious when one considers the wealthy, influential and attractive people who are constantly airing their personal problems in the media while flitting between relationships, as contrasted with people who find purpose and fulfilment in monogamy and in stressful and under-appreciated jobs such as healthcare, therapy and missionary work.

Ultimately, if animals are used as a baseline against which to compare the human experience, it becomes obvious that animals are very much slaves to their biological experiences of pain and pleasure, whereas humans have an entirely separate dimension of experience that ascends to the level of the spiritual.

Others, such as Dr Gary Habermas have made a more empirical argument for the human soul in studying Near Death Experiences (NDEs). Habermas has accumulated accounts wherein the person who had the NDE had observed things outside of his or her body which they could not possibly have known otherwise. Things like seeing a shoe on the top of the building, or repeating a conversation which happened somewhere else in the building. Due to its somewhat paranormal flavour, not everyone is comfortable with looking at NDEs as evidence of a spiritual aspect to humans, but it is also the kind of thing one might expect if humans had a non-physical nature, and when such accounts include observations that are difficult to explain by any means besides an out-of-body experience, the evidence deserves some consideration.

The resurrection

We have argued so far that the ultimate expectation after death is that of a physical resurrection. Not only is this the strongest theme of Jewish and Christian scriptures, but it also has one of the most solid cases for its reality.

That case is none other than the resurrection of Jesus himself. Paul makes this argument in his letters, that if Jesus was, indeed, resurrected from the dead, we can expect to also be resurrected. But isn’t the resurrection just a claim one must take on faith? Not necessarily.

One of the stronger arguments to be made for the historical reality of Jesus’ resurrection comes from Paul’s letter of 1 Corinthians chapter 15:3–7. This passage reads as follows:

“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.  Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.” 

At first glance, this seems to be just a run-of-the-mill story about Jesus’ resurrection, but there are some surprising features of this passage worth considering. The book of 1 Corinthians is considered by practically every historian who studies the Bible – including a sizable number who are not, themselves, Christians – to be an original book written by Paul of Tarsus sometime around 60 CE. This would place it within 20 or 30 years of the crucifixion. However, the above statement in the book has all the hallmarks of a hymn or Rabbinic tradition which pre-dates the book by a significant amount. In other words, this is likely a quote Paul is making from an older tradition that he picked up from elsewhere. It happens to list several eyewitnesses of the resurrected Jesus, not least of which was Paul himself.


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Eye witnesses 

Taking these eyewitnesses in order, there are several interesting things to note. The first witnesses listed are the disciples. One might expect the disciples to be eager to believe that their leader had come back from the dead, or perhaps even willing to fabricate such a story. There are, however, several reasons to believe otherwise.

Firstly, Jesus did not resemble the Messiah the Jews expected. He failed to take the throne over Israel. In fact, he took pains to avoid political entanglements of any sort, including direct efforts on the part of his followers to push him into leadership. He was rejected by the Jewish leaders and was killed by the hands of pagan oppressors in the most humiliating way possible – one which was specifically identified as a curse by Jewish scriptures.

Secondly, the Jewish conception of the resurrection was a massive event which would happen to the entire nation at the return of the Messiah. The disciples, as good Jews, would have no reason to expect that their leader could be the Messiah if he died on a cross, and the resurrection of a single man was not something they would have expected as Jews, or have fabricated as a story to convince themselves or others.

Further, if they had fabricated the story, they would not have done so by listing women as the first eyewitnesses. The testimony of women was considered invalid in first century Judea. Nor would they have painted themselves, the men, as sceptics and doubters as the Gospels depict (no, Thomas was not the only doubter. When the women reported seeing Jesus alive, all of the disciples were said to have disbelieved).

The available 1st Century writings from Romans and Jews were particularly hostile towards the early Christians. One of the ways in which the Christian sect could have been quickly squashed was to present the body of the dead Jesus. The place of his burial was known to Jewish leaders and Romans alike. The Gospels say that the Jewish leaders started a rumour suggesting the disciples stole the corpse, explaining why they could not supply the body as evidence.

In addition to Jesus’ death being an embarrassment for his Jewish followers, and his resurrection being something the Jews were not expecting, another reason to believe that they did not fabricate the story was the amount of suffering they experienced as a result of the story. They were ousted from the Jewish community, attacked and even killed by Jewish opponents, and tortured by Romans, as testified by the 1st Century writers such as the Roman historian Tacitus and the Jewish historian Josephus. This ‘lie’ of theirs was doing them no favours, and it would have done them a great deal of good to confess the truth and escape the persecution.

If Jesus rose from the dead, then not only is resurrection possible, it is among the things he promised his followers. Having evidence that his promises are true, this is something we can expect to happen after we die.


Joel Furches is an apologist, journalist and researcher on conversion and deconversion, based in the USA.