Life Beyond Death: What Can We Know?
In Question is a series of talks at GraceLife Church in Pineville, NC, with the purpose of addressing the difficult questions and topics that believers and unbelievers alike have when it comes to the nature of God and the Bible. Dr. Ken Boa has been a frequent guest speaker for the series. In Question is hosted by Michael Stewart, a member of GraceLife who also works with Ken Boa. Listen above to an audio recording of the In Question event from September 26, 2018, which addressed the topic “Life Beyond Death: What Can We Know?”
All share a common destiny—the righteous and the wicked . . . (Ecclesiastes 9:2)
Michael Stewart (MS): Polls show that the majority of Americans, whether they consider themselves religious or not, believe in life after death. Of these, 80 percent believe in heaven, and 70 percent believe in hell. Why do you think so many, even many without a religious worldview, hold this belief?
Ken Boa (KB): People don’t want to believe in just plain annihilation—that we’re food for the worms. Most people—even materialists and naturalists—find it a narrative too repulsive to believe, even though they don’t have any real basis for the afterlife in their philosophy of life. It’s intriguing when you ask a person, “Do you believe in heaven or hell?” (depending on the answer, you can follow it with, “Which one do you think you’re going to?”). Most people maintain an optimistic attitude toward this question; they stay very sanguine and think they’re going to make it [to heaven]. It’s as though, if you imagine a ladder, people are always seeing themselves on the rung just above the cutoff point.
MS: Let’s turn to epistemology—the study of how we know things. How can we claim to know anything about the afterlife at all?
KB: Many people have this notion that if it’s not scientific, it’s not knowledge. But to say a truth has to be scientific for it to be true knowledge is a self-stultifying statement, because that statement is not a scientific statement; it’s a metaphysical statement. Carl Sagan once said, “The cosmos is all that is or was or ever will be.” Where did he get that knowledge? Not from good science!
There are various kinds of knowledge—religious, moral, aesthetic, historical, relational, philosophical, and so on—and each has its own avenue of inquiry or entry point. It’s not that one avenue is right and the others are wrong. Different kinds of knowledge work together.
Regardless of what they say they know, all people live as if something is true, good, and beautiful. The question, though, is what’s their basis for it? Most people really haven’t thought through their worldview. A worldview answers questions such as, Where did I come from? Why am I here? Where am I going? What’s the problem? What’s the solution? Of the few who can articulate the answers to these questions, even fewer have considered the logical implications of how they ought to live as a result, and even fewer have compared those logical implications with the way they’re actually living. Bottom line: No one can live consistently with the logical implications of a nontheistic worldview, and most people, especially unbelievers, live better than their worldviews.
No one can live consistently with the logical implications of a nontheistic worldview. —Ken Boa
MS: When we talk about a Christian worldview, the doctrine of the resurrection, and specifically the resurrection body, is a topic you wrote about in your first book, God, I Don’t Understand. You wrote that many people either deny that the fleshly body will be resurrected, or they simply assume that the resurrection body is an entirely different body with no connection to the one we possess now on earth. Why are they wrong?
KB: My basic presuppositions when answering this question are encompassed in the titles of two books by Francis Schaeffer: The God Who Is There (1968) and his later book He Is There and He Is Not Silent (1972). All that I will say on the resurrection body is based on the belief that God is there (He exists), and He has decisively revealed Himself to us—most clearly in His Word and in personal form, in the person of Jesus Christ.[note]There’s good warrant for believing the Bible is God’s Word for us, but that discussion is outside the purview of our discussion. For more on this topic, check out this article.[/note]
The resurrection body is a profound mystery, and all my thoughts I’ll share come not from one text but from comparing scripture with scripture (this is always the best way to build a doctrine—considering related texts and how they fit together).
First, human beings, according to Scripture, are unlike both the animals and the angels. Angels (contrary to many artists’ portrayals) are spirit beings and are not embodied, while animals are embodied beings but have no spirit. People alone are “amphibious beings”;[note]This term is borrowed from C.S. Lewis[/note] we have one foot in heaven and the other on earth—we’re spiritual beings having an embodied earthbound experience.
The astonishing thing is that the One who spoke all things into being took on human flesh and became one of us: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14a). So the second person of the Trinity took on human flesh and became the God-man; now He too is an amphibious being, so that we can now say there’s a Man in heaven. (This is a tremendous mystery, I admit.)
We were meant to be embodied, and our permanent state is not to be disembodied. —Ken Boa
My claim, rooted in Scripture, is that we were meant to be embodied, and our permanent state is not to be disembodied. I personally believe that, if you were to die today and stand before Jesus, you would be in His presence, but you would not be resurrected yet; that will not happen until, as 1 Thessalonians 4:16–17 says, Christ comes to receive His bride:
. . . and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord.
A number of believers don’t seem to grasp this concept that the resurrection is yet to occur. At funerals, we often hear comments suggesting the person is now in a resurrected state. But that’s not the case. Only One has been resurrected, the Lord Jesus. He resuscitated some, but they all died again (poor Lazarus had to die twice!). Those who have died are disembodied saints, but their souls aren’t asleep—they’re spirits in the presence of God. They’re absent from the body and at home with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:8).[note]In connection with these thoughts is the issue of time, and how we humans see it versus how God sees it. Read more here.[/note]
MS: What do the Scriptures say about the dead in Christ receiving their glorified resurrection bodies?
KB: Two key texts are 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18 and 1 Corinthians 15:50–57.[note]The 1 Corinthians 5 passage is the central text in all of Scripture about resurrected life. Paul’s words corrected the kind of Gnosticism that the Greeks had at that time, holding that the body is bad and the spirit is good.[/note] The Thessalonians were convinced of the imminence of Christ. Thus, you can imagine how upset they were when some of them were dying. Here were Paul’s words to them:
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep,[note]Sleep in this verse is a euphemism of death.[/note] so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus. For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout,[note]This is not speaking of the second coming; rather, we “meet Him in the air” (as verse 17 says).[/note] with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words. (1 Thessalonians 4:13–18)
Although Jesus hadn’t (and still hasn’t) come back yet, Paul was telling the Thessalonians that there is still a genuine hope. Those they no longer saw, they would see again. In other words, there is continuity between the relationships we enjoy in this world and the relationships we will have in the next when we’re in His presence.
There is continuity between the relationships we enjoy in this world and the relationships we will have in the next. —Ken Boa
These verses connect with Paul’s words to the Corinthians:
Behold, I tell you a mystery; we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. (1 Corinthians 15:51–52)
The word for “mystery” in verse 51 refers to something that was previously unknown but has now been made evident. The “twinkling of an eye” was the shortest increment of time you could imagine in a world without clocks. So this mortal puts on immortality, the temporal becomes spiritual, and it all happens instantaneously.
Putting the two texts together, those who are alive and meet Him in the air go out with panache—like Elijah (one of the only two people who never died); this is the best way to go.
MS: When we (believers) get our new, resurrected body, what will it be like (according to Scripture)?
KB: We have good warrant for saying that our body will be analogous to Jesus’ resurrected body. This warrant comes in the last verse of Philippians 3:
For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ; who will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory, by the exertion of the power that He has even to subject all things to Himself. (3:20–21)
This is a powerful verse. Our bodies of humility, of decay, are going to be transformed into the body of His glory. Our bodies will be made like His. It will not be a body of weakness, but of power. Our glorified flesh will, in some mysterious way, be the same, yet different.[note]Other relevant verses are Romans 6:5 and 1 John 3:2.[/note]
MS: In the various encounters between Christ and the disciples after Christ’s resurrection, such as in Luke 24, the disciples seem to sometimes recognize Him and sometimes not—what’s going on in these encounters?
KB: In the Luke 24 account, Jesus disguised Himself on the road to Emmaus but later revealed Himself in the breaking of the bread. Just after He blessed the bread, their eyes were opened and they recognized Him—and then He was gone. Another time, the resurrected Jesus was mistaken for a gardener (John 20:15). In His resurrected body, He could appear and disappear at once. One time, He entered a place with locked doors (John 20:19 doesn’t say He came through the doors, but that Jesus came and stood in their midst). So He could manifest Himself in various ways.
It’s clear that Jesus, in the 40 days after the resurrection and before the ascension, was not merely spirit, but flesh and blood that you could touch and see. He ate fish in the disciples’ presence. He invited Thomas to thrust his hand in His side and see the nail-pierced arms.[note]Most artists depict this event showing Thomas touching Jesus’ palm, but it wouldn’t have been His hands, but His wrists, that kept Jesus on the cross and that Thomas touched.[/note] (This scene suggests that, in His resurrected body, Jesus bears the marks of His crucifixion forever. The wounds will always be there, so we’ll never forget what He did.) He doesn’t seem to have been a terrifying sight, but neither does He seem to have had an ordinary human body.
The resurrected, pre-ascension Jesus contrasts with the resurrected glorified Jesus who appeared to Saul on the road to Damascus (as a bright light from heaven) and to John on the island of Patmos in Revelation 1 (where, again, Jesus’ face shone like the sun, and the sight of Him knocked John to the ground “like a dead man”). These are manifestations of the glory Jesus had with the Father before the world was (John 17:5)—an awesome glory that was largely concealed while He was on earth.
READ MORE ON THE RESURRECTION BODY
MS: We’ve been talking about believers’ bodies. One of the more curious things in Scripture is that unbelievers will also be resurrected. What do we know about the resurrection body of the unrighteous?
KB: John 5 is relevant:
For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son also gives life to whom He wishes. For not even the Father judges anyone, but He has given all judgment to the Son, so that all will honor the Son even as they honor the Father. He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent Him. Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life. (John 5:21–24)
That last verse is illusory of imagery from Daniel 12, which speaks to the resurrection of believers and nonbelievers. John goes on:
Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. For just as the Father has life in Himself, even so He gave to the Son also to have life in Himself; and He gave Him authority to execute judgment, because He is the Son of Man. Do not marvel at this; for an hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs will hear His voice, and will come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment. (John 5:25–29)
That resurrection of judgment referenced by John we see in Revelation 20, which describes it as the “great white throne” judgment—the clearest description we have of this resurrection of unbelievers. (This is in contrast to the Bema, the name of the judgment seat of Christ—the judgment for which you want to be present.)
Then I saw a great white throne and Him who sat upon it, from whose presence earth and heaven fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne . . . and they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire. (Revelation 20:11–12a, 13–15)
Hades, then, turns out to be a temporary abode, not a permanent one. Still, this passage doesn’t say a word about the resurrected body, so we have to do our best to put the pieces together, acknowledging our knowledge is limited.
What we know is the Fall (of mankind) will be reversed, and those things lost with the blast of the Fall will be restored and renewed. I suspect we will not be static but continue to grow and develop. I think our cognition will be radically greater than it is now, as will be our capacity for pleasure and our longevity.
MS: Were Moses and Elijah in their resurrected bodies when the apostles saw them with Jesus at the Transfiguration?
KB: At the Transfiguration, Jesus was indeed flanked by the Law and the Prophets (represented by Moses and Elijah). But Moses was not in his resurrected body. Somehow, the apostles, Peter, James, and John, knew it was Moses and Elijah—they needed no nametags!—as they appeared with Jesus in His uncreated glory. But Moses, like all the Old Testament saints, was not resurrected, and will not be resurrected until after the thousand years in Revelation 20.
Scripture seems to suggest several resurrections: the resurrection of the old saints, the resurrection of the tribulation saints (martyrs and so forth), the resurrection of the unbelievers, and the resurrection of the bride of Christ at His coming from heaven and meeting them in the air.
MS: When Christ told His disciples He wasn’t a ghost or spirit when appearing to them post-resurrection (see Luke 24:39), was the reference an acknowledgment that the dead linger on earth in some way?
KB: There are many accounts of people who, for a brief time after a person has died, seem to see the deceased person doing things, usually ordinary types of things. These accounts don’t linger; they happen for a short time. Is it possible? I don’t know. Nobody knows. It’s total guesswork.
Some have claimed to have actually gone to heaven and come back to life, but I get immediately suspicious when people talk glibly of this. Remember the apostle Paul’s experience of being caught up to the “third heaven” (2 Corinthians 12:1–6)? He was given a “thorn in the flesh” because of the “surpassing greatness” of this vision (12:7). In other words, he couldn’t communicate what he saw.
We’re inveterately curious as humans, always wanting to fill in the gaps and the blanks. I have to be careful and resist that temptation. I have to say I don’t know a lot of these things, but we will one day. I do believe, though, that there’s a liminal space in some contexts between this life and the next.
I have to say I don’t know a lot of these things, but we will one day.
MS: Will the resurrected body look the same? What age will it be?
KB: I’m curious about these things too. I do think we will recognize each other. We have good warrant for that. For example, Paul clearly implies in Philippians 4:1 that the relationships he enjoyed on earth are part of his reward in the next life—there’s a continuity. I suspect we might encounter someone and say, “Is that you?!” We look our best when we’re kids, and then it’s downhill from there; some of us decay more nicely than others, but every one of us is in the morbidity of decrepitude. Yet, we do not lose heart or hope, because even though our outward man is perishing, our inward man is being renewed day by day (2 Corinthians 4:16). In a sense, we’re forever young.
So what will we look like? You can be sure we’ll look a lot better. We’ll never get weak or tired (we won’t need sleep). I think anything true, good, and beautiful in this world will have its analogy in the next. It won’t be like in those cartoons where we’re all sitting around on clouds playing harps. Playing a harp for 50 years would be a drag, not to mention 500 years. Heaven will be something better than that. I often describe our resurrected life in the presence of God as endless creative activity without frustration to the glory of God.
There’s a quote, “Age conspires with God to take away our temporal hope.” As this body wears out, wisdom invites us to see that our identity is not in our earthly suit. We’re just pilgrims, strangers, sojourners, wayfarers. We’re in this world of formation, where we are becoming in practice who we already are in position in the heavenlies.
As this body wears out, wisdom invites us to see that our identity is not in our earthly suit.
There (in heaven), we will have all the time in the world. On earth, our capacity exceeds our contribution; our abilities exceed our accomplishments. We all know we’re going to die, but at some point in your life—and we call this the midlife crisis—your mortality becomes existentially real and palpable to you. You suddenly realize you’re not going to be able to do all that you want to do in life. My favorite quote on this issue is in A.W. Tozer’s Knowledge of the Holy:
The days of the years of our lives are few, and swifter than a weaver’s shuttle. Life is a short and fevered rehearsal for a concert we cannot stay to give. Just when we appear to have attained some proficiency we are forced to lay our instruments down.[note]Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1992, orig. 1961), 72–73.[/note]
Tozer is using a metaphor from the book of Job: “My days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle, and come to an end without hope” (7:6). The weaver’s shuttle was the best image one could conjure up at that time for the concept of fast-forwarding. A weaver would take the shuttle and shoot it across, then push down the loom and shoot it across again—representing one day after another, back and forth.
READ MORE ON TIME & TIMELESSNESS
MS: You mentioned rewards in connection with Paul’s words in Philippians 4:1. Some think there’s a level playing field—that no one will get rewards greater than others in heaven. Others think the Bible teaches levels of rewards. What are your thoughts?
KB: Jesus speaks unblushingly about rewards. Don’t regard it as mercenary. Reward is moving to the consummation of our aspiration, the fulfillment of the joy we’re pursuing; it’s not just “tacking something on.” Getting into heaven is based on grace through faith alone, but reward in the kingdom of heaven is based on faithfulness to opportunity. Romans 14, 1 Corinthians 3, and 2 Corinthians 5 all address this issue. We must all appear before the Judge, but the question is will we build on the foundation of Jesus Christ—with an amalgam of gold, silver, and precious stones—or on another foundation, made of hay and straw?[note]See 1 Corinthians 3:11–12.[/note]
There’s a fire that tests the quality of each person’s work. If anything remains, that person will receive a reward. Those who do not receive reward, 1 Corinthians 3:15 says, will “suffer loss,” though the person “will be saved, yet so as through fire.” In other words, we shouldn’t trivialize or downplay rewards and loss; they matter.
He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose. —Jim Elliot
Here are a few aspects of rewards that I think may exist (this is only speculation):
- Responsible degrees of service in the kingdom of God
- The reach with which we reflect and refract the glory of God
- Relationships with other people
- The beatific vision or capacity for the vision of God
All people’s cups will be full, but perhaps some people’s cups are bigger than others’ (this is, again, speculation). While there may be serious differences in some of the above aspects, we’ll rejoice in each other’s good. And rewards don’t diminish from the glory and power of the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant. . . . Enter into the joy of your master” (Matthew 25:21).
Luke 16 speaks to this. At the conclusion of a parable, Jesus says, “Make friends for yourselves by means of the wealth of unrighteousness, so that when it fails, they will receive you into the eternal dwellings” (verse 9). The wise way to live is to leverage that which is passing away—your time, talent, and treasure—and use it to invest in the two things on this earth that will go on forever: God’s Word and people.
Leverage that which is passing away—your time, talent, and treasure— and use it to invest in the two things on this earth that will go on forever: God’s Word and people. —Ken Boa
MS: Some traditions hold to a place called purgatory. Tell us what that is and whether you think that’s a biblical concept.
KB: There’s a purgation clearly described in 1 Corinthians 3, which we discussed. This is the testing by fire of the quality of each person’s works, and the burning up of anything not built on the one foundation of Christ.
The tradition of purgatory (as a physical place), however, developed later in the history of the church, around the late 11th century. The idea was gradually developed and codified. It referred to a person undergoing a purification process after they die, before they enter God’s presence, whereby they would work off sin. Nothing in Scripture warrants this.
I believe in purgation (in keeping with 1 Corinthians 3) but not purgatory.
So, I believe in purgation (in keeping with 1 Corinthians 3) but not purgatory. And I think that purgation takes place right away. I don’t think there’s a delay in being ushered into His presence. That purgation isn’t about earning or achieving anything; it’s God taking your flesh nature away, burning it up, so that what remains is the true you, the real you, the one seated with Him right now in the heavenly places.
MS: Will we still have free will in the resurrected state? And if so, how do we know we’re not going to “botch it” again?
KB: Again, I can’t give a definite answer, so this is only speculation. My belief is that if we saw the unmediated glory of the living God and somehow could endure it (though we couldn’t), we would be so ravished by Him that we couldn’t choose otherwise. He woos us in the darkness; His grace is always previous to our response. He wants us to respond to His loving overtures, but He won’t overpower us.[divider style=”solid” color=”#cccccc” opacity=”1″ placement=”equal”]
A story of a king and a maiden by Søren Kierkegaard drives home this point. Read it here.[divider style=”solid” color=”#cccccc” opacity=”1″ placement=”equal”]
In this beatific vision of seeing Him as He is, we could never, ever say “no” to Him; we’d know service to Him is perfect freedom. We’d see He’s the wellspring of all that is true and good and beautiful—the One we’ve been looking for all our lives, down in these “shadowlands” (as C.S. Lewis called this life).
So, we will have glorious freedom, the same freedom enjoyed within the Trinity of God: the freedom of a lover and beloved, with a unity in diversity, in which another Fall couldn’t happen. It’s not a loss of freedom but the fulfillment of true freedom, which is obedience to the One who made us and knows what life was meant to be. Meanwhile, He’s amazingly patient. He sees us not only as justified but as good as glorified.
MS: Do you think those currently dead can see us now? Are they aware of what’s going on?
KB: Nothing in Scripture seems to suggest they can, except things like Samuel summoning up the witch of En-dor and Sarah summoning up the spirit of Samuel. I think they may be too occupied with the glory of the living God.
MS: How does what we know about death affect how we should approach dying?
KB: There’s a fabulous, three-point outline from a sermon Jonathan Edwards delivered at 18 years old. The three points go like this:
- Bad things will turn out for good (based on Romans 8:28).
- Our good things can never be taken away.
- The best is yet to come (1 Corinthians 2:9).
In light of these points, I should long for His appearance, but I should also take advantage of the opportunity I have now to “do good to all people” (Galatians 6:10).
When I speak at assisted care facilities to (primarily) octogenarians, nonagenarians, and centenarians, I tell them, “You’re not in a waiting room. You’re not just waiting to die. If you’re still here, there’s a reason for it. Your capacities and sphere of influence may have atrophied, but you can still do three things: (1) Love people, (2) pray for people, and (3) serve people (even just one person).”[panel style=”info” text_align=”center”]Things which eye has not seen and ear has not heard,
And which have not entered the heart of man,
All that God has prepared for those who love Him.
(1 Corinthians 2:9)
To live is Christ and to die is gain.
Check out the previous In Question series lecture featuring Ken Boa, from May 2018: “Guilt & Shame: What Is Their Role in the Life of the Believer?”
Life Beyond Death: What Can We Know?
This content on the reliability of the Bible was originally printed in Decision Magazine. False Impressions “I don’t want to take a bath—I’m clean enough!” My impassioned protests as a six-year-old at bedtime were quickly rebuffed by this powerful tool from my parents’ arsenal of guilt-inducing mottoes: “The Bible says that cleanliness is next to godliness!” […]