the evolution of the afterlife
In his book, Life After Death: The Evidence, apologist Dinesh D’Souza claims that the Christian doctrine of the afterlife just kind of evolved. He said that at first, Jesus and Paul taught the same doctrine of the believer’s future that the Old Testament teaches: a future that depends on a resurrection. Then, along came some early Christian teachers with an alternative, and chief among them was Augustine. Augustine had been taught the philosophical doctrines of Plato, and so he adopted Plato’s view of human immortality and added it to the teachings of the Catholic Church. As a result, says D’Souza, “Christianity since Augustine does not espouse life ‘after’ death, but rather life ‘beyond’ death” (page 48).
For D’Souza, this is OK. He is apparently comfortable with the idea of theology evolving. Me, not so much. I have to believe that the whole Bible is consistent on the subject of life after death. And I don’t think it is responsible for anybody to teach something different than what is revealed in that Bible, and taught by Jesus and his apostles. That’s not really evolution. It’s syncretism.
I am a conditionalist when it comes to the afterlife. I believe there will be a future eternal life, but I reject what Plato taught. He taught that our future life automatically begins when we die. The Bible teaches that any future life is conditional. It cannot happen unless we are resurrected first. That is why Jesus and Paul only taught the resurrection and did not teach continued existence beyond death. They, too were conditionalists. Their hope was another life after death, not an automatic continuation of life beyond death.
The good news that the Bible proclaims is that through Jesus Christ those who believe in him can have resurrection life after their deaths, when Jesus comes again. One advantage of holding to this good news rather than accepting the counterfeit good news is that it is what D’Souza calls the “official teaching” of the Bible, rather than the popular “alternative, unofficial view.” We conditionalists need never resort to having to prove our view by practical reason and science alone, like D’Souza attempted to do in his book. We have God’s word on it. There will be a resurrection.
Another advantage of proclaiming life after death through the resurrection is that it is actually what people want. As much as a traditionalist might boast about his desire to go to heaven, he will spend his entire fortune to delay the trip. What people really want is to be alive – fully and functionally alive, and to enjoy God and the universe that he created for us. His plan for us is a new heaven and a new earth, restored to its holiness and spiritual vitality. That is our destiny, and it is a certainty for all who are in Christ. But that great event will not happen when we die. It will happen when death dies. It will happen after our Saviour returns. Come, Lord Jesus.
If you have any questions about this teaching, you can ask me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Join me for this entire series as we search the scriptures to learn about the gift of life.
Listen to the audio at Afterlife.