How can I be sure that there is life after death?

Reader Linda Cooper's sermon on Sunday 19th March

Sermon.

Questions for discussion or personal study.

Printout version of sermon.


Readings:

Daniel chapter 12, verses 1–4.

John 3, verses 9–21.


How can I be sure that there is life after death?

Wondering if there is life after death and can we be sure seems to be fundamental to human nature.

Over the years, research has shown it's virtually impossible to find any society in ancient or modern times that has not believed in the immortality of the human soul. Nor has there been any society which doesn't develop a belief in life after death in one way or another.

The list includes Aborigines, Eskimos, Druids, Hindus, Chinese, Japanese, Shintoists, Taoists, Buddhists, Muslims, Scandinavians, Indians and the list goes on...


Although humanist thought is that life leads to nothing / nothingness, and that any pretence that it does not is a deceit, it seems that the human race does have an inbuilt instinct for an expectation that there is life beyond the grave.

Billy Graham (who was also an anthropologist) said he didn't find a race anywhere in
the world that didn't believe in life after death.

C S Lewis, in his book The Problem of Pain, wrote, 'There have been times when I think we do not desire heaven, but more often I find myself wondering whether in our heart of hearts, we have ever desired anything else'.


As Christians, we believe that we have some sort of God-shaped-hole which God has given us because He longs for a relationship with us that will last forever: that
     'He has set eternity in the hearts of men' (Ecclesiastes 3:11).

You may recall the children's song 'Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so'.

Using a little poetic licence... How does this sound?...
     There is life after death, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.

So the Bible – God's word – in both the Old and the New Testaments seems a good place to start.


The book of Daniel, written in the 6th century BC, looks forward to the resurrection and the rising of the dead at Last Judgment:
     'Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.' (Daniel 12:2) and this reference to a bodily resurrection of both the saved and the lost was a stark departure from common belief at the time.

One of the best known declarations of life after death in the Old Testament is in the book of Job (19: 25–27), which probably records events from 2000 BC, the time of the patriarchs.
     'I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God.'

And there are many examples in the Psalms... one of the best known being:
     'Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever'. (Ps 23:6)


Turning to our gospel reading, Jesus' well-known conversation with Nicodemus contains what's known as the most famous verse in the Bible and the 'gospel in the nutshell':
     'For 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'.

A challenge to us all to ask ourselves, 'Do I truly believe this?'

Martin Luther did. When the great reformer was dying, severe headaches had left him bed-bound and tortured by pain, but he refused the offer of some pain relief, saying:
     'My best prescription for head and heart is...' and he quoted John 3:16. It's certainly a good verse to have in the spiritual and physical medicine cabinet.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow put it this way:
    'Life is real, life is earnest,
     And the grave is not the goal:
     Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
     Was not spoken of the soul'.

Thankfully and crucially, we have many of Jesus's own words:

  • 'I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me even though they die, will live, and everyone who believes in me will never die'. (John 11:25,26).
     
  • 'I am going to prepare a place for you' and 'I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am' (John 14:25,26).
    We can't know all the details of eternity of course , but we needn't fear because Jesus is preparing a place for us, and will spend eternity with us. What a rich promise to lay hold of.
     
  • 'I am the way, the truth and the life' (John 14:6).
    As the way, Jesus is our path to the Father. As the truth, he is the reality of all God's promises. As the life, he joins his divine life with ours both now and eternally.
     
  • And remember when the Saducees – who didn't believe in the resurrection of the dead – were trying to trick Jesus with a question about the woman who'd had seven husbands, and about whose wife she would be at the resurrection, Jesus' reply included: 'They are God's children since they are children of the resurrection. But in the account of the bush, even Moses showed that the dead rise, for he calls the Lord the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. He is not the God of the dead but of the living, for to him all are alive.'
     
  • And Jesus' words on the cross, to the dying thief: 'Today you will be with me in paradise' make no sense unless there is life after death.
     
  • In John 17, when praying to the Father, Jesus clearly tells us how to get eternal life – by knowing God the Father through his son Jesus and entering into a personal relationship with God in Jesus Christ. When we admit our sin and turn away from it, Christ's love lives in us by the Holy Spirit.

Central to all this is Jesus' resurrection from the dead. And we know from witnesses that Jesus made many appearances in his resurrected body during the 40 days after he rose from the dead...

  • to Mary Magdalene on Easter Day, to Peter, to Cleopas and another on the Emmaus road
  • to the disciples in the upper room, including Thomas the second time
  • to seven at the Sea of Galilee
  • to 500 people at once
  • and then to Saul, who became St Paul.

And Paul later devotes the whole of chapter 15 in his first letter to the Corinthians to the subject of resurrection.


What does all this mean for us, and for our question whether there life after death and how can we be sure?

Jesus' words to Thomas in the upper room are the same to us today: 'Stop doubting and believe'. Jesus then told Thomas, 'Because you have seen me you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.'

And 'those who have not seen and yet believe are each one of us – for each week, or sometimes several times a week, we declare our faith when we worship together or also may do so in our prayer times. We all know, of course, that simply reciting the creed doesn't make anybody a Christian, but the creed does give us a very useful summary of the main points of our faith.

Most often, we'll use the words of the Apostle's Creed. So we're used to declaring before God that we 'look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come'.

And, with the help and by the grace of God, we're each trying, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to live out our faith on a moment by moment, day by day, lifetime pilgrimage of discipleship, believing in and following Jesus in thought and word and deed – 'being sure what we hope for and certain of what we do not see' (Hebrews 11:1), for as Jesus also said, 'whoever wants to be my disciple must take up their cross daily and follow me' (Luke 9:23).

The way has been called the Narrow Way, but God's arms are open wide enough for the whole world if the whole world chooses to accept the free-gift.


So the question, 'Is there life after death and can we be sure?' asks each of us, 'Do you believe that Jesus is the resurrection and the life and that whoever believes in him, even though they die will live?' For in St Paul's words,
     'If the dead are not raised at all... If the dead are not raised, Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die'. And I dread to think what comes next.. but that's for another sermon...

Amen


Questions for discussion or personal study

  1. Study the verses quoted in their contexts in the bible and research others as you wish.
     
  2. Reflect on, explore, discuss the two 'I am' statements quoted.
     
  3. Use the Lectio Divina cycle of ReadMeditate Pray | Contemplate with John 3:16 before discussing and sharing.
    What is Lectio Divina? An Anglican-community document.
     
  4. Study 1 Corinthians 15 using study bible, commentaries and so on with referencce to what Paul writes about:
    the resurrection of Christ
    the resurrection of the dead
    the resurrection body.
     
  5. Do you think The Apostles Creed gives a good summary of the Christian faith?
    Why? or Why not? 

Printout version of sermon.