I have been inspired to write this piece based on my reflections over death. But before I go in-depth into the discussion, let me provide some outline of my argument.
- Death is an existential reality that leads to social and eternal distancing.
- Because death is an existential reality, we need experiential knowledge about what happens when we die.
- Because death is an existential reality, we cannot leave and end the discussion on the subject at speculations and mere religious beliefs and rituals. So, we cannot trust philosophy and speculators like Epicurus.
- Because death is an existential reality, someone who did not die cannot tell us about it. So, Enoch and Elijah are not our good guides on death. We cannot also trust Komfo Anokye, if he did not die at all.
- Because death is an existential reality, people who died, but did not resurrect, cannot help us. So, all the prophets, from Abraham, through Mohammed to Zarathustra cannot help us.
- Because death is an existential reality, those who died, experienced resuscitation and died again cannot help us. So, Lazarus, Dorcas, and the son of the widow who experienced resuscitation cannot help us, because they died again.
- Because death is an existential reality, we can and must trust someone who died, resurrected, and lives again forever.
- Conclusion 1: historically, it is only Jesus who died, resurrected and lives forever (Revelation 1:18). This truth is the epicentre of the Christ faith (I Corinthians 2:2; I Corinthians 15:14).
- Conclusion 2: When it comes to what happens after death, we can only trust Jesus for experiential and salvific knowledge.
Centuries ago, a man called Job asked the above question, “If a man dies, will he live again? (Job 14:14). He was a man full of sorrow. He experienced pain that made death the plausible option (with a plausible structure for afterlife). He lost all his property. He lost all his children. His wife betrayed him. His friends incriminated and berated him. The Lord appeared very far. The traumatic experiences of Job are such that many people think the story was not real. Some even want to believe that it was only a symbolic prefiguring of Jesus Christ. But regardless of how we think about the story of Job, it is true that we all ask the question about whether we will live again after death. And if we will live again, where shall we be? In this article, I will address the answer from the perspective of what happens to only Christians when they die.
The question about the afterlife and the plausibility of continuity in existence after our eternal journey has tested the minds of virtually every rational and emotional human being. It is even as if animals don’t want to die. You have considered why animals struggle against pain and death? Perhaps, one of the greatest philosophers who answered this question was Epicurus, the Greek philosopher who lived in BC 4. He reasoned that:
"Why should I fear death? If I am, then death is not. If Death is, then I am not. Why should I fear that which can only exist when I do not? Long time men lay oppressed with slavish fear. Religious tyranny did domineer. At length, the mighty one of Greece Began to assent the liberty of man.”
Epicurus philosophical assumption about death gives us temporary tickling and soothing of the mind. But it does not respond to the deep questions of the heart. It helps us to have a temporary change of mind about death when it appears to be far from us. But it does not touch the heart with hope when death occurs. It is also not empirical. It will not survive the test of experiential knowledge, so we cannot trust and bask in it. Death is a practical and experiential, so we need an experienced knowledge. That is why anybody, like Epicurus, can use formal logic to wish away death. Formal logic is just formal. It is not experiential.
We all ask the question of whether there is life after death. We ask the question either when death occurs or when we are nearing death. I asked the same question when I stood in front of the police mortuary in January 2009 and answered the question from the undertaker about the identity of my deceased father. The question was: “Gentleman, can you certify whether the remains before you is your late father?” In response, I said, “Yes, he is my father.” My boldness in answering the question sounded differently to many people who were watching. They were surprised that I shed no tears. They were surprised that I was even emotionless. Later that afternoon, I sat in the vehicle that conveyed my father’s remains from Accra to our village, Assin Bosomadwe. We went through Abora Dunkaw. His remains was placed at the Abura Dunkwa mortuary for the burial the following day in my village. We arrived at Abura Dunkwa about midnight. But I was not worried about the time. I stood close to my father for about 20 minutes. I watched him closely to find out whether he would startle his body. But nothing of that sort happened.
At that point, I had two things in mind one was a question; the other one was the affirmation of hope. The question was: will he live again and will I see him again? The hope affirmed was that Jesus said he will. In my musing, I understood the Bible when it affirmed the power of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Many people deny the resurrection of Jesus Christ, not necessarily because they dislike Christianity or even have any alternative practical answer to death. They question the resurrection because it is countercultural and cultural intuitive. Historically, we have not read about any man or woman who resurrected and lives forever. This is against the grain of multiple evidence that we have about people who experienced near-death experiences. We have also had people who were resuscitated, including those recorded in the Bible. But we cannot call their experiences resurrection, because they died again.
So, the resurrection of Jesus Christ was unprecedented. It was unique from the experiences of Enoch and Elijah who never experienced death. When it comes to death and its universality, all of us would want to know whether there is someone who died and resurrected and lives forever. The commonality and existential fact of death imply that we all want someone who has gone through that terrible experience of death and resurrected and lives forever. Impliedly, if you died and did not resurrect, we cannot trust you to give us a plausible answer to the question. If you died and resurrected (better rendered resuscitated) and died again, you do not qualify to give us a good response. If you did not die, then you do not have the experience of death which all men must likely face to answer the question. We can only trust someone who died, resurrected and lives again forever. But in all of history, there is none, apart from Jesus Christ, who died, resurrected and lives again forever.
Since yesterday March 27, 2020, my brother Japheth Roberts has been lying in state in London. His death was a shock to many of us. This is precisely because, contrary to atheistic evolution theory, death is not natural to us. So, while it happens all the time and is a constant unwanted visitor, we still get shocked when it happens. But the reason the occurrence of death shocks us is that is not in our DNA (Deoxyribonucleic acid) to die. The Lord did not create us to die and, indeed, we do not die, in the long run. We survive death, but we do not experience the same consequences of death. Some will be eternally damned, others who were saved by Jesus Christ will live forever in blissfulness.
What we do suffer when death occurs is social and eternal distancing. When death occurs, the social and eternal distancing is so real. It is real that we cannot be physically reunited with the person again on earth. This is to the extent that no matter how hard we cry that we want to go with the person, the deceased person’s casket and burial ground (tomb) is constructed in such a way that it could be occupied by only the deceased person or others like him.
Death also leads to eternal distancing. As I have hinted, we will not physically see the person again on earth. We may sometimes have apparitions of the person or even claims to have seen his ghost. But the truth is that regardless of the controversies over the existential reality of ghost, there is no equivocation that we will not see the person physically and engage in social interactions again! Death leads to eternal distancing. Death interrupts the follow of social and eternal life. The eternal distancing is also that if you don’t die in Christ, you will be eternally distanced from him – as you languish in hell forever.
As Japheth lies in state today, I am rethinking and re-echoing the questions: “Will he live again? Shall we see him again? Has he evaporated into thin air? Is he descending into a bottomless pit? Is his soul sleeping? Can I practice necromancy to interact with him? These are some of the questions that we ask sometimes ask when death occurs. While I may not have precise and concrete answers to these and many more questions, there is one thing I am sure about: For Christians to die is gain (Philippians 1:25). How can death that causes social and eternal distancing be gain? This is the question we all ask because we are all obvious about how death upends social and scutters everything we know.
But for the Christian death is gain for two main reasons: First, it sets us free from all the troubles of life on earth. This world is not our native home (John 17:16). Our native home is in heaven. And because this world is not our native home, we hardly fit in here. In all of our lives on earth, we constantly battle with challenges. We solve one problem, only for a new one to emerge. We are happy in a moment and the next few minutes, we are emotionally traumatised. In fact, the Bible says that the world itself has been subject to corruption as a result of sin (Romans 8:20). So, when we die – regardless of how we die – it is gain because it takes us from this beleaguered world to a better world. Who does not want to be free from this earth that is laden with troubles? While we do not remain passive on earth and work hard to make life better, we do not clamour to be here forever. Death takes us from all the existing troubles of this world!
The second reason for the benefit of death to the Christian, which reinforces the first point, is that death leads us to our native home. Because our native home is heaven, we will find it joyful when we return home. Last year, when I visited home in Ghana, after spending two years in the United Kingdom, I was so excited. I was so happy that I was going to touch base with my family; I would see my friend; I would see the people I have missed since I left Ghana. I was happy that I was going to eat the true Banku and okro soup or stew which I missed so much. I knew I was going to be free in my own country where I would not worry about anyone treating me differently because I am physically different. I knew I would enjoy the warm weather in Ghana. In sum, I knew I was going to touch base with my native home. The concept of home is part of a long tradition of Anthropology. Home is not necessarily where we were born; home is where we trace our primordial roots. That is why most Africans in the diaspora still call Africa their native home.
Fellow Christian pilgrims, heaven is exactly going to be like returning to our primordial home. We will return home to our native home. We will be so excited to see Jesus Christ whom we have always longed. Like Fanny Crosby said, our first sight will be set on Jesus when we open our eyes in heaven. Interestingly, when we shut our eyes on earth, we will open it concurrently in heaven. When take our last breath on earth, we take in our first breath in heaven. To sum this, the worst that will happen to us on earth will lead to the best that will happen to us in heaven.
This existential truism makes Christianity unique and different from all other religions and philosophies. I was a freethinker for a few years (2000 – 2003) before the Lord had mercy on me in 2004. In all my readings of philosophy and religions, there is one unique thing that makes me love Jesus Christ. This is because while religions and philosophies attempt to answer the question about whether we will live again after death, it is ONLY Christianity that offers a practical response. All religions and philosophies speculate about the consequences of death. But Jesus Christ gave us a practical response. He died and resurrected and lives forever (Revelation 1:18). I repeat for emphasis: Jesus Christ died and resurrected and lives forever. Because of that, Jesus categorically said: “Because I live, you Charles Prempeh, will also live” (John 14:19). Because Jesus lives, all Christians will live again when we die. This is amazingly comforting. It is the epicentre of the Gospel. That is why the Gospel is good news. It is good news because we have a saviour who gave us salvation and conquered death. We have a saviour who answers the question about whether man would live again after death with a resounding and commanding yes!
Are you mourning the passing of a Christian loved one? Has death orphaned you? Has death made you a widow or widower? Has death upended your hopes? Has death robbed you of your joy? Has death left you confounded about anything good in life? Has death denied you of a helper in life? Are you facing the threats of death? Are you terminally ill? Have the doctors given up on you? Are you dreading death? If you are going through any of the above-mentioned questions, do know that all the pains of death will be over very soon. Soon and very soon, all these will be over. But the most important answer is that Jesus Christ said, “Because I live you will also live.” We will not only live, but we will live with Him where He is. He said He is preparing a place for us and that place is our native home (John 14:1-3). It is where we belong. It is where He intended for us. Very soon, we shall taunt at death, saying, “Death where is thou sting?” We can ask this taunting question because death is gain. And the worst death will do to us will lead to the best that will happen to us: We will be taken to our native home.
In our native home: the troubles of this world will forever be over. It will be like Moses telling us, “These problems you see and face on earth today, you will not see and experience them again.” Heaven will lead to the bridging of social and eternal gaps. We will be reunited with our families and friends who believed in Jesus Christ. That day, I will see my father again. That day, I will see Japheth again. That day, I will see all the gallant soldiers of the Lord. That day, I the Lord will welcome us home and said, "Welcome, my child. You fought the good battle and finished the race."
If you desire this, why won’t you consider inviting Jesus Christ into your life? Jesus read the Bible, particularly the New Testament, you will find assurance of all that I am saying. If the question of death is not answered with speculations, but with experience, then we need Jesus Christ. This is precisely because He died and resurrected and lives again forever (Romans 1:18).
Charles Prempeh ([email protected]), African University College of Communications, Accra