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Life after death

What are the key Christian beliefs about life after death?


What happens to us after death has been the theme of many a book and film? It is a subject that has fascinated people from the beginning of time. Some people hope that heaven is a real place, where they’ll be reunited with loved ones. Others, on the other hand, firmly believe that there is nothing beyond this life, and once we die that is the end of it.

Christians also vary in their understanding of life after death. There is the Catholic view of purgatory. The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines purgatory as a “purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.” Purgatory is believed to be the state immediately after death where those who are destined for heaven but are not yet pure enough, are made ready to spend eternity in heaven.

However, many Protestants do not believe in purgatory, instead, they believe that immediately after death a person may enter heaven. For those who follow this line of belief, entry into heaven is seen as having very little to do with a person’s actions on earth but more to do with God’s love and forgiveness.

There is a third view that after death there is a time of waiting until Jesus’ return when all will be judged.

Throughout his teaching, as recorded in the New Testament, Jesus talked about eternal life rather than life after death. In his teaching, it is clear that eternal life is something that begins in the ‘here and now,’ and continues after death.

On a number of different occasions, people approached Jesus and asked what they had to do to gain eternal life. In one gospel account, Matthew 19:16-25, a rich man approaches Jesus and wants to know what he can do to gain eternal life. Jesus’ response to him is that he should sell everything he has and follow Him. The rich young man is sad because he is very attached to his worldly possessions and walks away because he feels the cost is too high for him to pay. Perhaps though he fails to realise that his worldly possessions can’t be taken with him beyond this life and that the life Jesus is offering him can somehow be richer.

Jesus’ disciple, Peter, points out that they have left everything to follow Jesus and Jesus reassures Peter that in following him even if the cost is high in terms of losing wealth or people abandoning them because of their faith, that greater rewards are to be gained. The rewards being a closer relationship with God and others and that the spiritual treasure that they build up following Jesus in this life will last in the life to come.

On another occasion, recorded in Luke 10:25-37, an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he asked, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ After some discussion Jesus told him the man the Parable of the ‘Good Samaritan’, teaching that love and acceptance for all people is at the heart of what it means to have eternal life.

Christians believe in eternal life because Jesus talked about it and furthermore, his resurrection is seen as solid evidence that death is not the end. They also believe that Jesus came to restore humanity to a relationship with God the Father who himself is eternal.

At Christian funerals, John 3:16 is read out as a promise and a reminder that death is not the end but through Jesus’ death and resurrection there is a promise of eternal life: “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.”


'Just then a man came up to Jesus and asked, ‘Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?’ ‘Why do you ask me about what is good?’ Jesus replied. ‘There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments.’... ‘All these I have kept,’ the young man said. ‘What do I still lack?’ Jesus answered, ‘If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.’ When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth. Peter said to Jesus ‘We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?’ Jesus said to his disciples,... ‘Everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life.' Matthew 19:16-30