Mankind has always been concerned with—and developed numerous theories about—the afterlife. Something within us rebels against the idea that existence ends with the grave. Funerals and memorial services always address the afterlife, complete with euphemisms to describe what happens after life on earth is over. The dead are said to have 'gone on' or 'passed over' or some such phrase. What they have gone on to is often alluded to, and always in positive terms, but frequently not explained in authoritative terms. We all like to think we are headed for something pleasant and positive after we die, but many of us just aren't sure what it is.
The afterlife is the ultimate mystery, that "undiscovered country from who bourn no traveller returns," as Shakespeare put it. But one traveller has returned from the undiscovered country, one who has gone through to the other side and come back to tell us what to expect. He alone possesses the authority and knowledge to tell everyone the truth about the afterlife. Not only that, but He alone holds the key to unlock the door to the afterlife we all seek—heaven. That person is Jesus Christ who died, was buried, came back to life, and was seen by hundreds of reliable witnesses (1 Corinthians 15:3-8).
Jesus is the sole authority and witness who is able to answer the question, "Is there really an afterlife?" And Christ, whose truthfulness and integrity are unquestioned even by those who deny His deity, makes three basic statements about the subject of life after death. There is an afterlife, there are only two alternatives as to where we spend the afterlife, and there is a way to ensure a positive experience after death.
First, Christ taught that there is an afterlife in a number of biblical passages, including an encounter with the Sadducees who denied the teaching of resurrection. He reminded them that their own Scriptures affirm that God is not the God of the dead, but of the living (Mark 12:24-27). Jesus clearly told them that those who have died centuries before are very much alive with God at that moment, although they do not marry, becoming instead as the angels. Later, Jesus comforts His disciples (and us) with the hope of being with Him in Heaven: "Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father's house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. And you know the way to where I am going" (John 14:1-4).
Having established the existence of an afterlife, Jesus also speaks authoritatively about the two destinies awaiting every person that dies: one with God and one without God. In the story of the rich man and Lazarus Jesus describes these two destinations. "The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham's side. The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side" (Luke 16:22–23). One aspect of the story worth noting is that there is no intermediate state for those who die; they go directly to their eternal destiny. As the writer of Hebrews says, "it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment" (Hebrews 9:27).
Jesus stated the matter simply when He said, "these [unbelievers] will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life" (Matthew 25:46). Clearly there are two destinations for man after death. One is in the Father's house with Christ, the other in a place of torment, a place of "outer darkness" where there is "weeping and gnashing of teeth" (Matthew 8:12, 22:13, 25:30). There is no mistaking Jesus' words and meaning.
Now that we have established the existence of an afterlife and the inevitability of going to one place or the other, what determines our eternal destination? Jesus is equally clear on that subject. The destination for all men is determined by whether they have faith in God and what they do with respect to Christ. Jesus had much to say on this subject, with perhaps the most succinct and to the point statement found in John 3:14-18: "And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God."
For those who repent of sin and put their faith in Christ as their Savior from sin and Lord of their lives, the afterlife will consist of an eternity spent with God. But for those who reject Him as the only means of salvation (John 14:6), hell and outer darkness away from God's presence is their destiny. There is no middle ground, no intermediate state, no testing ground, and no second chance. As life on this earth ends, life in one place or the other begins and it is so for every human being. The apostle Paul rejoiced in this fact, saying "When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: 'Death is swallowed up in victory.' 'O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?'" (1 Corinthians 15:54–55). For those who spend eternity in heaven with God, death has no hold. It is merely the entrance to an eternity of bliss in the presence of Christ, the One who opened heaven's door for us.
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