What Jesus Believed about Life after Death and Why it Matters

The only time in the Gospels where Jesus talks about life after death is in a response to a question by the Sadducees. They did not believe in life after death, so the question posed to Jesus is a loaded question. A woman had married seven brothers successively in obedience to the law of levirate marriage. Whose wife will she be in the resurrection?

The Jews who believed in life after death, like the Pharisees, believed in resurrection, not immortality. Many of the Greeks believed in immortality. They believed in a sharp distinction between soul and body. Some Greeks called the body the prison house of the soul. They believed that in death the soul doesn’t die, it simply departs the body.

In the Hebrew tradition, there is no separation of soul and body; soul and body are one. The immaterial is inseparably connected to the material in Hebrew thought. Therefore, they believed that when the body dies so does the soul, and then it takes an act of God to raise the total person. 

Jesus would have believed in resurrection. The teaching of resurrection is an affirmation of life in all its variety and diversity, both physical and spiritual.

It is also an affirmation of life now, not just in the future. One reason belief in resurrection arose in Jewish life was because of the need for vindication. They began to intuit that in order for God’s justice to prevail there must be more than life in this world.

So the doctrine of resurrection emerged in Jewish spiritual consciousness as an affirmation and vindication of those who lived in life affirming ways. They intuited that there must be something more.

Resurrection affirms that what we do now and how we live now is important, and that nothing we do for the good of others, no act of forgiveness, no act of mercy, no kind word or good deed, no courageous stand for justice, will ever be lost to God.

If I believe in resurrection, then, I should aspire to be faithful in loving God and loving neighbor. I should embody a life of forgiveness and work for peace. I should give myself for the good of others and live as a good steward and caretaker of this planet. I should embrace everything that heals, redeems, and enhances life now, because how I live matters.

In response to the loaded question of the Sadducees Jesus says: She will not be anyone’s wife because those who live in a resurrected state “neither marry nor are given in marriage.” That kind of relationship, says Jesus, is not applicable to that state of existence.

I suspect that what Jesus is saying is that in the resurrected state we will be so much more at one with everything and everyone, we will live in such a unified field of reality, that the exclusive kind of oneness reserved for married couples in this world will no longer be necessary or appropriate. Our understanding and experience of family will be very different in that realm of existence.

I think that those who treat the teaching of resurrection as some sort of evacuation plan from this earth and use it to justify a lack of effort or sense of responsibility to care for this planet and work for a just world will have a lot to answer for. Every good teaching can be abused.

Death, of course, is inevitable. All things die: insects and humans, stars and galaxies. The process of creative transformation in this universe always involves death and rebirth. We must, then, learn how to embrace death as a part of the transformative process, and this is as true right now—spiritually, psychologically, and emotionally—as it will be later when we undergo physical death.

Putting off the old and putting on the new is an image that Paul uses to highlight the importance of dying to and letting go of those ways of thinking and living that keep us bound and addicted to the powers of death. There are some things we just have to die to in order to be open to new life experiences.

The death and resurrection of Jesus is the archetypal pattern for our transformation both now and later.


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