My view of the afterlife has changed pretty dramatically over the last couple years.
At one point, I was fairly certain I had it figured out. The wicked simply died, and did not return. The righteous were “asleep,” awaiting a physical resurrection at some point in the future. In the meantime they were just dead.
I was pretty sure that the dead had no contact with the living, and that our future bodies would simply be immortal versions of what we have now.
All of that changed about a year and a half ago, when I started getting spiritual “visitations” from people I knew who were deceased.
To my amazement, I learned that the deceased are not only alive, but that they can communicate with us mortals. I also learned that the spirit world is far more complex than I had imagined, and far more fascinating.
In addition to these visitations, I also began having out-of-body experiences on a fairly regular basis; and I had many experiences that evoked a strange sense of de ja vu. It was if I was remembering things that had happened to me in another lifetime.
As a Christian, I wasn’t particularly keen on the idea of reincarnation; and yet many of my experiences were hard to explain any other way.
When I opened myself to the possibility of reincarnation, it gave me great hope. If this was true, I would get to see my deceased loved ones again, in the flesh. Theoretically, it could even happen during my current earthly lifetime. The idea of meeting a reincarnated version of Christina (my girlfriend in heaven, who passed in 2014) was particularly appealing to me.
I now believe that reincarnation as it’s most commonly understood (the idea that a person’s entire personality is transferred into one other specific body) is unlikely. But what I do believe in is even stranger and more beautiful.
While my ideas are always evolving, here is my current view of what happens to us after we die:
I believe that after physical death, the souls of the righteous1 go into the direct presence of God. They see the ultimate consequence of everything they have ever done, and the meaning of every choice they have ever made. They are surrounded by a love more powerful than anything they have previously known.
No longer bound by the limitations of a mortal body, these righteous spirits are able to travel to any place in the universe, and stay there as long as they want. All of this is joyful and fun to them, for they are constantly surrounded by God’s love wherever they go.
We should not think of these people as “ghosts” that float around for all eternity without a physical body, however. Both Scripture and Christian tradition are clear that at some point after death, the righteous are given new bodies2. Their resurrection is physical, not just spiritual.
As Jesus tells the Sadducees (a Jewish sect that didn’t believe in the resurrection), “God is not God of the dead, but of the living” (Luke 20:38).
When Jesus speaks of the resurrection (Luke 20:35, etc), the word He uses is the Greek anastasis, which literally means “to stand again.” He seems pretty clearly to have a physical body in mind.
Similarly, Saint Paul speaks of waiting for “the redemption of our bodies” (Rom 8:23), and goes so far as to say that “If there is no resurrection (anastasis) of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Cor 15:13-14).
Just what the resurrected bodies are like remains a mystery, but we are given some clues in Scripture.
“You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed,” Saint Peter tells us, “through the living and enduring word of God” (1 Peter 1:23).
Paul goes further, telling us that “There are both heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but the glory of the heavenly is one thing, and that of the earthly is another” (1 Cor 15:40).
Our resurrected bodies, in other words, are not only eternal– they’re also much more glorious and powerful than we can imagine! They’re not simply immortal versions of what we already have.
Paul further explains that with regard to the human body, “It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body” (1 Cor 15:44).
It should be noted that this verse is not a literal rendering of the Greek. The word translated “physical” here is the Greek psychikos, which literally means “breath-driven.” The word translated “spiritual” is the Greek pneumatikos, which literally means “spirit-driven,” and carries the sense of a rational will (which psychikos, the breath of life in all things, does not).
The resurrection Paul speaks of, then, clearly involves physical forms (he consistently uses the word soma, which means a physical body); but the resurrected bodies are also quite different from the ones we have now.
Most significantly, they are governed by the Spirit of God rather than the earthly life-force that now governs our bodies.
The implications of this are far-reaching and astonishing. A body governed by an eternal spirit (rather than a mortal breath) would have no need for food or water. It would be free to move anywhere in space (and perhaps anywhere in time) that it wishes to. It would never get tired or sick, and it could change form at will. Trying to imagine such a thing is mind-boggling to say the least!
One of the most amazing things the saints in heaven have told me is that they’re omnipresent – their spirits are everywhere in the universe and see all things.
If this is true, then it’s kind of silly to look for the “reincarnation” of our deceased loved ones. They’re already incarnate in me and you – and in every living thing! We just don’t usually notice this.
Could such an omnipresence be what Paul has in mind when he says that what is “sown in weakness” is “raised in power” (1 Cor 15:43)? Could it be that our resurrected body is the entire universe?
There’s probably no way we can know, at least not from our earthly (mortal) perspective. Either way, what lies beyond the grave is likely far more fascinating and glorious than what we can now imagine.
1.) I imagine that the experience of the wicked after death is similar to the righteous in some ways, but different in others.
I presume that just like the righteous, these folks go into the direct presence of God. But for them God’s love is more of a torment than a blessing. They too see, with perfect clarity, the end result of every choice they have made – and this causes them no small amount of suffering.
Like the righteous, they are able to travel to any part of the universe and stay there as long as they like. But no matter where they go, they can’t escape from their own guilt – which slowly consumes them from within. They still have the option of repenting and being healed by God’s love; but whether they all do is not something I claim to know.
2.) Some Scriptures (such as Acts 24:15) imply both the righteous and the wicked are given new bodies; but I can’t imagine why God would give a new body to someone who is still wicked. What possible purpose would such a body serve?
Jesus, for His part, speaks only of a resurrection for “those who are considered worthy of a place in that age” (Luke 20:35).
(Coming Soon: “Give Caesar His Due?” Christian Faith and the Limits of Government)