Death and the afterlife



This topic requires you to have an understanding of different views on the afterlife within Christian theology and to debate which of those views has the most validity.

Here is a presentation of the different questions you could be tested on:

  • Are Heaven, Hell and Purgatory physical places, non-physical states or mere symbols?
  • Are Heaven and Hell eternal?
  • Is Heaven the transformation of creation into a perfect form (called new earth) (physical place!)?
  • Does God’s judgement take place immediately after death or at the end of time?
  • Does everyone go through Purgatory?
  • Who goes to Heaven? Limited vs unlimited election vs universalism.

The rich man and Lazarus

A rich man ignored the desperate needs of a beggar called Lazarus and so was sent to hell and tormented while Lazarus went to heaven. The rich man asked Abraham for comfort, which was denied and then to at least be able to warn his family not to sin, but Abraham refused, claimed if his family did not listen to the prophets then nothing else could convince them.

The rich man was in hell before his family, indicating (particular) judgement took place immediately after death, not at the end of time.

Heaven/Hell are portrayed as eternal physical places, since the rich man couldn’t leave wanted to dip his finger in water to cool down, wanted to talk to his family (indicating a voice) and that there was a chasm between him and Lazarus which indicates a physical landscape and barrier, also implying an eternal afterlife.

unlimited election is suggested, because the good go to heaven, the bad to hell.

This passage is evidence against Heaven as new earth, since the rich man wanted to warn his family who were still alive, that suggests that Lazarus was in heaven before the end of time and thus heaven existed before the end of time, meaning that heaven is not a future state of the earth.

The story is about Sheol. The story only mentions the beggar being carried by angels to the bosom of Abraham. According to Jewish theology there are separate places in Sheol/Hades. The righteous go to be with Abraham and the wicked are in an unhappy place. Lazarus went to the former, the rich man to the latter. Therefore, the story is not about Heaven.

Similarly, the bible says the rich man went to Hades. Many argue that Sheol/Hades is not correctly translated as Hell since when Jesus spoke of the place of fire, he used the word Gehenna. Therefore, the story is not about Hell.

Luther: The story is a symbolic parable, not literal. Martin Luther argued it was just a parable which symbolizes the state of the conscience after we do good or bad. The torment mentioned is a symbol for the rich man’s conscience.

Although Hell is depicted as a physical place due to the rich man talking to Lazarus and wanting Lazarus to dip his finger in water to cool the rich man’s tongue, Luther claims it should be read as symbolizing the conscience’s satisfaction or torment. Luther claims this is because the physical bodies of the rich man and Lazarus were ‘both lying in their graves’ so ‘it could not have been a conversation with the natural voice … likewise as little was it the natural tongue that complained of being tormented … nor was it natural fingers and natural water that were desired from Lazarus. Therefore, this all must be in the conscience’. The resurrection doesn’t take place until the end of time. Jesus’ body disappeared when he was resurrected. So there is no way to make sense of this story as a literal event.

But the rich man wanted to warn his family, which he should be able to do if the torment is just a symbol for tormented conscience on earth. This suggests the Shoel interpretation is more correct than soul sleep.

Literal readings of the story as an actual event point to the key detail that a personal name (Lazarus) was mentioned. Other parables just refer to generic types of people e.g. ‘the good Samaritan’. This suggests it was a real story about heaven and hell and so shouldn’t be taken as a symbolic parable.

N. T. Wright responds that the story is similar to other parables however in that it involves the reversal of fortunes and concern for the poor.

Physical resurrection: St Paul and Augustine on resurrection of the flesh

Resurrection of the flesh is the position that the afterlife is physical because it involves our resurrection and that resurrection is physical, i.e. of our bodies. Spiritual resurrection is an opposing view, that our resurrection is non-physical and thus the afterlife is non-physical.

Paul calls the resurrection of Jesus “the firstfruits”, indicating that it was the first resurrection after which ours will follow. Paul claims that Jesus saved us from our sinful state which Adam caused “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive”.

When we are raised from the dead, we will have a different and improved body. This seems to be what happened to Jesus. When he rose from the dead and appeared to his disciples, they did not recognize him at first. The Gospels also emphasise that the risen Jesus had the power to appear and disappear. Paul differentiates the earthly body from the resurrected body thus: “The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonour it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body”. The resurrected bodies will not be mere flesh and blood, since “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God … we will all be changed”. Paul made an analogy that mortal ‘natural’ bodies are like tents which are a heavy burden but when Jesus returns God will resurrect the dead and give them immortal ‘spiritual’ bodies. Immortality implies heaven and hell are eternal.

Our earthly bodies are so associated with sin and earthliness that some found it hard to believe that they could be raised in a form that would be heavenly. However, Augustine points out that our earthly body being raised in the flesh in an exalted form is far more believable than that our spirit could be joined with those sinful earthly bodies in the first place, which no one doubts.

St Augustine further argued that our resurrected body must be physical since Christ’s resurrection was of a physical body and since that represented the hope for all Christians that they would be resurrected.

Spiritual resurrection is argued to make more sense of Jesus’ post-mortem appearances. Jesus appeared to his disciples after he rose from the dead, he appeared to be able to disappear and reappear at will, which proponents of spiritual resurrection interpret as indicating a non-physical form. It could also make sense of the fact that he wasn’t initially recognised. This could suggest that our resurrection will be non-physical too, and thus the after life is a non-physical state. St Paul even called our future resurrected bodies ‘spiritual’ bodies.

What about the empty tomb? Jesus’ physical body had disappeared upon his resurrection, which seems to show that he was raised physically. It suggests it was his physical body that was resurrected in a physical but perfected form.

Furthermore, it might seem that Paul’s description of the resurrected body as “spiritual” and his distinguishing of spiritual from “earthly” suggests that the resurrected body is non-physical. However, in Paul’s time, the idea of spirit was not necessarily contrasted with physical in the way it is today. In fact a belief in Paul’s time was that ‘spirit’ was a kind of material thing, but a refined and perfected form of matter not subject to decay or death.

N. T. Wright argues that when Paul and the gospels use the word ‘soul’, the meaning is much closer to the Hebrew word ‘nephesh’, meaning living God-breathed creature than it is to the dualist notion of soul found in Plato.

The cannibal problem. What happens to our earthly body seems incompatible with physical resurrection. It rots away in the grave or is destroyed by fire in cremation, upon which its elements are returned to nature. What if one person cannibalised another person so that their dead body became part of the cannibal’s body? Such cases generate the puzzle of how both bodies, that of the cannibal and the cannibalised, could possibly both be raised, if there are parts of one which belong to both? The issue is far more extensive when you consider that many people are cannibals in a more indirect way. Decomposing bodies are used as nutrients for plants, which might then be eaten by another person, or by an animal who dies and is then eaten by a person. This issue was much debated in the 2nd century.

God’s omnipotence could be argued to solve this. “With God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26).

However, it might be logically impossible for God to resurrect two people from the diffused parts of their earthly body if some parts of each of their bodies belong to both of them.

New Earth

New earth is the idea that heaven is a future perfected state of the earth. At the end of time, the earth will be cleansed by God and returned to its perfect Eden state. After final judgement, the resurrected bodies of the righteous will have eternal life there. This is suggestive of physical resurrection, and thus a physical afterlife, since the earth is a physical place.

Revelations chapter 21 involves God shows John the future, where there is the ‘new heavens and the New Earth” where there will be “no more death, or mourning, or crying or pain.”

N T Wright argues for Heaven as a new earth by pointing to the sermon on the mount, where Jesus tells people to pray thus:

“Your kingdom come,
Your will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven”

Wright argues this means the kingdom of heaven is not a place called heaven where you go after life on earth. The kingdom of heaven means the sovereign rule of heaven which is coming to earth. God’s plan is to bring heaven and earth together. Heaven is a possible future state of the earth, transformed into God’s kingdom.

The Penitent Thief was crucified next to Jesus. He expressed remorse for his actions after which Jesus said “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise”. This seems to suggest that Jesus and the thief went to heaven the day of the crucifixion, therefore

    • Heaven existed at that time and isn’t a future state of the earth.
    • (particular) judgement takes place immediately after death.
    • Those who repent are saved: unlimited election.

Translation issue. The original text of the bible had no commas. They were added by later writers. This could result in very different meaning. Compare:

1:  Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise
2:  Assuredly, I say to you today, you will be with me in Paradise

The first version was decided on by translators. If we put the commas like they are in the second version however, we get a very different promise from Jesus – that the thief will be with him in paradise, but not today.

Furthermore, Jesus did not rise to heaven the day he was crucified. He was dead for three days before rising from the dead on the third day and then ascending to heaven. Jesus even said in John 20:17 that “I have not yet ascended to my Father”. Therefore, Jesus could not have been with the thief in heaven the day of their crucifixion, which suggests the 2nd version of the sentence has the accurate comma placement. This leaves open the possibility of general judgment and new earth.

St Paul on presence with Christ after death

Some have interpreted St Paul’s letter to the Philippians as suggesting that something happens to us before resurrection at the end of time.

Paul says that “to die is gain” but continuing to live “in the body” will mean “fruitful labour”. Paul says this is a difficult choice and he is “torn between the two … I am hard-pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ … yet to remain on in the flesh is more necessary for your sake” Paul is saying it is better to die and be with Christ, but the “more necessary” task is to keep living in order to help spread Christianity. (Philippians 1:21-24).

Paul seems to indicate here that immediately after death there will be a presence with Christ (particular judgement). This influenced the commonly believed Christian idea today that immediately after death there is particular judgement and then a non-physical existence in Heaven (as a state, since he won’t be in the flesh anymore).

However, St Paul spoke so clearly of the resurrection of the dead that arguably here he is not trying to replace general judgement with particular judgement, but just suggesting that there is particular judgement in addition to general judgement.

N. T. Wright argues that the New Testament is “largely uninterested” in the question of what happens to us after death but before the resurrection. He accepts that there are passages like this one in Philippians, the many dwelling-places of John 14 and the “with me in paradise” of Luke 23.43, but points out that “in none of these passages is there any mention of the psyche [soul]).” Wright concludes that if the early Christians had wanted to teach that what they mean by ‘soul’ is the “part of us which survives death and carries our real selves until the day of resurrection, they could have said so”. So, Wright is arguing that deriving the current popular understanding of the soul from these passages is unwarranted. He thinks that western Christian culture has been too heavily influenced by Plato’s view of the soul despite it having been rejected by Jewish tradition. This Platonic influence has caused Christians to misunderstand what the soul means in Christianity which causes the popular belief that our souls go to heaven/hell straight after death, which Wright points out has the unfortunate effect of eclipsing belief in the resurrection of the dead at the end of time.

Luther’s Christian mortalism is the view that after death of the body the soul sleeps until the resurrection. This would mean that St Paul, after he dies, will just go to sleep and then wake up at the end of time and be with Christ. Luther developed the metaphor with sleep, pointing out how we wake to the morning with no knowledge or awareness of what happened to us in the mean time. Luther thinks this is how it will be when our souls wake to judgement day, having been asleep since the death of the body. This is how Mortalism would view Paul’s idea of departing and being with Christ. In that case, it would not be the case that Paul can be used to prove particular judgement, or that heaven is a new earth, or that heaven is a state of the soul.

Luther drew on Ecclesiastes, which claims that our soul goes to Sheol where it has no “activity or planning or knowledge or wisdom” (Ecclesiasties 9:10), and that “the dead know nothing” (Ecclesiasties 9:5).

1 Thessalonians 4:14 “God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.

Criticism of this interpretation: St Paul clearly states that he won’t be in the flesh when he’s with Jesus, however. So, Paul must have been in a soul state when he’s with Jesus and thus can’t be referring to his resurrection at the end of time when he says ‘with Christ’.

Defence: However, by ‘the flesh’ St Paul could have been referring only to our mortal bodies, not the future immortal bodies, since they are so radically different.


Purgatory is the Latin word for ‘to purge’ or ‘to make clean’. The Catholic Church teaches that it is a place of temporary punishment for those who have died after committing venial sins (meaning sins that do not deprive a soul of grace) but had not confessed them to receive forgiveness before dying. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that purgatory is “the state of those who die in God’s friendship, assured of their eternal salvation, but who still have need of purification to enter into the happiness of heaven.”

It also claims that we can help the souls being purified in purgatory by praying for them or giving indulgences.

Biblical basis of purgatory. The word ‘Purgatory’ is not in the Bible. There is some biblical support for it though: “it is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from their sins.” 2 Maccabees 12:46. It makes no sense to pray for those in heaven or hell since one can never leave them. This seems to indicate that there is an aspect of the afterlife where prayer can make a difference, therefore.

The parable of the sheep and the goats is biblical evidence against purgatory. In the story people are divided into the good (sheep) and the bad (goats). There is no middle ground third option for those who are somewhere inbetween good and bad.

Christian mortalism is incompatible with Purgatory and was often used by protestants as a counter-position against the Catholic idea of purgatory. Ecclesiastes 9:5 “For the living know that they will die; But the dead know nothing.” How are the dead to pay off their sins in purgatory if they know nothing?

The moral argument for purgatory. It seems unjust for someone to be condemned to hell for a minor venial sin, yet it also seems to conflict with God’s justice that he allow into heaven someone who dies in a state of sin, even if minor. Therefore, a place like purgatory where those venial sins are purged from a person before being admitted into heaven seems to be the best moral and just solution to the problem of dying in a state of venial sin.

The Catholic Church’s corrupt sale of indulgences. There have been many crimes perpetrated by the Church such as the paedophile priest scandals and allegiance with fascism, especially Hitler. Protestants suggest that the Church is therefore corrupt. They arguably don’t act like they are guided by the Holy Spirit.

The sale of indulgences was the policy of the Catholic Church to accept money in return for forgiveness of sins. Purgatory was an important part of this – if you gave the Church money, the priests would pray for your recently dead relative, claiming to get them out of purgatory faster. Luther claimed Purgatory was ‘fabricated by goblins’ and wrote a 95 thesis critique of the practice of the sale of indulgencies. Here are some of them:

81. “preaching of pardons makes it no easy matter, even for learned men, to rescue the reverence due to the pope from slander, or even from the shrewd questionings of the laity?

 84.“What is this new piety of God and the pope, that for money they allow a man who is impious and their enemy to buy out of purgatory the pious soul of a friend of God, and do not rather, because of that pious and beloved soul’s own need, free it for pure love’s sake?”

 86. “Why does not the pope, whose wealth is today greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build this one basilica of St. Peter with his own money rather than with the money of poor believers?”

Ultimately, the invention of purgatory for use in the sale of indulgencies looks like the Church is abusing its power to invent false doctrines purely for the sake of making money. It is corrupt.

Arguably Luther’s critique of purgatory depends on its connection to the sale of indulgences. If the doctrine were separated from the practice of taking money then it could be defended on the basis of its morality, though it’s biblical basis is still debatable.

Hick’s version of purgatory & universalism

Hick believed that a loving could could never condemn anyone to hell. However, evil people couldn’t just go straight to heaven. So, Hick believed in a type of purgatory – that after death, people could continue existing in another life or world whereby they would continue to have a chance to redeem themselves and become better (soul-making). Hitler would not instantly go to heaven, therefore, it might take him a very long time to improve morally enough!

The idea of terrible people going to heaven still doesn’t seem right to many people, even if it takes a long time. E.g. Hitler.

However, human crimes are finite. No matter the scale of immorality a person’s actions are, they are finite. Proportionality is the view that true justice requires punishment to be proportional to the crime. For example, it is not justice to imprison someone for life for a minor offense such as parking their car in the wrong place. Hume argues it cannot be justice for God to give an infinite punishment for a finite crime. So, even though Hitler’s actions were immoral and on a massive scale, their immorality was finite. It can’t be justice for Hitler to  receive an infinite punishment for his finite crimes – that is not proportional. Eternal punishment in Hell can never be proportional and thus never just. So, Hick is correct in thinking that it is incompatible with omnibenevolence.

Hick’s replica theory argument for physical resurrection

Hick was a monist who believed in a particular sort of resurrection. He only intended his argument to prove that resurrection was possible.

Hick asked us to imagine someone called John Smith who dies in London and then an exact replica of him appears in New York, with exactly the same memories and thoughts. Hick asks us if this would be the same person. This is the philosophical issue of personal identity – what makes someone the same person, over time? Hick is arguing that it is our mental content, such as memories and the continuation of the body we had in the previous moment. Hick claims it would be simple then for a God, when we die, to create a replica of us in an afterlife.

Are we resurrected with the body we have when we die? What if someone dies with a degenerative brain condition like dementia – then they die not really as the person they were before dementia. If they are replicated without the dementia – then they aren’t really being replicated as who they were when they died. Yet if they are replicated with the dementia – that seems to go against heaven as a perfect place, and also when someone has dementia, there’s a sense that they aren’t who they really are.

Augustine: Exclusivism, Grace, Predestination & Limited election

Augustine’s exclusivism holds that we are so corrupted by original sin that genuine persevering faith in Jesus is only possible with God’s help: his gift of grace, which predestines some people to have and keep faith in Christ and thus be one of the ‘elect’ who will be saved.

Grace is what saves humans and thereby allows them into heaven. Election refers to God’s choosing to grant grace. St Paul calls grace a “gift” which we cannot ‘take credit’ for earning (Ephesians 2:8). That suggests that getting into heaven is not something that human beings have the power to achieve. Augustine thinks this is because of original sin. We are so corrupted by it that we are unable by ourselves to be good enough to deserve salvation. Only with God’s granting of undeserved grace can we possibly be saved.

In Romans 8, St Paul seems to hold to predestination, which is the view that our fate in the afterlife, i.e. whether we will go to heaven or hell, is already unalterably fixed. Augustine thought this view of election followed logically from the doctrine of original sin and grace. If we cannot get ourselves into heaven then God has either predestined us for heaven, or he hasn’t and our original sin damns us to hell. This view is called double predestination: that heaven is predestined for some and hell for others.

Pelagius: predestination makes punishment unjust. Pelagius argued that if we have original sin and are thus completely unable to avoid doing evil, it would surely be unjust for God to punish us for our sinful behaviour. It’s not ethical for all humanity to be blamed for the actions of Adam and Eve. This suggests an indefensible view of moral responsibility – that people can be responsible for actions committed by others which is of special absurdity in this case since the action occurred before they were even born. Pelagius concludes that only our having free will and thus being without coercion from original sin makes sense of the prevalent biblical theme of God’s judgement and punishment.

Punishment is just for sinful beings: Augustine is not actually arguing that God himself blamed all humanity for Adam’s sin, he’s merely pointing out that it was a factual consequence of Adam’s sin that all future humanity, in Adam’s loins, became infected with original sin. It’s not God’s fault, it’s Adams’. So, Augustine argues that predestination is not unjust of God, since we are corrupted by original sin and so if we go to hell it is deserved.

This might seem unfair, but Augustine puts it down to the “secret yet just judgement of God”, indicating that it is inscrutable – impossible for us to understand – but we should have faith it is just. Augustine points to Psalm 25:10: ‘All the paths of the Lord are mercy and truth,’ and concludes: neither can his grace be unjust, nor his justice cruel”.

It’s not our fault that we have original sin, so it still seems unfair and thus incompatible with omnibenevolence to suggest that we deserve punishment for it. Especially when considering cases like a child with cancer, it’s difficult to maintain that a child deserves cancer because it has original sin. Augustine would have to say that it is God’s justice for a child to get cancer and that God is still omnibenevolent despite allowing it. That seems to contradict the idea that God is omnibenevolent.

Augustine could be defended on the grounds that it would only seem a contradiction to those who have a 21st century hippie interpretation of love.

Alternatively, Augustine insists that God’s reasons and justice are beyond our understanding. We should not try to use our limited human minds to judge God.