Let's face it: we'll all die one day. But is there some kind of life after this life?
Upon its release, the 2000 movie Gladiator had a significant impact around the world. While most of the film’s influence was cultural, it also raised a deeper, more spiritual question: Is there life after death?
Early in the film, General Maximus (played by Russell Crowe) appeals to his soldiers, “What we do in life echoes in eternity.”1 After Maximus’s wife and son are brutally murdered, his friend Juba promises him, “You will see them again—but not yet.”2 Toward the end of the film, as Maximus dies, he has a vision of walking through a field, pushing open a door, and seeing his family waiting there for him. Another character tells Maximus to go to them. In the movie’s final scene, Juba stands over the spot where Maximus died and declares, “I will see you again—but not yet.”3
Many people struggle with the idea of life after death. To some of us, it seems outdated and anti-scientific. But when the issue is brought before us poignantly, as in Gladiator, even the most skeptical among us might wonder, What if? What if there really was something waiting for Maximus on the other side of that door? What if there is something waiting for us when we die?
Determining the Stakes
It’s hard to imagine a more important question. We’re all going to die sooner or later, and when death comes, it takes everything. No matter how much we accomplish or acquire in this life, we can’t take anything with us when we die.
Death is the great robber, the great equalizer, the great eraser. One of my favorite musicians, Dave Matthews, captured this idea well in one of his early songs: “Look at me in my fancy car, my bank account. Oh, how I wish I could take it all down to my grave. God knows I’d save and save.”4
If death is simply the brute end, our individual lives and all of human history are ultimately meaningless. Scientists tell us the universe is slowly winding down, and so at some point in the future—whether a short or long time from now—human civilization will end. Death will swallow up everything, even all memory of life. If death is final, death is everything.
The omnipotence of death puts us in quite a dilemma, if we have the courage to face it. It brought the writer Leo Tolstoy to the verge of suicide as he wrestled with it, asking: “Is there any meaning in my life that the inevitable death awaiting me does not destroy?”5
Looking for Clues
But what if death isn’t the end? What if Russell Crowe’s character wasn’t chasing an illusion in that field? That would be nice—but how could we ever know? After all, none of us have ever been there, so we don’t really have any empirical evidence. Death’s finality is matched by its uncertainty. It is the ultimate journey into the unknown, the ultimate leap in the dark.
True, some people claim to have had “after death” experiences. In fact, there has been a flurry of literature in this field, with some notable philosophers and psychologists considering some such testimonies as empirical proof of life after death.6 But not everyone finds these kinds of arguments convincing, and there is actually a much more basic and simple way to approach the question.
If you want to know how something will end, it’s almost always helpful to know how it began. For instance, if you want to understand why a particular civilization declined, you often need to study how it rose to prominence in the first place. Beginnings can be clues about endings.
So if we want to know what comes after life, it’s sensible to consider what was before it. Scientists tell us that the universe exploded into being at a finite point in the past, roughly 13 billion years ago. If at one time the universe was not and then at another time it was, then it’s reasonable to think there must be something beyond the universe that put it here.
And if there is something beyond the universe, then it makes sense to conceive of expiring within the universe as a sort of transit to whatever is outside the universe. If we came from something or someone, then it’s reasonable to think that we are going to something or someone.
In this view, the universe is more like a preparatory room or a laboratory, in which the whole point is to prepare for what comes next.
The Hope of Resurrection
But for what are we preparing? This is where the Christian idea of resurrection is utterly unique among different religious views of the afterlife. Historian N. T. Wright calls resurrection “life after life after death,” because it entails not merely mental consciousness after death, but the restoration and transformation of our physical bodies and even the physical world around us.7
Resurrection means not just any old afterlife, but the best imaginable afterlife. It means not just the ending of all that is sad, but the undoing of all that is sad. In his best-selling book The Reason for God, Tim Keller puts it like this: “The Biblical view of things is resurrection—not a future that is just a consolation for the life we never had but a restoration of the life you always wanted. This means that every horrible thing that ever happened will not only be undone and repaired but will in some way make the eventual glory and joy even greater.”8
Whether it’s true or not, you can’t deny that this vision of reality has a beauty that tugs on our hearts. There is something in us that wants it to be true—we all want Maximus to see his family again, just like we might ache to see our own loved ones.
Why is this appeal so powerful? Why do we long for resolution, for permanence, for a “happily ever after”? Is this another clue?
Beyond Clues to the Clue-Giver
Whether the clues we consider are in the stars above (the finitude of this world), or within our hearts (our desire for permanence and restoration), Christians believe that God has not left us to decipher the clues all on our own. According to the Christian faith, God himself has come into our world in the person of Jesus Christ, who submitted to the ultimate death, and then conquered it forever by rising again.
Christians believe that Christ’s death and resurrection is the answer to the problem of death for all of us. As Jesus put it: “My Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.”9
The idea of resurrection may seem too good to be true. But there are actually some pretty strong historical reasons for believing that Jesus was indeed raised.10 Either way, nothing could be more important than investigating these questions, because if Jesus really was raised from the dead and spoke the truth, it changes everything.
It means that everything we’ve ever experienced in this world is just a glimmer of the world to come—that Juba’s words “not yet” apply to this entire reality. More urgently—and more personally—it means we must make up our minds about Christ. Will we respond to his offer of eternal life? We don’t have forever to decide.