Tell me whether the following is a contradiction: more than two million massive blocks of granite and limestone, some weighing as much as 10 tons (about 9,000 kilograms), compared with a single ostrich feather. We don’t know great deal about the Egyptian pharaoh known as Khufu, but we do know about these two disparate items—the blocks of stone and the ostrich feather. Both figured strongly in his thinking. We also know that he ruled Egypt some 2,500 years before Christ. Precisely when, and exactly how long, we cannot say for certain.
Most of what was written about Khufu comes from around 300 B.C., meaning that the authors who wrote about him were further from him in time than we are from Herod the Great. The only complete portrait we have of him is an ivory figurine approximately three inches high, which is especially ironic, considering that he’s best known for the Great Pyramid, a man-made mountain of stone more than 450 feet (137 meters) high.
One of the original Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Great Pyramid contains more than 2.3 million blocks of granite and limestone, the average stone weighing 2.5 tons (about 2,268 kilograms). The pyramid was built at Khufu’s command to serve as his tomb. His father, Sneferu, built three pyramids, and his sons, Khafre and Djedefre, also built pyramids. But Khufu’s is the largest and is still known as the Great Pyramid.
The Reason for the Pyramids
Why did they build these massive monuments? Because even the pharaohs lived but for a short time in ancient days. No one wants to be forgotten, and these enormous stone structures could not be ignored. But they took many years to plan and build.
We know from the tomb of Tutankhamun, King Tut—who, by the way, only lived to the age of 19—that the kings of Egypt furnished their tombs with everything they thought they might want in the afterlife, in some cases even mummifying their pets, including cats, dogs, monkeys, and other animals, so that the deceased would have animal companions. Preparing for his demise was such a large undertaking that Khufu must have been occupied with building and furnishing his pyramid tomb during much of his reign. A ruler who wanted to provide a structure as grand as the Great Pyramid for his tomb, and to prepare for his afterlife, would have had to begin immediately upon taking the throne. Preparing for the next life occupied much of this life.
The Egyptians believed that the afterlife was only fully enjoyable to those who possessed a body, and thus they went to elaborate lengths to preserve their physical remains, employing a process that required skilled embalmers and at least 70 days.
The procedure included the removal of most of the organs, which were then stored in urns. Because the heart was considered the essence of the person’s being, it was kept within the mummy. They dried the rest of the body for 40 days, using special mineral salts. At the same time, spices and oils were employed to deal with the odor. Embalmers wrapped the body with multiple layers of linen and applied a final coat of resin to prevent moisture from penetrating the fabric before placing the mummy in the coffin.
Only the wealthy could afford such an elaborate and expensive preparation for the afterlife. Ironically, thousands of years later we know that the bodies of some poorer people were better preserved by the hot and arid climate than were those in the upper classes who were embalmed!
The pyramid’s massive size and labyrinthine passages, it was hoped, would preserve the deceased’s mummy and all of the belongings that would serve him or her in the afterlife. Unfortunately, rarely did this happen. The pyramid not only stood as a monument to the deceased but also clearly advertised to would-be thieves the location of a storehouse of great riches. In most cases, within decades tomb robbers ransacked these great mausoleums, sparing neither the riches nor the remains of the deceased. The fact that it was not robbed made the tomb of King Tut most remarkable. Virtually every other tomb had been looted, even though it later became customary to conceal the caskets underground.
In addition to the gigantic material preparations, there remained the matter of Ma’at and her ostrich feather. The Egyptians believed that every sin, every wrong action, became a weight upon the heart. At death, they believed Ma’at, the goddess of truth and justice, would place the heart of the deceased on one side of a balance scale and an ostrich feather on the other. If the heart, weighed down by sins, tipped the balance heavier than the feather, Ammit, the waiting lioness, would consume the heart, resulting in the extinction of the deceased—his or her nonexistence. If the heart was lighter than a feather, the deceased would be allowed to begin the journey to Aaru, the Field of Reeds—the Egyptian notion of Paradise.
The Hebrew View of Death
While the Egyptian idea of death and the afterlife was quite detailed, the Hebrew understanding, found in the Old Testament, is quite the opposite. The Hebrew word Sheol, meaning “the grave,” referred to a shadowy, poorly understood place. It was the habitation of the dead, but unlike Aaru, the Field of Reeds, Sheol was far from being paradise. No beautiful garden awaited there, but on the other hand, neither was it a place of suffering.
Solomon described death in these words: “For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no further reward, and even their name is forgotten. Their love, their hate and their jealousy have long since vanished” (Ecclesiastes 9:5, 6). The psalmist, in great distress, asked God to spare him from death. In a series of rhetorical questions, whose obvious answer is no, he inquired, “Do you show your wonders to the dead? Do their spirits rise up and praise you? Is your love declared in the grave, your faithfulness in Destruction? Are your wonders known in the place of darkness, or your righteous deeds in the land of oblivion?” (Psalm 88:10–12).
With no clear expectation of lifelike activities after death, the Hebrews felt no need to make elaborate provision for it. People journeying into “the land of oblivion” had no need for tools and utensils, pets or furniture, nor did they have any need for elaborate embalming to preserve their physical remains. These different expectations explain why, in contrast with the Egyptian mountains of stone, a Hebrew burial often took place in a cave. Indeed, the borrowed tomb in which Jesus lay was essentially a simulated cave, with a simple stone to seal it shut.
The Old Testament prophets and patriarchs had only faint ideas about a resurrection from the dead (Daniel 12:1, 2; Job 19:25, 26), but by the first century A.D., the Jews had developed an increasingly common expectation of the resurrection, with the notable exception of the Sadducees.
The Christian View of Death
Building on the Old Testament understanding, the Christian view of the afterlife differs radically from that of the Egyptians. In John 11, Jesus referred to His deceased friend Lazarus as “asleep” and said that He was going to go to Lazarus and “wake him up.” (John 11:11). The disciples, taking Him literally, said that it would be better to let Lazarus sleep. So Jesus spoke plainly, telling them that Lazarus was dead. He followed that with the ringing promise, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die” (John 11:25, 26).
And this understanding of death applies to everyone who lives by faith in Christ. We need not fear death, for as the apostle Paul said, “What we believe is this: If we get included in Christ’s sin-conquering death, we also get included in his life-saving resurrection. We know that when Jesus was raised from the dead it was a signal of the end of death-as-the-end. Never again will death have the last word” (Romans 6:8, 9, The Message).1
As Christians, we need not fear judgment for our sins, for as we live by faith in Christ, His sinless record becomes our own. We can face death with hearts lighter than Ma’at’s ostrich feather. Instead of Aaru, a Field of Reeds, the resurrected saints will inhabit a new heaven and a new earth, where “there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things [will have] passed away” (Revelation 21:4).
We need not provide tools or utensils, furniture, or anything else for that new home, because God will provide everything. And what He provides for His redeemed will make the treasures of Tutankhamun seem like mere trinkets. He will provide us with housing, glorious “mansions” (KJV),2 in a massive city with streets paved with gold and gates made of pearl. There will be a “river of life” for water, and a tree of life will provide us with 12 kinds of fruit, each in its season (John 14:1; Revelation 22:1, 2).
Neither is elaborate embalming necessary in preparation for that life, because the God who can create human life by breathing into clay isn’t dependent upon our human methods for the preservation of these bodies of ours. We needn’t be overly concerned about the disposition of our mortal remains. Comparing the burial of the dead body to the sowing of a seed, Paul said of the resurrection of the dead, “The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, 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” (1 Corinthians 15:42–44).
And as for those who remain alive at Christ’s second coming, “We will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality” (1 Corinthians 15:51–53).
Exactly what that “spiritual body,” that “imperishable,” “immortal” body, will be like, we do not know for certain. But it will be a real, physical body. We know this because after His resurrection, Jesus asked the apostles to give Him some food, which He ate in their presence, and He asked Thomas to touch the nail prints on His hands and put His hand on the wound in His side (Luke 24:36–43; John 20:24–29). And the apostle John testified further, “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).
What a wonderful future awaits us! The Egyptians lived literally in the shadow of the pyramids, but we, with King David, can say, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me” (Psalm 23:4, KJV).
1. Bible verses taken from The Message.
2. Bible verses marked KJV are from the King James Version.