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When my suffering becomes too great, I can say to all those I love, ‘I love you; come be by my side, and come say goodbye as I pass into whatever’s next.’ ” Brittany Maynard’s announcement of her decision to end her own life because of inoperable cancer made headlines. On November 1, 2014, she passed into “whatever’s next.” The debate about her decision focused on the events leading up to her death, and it renewed the right-to-die debate for several weeks. But for thousands of years, the main question has been about “whatever’s next.” Where do we go after death?

The question of what becomes of us when we die—all of our desires and aspirations, our loves and memories, hopes and skills and learning—has occupied the human mind and imagination from the beginning. In advanced societies today, the tendency is to focus strictly on this life. But that’s because in our Western societies, life typically offers as much leisure as labor and far more pleasure than pain. And when, in cases like Brittany Maynard’s, continued life offers a prospect of more pain and disability than pleasure and satisfaction, many choose to end life.

For people in past centuries and millenniums, life seemed fleeting, ephemeral, and filled with more toil and suffering than joy and pleasure. For the masses, this life held far too little joy and far too much sadness. Their hope was in a better life to come. Even for the wealthy and privileged, death often came suddenly and early.

For example, King Tutankhamen, who was buried in great luxury as a pharaoh of Egypt, was only 18 years old at his death. Forensic science has determined that during those few years he suffered severe malarial infection several times; had a deformed foot, which meant he couldn’t stand or walk unaided; endured the stillbirth of two daughters; and suffered a broken left leg that became infected shortly before his death and which may have contributed to his demise.

For thousands of years, neither talent, wealth, nor power provided protection from an early death. Alexander the Great died when he was 32. Mozart died at 35. Poet John Keats lived only 26 years. So the question of what’s next—where do we go when we die?—has for most of Earth’s history occupied rich and poor, high and low, slave and master alike.

death in ancient cultures

Many ancient cultures answered that question in one of two ways. Those who had lived a virtuous life, they reckoned, would go into some sort of idyllic afterlife. Those who had not been so virtuous would find themselves in a realm of misery at best, torture at worst. And the price of admission into the idyllic realm was steep.

As an example, ancient Egyptians believed that every evil deed weighed down one’s heart. Immediately after death, so they believed, the goddess Ma’at, whose name means “truth,” would weigh the heart of the newly deceased on a scale against an ostrich feather. Egyptian tombs often portray this process, depicting Ma’at weighing the heart, supervised by Anubis, the god who leads the dead to judgment and with Ammit, the lioness, waiting nearby. If the heart is found to be no heavier than the feather, the deceased was granted entry into Aaru, a beautiful land with abundant hunting and fishing. Ammit, the waiting lioness, devoured those with heavier hearts. Although differing in details, many ancient cultures held to this basic view: live well in this life and pass into bliss; live badly and be punished.

More recently a “naturalist” view has become prominent. In this view, when we die and are buried, our body breaks down to the chemicals from which it’s made and becomes part of the environment. There is no afterlife, just dissolution. We become fertilizer for the next generation of plant life. In this case, where we go is nowhere. Our bodies go into the ground. There is nothing else.

In a similar vein, the Old Testament speaks of sheol—the grave. Unlike the cultures surrounding Israel, the Israelites did not see sheol as a place of either punishment or reward. Rather, it was the universal destiny of all living things. In sheol, there was no consciousness, no desires or aspirations, and no knowledge of any kind. Indeed, wise King Solomon tells us that while “the living know that they will die, . . . the dead know nothing” (Ecclesiastes 9:5).

Although they disagreed on what came after death, the ancients all agreed on one thing: death is final. One might find some sort of life after death, but it would be little like this life.

hope in a resurrection

And then late in the Old Testament period, a different and exciting concept began to take shape. The prophet Daniel, writing nearly 1,000 years after Moses and looking far into his own future, wrote that “multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt” (Daniel 12:2).

The Jews of Jesus’ day were divided on what that meant. The Sadducees, who generally formed the ruling class, held that there was no such thing as a resurrection. The Pharisees, who were seen as the most conscientious and pious Jews, believed that there would be a bodily resurrection. The two groups disagreed vehemently on the issue. This plays a prominent role in Acts 23, in what has to be one of the most humorous scenes in the Bible. When Paul was brought before the Jewish council, “knowing that some of them were Sadducees and the others Pharisees, [he] called out in the Sanhedrin, ‘My brothers, I am a Pharisee, descended from Pharisees. I stand on trial because of the hope of the resurrection of the dead.’ When he said this, a dispute broke out between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided. . . . There was a great uproar. . . . The dispute became so violent that the commander was afraid Paul would be torn to pieces by them. He ordered the troops to go down and take him away from them by force and bring him into the barracks” (verses 6, 7, 9, 10).

Paul had indeed been trained as a Pharisee, and he did preach about “the hope of the resurrection of the dead.” But Paul was not preaching about the resurrection because of his training as a Pharisee. It’s clear from his epistles that he rejected much of that teaching. He preached the resurrection because he had met the risen Jesus (Acts 9:3–5).

a real resurrection!

Jesus referred to the dead as sleeping (John 11:11–14). Those who sleep don’t mark the passing of time, nor do they know of the events transpiring in the world. He confirmed that when people die they go to the grave. But the resurrection of Jesus confirmed that the tomb was not the end. Life could be fully restored.

And the resurrected Jesus was not some disembodied spirit but a flesh-and-blood person—a person who had invited the skeptical Thomas to touch His scars (John 20:27); a person who kindled a fire and prepared a breakfast of fish and bread (John 21:9–13); and a person who broke bread with Cleopas in Emmaus (Luke 24:30). The resurrection restores life to those who have died. But the resurrection does more than just restore life. It imparts a new kind of life. Paul explained this to the Corinthians: “But someone will ask, ‘How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?’. . . When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. . . . So will it be with 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” (1 Corinthians 15:35, 37, 42, 43).

In the resurrection, those who die in Christ will rise with real, physical bodies but free from all infirmity, disease, and evidence of the blight of sin. And they will inhabit a new earth, where “ ‘there will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:4).

When someone dies, we often say he or she is at rest. And the Bible agrees. Where do we go when we die? To the grave. Not some shadowy existence, but to rest. Not fretting over, or meddling in, the affairs of the living, but as Jesus Himself described it, as in a deep slumber. Blissfully unaware and untroubled by the turbulent events of a sinful world, to await the glory of the resurrection.

your resurrection and mine

And because Jesus died and then rose from the grave, you and I have the hope—more than that, the assurance—of rising from the grave. For by His death, Jesus paid the penalty for your sins and mine; sins that doom us to an eternal destiny in the prison house of death. And by His resurrection, He broke the chains that keep us bound in that prison house. Jesus Himself said, “I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades [the grave]” (Revelation 1:18).

This hope of the resurrection can be yours. All you have to do is ask Jesus to forgive you of all the wrong things you’ve done and commit your life to serving Him, and the words that He spoke to the dying thief on the cross—“You will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43)—will be your assurance of an eternal, immortal life with Him in a land 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).

Death: Where Do We Go?

by Ed Dickerson
From the January 2017 Signs