Belief in the Afterlife

Jesus' promise of eternal life was anticipated by most of mankind



The archeological record of ritual burial practices indicates widespread belief in the afterlife, around the world and across time. The oldest evidence of prehistoric belief in the afterlife was discovered in the 1960s near Sungir, Russia, at a 34,000-year-old burial site of a middle-aged man. He was laid to rest wearing over 13,000 mammoth ivory beads, hundreds of perforated fox canine teeth, and weaponry and figurines. Archaeologists estimate the ivory beads alone would have taken 2,500 hours of labor to produce. Such an elaborate burial suggests he felt the need to prepare for the next life.

As is well known, tombs erected by Egyptian dynasties showed unwavering belief in life after death, and myriad pagan cultures developed their own unique burial rituals.

Ancient Greeks and Romans surmised that the soul leaves the body after death and continues to exist in some form. Mercury, the messenger god, was believed to escort the deceased to the ghastly river Styx. Charon, the ferryman, collected coins from eyelids for payment and afterward conducted the dead to the underworld, Hades. The expectation that good would be rewarded and evil punished in the afterlife was not central to their belief.

Judaism has been divided regarding the afterlife, and details on this have been debated by rabbinical scholars for centuries. Before the early Jewish scriptures were written, many Jews believed that their dead descended to a dark place called Sheol.

Pharisees later taught that the soul and body would reunite in a resurrection, and God would dispense reward or punishment based on how righteously one had lived. Sadducees, however, did not believe in the immortality of the soul, or the afterlife. They were what one might call aristocrats, who enjoyed their wealth because only empty darkness awaits us. Many Jews and Christians today believe as the Sadducees of old.

When Jesus of Nazareth was born, life after death was a fundamental concept in most religions. Worldly Sadducees looked for a new world order brought by the coming of the Messiah. Jesus’s manifestation as a suffering Messiah made the ruling Jews anxious, but His promise of eternal life appealed to the poor masses.

Of course, today’s secular man scoffs at Christian belief in the resurrection of the body and life everlasting. What convinces even hardened materialists like, I admit, the old me? The way His apostles suddenly turned fearless. Before Jesus’ crucifixion, His close disciples—fearing their own arrest—stuttered and trembled when asked if they knew Him. But right after His resurrection, something peculiar happened. Those who before were shy and tight-lipped became bold in their witnessing, even under continual threat of arrest, persecution, and death. Most were beaten, stoned, and even crucified, but they were fearless unto death.

Why? What could have happened to drastically change them? Jesus appeared in the flesh, passing like a ghost through a locked door, and asked for something to eat. Doubting Thomas even changed his mind and went to tell the world about it.

Those who truly believe in Christ have no fear of death. Ours is the hope of eternal life.

Truly, truly, I say to you, he that believes in Me has everlasting life (John 6:47).


Richard M. DellOrfano spent ten years on a cross-country pilgrimage following Christ’s instruction to minister without possessions. He is completing his autobiography: Path Perilous, My Search for God and the Miraculous.

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