The late Carl Sagan, astronomer and author, used to wonder why smart people would believe in God. True, he spent most of the last decade of his life saying he wanted to discover whether God exists, but up until he died earlier this year he never believed in God or that he would ever again see his wife of 20 years.
Is there life after death? Is there an answer that makes sense?
As he saw his death approaching, Sagan himself said: "I would love to believe that when I die I will live again, that some thinking, feeling, remembering part of me will continue. But, much as I want to believe that, and despite the ancient and worldwide cultural traditions that assert an afterlife, I know of nothing to suggest that it is more than wishful thinking" ("In the Valley of the Shadow," Parade, March 10, 1996).
Many other people have also decided that this life is all there is and they try to make the most of it. If Carl Sagan and these others are right, then the rest of us, particularly those who believe the Bible's explanation, have been seriously deluded.
Skepticism about an afterlife, or of that afterlife being one of happiness forever, has long existed even among Christians. In the first century of the Christian era, the apostle Paul encountered this mind-set in Corinth. Apparently the Christians God had called in this cosmopolitan city carried some of the philosophical baggage of their times along with them. Some questioned even the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Paul pointedly asked: "Now if Christ is preached that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?" (1 Corinthians 15:12).
He continued: "For if the dead do not rise, then Christ is not risen. And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins! Then also those who have fallen asleep [are dead] in Christ have perished. If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable" (verses 16-19).
To Paul, the issue was not one of whether there is a resurrection. That was an accomplished fact; eyewitnesses had seen Jesus Christ brutally executed, then had seen Him alive again. These men and women had walked with Him, talked with Him, touched Him, shared meals with Him. They knew the resurrection was real. The issue, then, was how and when will the dead be resurrected. Where are they while awaiting their resurrection?
What happens to the dead?
Humans are a physical creation. God created Adam from the dust of the earth and informed him, after he had taken of the forbidden fruit, that "in the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for dust [clay] you are, and to dust you shall return" (Genesis 3:19, emphasis added throughout). It isn't flattering to think of returning to dust, but that is what happens to the physical body after death.
What does it mean to die? The biblical book of Ecclesiastes was written by someone said to be the wisest man who ever lived. Solomon wrote: "For what happens to the sons of men also happens to animals; one thing befalls them: as one dies, so dies the other. Surely, they all have one breath; man has no advantage over animals, for all is vanity. All go to one place: all are from the dust, and all return to dust" (Ecclesiastes 3:19-20).
Solomon understood that the dead do not continue alive in some other place or state of existence. He knew that "the dead know nothing" and "there is no work or device or knowledge or wisdom in the grave where you are going" (Ecclesiastes 9:5, 10).
Do the dead, then, live again? Yes, most definitely.
Resurrection at Christ's return
Paul, once again allaying fears, explained this to the church in Thessalonica. "But I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus" (1 Thessalonians 4:13).
It is perfectly clear that Paul is equating death with the state of being asleep: "For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep" (verse 15).
Those who have died "sleep" in their graves until the time Jesus Christ calls for them at His return. At that time the dead in Christ will rise.
The dead in Christ are those who in life responded to the gospel message by repenting of their sins, accepting Jesus Christ as their Savior, being baptized for the remittance of sin and receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit to help them to obey God (Acts 2:37-38).
This resurrection from the dead is clear from both the Old and New Testaments. Isaiah 26:19 says, "Your dead shall live; together with my dead body they shall arise."
What a wonderful promise! The dead shall rise and live again. At the time of the return of Christ, those who have believed in Him and repented and lived their lives accordingly, will stand with Him at His return as immortal children of God.
Transformation to spirit
What happens then? "For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words" (1 Thessalonians 4:16-18).
What happens at this time? Job asks and answers the question: "If a man dies, shall he live again? All the days of my hard service I will wait, till my change comes. You shall call, and I will answer You; You shall desire the work of Your hands" (Job 14:14-15). He is saying that at the return of Jesus the dead will be changed.
Paul adds another important dimension to how the process works. "And so it is written, 'The first man Adam became a living being.' The last Adam [Jesus Christ] became a life-giving spirit. However, the spiritual is not first, but the natural, and afterward the spiritual. The first man was of the earth, made of dust; the second Man is the Lord from heaven. As was the man of dust, so also are those who are made of dust; and as is the heavenly Man, so also are those who are heavenly [those who have God's Spirit in them]" (1 Corinthians 15:45-48).
Raised to immortality
Now notice the outcome: "And as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly Man. Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does corruption inherit incorruption. Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed" (verses 49-51).
Besides those resurrected from the dead at Christ's return, others who are still alive at that time will also be transformed into spirit to become a part of the ultimate Kingdom of God. Notice how and when this occurs:
It takes place "in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: 'Death is swallowed up in victory' " (verses 52-54).
From that time on, death can no longer threaten those individuals. They will be eternal, ever-living spirit sons of God.
Death will be swallowed up by eternal life to exist no more. You and I and all humanity-even though we came from the dust-will be so much more than dust. We shall be "like the stars forever and ever" (Daniel 12:3).
For a man who knew the earth as "a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena," and who became universally known for his saying that "we are all made of star stuff," Carl Sagan, when his time to rise comes, will be happy with his newfound knowledge. GN