Last Words Approaching the Afterlife

“What do you think happens when you die?”

“That’s a strange question!” your average university student might reply. “When you die, you die. The plug’s pulled out, and the lights go out, that’s it: the eternal void. If there was something more, we would have discovered it by now. There would be proof, right?”[1]

Discussion over. And with that she heads back to party. But of course! For if death really is the end, then as the apostle Paul said, “Let’s eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die!”

Well, what of the afterlife? The future looks fuzzy at best—extinction, reincarnation, Valhalla, harp concerts in the sky … who knows? But in a world where death is more certain than taxes, do we have the courage to face up to ‘strange questions’ that define human life?

As I see it, most people respond in one of three ways to the afterlife: we ignore it, we deplore it, or we explore it. Which are you?

Maybe you ignore the afterlife. Your theme song is “Forever young”. Like Edward from the Twilight saga, you’re blessed with immortality. Or is it ‘amortality’? As sociologist Catherine Mayer dubs them, ‘Amortals’ “seek to arrive at the best time of their lives, and then linger there indefinitely, with the help of vitamins, plastic surgery, Botox, gym workouts, and of course Viagra.[2] (Think Australian cricketing legend Shane Warne, sporting Liz Hurley as his latest trophy. He’s tight like a tiger, but the clock is ticking.)

Even for Amortals, death is hard to ignore. Every second roughly two people around the world die—that’s 150,000 per day, 55 million per year. And contrary to popular opinion, they don’t disappear, pass away, fall asleep, or retire. They die. It’s not someone else’s problem. I will die. You will die. We could party hard and desperately grasp onto what life is left, but our last words may be tragic like whiskey merchant Jack Daniels. As he died from a blood infection, all he could say was “One last drink, please.”

Well, maybe you deplore the afterlife. Who knows what lies beyond? Heaven is a distraction, so make the most of now. Death is as natural as birth, so just accept it. As the Epicureans had engraved on their tombstones, N.F.F.N.S.N.C. (non fui, fui, non sum, non curo): “I wasn’t, I was, I am not, I don’t care.[3]

Like Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple. Jobs battled with cancer even back at his Stanford University Commencement address of 2005. Equivalent to an epitaph, he remarked:

“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Almost everything just falls away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.”

When he died this October at the age of 56, everyone spoke of his success and legacy. His accomplishments were admirable.

But let’s get real. Apple will continue on with or without his vision. Jobs won’t be there to appreciate it, and within a couple of generations his name will be a footnote in a design textbook. I have to agree with Woody Allen, who quipped, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve immortality through not dying. I don’t want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen. I would rather live on in my apartment.”

When death knocks on our door, all our ‘immortality projects’ are meaningless. As the writer of Ecclesiastes said, “All our strivings under the sun are but chasing the wind—utter vanity.”

Okay, I recognize this is depressing, especially during the festive season! But it is a virtue to number our days aright—to face life as it really is. So you can ignore the afterlife, or deplore the afterlife. But can I suggest a third option. Will you explore the afterlife?

What if? What if there is an afterlife? It falls short of mathematical proof, but there are rumours of transcendence that have defined entire cultures across history, from the ancient Egyptians embalming the dead to African Americans singing gospel tunes around an open casket. They could be right or wrong, but the question of the afterlife is anything but irrelevant.

Philosophers and luminaries across history have spoken about hope in the face of death. But only one pointed to himself as the source of this hope. Jesus of Nazareth claimed “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will live, even though they die” (John 11:25). His last words came with confidence from a crucifix: “It is finished.”

What is finished? Apparently death as we know it. This wasn’t resigned acceptance. Jesus saw his death as mission accomplished.

Well, do we believe this? Should we believe this? It’s hard to know what ‘proof’ would satisfy a sceptic.[4] As I mused with one such university student, we’d only discover what lay beyond our last words if someone were to truly die and come back to tell the tale.

“True” she laughed, “if only, hey!”

If only.

Dave Benson


[1] Dialogue adapted from director Clint Eastwood’s movie, “Hereafter” (2010).

[2] Simon Smart, “Living like tomorrow never ends”, 15 October 2011, Sydney Morning Herald.

[3] N.T. Wright, “Jesus’ Resurrection and Christian Origins,” http://www.ntwrightpage.com/Wright_Jesus_Resurrection.htm.

[4] To further explore this topic of “Afterlife: Christian hope in the face of death”, see here or watch the full length talk here.

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