Throughout the many centuries of earth’s history, rational men and women have entertained the belief that death does not terminate human existence. A commonly shared conviction, of course, does not necessarily provide proof of a proposition.
Before the age of scientific investigation, vast multitudes believed the earth to be flat, but such a persuasion did not alter reality of our globe’s spherical design. Furthermore, should the unlikely circumstance ever develop that virtually the whole of humanity should deny man’s immortality, that would not disprove that there is human existence beyond the grave.
The general inclination of men and women to believe in a postmortem state of consciousness does establish, however, that there is a burning hope resident within the human heart that there is more to personhood than this temporal mode of existence affords.
Job reflected upon this theme long before the birth of Christ. More than thirty-five centuries ago, the patriarch of Uz wondered:
“If a man die, will he live again?” (Job 14:14).
He reasoned that a future life was surely a viable possibility. If it is the case that a tree, though cut down, can spring to life again (14:7ff), should there not be hope also for man? Is a tree of greater value than one who is made in the very image of God?
Man’s longing for another life was well illustrated by an exhibit from the National Gallery of Art, which was previously on display at in Washington, D. C. and which toured throughout the United States. The 115-piece display was titled, “The Quest for Immortality: Treasures of Ancient Egypt,” and it illustrated the beliefs and practices of the early Egyptians.
An article in a prominent journal at the time of the exhibit noted:
“how much material and creative energy the ancient Egyptians poured into their pursuit of eternal life. [The] Egyptians believed that the illness and imperfection of this world would be healed and made whole in the next world, which they understood to be a physical place that, if properly prepared for, would open its doors to the soul of the deceased” (Roth, 16).
Two ideas appear to have been dominant among the ancients about the future.
- There is an abode for the soul of man in his post-death environment.
- Preparation must be made for that journey.
In modern times, even the most militant skeptics occasionally have had a difficult time suppressing this “longing for immortality.” Especially is this the case in situations when their minds became anguished by the loss of loved ones.
A Skeptic’s Hope
Consider the case of Robert Green Ingersoll.
Ingersoll (1833-99) was a mediocre Illinois lawyer whose flair for oratory thrust him into fame in the latter portion of the 19th century. He criss-crossed the nation lecturing to large crowds with vitriolic tirades against the Bible. He charged that the Scriptures contained “a great deal of error, considerable barbarism and a most plentiful lack of good sense” (Ferrell 1900, 8:1).
When Ingersoll so hatefully turned against the Bible (he had been raised in a religious home), he abandoned any solid hope for the future. Yet, strangely, the “hope” jargon sometimes crept into his vocabulary.
When once he was asked to deliver an address at a little boy’s grave, Ingersoll said:
“We, too, have our religion, and it is this: Help for the living, hope for the dead.”
In a eulogy delivered at the funeral of a beloved brother, Ingersoll poured out his soul.
“Life is a narrow vale between the cold and barren peaks of two eternities. We strive in vain to look beyond the heights. We cry aloud — and the only murmur is the echo of our wailing cry. From the voiceless lips of the unreplying dead there comes no word. But in the night of Death, Hope sees a star, and listening Love can hear the rustle of a wing” (Farrell, 12:391).
When adversaries of the orator confronted him with the implications of this expression of “hope,” he rationalized by suggesting that his words were simply the spontaneous eruptions of affection. Literally, he contended, he was “agnostic” relative to the immortality of the soul.
The Reason for Hope
The hope that death is not the termination of human experience is not to be nurtured, however, by well-meaning desires, bogus seances, or illusory post-death, light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel “experiences.”
Rather, the resurrection of Christ from the tomb — a resurrection never to be clouded by subsequent death (Rev. 1:18) — became the divine guarantee of another-world existence. Jesus was merely the “first-fruits” of those who sleep (1 Cor. 15:20,23).
Jesus Christ remains God’s pledge of a general resurrection at the end of time. And of an eternal existence — either in a state of condemnation, or glorification — depending upon the nature of one’s response to his Creator (Jn. 5:28-29; Acts 24:15).
Truly, “immortality” has been brought to light by means of the gospel message (2 Tim. 1:10).