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The afterlife: Resurrection and other possibilities

iStock/shuang paul wang
iStock/shuang paul wang

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die” (John 11:25).

There is but one world religion based on the resurrection of its crucified and risen founder—Christianity. In this, Christians find their hope that they will not cease to exist at their death, but will be with Jesus and will inherit their resurrected bodies in a deathless world, the New Heavens and New Earth (1 Corinthians 15; Revelation 21-22).

Without the reality of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead in space-time history, there is no legitimate Christian message at all, as Paul makes clear: “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins” (1 Corinthians 15:17). If Jesus is dead, Christianity is dead. But how does the doctrine of Christ’s resurrection compare with other religious and philosophical options about the afterlife? The possible positions are relatively few, but the stakes could not be higher since how we live affects our eternal destiny.

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Death is the end: The myth of atheism

The near-uniform view of atheists is that since we are nothing but material beings whose consciousness is dependent on the workings of our bodies, when our bodies cease to function, we lose consciousness and cease to exist. Or, in simpler language: We die and are eaten by worms. Atheists claim that personal extermination is the scientific perspective that we ought to courageously embrace. 

Atheism is not supported by modern science. On the contrary, an absolute beginning of the universe—called the Big Bang—has been confirmed over decades through cosmology. Since something cannot come from nothing, the beginning of the universe requires a cause outside of it that must be timeless, spaceless, immaterial, personal, and vastly powerful. If so, we have left atheism far behind and must embrace a Transcendent Agent. Scientists have further discovered that the many conditions required for conscious embodied life on earth are vastly improbable without a Mind having fine-tuned them. The odds against our cosmos being alone and without a designing and coordinating Mind are mind-bogglingly infinitesimal.

Even more, the biology of life reveals sophisticated molecular machines and information codes in the DNA and RNA that a mindless universe could never achieve. The abundant evidence and careful reasoning behind this summary is found in Stephen Meyer’s compelling book Return of the God Hypothesis.[1]

Therefore, if there is a supernatural and personal Being behind the universe, that means that reality is larger than what materialism can take in. The material universe cannot explain itself by mindless matter. If so, then there is at least one immaterial being in existence who is a Mind and who has a will, and, thus, there is no need to try to account for everything about human beings materialistically. A Being who created the universe could give humans a soul and ensure that they survive their deaths.

Moreover, in addition to biblical teaching, good philosophy argues for the existence of the soul. Our physical bodies cannot account for key aspects of our consciousness. Our brains cannot do all the work of being human. There are solid philosophical arguments for this, a view called mind-body dualism. Consider two arguments.

First, we experience the world through our physical organs: we see with our eyes and hear with our ears. However, seeing X is not the same as having eyes; nor is hearing Y the same as having ears. When I see a red car and hear it backfire, I am experiencing something uniquely subjective and unique to my awareness. Philosophers call these first-person experiences qualia. Qualia are not explicable on the basis of any physical quality. Seeing red is not identical to what chemicals make something red; nor is hearing a car backfire identical to the sound waves produced. The better explanation of qualia is that we experience it in our minds, which are immaterial but real.

Second, when I think about a car or my wife, or anything outside myself, I have an intentional state. My consciousness or awareness is directed toward X. But intentionality, like qualia, is not explicable by or reducible to anything material. No quality in my body is “about X” or “directed toward X.” This intentional state is explained by my having a mind in which such states occur. Matter is not up for the job, once again.[2]

When we combine arguments for theism from science with philosophical arguments for mind-body dualism, the door opens for the afterlife. God is there, and since our minds are not identical to our bodies, our minds (or souls) can continue to exist after our physical demise. While this argument agrees with biblical teaching, the reasoning does not mean that we presuppose the Bible is true in what it teaches about creation, design, and the soul. Rather, the evidence and argumentation support both claims and set the stage for the fuller biblical revelation. The life and teaching of Jesus Christ add another crucial dimension to the argument for the afterlife, but I will come to that after discussing another option: reincarnation.

Reincarnation: The way of Eastern religion

Hinduism and Buddhism, despite their doctrinal differences, claim that human existence is not limited to one lifetime.[3] Instead, humans are reincarnated after their deaths as either humans or animals. In previous lifetimes, individuals were humans or animals. The shape of one’s life is determined by karma—the moral law of cause and effect. Good karma produces better outcomes and bad karma produces worse outcomes. (This is the moral and metaphysical engine of the caste system of India, although Buddhism denies caste.) However, the religious goal of both Hinduism and Buddhism is not to reincarnate into a better life, but to leave the wheel of suffering entirely to attain a disembodied and impersonal state of enlightenment called nirvana.

Belief in reincarnation and karma spiked in America in the 1960s with the influx of Eastern religions and assorted Buddhist and Hindu gurus and today about twenty-five percent of Americans believe in it.[4] The reincarnationist believes that he or she will live on in some form or another or will attain nirvana, but can have no exact knowledge about their life after life. Thus, death is not the end, but the afterlife is not specified.

As appealing as reincarnation and karma may be, it suffers from two chief philosophical objections. First, for the mechanism of reincarnation to work, there must be individual souls to come back in some other form after death. While Christianity teaches that we have a soul that survives the death of the body, Buddhism denies it outright (the self is an illusion) and the non-dualistic forms of Hinduism deny this as well (since there is but one Universal Self or Brahman). If there are no souls, then reincarnation is impossible, since it has nothing to work on or work with. If any worldview contains a contradiction in its defining beliefs, then it must be false. In the case of reincarnation these two beliefs are incompatible (1) no soul and (2) reincarnation.

Second, in most Hindu and Buddhist views of reincarnation and karma, karmic outcomes are automatic. There is an impersonal law of karma that dispenses karmic rewards and punishments. But the supposed law of karma is not like a natural law, such as gravity, that automatically ensures outcomes given certain physical states. Rather, the law of karma requires (1) moral evaluation and (2) moral administration. But there can be neither moral evaluation nor moral administration without a Mind that evaluates karmic outcomes and administers those outcomes from lifetime to lifetime. Therefore, another contradiction ensues: (1) there is karmic evaluation and administration (2) there is no moral agent in charge of (1).[5]

There are further logical problems with reincarnation (such as an infinite regress of souls), but these suffice to refute it. But we now happily turn to history and Christianity.

Jesus and history: Good news

If science and philosophy testify against the atheist’s view that death ends human existence and if logic testifies against reincarnation and karma as providing more lives after death, what does Christianity have to offer us all-too-mortal human beings, who know we will die and who want to somehow survive the grave?

The brilliant Christian philosopher and scientist, Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), offered a parable that focuses our minds.

Imagine a number of men in chains, all under sentence of death, some of whom are each day butchered in the sight of the others; those remaining saw their own condition in that of their fellows, and looking at each other with grief and despair await their turn. This is an image of the human condition.[6]

Judaism, Islam, and Christianity all teach that an Almighty Creator exists and will judge each soul after death. They all claim that one might receive or be denied eternal life after death. But which religion makes the best case for being the one true religion? That is a long and involved issue, but the answer is found in Jesus Christ—in his life, death, and resurrection, ascension, and Second Coming.

Our best source of knowledge about Jesus is the New Testament. The Gospels and the letters and Revelation have been passed down the centuries in thousands of Greek and other manuscripts, and they are better attested in manuscript transmission than any other piece of ancient near Eastern literature. What these manuscripts describe was written by people in the know, either disciples of Jesus or those close to him, and they were written only a few decades after the events they describe or elaborate on. Further, certain claims about Jesus and the early church have been corroborated by sources outside the New Testament.[7]

The character who dominates the New Testament (and who was prophesied in the Old Testament)[8] was a prophet, a miracle worker, a philosopher, and an exorcist. His words and life have left an indelible mark on the entire world, despite his lack of social status or political might. As church historian Phillip Schaff (1819-1893) wrote:

There never was in this world a life so unpretending, modest, and lowly in its outward form and condition, and yet producing such extraordinary effects upon all ages, nations, and classes of men. The annals of history produce no other example of such complete and astonishing success in spite of the absence of those material, social, literary, and artistic powers and influences which are indispensable to success for a mere man. Christ stands, in this respect also, solitary and alone among all the heroes of history, and presents to us an insolvable problem, unless we admit him to be more than man, even the eternal Son of God.[9]

How could a crucified Jewish peasant attain such perennial and global influence unless the Christian story is true, unless he, in fact, died and rose from the dead? The best explanation is not that some supernatural story was concocted after the death of Jesus as a kind of posthumous compliment, but, rather, that he did die to atone for our sins (as he said) and rose from the dead (as he said he would). We have already established that a supernatural Creator God exists who would have the ability to work miracles. When we consult the best historical documents about Jesus (the New Testament), we find them testifying to his various miracles and to “the grand miracle,” as C. S. Lewis called it in his classic, Miracles. As Lewis, a literary scholar, also noted, these stories do not read like myths and legends, but as bona fide history.[10]

Our step-by-step argument, while brief, is compelling, and is backed up by more in-depth analysis.[11]

1.  Atheism’s claim that life ends at physical death is false because of the evidence for a Creator from science—giving us a supernatural word—and because of the case for dualism.

2.  Reincarnation’s claim that we have lived before and will live again is false because the central claims of reincarnation are contradictory, and contradictions cannot be true.

3.  The New Testament gives us a reliable historical report about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

4.  Jesus would never have attained the status he achieved in world history had he not been raised from the dead in space-time history.

5.  Therefore, Jesus was raised from the dead.

The implications of (5) are titanic for us, for history, and for eternity. Jesus’s resurrection is the confirmation that his mission as Messiah was accomplished. As Paul writes, Jesus, “through the Spirit of holiness was appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 1:4). Because of Jesus’ resurrection, those who trust in him as Lord and Savior receive eternal life, beginning in this life and continuing forever (John 3:16-18; Ephesians 2:1-10). As Jesus promised:

Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life. Very truly I tell you, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live (John 5:24-25).

Those who confess Christ as Lord and believe that he rose from the dead pass from death to life because their sins are forgiven and they are adopted into God’s forever family (John 11:25; Romans 10:9). Because of Jesus’ resurrection, his followers will be raised to eternal life after death. Therefore, this Easter (and always), we should all cry out: “He is risen. The Lord is risen indeed. Hallelujah!”


[1] Steven C. Meyer, Return of the God Hypothesis (New York: HarperOne, 2021). See also the video, “The Case for a Creator,” Illustra Media (2006), which is available on YouTube.

[2] See Douglas Groothuis, “The Uniqueness of Humanity: Consciousness and Cognition,” Christian Apologetics, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity-Academic, 2022).

[3] For a discussion of both religions, see Douglas Groothuis, “You are That” (Hinduism) and “Life is Suffering” (Buddhism), World Religions in Seven Sentences (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity-Academic, 2022).

[4] See Douglas Groothuis, “From Counterculture to New Age,” Unmasking the New Age (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1986).

[5] See Douglas Groothuis, “Logical and Biblical Defeaters for Reincarnation,” Christian Research Journal, Volume 39, Number 5 (2016).

[6] Pascal, Blaise. Pensées (Penguin Classics) (p. 137). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition. On Pascal, see Douglas Groothuis, Beyond the Wager: The Christian Brilliance of Blaise Pascal (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity-Academic, 2024).

[7] See Craig L. Blomberg, “Jesus of Nazareth: What Historians Can Know About Him,” in Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics.

[8] See Walter Kaiser, The Messiah of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 1995).

[9] Philip Schaff, The Person of Christ: The Miracle of History; With a Reply to Strauss and Renan, and a Collection of Testimonies of Unbelievers (New York: Charles Scribner, 1866),

[10] C. S. Lewis, “What Are We To Make of Jesus Christ?” God in the Dock (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1970).

[11] See the pertinent chapters in Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics.

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. (University of Oregon) is Professor of Philosophy at Denver Seminary where he has served since 1993. He is the author of nineteen books, including Unmasking the New Age, Truth Decay, On Jesus, Christian Apologetics, Fire in the Streets, and, most recently, World Religions in Seven Sentences, as well as thirty peer-reviewed papers in journals such as Religious Studies, Academic Questions, Philosophia Christi, and Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society.

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