Musings of a Curious Atheist: What does the Bible say about life after death?

Election season is the time that the crazies come out. We have seen the serial adulterer and Kentucky county clerk, Kim Davis, thumb her nose at the law of the land by refusing to issue marriage licenses to gay couples. She says she wants to uphold the sanctity of marriage as specified by her religion. There is the ironic case of the mistake of a 14 year-old Muslim geek for a bomb-making terrorist in Irving, Texas. The mayor of Irving is the woman who is trying to protect the U.S. from Sharia law. In older news, Joe Barton (R-Texas), says that man had no effect on climate change because the Great Flood was climate change and man-made hydrocarbons were not involved in that extreme event. The 2012 Republican Party of Texas platform declared that critical thinking should be discouraged in Texas schools—they threaten long-held beliefs. (If it looks like I am picking on Texas, it is just because they are such an easy target.)

As in the case of Joe Barton, many of the crazies defend their positions with Biblical passages. Now, I have to admit that I am a Facebook whore. Facebook helps me procrastinate. So I engage the crazies in conversation as a work-avoidance tactic. I confess that almost all of these interactions have been very enjoyable and educational. One important thing I learned in my interactions was that fundamentalist Christians only accept evidence from two sources, the Bible and Fox News. I have nothing to say about Fox News. There is nothing I could say that Jon Stewart has not already said. But the Bible intrigued me. I spent quite a bit of time googling this Biblical verse or that passage in order to try to have material for real conversations with the heavenly inspired. What emerged from the conversations was a set of premises or rules that must hold for any conversation with a fundamentalist:

  1. If you want to make a point, only quotes from the Bible can be used as evidence.
  2. The Bible is the literal Word of God, which means:
    1. Every word of the Bible is literally true
    2. There are no metaphors
    3. The Bible is self-consistent

So, as an atheist, I might point out that the resurrection story is a great metaphor for humans casting off their animal natures and aspiring to a spiritual state of mind. “Nope,” the fundamentalist would say. “Jesus went to heaven, a real place, where he sits with God, a real being.” How do I talk with people who think this way? Well …

Full disclosure: I am a scientist. I am accustomed to playing according to rules of evidence. These two fundamentalist rules are not the rules of evidence used in science, which requires experiments, reproducibility, etc., but I can live with them. I can engage in conversations constrained by these two rules, as long as I can still have access to the calculus of logic discovered by Aristotle a long time ago.

Let’s get to an example. How about everlasting life? This is certainly a topic of Biblical scope. More disclosure: I grew up in the Deep South—Southerners always capitalize “Deep South”—where Christianity is its most oppressive. Therefore, I am very familiar with the Biblical passages about life after death. Here are a couple just to remind you:

John 11:25 

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live,

Luke 23:43

And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

There are many more.

But … In my Facebook procrastinations this week, someone (I am sorry I do not remember who) sent me the following verses from Ecclesiastes:

Ecclesiastes 9:10 (NASB)
Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might; for there is no activity or planning or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol where you are going.

Ecclesiastes 9:5-6 (NASB)
5 For the living know they will die; but the dead do not know anything, nor have they any longer a reward, for their memory is forgotten. 6 Indeed their love, their hate and their zeal have already perished, and they will no longer have a share in all that is done under the sun.

“Sheol” is translated as “the grave” or “nothingness.”

These passages set me back. Very clearly they say that when you are dead, you are dead. “Memory is forgotten.” These passages must be true by the second rule. This cannot be a metaphor also by the second rule. This appears to violate the self-consistency of the Bible. How can the New Testament talk about life after death, and the Old Testament declares there is only death after death? When I have asked similar question to fundamentalists, people have come back with the claim that it is only the New Testament that is valid, not the Old Testament. This will not fly. I can come up with several quotes directly from Jesus testifying to the validity of the Old Testament. Here are a few examples:

‘The Scripture cannot be broken’ (John 10:35).

Jesus referred to Scripture as ‘the commandment of God’ (Matthew 15:3) and as the ‘Word of God’ (Mark 7:13).

Jesus also indicated that it was indestructible: ‘Until Heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass away from the law, until all is accomplished’ (Matthew 5:18).

So what is going on here? Even if I use the rules of fundamentalist Christians, the argument goes ad absurdum.  How do we reconcile these two different Biblical pictures of life after death? Help me out, please. I actually am quite open to a reasonable argument that follows the two fundamentalist premises. Remember, no reinterpreting the language to fit your position. This is the Word of God we are talking about here.

If we can gain insight into the question of everlasting life, then it should be simple to deal with the logical inconsistencies of people like Kim Davis, Joe Barton, and the Einsteins in Irving, Texas. This should keep us all entertained until the next Presidential election.

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