If I knew that I was about to die, I would buy a pound of macadamia nuts, and then go to a pet store and scoop up every puppy in the place, and spend my remaining time stuffing my face and playing with puppies. I won’t do this today, because I assume that my life will go on, and I will need money for rent, not for very expensive macadamia nuts, and I don’t have the facilities for long-term dog pack care. What I think about death shapes my behavior.
Of course, as David Horowitz wrote, “You’re Going to Be Dead One Day.” But there’s another reason to think about beliefs around death. Not just personal, but culture-wide conceptions of death inform human behavior. Politics is downstream from culture, and culture is downstream from religion. Lee Strobel’s September, 2021, Zondervan Press book, “The Case for Heaven: A Journalist Investigates Evidence for Life After Death,” offers the casual reader an introduction to Christian ideas about death. Strobel is the bestselling author of over forty books and curricula that have sold fourteen million copies. Strobel is very gifted at taking abstruse theology and translating it into material that one can read, understand, and be intrigued by during a subway ride. Even non-Christians can benefit from Strobel’s books. Death forms life as no other feature. Strobel informs the reader on how Christian ideas about death form life and culture.
One can better understand the specifics of Christianity’s approach to death, and the impact of that approach, by first comparing it to non-Christian belief systems. Hinduism claims to be the oldest living religion in the world; with over a billion adherents, Hinduism, after Christianity and Islam, is the third largest religion.
In Hinduism, death is inextricable from caste. For hundreds, perhaps thousands of years, devout Hindus have believed that they must behave according to the dictates of their caste. If you are born a Valmiki caste sewer cleaner, you must clean sewers, even if you are a scientific genius. Further, you must perform your assigned task with an impersonal “detachment.” You are not the one carrying out the action. Your caste is the active doer; you are just a tool in its hands. The enlightened one “Rejoices not; grieves not,” and is “from all works detached.” “I am born to do this,” says one member of the Valmiki caste, of the filthy work that kills, on average, almost one Indian sewer cleaner per day. Indians living overseas bring caste with them. One of Britain’s biggest dating sites asked users to self-identify by caste. “Untouchables are undateable,” reported the Times.
To do the work of a different caste than the one you are born into is fraught with danger. So says the Bhagavad Gita, 3:35. If a member of the Valmiki caste were to attempt a different occupation, he would not be fulfilling his caste duty. That refusal would earn him a reincarnation as something even worse than a sewer cleaner. Reincarnation can manifest as punishment or reward, coded according to caste. “The murderer of a Brahmin [a member of the highest caste] becomes consumptive,” and is reborn as an Untouchable. “Karma which has been made … must inevitably be suffered. Karma not suffered does not fade away even in tens of millions of ages.”
American New Agers use the word “karma” incorrectly. Karma isn’t about universal standards of morality applicable to all, regardless of race or gender, class or social station. Karma keeps score of, and thus rigidly maintains, caste-related virtue and vice. Note that according to the Garuda Purana, there is a special, punitive reincarnation for killing a high caste Brahmin. One is reborn Untouchable. Thus, one need not feel compassion for the suffering of India’s 200 million Untouchables. They deserve the low caste into which they were born, because of caste-specific violations in a previous incarnation. They can escape their fate by being obedient to the strictures of Untouchability. Their next incarnation will be better.
The ultimate goal, though, is not a superior rebirth, but no rebirth whatsoever. The ultimate goal is moksha. Moksha is not Heaven. Moksha is release from human life, “this cage of suffering,” and from samsara, the “aimless and directionless wandering” of human birth, death, and reincarnation. In moksha, the individual ceases to exist as a separate personality and becomes one with Brahman, an impersonal creative principle. Hinduism’s moksha is related to Buddhism’s nirvana. The word “nirvana” means to blow out a light. Nirvana produces “anatta” or non-self, and “sunyata” – emptiness. The Prasna Upanishad, 6:5, speaks of rivers losing their “names and forms” and merging with the ocean. Just so the human loses his name and form and merges with Brahman. This impersonal process is captured in the Bhagavad Gita. “Thou grievest where no grief should be … the wise in heart mourn not for those that live, nor those that die.”
The Hindu concept of death, of an endless cycle of birth, death, and reincarnation, and that reincarnation calibrated by how well one carried out one’s caste duties in a previous life, has contributed to devout Hindus obediently following, and violently enforcing, caste strictures, again, for hundreds if not thousands of years. One can see how a thinker invested in Hindu concepts of selfhood, individuality, equality, caste, karma, and reincarnation would be unlikely to produce a document like, for example, the Declaration of Independence.
“Shahid” is translated as “martyr” but it does not signify the Christian concept of “martyr,” that is one who peacefully accepts death rather than abandon his faith. In Islam, shahids are more typically those who “slay and are slain” to advance Islam, and who die as warriors. Shahids are the only people guaranteed Jannah, that is Paradise, in Islam (Qur’an 3:169-170, 22:58-59, 9:111, 47:4-6). In Jannah, Muslim men will be serviced by supernatural sex workers with large, round, “not sagging” breasts and renewable virginity. Women do not receive any comparable promise, and Muslim women have noticed that.
Allah created some people specifically to send them to Hell (Qur’an 7:179). “Indeed, the unbelievers among the people of the book and the idolaters will remain in the fire of Gehenna. They are the most vile of created beings,” says Qur’an 98:6. The Qur’an borrowed much material from pre-existing Jewish and Christian texts, but, significantly, the Qur’an did not borrow Genesis 1:26, in which God creates humanity in his own image. “Tzelem elohim,” or “imago dei,” Hebrew and Latin for “the image of God,” informs Jewish and Christian believers that each human life has an immortal soul, a soul created in the image of God. Islam rejects this concept.
In Islam, 999 people out of 1,000 will go to Hell. Muslims, too, will be sent to Hell, and only rescued from it if it is Allah’s will (Qur’an 19:71-72). Short of dying in jihad, Muslims can never be sure that they have performed enough prayers and fasting to earn a slot in Jannah. Given Muslim insecurity about salvation short of jihad, the Qur’an’s graphic descriptions of Hell’s sadistic tortures and Jannah’s sensuous delights, and the Qur’an’s assurance that infidels are vile and destined for Hell anyway, one can see how Muslims have been inspired to take up jihad. In his recent book “The Critical Qur’an,” Robert Spencer highlights those quotes that promise Jannah to jihadis. Spencer comments, “Muslim warriors have fought with courage throughout history, knowing that … if they are killed, they will enjoy paradise.”
In the twentieth century, Nazism, Marxism, and tribalism killed tens of millions of human beings. All three isms adopted, to a greater or lesser extent, a purely materialist, atheist view of human death. All three selected perceived enemy populations, and understood industrial mass murder of those populations as having no more significance than the slaughter of animals – a term used by Soviets mass murdering kulaks, the obliteration of lice –a term used by Nazis mass murdering Jews, or the crushing of cockroaches – a term applied to Tutsis by Hutus during the Rwandan genocide. There is no afterlife, no soul, and no moral cost to the slaughter of mere animals, lice, or cockroaches, in the name of the perceived higher good, the creation of a cleansed communist, Nazi, or tribal Utopia.
America is currently experiencing an epidemic of “deaths of despair,” that is, deaths by suicide and self-destructive activities like drug use. The Atlantic mourns that America “is on the edge of an existential crisis … Anxiety, depression, and suicidality have increased to unprecedented levels.” At least one causative factor may be a crisis of meaning in the wake of the mass abandonment of Christianity. Christianity promises that suffering has meaning and that we enter a better world when we die. Atheism insists that there is no larger meaning to biological life and that death is merely final erasure. “Depression is a serious problem within the greater atheist community and far too often, that depression has led to suicide. This is something many of my fellow atheists often don’t like to admit … a lot of atheists … would like to believe that atheists are happier people than religious believers … in some very important ways we are not,” wrote atheist activist Staks Rosch in 2017. Scholarly studies on faith, atheism, and suicide, for example here and here, support Rosch’s assertion.
The Biblical book of Acts records Stephen, the first Christian martyr, fearlessly preaching, though he knows that such preaching will result in his immediate death. Before he is stoned to death, Stephen joyfully announces that he can see Heaven. With this glorious vision in sight, Stephen forgives his killers, and dies.
“Paul and Silas bound in jail,” is the opening lyric of a traditional American folksong. This lyric alludes to the same Book of Acts in which Stephen is executed. Paul and Silas were stripped, flogged, and imprisoned. The song that mentions them, known as “Eyes on the Prize,” became a theme song of the Civil Rights Movement.
Civil Rights activists Jim Zwerg, a 22-year-old college student from Wisconsin, and Fannie Lou Hamer, a Mississippi sharecropper whose most significant formal education took place in church, voluntarily confronted great danger, and both were imprisoned and both were almost beaten to death. Like Stephen, Paul, and Silas two thousand years earlier, Zwerg and Hamer overcame the fear of death by keeping their “eyes on the prize,” that is, a heavenly reward. Zwerg gained courage from Psalm 27; Hamer from spirituals. Zwerg’s description of what gave him strength is eerily similar to Stephen’s words while being stoned. While being beaten, Zwerg said, “I had the most incredible religious experience of my life … I knew … that whether I lived or died, I would be OK … Segregation must be stopped … We’re willing to accept death.” After white police ordered black prisoners to beat Hamer mercilessly, Hamer, in horrible pain and damaged for life, began to sing. “Paul and Silas was bound in jail, let my people go,” she sang, echoing New Testament words written 2,000 years before, and Old Testament words describing the Exodus of over 3,000 years ago. Not only belief in a future reward empowered Hamer. Later, Hamer confronted one of the men who beat her. “Do you people ever think how you’ll feel when you’ll have to meet God?” she asked. Her implication was, of course, that the man who beat her was destined to go to Hell. Zwerg’s and Hamer’s Christian understanding of death empowered their rewriting of history.
Of course Jim Zwerg and Fannie Lou Hamer were exceptional heroes, not average Christians. Of course too many Christians accepted or participated in Jim Crow. Jim Zwerg’s own parents condemned his participation in Freedom Rides. Hamer said that “most black preachers had to be dragged kicking and screaming into supporting the movement.” Most Hindus are not Sannyasis, living lives of complete renunciation, and most Hindus do grieve when their loved ones die. Most Muslims are not jihadis. But ideas influence enough members of a society for societies to exhibit the distinctive imprint of those ideas.
So, yes, even non-Christians can benefit from reading Lee Strobel’s “The Case for Heaven: A Journalist Investigates Evidence for Life After Death.” In this reader-friendly but still deep book, Strobel works to align traditional Christian beliefs about death with research into consciousness, secular philosophy and ethics, and near death experiences.
Strobel begins with the question of consciousness, a phenomenon that science cannot fully explain. The brain is not consciousness, emphasizes Strobel’s interview subject, Dr. Sharon Dirckx, who has a PhD in brain imaging from the University of Cambridge and is the author of “Am I Just My Brain?” If one believes that the brain alone accounts for consciousness, near death experiences must be dismissed as hallucinations or fabrications. A non-functioning brain cannot record accurate accounts of what occurred, for example, in a hospital room after a patient has died. And peer-reviewed research insists that NDEs, or near death experiences, include just such accounts.
Descriptions of what sound like NDEs go back thousands of years. NDEs gained popular attention in the 1970s, with the publication of books like 1975’s “Life after Life” by Raymond Moody. NDEs typically involve a person near death, or perhaps already apparently dead, who goes through some or all of the following: leaving the body, observing one’s own body and realizing one is dead, encountering deceased loved ones, approaching a bright light that conveys love and knowledge, undergoing a life review of positive and negative life events, seeing a heavenly landscape, encountering a border one cannot cross, and returning to the body.
In response to those who dismiss NDEs as hallucinations the body produces at the moment of death, Strobel cites published, peer-reviewed research into accounts of blind persons who can see during their NDE, and who report accurate descriptions of their surroundings. One NDE involves an experiencer who reported a sticker on the top side of a ceiling fan blade, a sticker not visible from below. Another experiencer reported a sneaker she’d seen on a window ledge. An investigator checked and found the shoe as described. There are other accounts of experiencers reporting accurate information gathered while they were dead or near death.
Perhaps even more convincing than experiencers’ knowledge of material inaccessible to a “dead” brain, or even merely someone with their eyes closed, is how NDEs change people. Howard Storm, for example, by his own description, was an abusive person and an atheist. After, as he reports, he was sent to Hell, he quit his academic career and became a Christian minister. Ben B., a suicide, had tortured birds and other animals. He was, he reports, sent to Hell. Even this wretch encountered a being of love and compassion who tried to teach him the error of his ways. Since the NDE, Ben B. has tried to change his life for the better; he reports that he has gone years without hospitalizations or further suicide attempts. Research suggests that hellish NDEs often result in life changes for the experiencer.
NDE researchers claim that NDEs have similar features cross-culturally. Before NDEs became a subject of popular conversation, researchers note, people who had never heard of NDEs independently reported similar narratives. The similarity of NDEs from person to person and place to place suggests that some similar process is occurring, independently of cultural influences. Either this is a universal bodily response to death, or these are actual accounts of what happens when humans, from any culture or religion, die.
Strobel argues that NDE features support Christian concepts of death. Strobel acknowledges that experiencers may interpret their NDE differently depending on their culture, but that features that support Christian theology are not limited to NDEs experienced by Christians. Similarities between NDEs and Christian belief include the following: NDEs suggest that there is life after death; experiencers report persistence of their mortal personality, which suggests survival of individuality; the dead encounter those they knew in life and converse with them; previously incomprehensible life episodes are explained; life’s pains fade to insignificance; experiencers encounter a unique, omnipotent, omniscient, all-loving God; that God is personal, and has a very intimate relationship with the experiencer, and addresses the experiencer with the focused intimacy of a loving parent or sibling; that God is light, knowledge, and love; experiencers visit an overwhelmingly pleasant place, suggestive of Heaven. The life review supports the Christian idea of love as the highest good and harming others as a moral wrong, and death as a time of judgment. In life reviews, worldly success means nothing. How we treat “the least of these” is as important as how we treat titled personages. Experiencers report that their experience is more real than life on earth, and life on earth is a testing ground and school to prepare one for eternity. Negative NDEs support the Christian concept of Hell as a place of punishment for bad behavior. These features, taken as a whole, do not comport with Hindu, Buddhist, Islamic, or Atheist views of the afterlife. Judaism “is famously ambiguous” about what occurs after death, and so no real comparison can be made here.
Anita Moorjani’s bestseller, “Dying To Be Me: My Journey from Cancer, to Near Death, to True Healing,” expresses Hindu-influenced and relativistic New Age views. “There’s no separation between you and me or Mother Teresa or Hitler,” she has said, and there is no judgment in the afterlife. We are all gods, she says, and we create our own realities, including death by cancer. Again, I suspect that Strobel would say that the features of Moorjani’s NDE do not contradict Christian theology, but her interpretation of those features do. For example, Moorjani reports encountering her deceased father and friend during her NDE, and she reports that she immediately recognized both. They were not, in short, nameless, formless, droplets of water merged with the sea of Brahman. Moorjani reports love as the most important force in the universe. An emphasis on love is more typical of Christianity than Hinduism.
Strobel asked theologians whether or not there will be animals in Heaven. It’s perfectly reasonable for a Christian to assume that there will be; there were animals in the Garden of Eden, and the Bible speaks, in Isaiah 11, of animals in a redeemed world.
The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
and a little child will lead them.
The cow will feed with the bear,
their young will lie down together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
The infant will play near the cobra’s den,
and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.
They will neither harm nor destroy
on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.
Psalm 36:6 reports, “You preserve man and beast.” God expresses his love and concern for animals, for example in Job 39 and Matthew 10:29. Romans 8:22 says that “all creation groans” for salvation. NDE accounts certainly include animal encounters. Michael S. reports, “I saw my deceased dog from my childhood … I remember exclaiming her name at the top of my lungs as I saw her bounding towards me. It was overwhelmingly wonderful … It was as if she had never died and she had always been waiting for me to wake up from my nap in the grass.”
“Everybody knows” that Christians believe that members of their congregation are going to Heaven, and everyone else is going to Hell. As usual, what “everybody knows” is true is incorrect. There are a variety of Biblically supportable understandings of who goes to Heaven, who goes to Hell, and for how long.
Purgatory is a doctrine associated with Catholicism, but even some Protestants believe in a place that is neither Heaven nor Hell, where imperfect people can be perfected, through purgation, before entering Heaven. Believers in Purgatory, as Strobel points out, can cite Biblical verses and church traditions for this belief. Surprisingly, CS Lewis, probably the most famous Protestant author of the past century, believed in Purgatory.
The eternal suffering of the damned is often assumed to be a universal Christian belief. It is not, and it never has been. There are other beliefs, and Strobel treats a couple of them, annihilationism and universal salvation. In annihilationism, the damned are simply erased, possibly immediately, and possibly after some time in Hell. Jehovah’s Witnesses are annihilationists.
Believers in Hell debate whether its flames are metaphorical or literal. Others define Hell as the absence of God, a place unbelievers have chosen and created for themselves. Strobel cites a terrifying, 1960 “Twilight Zone” episode, “A Nice Place to Visit.” Criminal Rocky Valentine is shot and killed. He is sent to what he thinks is Heaven, because he has everything he has ever wanted: women, riches, luxury. He soon finds that these don’t satisfy. When he reports his misery to Sebastian Cabot, a genial figure in white he had assumed was his guardian angel, Cabot cackles diabolically. Valentine finally realizes he is in the Hell of his own creation.
There are now, and there have been since Christianity’s beginnings, Christians who believe in universal salvation. In this concept, the damned suffer in Hell for as long as it takes for them to repent and accept God. Not a few NDEs mention just such a scenario. The aforementioned Howard Storm first went to Hell. After his torment, he began to sing “Jesus loves me, this I know,” and, he reports, Jesus rescued him from Hell. He changed his life completely after he was revived. Ben B.’s NDE included his encounter with a man who had sexually abused him when he, Ben, was only a child. The abuser had been stabbed to death in prison. When Ben B. encountered his abuser, the abuser begged for forgiveness and deliverance from Hell. A “booming voice” said to Ben B., “You can’t help him; he is where he needs to be. He has hurt children, he has burnt bridges, he has manipulated others, and he will remain here for eternity until the day he can accept the love, and light.”
One of the best reviewed theological tomes of the past few years is Dr. David Bentley Hart’s “That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation.” In that book, Hart insists, “The whole substance of Christian faith is the conviction that another has already and decisively gone down into that abyss for us, to set all the prisoners free, even from the chains of their own hatred and despair; and hence the love that has made all of us who we are, and that will continue throughout eternity to do so, cannot ultimately be rejected by anyone.” Martin Luther, who famously condemned those he assessed as sinners in very harsh language, made statements that some interpret as reflecting a belief in universal salvation, including, “God forbid that I should limit the time of acquiring faith to the present life. In the depth of the Divine mercy, there may be an opportunity to win it in the future.”
The concept of eternal damnation in Hell, the annihilationist concept, the Purgatory concept, and the universal salvation concept are all supported, by their adherents, with Biblical verses and references to early church fathers who advanced one position or another. Strobel clearly supports the first concept, but he gives a hearing to, and plenty of footnotes for, all the others.
In closing, Strobel quotes CS Lewis. “If you read history, you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next.” Those world-changing Christians had their eyes on the prize. Given the impact of Western Civilization, one need not be a Christian, or any kind of person of faith, to want to understand how Christians understand death, a key part of life. For those wanting to understand Christian concepts of death, Lee Strobel’s “The Case for Heaven” achieves the admirable feat of being both an easy read and an intriguing entrée into weighty, and highly influential, theological concepts.
Danusha Goska is the author of God through Binoculars: A Hitchhiker at a Monastery.