For several years now I have minimized the theme of life after death in my writing and teaching, because this theme has been so misused among Christian groups who try to win converts on this issue alone. Preaching the gospel as a way to go to heaven and avoid hell has at least two very serious side effects. First, there are those who are not sure whether there is anything after death, as well as those who think it unlikely there is such a place as hell. Either way, they find it hard to take the gospel seriously. Generally, nothing can be said that will change their mind, and they will dismiss Christianity as irrelevant. The second side effect is that many people take this kind of gospel as a "get out of hell free" card, and agree in principle to the theology without ever intending to let God into their lives at all. They may even opt for going to church and getting involved in some good work. But they never encounter the God they say they believe in. In many cases, I am concerned that they may have bought into a false sense of security brought on by a truncated form of the gospel. Both of these side effects then are the exact opposite of what the gospel is intended to produce. Had these people heard the whole gospel, they may or may not have responded differently. But at least they would have had an informed dissent.
On the other hand, we cannot ignore the emphasis in the New Testament regarding life after death. It permeates the text. Jesus: "He who believes in me shall never die." John: "It does not yet appear what we shall become. But we know that when we see Him as He is, we will become like Him." Paul: "Because of the hope laid up for you in heaven." So how do we relate to this part of the message?
For many people in the West, it is hard to get worked up about life after death. After all, this life is pretty good. Now for those who have faced life-threatening illnesses or accidents, life in heaven no doubt has a lot more appeal. But frankly, compared to most of the world and most of history, a lot of us are fairly comfortable. I wonder sometimes how the message of eternal hope landed on the agrarian culture of Jesus' day, where people worked 16 hours a day just to survive. It probably meant more to them. Perhaps when Western civilization crumbles into the dust, life after death will look really good to us as well. Of course, eternal life also looks really good when we finally come to terms with how short and unpredictable life is on this planet.
The good news is we do have a hope that will outlast all pain, sickness, disease, loss of all kinds, and even death. Jesus' own resurrection started something new: "He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation, the beginning, the firstborn from the dead…" (Cor.1:15). Jesus started a new creation, and He bids us to come and die to the old creation so we can be resurrected in the new one. We can get started on our new life now! Paul says, "If anyone is in Christ, he has become part of the New Creation." In Romans 6, he goes to great lengths to describe this process of "life after death" as a way of experiencing the life of Christ today. Life after death is a way of restoring our soul, not just a hope for the future. Eternal life refers to both the length and quality of this new life. "This is eternal life, to know You, the only true God" Jesus says.
Once we get a glimpse of the Matrix we have all been part of and see life for what it really is, death and resurrection become really good news — both spiritually and physically — both now and at the end of this earthly existence.