Death is inescapable. Its certainty leads to what some have called the Terrible Question: Is this life all there is? Are all the love, hopes, attainments and talents of an individual nothing more than a random, transient and ultimately meaningless collection of neurochemical impulses? When our hearts stop beating, do we (as persons) simply cease to exist? (By mass, our bodies are 99 percent oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium and phosphorus. Those elements will survive, of course. But who really cares?)
There are, essentially, only two possible answers to this question. One is eloquently summarized by Shakespeare's Macbeth, for whom the close of mortal life was the absolute and irrevocable end. Upon hearing of his wife's suicide, Macbeth exclaims:
All our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing. ("Macbeth," V.5)
"Do not pass by my epitaph, wayfarer," says one ancient Greek tomb inscription, "but stand, listen, and, when you have heard, go on your way.
"There is no boat in Hades, no ferryman Charon …
"All of us who have died and gone below
"are bones and ashes, nothing else."
Although some speak of the dead "living on" in the memory of the living, this is cold comfort at best, for such memories survive only a generation or two. How many remember their great-grandparents? And, of course, being remembered by the living is of no real consequence to the dead if they've ceased to exist. As a famous ancient Roman epitaph puts it, "I was not. I was. I am not. I don't care."
On the other hand, nearly all religions affirm an existence beyond this one. Death is not the end, in the view of the vast majority of those who have ever lived and who are living now, but a transition to another state. Neolithic burials with offerings of food, flowers, clothing and tools demonstrate that the idea of an afterlife is one of the earliest forms of religious belief. The oldest surviving religious writings — the Pyramid Texts of Egypt — focus on the afterlife of the king, who ascends into heaven to dwell with the gods.
Of course, although most religions agree there is existence after death, the precise nature of that existence is open to a wide range of interpretations. Many faiths teach that family and loved ones will be reunited in the afterlife, for only with eternal love is eternal life worth living. For Hindus, death leads to a cycle of reincarnations of the soul, until, reaching perfection after countless lifetimes, the soul is reunited with Atman — the ultimate reality — in which individuality may be lost, but the spirit is absorbed into God.
Unlike the belief in reincarnation in eastern and southern Asia, the monotheistic Near Eastern religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — maintain that the dead will be resurrected and live forever. In addition, there will be a final judgment, in which those resurrected will be rewarded or punished for their faith and deeds during mortal life. For Christians, Christ provides the answer to the Terrible Question in John 10:25-26, where he proclaims: "I am the resurrection and the life: He that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live. And whosever liveth and believeth in me shall never die."
But Jesus didn't only teach theoretically about life after death. He demonstrated it. His physical resurrection and his empty tomb — reported (as several prominent scholars have persuasively argued in important recent books) by credible ancient witnesses — lift the concept of a life beyond the grave from the realm of airy speculation to that of specific, concrete history.
For believers who answer the Terrible Question in the affirmative — that there really is a life after death — it is marvelously transformed into the Wonderful Answer: that we may have eternal life. And, sooner than most of us are willing to admit, we will all make this remarkable transition — from life into Life. "All your losses will be made up to you in the resurrection," testified the Prophet Joseph Smith, "provided you continue faithful. By the vision of the Almighty I have seen it."
Daniel C. Peterson is a professor of Islamic studies and Arabic at Brigham Young University, where he also serves as editor in chief of the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative. He is the founder of MormonScholarsTestify.org, the general editor of "Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture" online at www.mormoninterpreter.com and he blogs daily at www.patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson.