Christianity- Death and the Afterlife

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Christian beliefs about the soul

Christians believe that a person is not just made from his or her mind and body. According to Christianity, each person also has an immortal soul, which cannot be seen, and which make people different from every other kind of animal. In the book of Genesis, when God created humanity, he set people apart from other creatures. People were made in God's image:

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them (Genesis 1:27)

People have different interpretations of what it might mean to be made 'in the image of God', but many Christians think that it means that God put something of his own divine and everlasting nature into each person, and this is called the 'soul'.

When other animals were made, according to Genesis, they were just formed 'out of the ground' (Genesis 2:19); but when Adam was made, God did not only use the dust of the ground but gave him an extra kind of life which the animals were not given:

The Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being. (Genesis 2:7)

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Christian beliefs about the soul

As Christian doctrine developed and became interwoven with the ideas of Greek philosophers such as Plato, the idea was formed that people have souls, which are separate from the body and do not die when the body dies. The soul cannot be seen, but is something that makes each individual special and sacred. Christians believe that human life is very valuable to God, because humans have souls. Animals, according to Christianity, do not have souls and this is why most Christians are happy to eat meat.

St Paul, who was one of the earliest Christians and a leading figure in the development of the church after Jesus' death, taught that the body and the soul are often in conflict. The soul wants to be with God, and to do what is right, but sometimes the body prevents this from happening. The body is only interested in pleasue, such as food and luxuries, and so the soul (sometimes called the spirit) does not achieve its aims.

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Christian beliefs about the soul

Paul also taught that when people die, although the body dies, the 'spiritual body' or soul lives for ever, just as Christ lives for ever after he was raised from the dead. For Paul, the resurrection of Jesus was proof of life after death. Christians can expect that they, too, will be raised back to life by the power of God, because of what happened to Jesus. In his letter to the church at Corinth, Paul wrote:

The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. (1 Corinthians 15:42-44)

Paul was making the point that our physical bodies are imperfect and will die, but that our spiritual bodies, or souls, will be raised from the dead.

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Understanding of heaven, hell and purgatory

Hell

In the past, belief in heaven and hell occupied a central place in Christian teaching, but today Christians tend to concentrate on belief in life after death in heaven. They usually think of hell as a poetic way of describing an eternity without God, rather than as a real place. Christians in the Middle Ages were very preoccupied with hell, and thought of it as a place of everlasting torture for people who had turned their backs on Christianity and who had committed wicked deeds. They encouraged others to join the church by threatening them with the fires of hell if they refused. Today, although there are still Christians who believe that hell is a reality for non-Christians, many focus instead on the message of a loving and forgiving God They say that the descriptions of hell found in the Bible are symbolic, and not meant to be taken literally.

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Understanding of heaven, hell and purgatory

Heaven

Christians believe that when they die, the body is not needed any more, but the soul goes on to eternal life with God. This is known as 'heaven'. In Christian art and literature, heaven is often imagined as a place with angels playing on harps, but this is a way of describing something that is very difficult to put into words. The Apostles' creed, which is a Christian statement of belief, is said by many Christians during worship, and part of it states the christian hope of life after death:

I believe in...the forgiveness of sin
The resurrection of the body
And the life everlasting.

Christians believe that at the end of life, the soul is raised from the dead and lives on in a new kind of existence. Some Christians believe that, one day, the world will come to its Last Days, and the people's bodies will also be brought back to life. Because of this belief, they prefer to be buried rather than cremated. But most others think that there are problems with this idea, because if heaven is perfect, then people ought to be able to live with new, perfect bodies, and not need their old ones any more.

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Understanding of heaven, hell and purgatory

Heaven (Continued)

Beliefs about heaven are difficult to put into words, because heaven involves an existence that is nothing like the way that we live on the earth. Most Christians accept that they cannot know what heaven will be like, but they do believe that it will be an eternity with God, when evil and suffering no longer exist, and they find this belief comforting even if they do not completely understand what it will mean.

Purgatory

In Roman Catholic teaching, purgatory is a state after death, for people who are not completely ready to go straight to heaven. Their souls stay in purgatory until they are free from sin. Roman Catholics often pray for the souls of those who have died, in the hope that they will not have to spend too long in purgatory.

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God as judge

Christians believe that God knows people better than they know themselves, and will judge their actions. In particular, they believe that God will judge them on the basis of how much concern they have shown for thepoor and the weak. The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, in Matthew's Gospel, teaches that a Day of Judgement will come when God will divide people into two groups. The people who have cared about the poor and looked after those in need will be rewarded by eternal life with God, but those who have been selfish and ignored other people's needs will be sent away from God into hell.

Then he will say to those on his left. 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.'
They also will answer. 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?'
He will reply, 'I tell the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.'
Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life. (Matthew 25:41-46)

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God as judge

However in spite of these warnings, Christianity also teaches that God is loving and forgiving. Christians believe that although everyone has done wrong, they will be forgiven if they are really sorry, because of their faith in Christ. When Paul wrote to the new churches in the early days of Christianity, he was keen to assure them that their Christian faith meant that they would not be harshly judged.

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. (Romans 8:1-2)

Christians, then, believe that there is a relationship between moral behaviour and life after death. God expects high standards of people, and will judge them because of the things that they do. But there is also the possibility of forgiveness for people who realise that they have done wrong, so that bad deeds performed in the past do not just stay there waiting to be punished, with nothing anyone can do about it once the deed has been commited. Christians believe that the death of Jesus gave people the opportunity to be forgiven, as long as they recognise the wrong they have done and make up their minds to behave better in the future.

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Christian funerals

Christians, like everyone else, are sad when someone they love dies. However, a Christian funeral service reminds people that although the dead person can no longer be with the family and friends, death is not the end. Christians share the hope that after death, they will be raised to eternal life with God, and the Christian funeral service reminds them of this hope. A Christian funeral begins with the words of Jesus:

I am the resurrection and the life.

Christian funeral customs vary in different denominations. In most churches, there is a short service. A passage of the Bible is read, chosen to emphasise the hope of eternal life, and prayers are said asking for comfort for the relatives and friends, and giving thanks for the life of the person who has died. There might be a short talk about the person, to remember his or her personality and achievements, and sometimes a hymn is sung. It might be a hymn about resurrection, or one which reminds the congregation of the presence of God in time of trouble, or a hymn which was a favourite of the person who has died. Although a funeral service is always a sad occasion, the person leading the service usually tries not to allow it to become too gloomy, but emphasises the good things about the person's life, and encourages those present to be grateful to have known him or her.

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Christian funerals

After the service, the dead person might be buried in a coffin in the ground, or might be cremated. The minister will say more prayers, asking God to be merciful to the dead person's sould, and reminding people that all life is given by God and that God decides when to take it away.

When the funeral is over, those who have attended the service often go back to the house of the closest relatives, for refreshments and for a chance to express their sympathy.

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