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I awoke with a start. The driver had slammed on the brakes, hard. People and equipment in the back of our heavily loaded pickup truck flew forward, crashing against the cab. Time slowed to a tortoise tempo. But our truck wasn’t slowing down—at least, not fast enough.

Crammed into the front seat of an old Toyota with two other men on a narrow, dark highway in central Thailand, I looked eternity square in the face. Even now, several years later, my mind can still replay the scene as though it had taken place five minutes ago.

Mr. Lon, a professor at a small college two hours’ drive from Bangkok, had met me at the airport late that night to take me to his college to teach a seminar. He and a student and I rode in the pickup’s cab—I, on the left side of the cab, beside the passenger door (traffic drives on the left in Thailand). A half dozen other students wedged themselves in among the supplies in the back.

Some time after midnight, as we neared our destination, a dump truck careened into our lane from a parking area on the left. The student who was driving slammed on the brakes, and the pickup’s tires squealed on the pavement. My life didn’t flash before my eyes—I was too busy measuring the height of the truck bed in front of me and plotting our projected course.

With speed exceeding a supercomputer, I calculated that I was about to be decapitated. Neurons throughout my body went on full alert, adrenaline poured into my bloodstream, and I leaned hard right, ducking down into Mr. Lon’s lap.

The next instant it was over. We whizzed past the dump truck, missing it by millimeters, and our driver, exercising all the skills he had learned through years of jockeying vehicles over Thailand’s chaotic roads, wove us back into our own lane without hitting any oncoming vehicles.

But what if my instinct had proven accurate? What if eternity had not only looked me in the face but had stared me down? Where would I be now?

Looking at life’s end

Perhaps we all could benefit from stopping once in a while to ask the big question: what happens after this life? Almost every philosopher and religious leader has felt compelled to address this “what comes next?” question. Essentially, they’ve come up with just three answers: one, the spirit of life is extinguished, never to be heard from again; two, it continues living in some other form; or three, it awaits a resurrection. There’s a multitude of variations, but these three themes are the only options.

Plato believed in a form of reincarnation. Most of his Greek contemporaries thought that after death, the soul migrated to a shadowy netherworld called Hades.

Buddha, whose philosophy permeates Thailand and much of the rest of the Orient, devoted himself to an ascetic’s search for answers. Finally, after meditating under a rose apple tree for six weeks, he found a solution that satisfied him. His belief in reincarnation, coupled with his observation that life seems to be an endless round of suffering, led him to conclude that the best thing to strive for is a blowing out of life’s candle. He taught his disciples that they should overcome desire so that they would not have to come back and suffer further in future lives.

I’ve often wondered if that philosophy has produced the highway habits of the Thai people. Driving on narrow country roads at dusk, one often has to dodge groups of farm workers who have congregated in the traffic lanes to walk back to their villages after the day’s work. And bicyclists dressed in black, with no reflectors or lights of any kind, pedal slowly down the middle of the road, seeming to dare motorists to send them on to their next life!

In the years since World War I, popular sentiment in the Western world has moved from staunch belief in a spirit that returns to God, awaiting the resurrection of the body at the second coming of Jesus, to a despairing doubt of any life beyond the grave. Now, in reaction to the hopelessness offered by this latter view, many Westerners have opted for a belief in reincarnation.

Reincarnation, as people in the West tend to believe in it, teaches that we go through an endless cycle of rebirths that gradually lead us to higher and higher forms of life as we learn from the mistakes we made in our past lives and try harder.

The problem is that the only way to discover what lessons we should have learned from those mistakes is to go through past-life regression— a dubious new development in the world of pop psychology that often finds poorly trained “therapists” hypnotizing people and attempting to take them in their memories back before the day of their conception. Many regressed people sooner or later “discover” that, in one of their past lives, they were Cleopatra or some close associate of Jesus Christ.

The results of belief in reincarnation are no different in the West than in the East. Human life is devalued, because each individual is just one manifestation among many of an eternally recyclable spirit.

From One who knows

Our decisions about the afterlife shouldn’t be based on the propaganda of competing models, however. We must search for truth—for evidence from Someone who actually knows what comes after death.

Jesus didn’t just talk about resurrection. He demonstrated it.

First, there was the dead son of the widow of Nain. Jesus halted his funeral procession and turned his mother’s wailing to laughter by raising him from the dead (see Luke 7:11–15).

Then, there was Lazarus—whom Jesus brought out of the tomb after he had been dead four days (see John 11:1–44).

But most compelling of all was Jesus’ own resurrection. Three days after being certified dead by the Roman legionnaires who crucified Him, He left the tomb under His own power (see Matthew 28:5, 6).

Because Jesus rose from the tomb, we can know there is life beyond the grave for all who accept Him as Savior. And our return to life will not be as some slightly improved models of our old selves that still have thousands of years of mistakes to work through. No. When resurrected, we will be perfect—by the grace of God, made over in His image.

How can we know Jesus returned to life? After His resurrection, He appeared to hundreds of people—including the Pharisee Saul, who had been persecuting Christians (see 1 Corinthians 15:3–8). Saul’s encounter with Jesus turned his life around. Better known after his conversion by the Greek name Paul, he became the leading Christian missionary, risking his life to carry through much of the Roman Empire the good news of the grace of God that makes resurrection available to all who believe in Jesus.

As to when believers will return to life, Jesus Himself said, “ ‘A time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out—those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned’ ” (John 5:28, 29). And Lazarus’s sister Martha expressed the hope that Jesus had given her concerning her dead brother: “ ‘I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day’ ” (John 11:24; italics supplied).

The Bible makes it clear that the resurrection will take place in the future, at the second coming of Christ, when those who have accepted Him as their Savior will be caught up to join Him in the clouds of heaven. Both the dead and the living believers will go to meet Him on the same day. Also in the future is the time when those who have died rejecting God will face the consequences of their choices.

Impact on our lives

What we believe about life after death affects how we live our lives before death. As Western views of the certainty of life after death have lost ground, human life itself has been devalued. Now, it’s common to hear of some ordinary person who suddenly “snaps,” loads his car with an assortment of pistols and assault rifles, and heads out to “settle the score” by killing as many strangers as possible before using his last bullet on himself.

These homicidal maniacs probably don’t sit down and think philosophically about their actions before they set out. But if they believed that human beings had eternal value, and if they believed that a resurrection and judgment followed death, they might seek less violent ways of working out their frustrations. They might consider that a bullet to their own head would not absolve them of all life’s consequences.

One day, a crotchety old nursing home resident died. This senior citizen had spent his days cruising the halls in his wheelchair, yelling and cursing at the staff. After a doctor had pronounced him dead, the attendants had to place his body on a gurney to await the mortician. But just as they began to lift him out of his wheelchair, the old geezer took a deep breath, opened his eyes, and asked what was going on!

Learning he was on his way to his own funeral sent shock waves rolling through his brain. And those shock waves completely changed his outlook on life. Within a few days, he was wheeling up and down the halls, apologizing to those he had cursed and doing everything in his power to make their lives brighter.

Our view of what lies beyond death can change how we live now.

I looked eternity square in the face that night in Thailand. Yes, the thought of dying frightened me. But the thought of what lies beyond death does not. Because of what Jesus taught about the resurrection— and even more, because He raised others, and He Himself rose from the grave—we need not fear what lies beyond.

After Death, Then What?

by Kenneth Wade
From the November 2009 Signs