I was so excited to finally see the pyramids! When you arrive in Cairo, the bustling city saturates your senses. There are so many sights and sounds demanding your attention that it can be hard to know where to look.
On the tour bus heading to Giza, as you wind through Cairo, you start to glimpse something large out of the corner of your eye between city buildings or you see an angular shadow against the setting sun. And then you realise: you are looking at a pyramid! They’re everything you’d thought they would look like and standing next to one of them is awesome.
I discovered that they also offer the opportunity to go inside for a small fee. Before long, I was crouched down in the tiny stone corridor, making my way into the dark. After a short and decidedly awkward journey, I emerged into a room at the very centre of the pyramid. It was rectangular and bare, with a tour guide standing next to a fan in the corner. This was the heart of the pyramid, where the sarcophagus of the ancient Egyptian king rested after his death. Above me, it seemed as though I could feel the weight of millions of tons of rocks bearing down on this small, hot room.
The Big Question
When someone died in ancient Egypt, especially an important someone, the Egyptians had a complicated burial ritual that involved mummification, magic spells and burying their dead with the favourite things from this life that they might need in the next life. The Egyptians believed that a dangerous journey through the underworld was ahead of them after they died and if they survived it, their heart would be weighed against a feather to judge their worthiness for a place in paradise.
This was the ancient Egyptians’ answer to a question that every human being has been confronted with: What happens when I die?
Across the world, every people group has had to wrestle with that question. Buddhists believe that life begins again after death—a concept called reincarnation. The dead are reborn into a new life. Traditional Maori beliefs teach that the spirit of the deceased is always a part of the marae (traditional meeting place) and the recently deceased are brought there as a part of their burial ceremony. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have a variety of beliefs. Some believe that the dead are in an eternal dream state where they are reborn. Some even believe that the spirits of the deceased became a part of the land.
Looking for Answers
Understanding of what happens in the afterlife is widely varied across the world and ranges from a highly spiritual understanding of death to a shoulder shrug. “I dunno,” my father would say to me. “After all, death can’t be that bad. No-one has ever come back from death to complain!”
Whichever camp you’re in, there’s no doubt that you’ve pondered the question of an afterlife. It’s one of the big questions of life, as confronting as any giant pyramid. No matter that you might try not to think about the question; like the pyramids, it is unavoidable and full of mystery.
I think all of those cultures and people looking for an answer had the same thought that many of us have. Death doesn’t make sense. The sudden ceasing of life doesn’t fit into our understanding of the world. How can someone we love and have known suddenly cease to be? Where have they gone? Where is their personality, their being, their essence?
While some people suggest that there’s nothing after death, that answer doesn’t satisfy me. I feel the need for a better answer. There’s something inside us humans that rejects that sudden ending and looks for a deeper meaning for both our life and our death. I think I feel that way because God has “set eternity in the human heart” (Ecclesiastes 3:11). That’s why I instinctively sense that there should be more to life than a sudden ending. The world has somehow taken a wrong turn. Instead of life, we have death because “sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin” (Romans 5:12).
The Bible has elements in common with some of those varied beliefs. There are themes of judgement. Some people have chosen God, while others turn away. Instead of the offer of free eternal life, they chose death.
But what we call death, the Bible consistently describes as a sleep (Daniel 12:2; John 11:11–14). In a sense, when we sleep, we’re “dead”, unconscious. We “know nothing” (Ecclesiastes 9:5). The Bible says that our next moment of conscious awareness after death will take place when we hear a voice calling us up from the grave to live again.
In the New Testament the Bible tells a famous story about Jesus explaining these concepts to His disciples after a friend of His had died. Ancient Hebrew funerary practices demanded that the body be wrapped in cloth and put in a tomb, and the customary belief was that the spirit would dwell around the body for three days before departing, and death was final. When Jesus heard that His friend Lazarus was sick, He told His disciples that He was going to wake him up. The disciples said that He should let Lazarus sleep if he was sick, but Jesus “told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead’ ” (John 11:14), and when He and His disciples went to the home of Lazarus, they found out he had died four days earlier.
But then Jesus called out to His friend, “Lazarus, come out!” and sure enough, Lazarus emerged from the tomb. When freed from his funerary clothes, his first sight was his Friend Jesus Christ. I’d love to have some of those I’ve lost come back again, but the Bible talks about first solving the problem that cost them their lives to begin with. And that is why Christ’s death on the cross is so important.
Multiple reliable witnesses reported that the tomb Jesus’ body was laid in couldn’t hold Him, that death was no barrier for the Lord Jesus Christ. And we can expect that “just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Romans 6:4). The tomb is not forever after all—and Jesus’ resurrection is the proof.
It is not God’s plan for the world to be as it is forever—something which the New Testament writings from the earliest followers of Christ and the Christian faith emphasize. We’re told about a time when God will correct the wrong turn our world has taken and bring a complete end to death. It says, “Death and Hades [the grave] were [or “will be”] thrown into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:14). Imagine living in a place where no-one dies.
While standing in that pyramid in Egypt where an Egyptian king had been placed millenniums earlier, I had a revelation. I didn’t want to be underneath all those tons of rocks and my body felt that very keenly. I ran back to the tunnel and made my way outside as swiftly as I could. Finally, I emerged into the light, gasping for air. For a moment, it was like I was in the tomb and there was no life to be found there. But I trust that one day, when I am fast asleep, I will hear a voice saying “Come out!” and it will be the risen Jesus calling me out of death and once more into the light and the fresh air of new life in the new creation of God’s kingdom.
Justin Bone supports and trains pastors and congregations around Victoria for the Seventh-day Adventist Church. He is passionate about helping people understand the Bible better.
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