As a media and communications graduate, I love stories in all their forms, but I’ve always held a special place in my heart for science fiction. Exotic planets, alien races, unique extrapolations of scientific theory and bizarre visions of the future of our world—no other genre captures my imagination in quite the same way.
But my love for the genre goes beyond its aesthetic trappings—it’s also deeply rooted in the ideas that science fiction likes to tackle. Perhaps unsurprisingly, considering the future setting that sci-fi often indulges in, it is a genre which aims at interrogating some of the more existential or philosophical questions which we face. Take some of my favourites for example.
Both the Mass Effect and The Expanse series, for example, explore the ways our current political divide may be reproduced in the future—as well as how we may react to an existential threat to our existence. Denis Villeneuve’s film Arrival serves not only as an imagining of extra-terrestrial linguistics, but also explores the nature of free will, time and love. Then there’s Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy which examines the ways we define our identity, which in turn is defined by forces outside our will.
But above all these, there’s one idea which science fiction constantly grapples with which I find most fascinating: what persists after we are gone.
The future of death
Two of the more interesting science fiction novels I have read in recent years attempted to tackle this issue. The first was the final instalment in the Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy: Death’s End, while the second was Rian Hughes’ XX: A Novel, Graphic. In both stories humanity faces interstellar destruction and must find a way to survive.
In Death’s End Cixin Liu describes a cold, uncaring universe where the only way to stave off the inevitable is using science to elevate humanity. In XX, death is an inevitability we cannot prevent—instead, Hughes posits we live on through the collective ideas, dreams and aspirations of mankind that persist long after we are gone.
Both are fascinating, well-written takes on the issue of death—but I can’t say I view either as providing a fully satisfactory answer to the question. Liu’s version of the universe is harsh and unforgiving—a story that aligns with the work of atheist proponents such as Dawkins or Harris. It’s difficult to find purpose or meaning in such a world. Similarly, Hughes’ idea has a degree of comfort to it—we can continue to exist after we die—but it requires the complete annihilation of self in a way which raises questions about whether “we” really do persist.
It’s not surprising though that these authors cannot provide perfect answers to the question—philosophers have long been in the same boat.
The philosophy of death
Philosophers have argued about death for millennia, forming hundreds of different theories and hypotheses. The differing perspectives on death are, unfortunately, too numerous to count, but often fall into a few categories of thought. The first is simple: death is the end of existence and nothing of the self persists beyond it. This is the view widely held by many materialistic atheists, as well as some non-theistic religions.
Other schools of thought rely on the belief in a soul: some ephemeral, immaterial essence which comprises your thoughts and feelings and make you, “you”. The origin—and ultimate fate—of your soul varies from religion to religion. In Buddhism, the soul is reincarnated constantly until it either attains nirvana or becomes nothing. There are a variety of potential liberations in Hinduism.
Other religions view death as the separation of the body and the soul—wherein your soul “floats away” from your body upon death into the afterlife. This can be seen in the mythologies of ancient Greece or Rome, as well as modern Islam—and even some forms of Christianity.
The Christian view of death
For many, this may be the common perception of Christianity’s views on life after death—your soul is separated from your body where it either goes straight to heaven if you’ve been good, or straight to hell if you’ve been bad. Think of how often children are comforted when confronting death with the platitude: “Don’t worry, they’re in heaven now.” What’s interesting is that many of these ideas are not supported (or they’re outright contradicted) by the Bible which they claim as their basis.
For starters, there’s the soul. When it comes to proving its existence, many use two Bible verses as evidence. The first reads, “The Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul”, while the second states, “The dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it” (Genesis 2:7, Ecclesiastes 12:7, KJV, italics added).
Some argue that the Genesis verse provides evidence for the soul being a distinct phenomenon due to the way it is stated as being breathed into the body, separate from the creation of the body. Similarly, Ecclesiastes seems to reinforce this, with the dust/body having one fate, and the soul/spirit having another. Seems straightforward, right?
Unfortunately, no. When we look more closely at the original translations of the word soul here, it becomes slightly more complicated. The Hebrew word is ruach, which means “breath, wind or spirit”. Many argue that the use of ruach in these contexts is not referring to a separate aspect of ourselves which makes up the soul, but the “breath” or “gift of life” that God has provided—and which is similarly taken when we die.
This is further supported by numerous other Bible verses, including another from Ecclesiastes, which states “the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing. They have no further reward, and even the memory of them is forgotten. Their love, their hate and their jealousy have long since vanished; never again will they have a part in anything that happens under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 9:5, 6)
In this, we can see that the Bible does not support the view that the soul continues into an afterlife when the body expires. Instead, the self is intrinsically tied to the body and when it expires, so do we.
Life after death
This does not mean that death is the end. The theme of death and resurrection is discussed widely throughout the biblical story. Perhaps one of the most revealing examples comes from the apostle Paul who writes in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14: “Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.”
In this way, death is described as a sleep—where we are completely unaware of the events of the world and disconnected from them, just as Ecclesiastes 9 describes. That is not to say there is no heaven or hell, however.
1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 describes what happens at the second coming of Jesus. “For the Lord himself will come down from Heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.” When Christ returns, His followers will be resurrected, taken to be with Him and have eternal life.
But what about those who don’t follow Christ? While they are also described as being resurrected, their fate initially seems more dire. Here’s how Revelation 20:12-15 describes it: “And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books… Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.”
At first glance, this seems dark. The “lake of fire” that was mentioned in verse 10 is described as a place of eternal torment. Does this fit with our popular conception that hell is an eternally burning pit ruled by the devil?
No. For starters, Revelation 20:10 states that the devil is included in those who are thrown in the lake. In the end, he is not the ruler of the wicked, but shares in their fate. More important though are eight words in verse 14 that recontextualise our entire understanding of what “hell” is—and undermines the myth that has persisted for centuries: “The lake of fire is the second death.”
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Hell is not a place where those who disobey God suffer eternal agony. Not only does this not line up with the idea of a loving God, but here it is explicitly rejected. Eternal torment instead refers to the way in which the decision to reject God carries eternal consequences. When people reject God, they become eternally disconnected from Him. As God is the One who gives life, eternal disconnection from Him results in eternal death. The punishment many imagine with fire and pitchforks is instead eternal nothingness.
In this way, we can see that death and resurrection as presented in the Bible are radically different to the ways they have been presented in popular culture. While many struggle to reconcile their impression of hell with a loving and kind God, the reality is much easier to understand. God gives everybody the freedom to choose their path in life.
Those who accept Jesus as their Saviour will receive the gift of eternal life. In the same way, those who reject Him will not be forced to suffer. Like those who believe, their suffering will also come to an end; though sadly, this will also be their eternal end.
Knowing this, there is only one question that remains: Which end will you choose, an eternal life or an eternal end?
Ryan Stanton is a PhD graduate of media and communications at the University of Sydney. He’s a passionate follower of Jesus, avid board gamer and admirer of science fiction. A version of this article first appeared on the Signs of the Times Australia/New Zealand website and is republished with permission.