Jesus was born into a religion which was divided on the issue. As he made his way to Jerusalem and the clash with the religious authorities that would inevitable lead to crucifixion, he believed that he would be providing his disciples with firm evidence to settle the issue once and for all. Whatever we believe, history records the fact that under the cruelest of persecutions, Christianity spread like wild fire as thousands embraced the new faith and faced death believing in the certainty of eternal life.
There is no rational explanation for the birth and growth of Christianity. There is only the experience of faith in the God who is love. Once one has experienced that relationship, everything makes sense. Nothing seems more natural than that death is simply the door which will open to allow union with God to be experienced in all its fullness.
Naturally, the leaders of the new religion immediately started preaching the message that only those who followed their teaching would inherit eternal life. Christian leaders still preach that same message, some taking it to the extreme of insisting that only their particular brand of Christianity leads to Eternal Life. The teaching of Jesus as preserved in the Bible confirms God's love for everyone.
Each of the world's religions has its own teaching on the subject and many hold to the idea that sin prevents us from going to heaven. The manipulation of these ideas has always formed the main means by which priests exploit their followers. The Bible does not present a consistent opinion because its various authors have struggled with the issue over the millennia. It tells the story of the growth of a people into a nation held together by a new religion based on belief in one God. The religious practices of the people were always subject to contamination from the folk religions of the surrounding peoples who understood life after death as the survival of the spirit to join all the other spirits whom they believed to control nature and worshipped as gods. Belief in the One God required the Israelites to believe that the idols worshipped by the surrounding peoples were just stone and contained no spirit. If the new religion was to have a concept of eternal life, it had to transcend the primitive beliefs of the surrounding nations. Salvation in the Old Testament is usually interpreted in terms of survival. Eternal life was held out as a promise, but always seen in terms of some future event in which God would judge the living the dead. On that day, God would raise the dead from their graves, so religious rights concerning the dead were directed towards preserving enough of the body until "judgement day" for God to be able to raise. Tombs were places where the body could decay into a skeleton in a relatively short time, so that the bones could be stored away.
The few recorded statements of Jesus are inconsistent. While some of his statements are consistent with eternal life beginning after death, others are consistent with a judgment day. Some indicate that there is a place in heaven for everyone while others support the concept of Hell. Just as the New Testament authors struggled with these issues, so the Church has continued to struggle with them. My personal interpretation is that the great problem remains the same: how to preach eternal life from the moment of death without the message degenerating into the primitive folk religion of belief in spirits.
My own understanding of these matters is that we do not have a spirit, or immortal soul, but that on death, God takes the very essence of me and recreates the new heavenly me. In recent years, a new human concept has grown, that of virtual reality. I like to think of heaven as a kind of virtual reality in which my personal relationship with God can continue and develop until my consciousness is adsorbed into the very being of God. But then that is just my attempt to imagine the indescribable and I wait with interest to discover the reality when I pass through the door into eternal life.
Religion exploits. While the Church has lost its grip on Western Society, the folk religions persist both as organised religion and in mythology, story telling and drama. We have so called spiritualist churches, new age religions and a wealth of television programs, films and books about ghosts and supernatural powers. All this, I believe is nonsense.
The only reality is that we live in real world created by God to evolve life, and that all the suffering inherent in a real world, is underwritten by God's love for each and every living creature. A love that is not to be denied the continued growth of God's personal relationship with the individual after their physical death.
The message of Jesus is quite simple. We do not have to wait for death before we can go to heaven. We can become part of the "Kingdom of Heaven" right now in this life. The richness of life after death can be glimpsed while we still live.
The belief in Hell meets two requirements. The first is that it provides priests with an ultimate threat that they can use to manipulate and control believers. The second is our natural thirst for justice. Surely God should meet out to the wicked the justice they escaped in life. Surely the wicked should not be allowed into heaven. Religions give various imaginative answers including reincarnation, shoal, hell and oblivion.
The truth of the matter is that nothing can separate us from the love of God. No matter how wicked we are, God still loves us.
One imaginative solution is the concept of purgatory. An initial phase of life after death in which the soul pays the price for its sins before progressing to heaven. This allows God to both punish the wicked, then embrace them in his love once the price is paid.
My own imaginative fancy is that God creates for each one of us a little world of our own populated by characters who seem real to us and with whom we interact. In that little world, we are gradually educated until we are wholly aware of all the suffering we caused in life and all the opportunities to help others which we missed. We also become aware of the grief which this gave to God and are filled with remorse. I do not see this as a continuous processes, more of a series of scenes interspersed by the experience of God's love.
I will not ask the question of what happened to Hitler because that is still too emotive a subject for those in the English speaking world to handle, but I Imagine that Stalin finds himself in many scenes in which he is one of the cell mates listening to the other Zecks accounts of their experience, or finds himself one of the interrogators, or just a guard enduring the cold of the arctic winter.
I guess the process will be long and painful, but am convinced that the only form of pain that I will experience if that of empathy with those to whom we caused suffering by our action or inaction.
Whatever the process and however long it may take, nothing can separate us from the love God.
A society that believes death to be final is a society that is squeamish about death: a society that values life for the wrong reasons.
All living creatures are loved by God who underwrites the suffering inherent in real world with the consolation of His Love. This real world is an eat, or be eaten world in which life for some species inevitably ends in the jaws of a predator. Since the human race ceased to be prey, its population is forever expanding to exceed the local food supply and warfare has become endemic. This is the real world we live in and death in one form or another will put an end to each one of us. God's answer is to embrace us in His love and recreate our essence and consciousness in that state of existence we call heaven.
Once this concept is grasped, it is immediately apparent that the personal consequences of my death are all positive. The sooner it comes, the less time I have to suffer the inconveniences of this world. The wonder is that Christians do not all commit suicide. Fortunately, the thinking part of our brain is just a veneer on the surface of the systems which have evolved over hundreds of millions of years and the instinct for survival is usually powerful enough to prevail. But what of the question of taking life. Most of us eat meat and fish which require the killing of living creatures. Few of us have killed another person, but as nations struggle for land, resources and ideologies, most of us will as citizens have ownership of the action of our soldiers as they kill on our behalf. Lets face it, as a species, this is something we have evolved to do.
Taking life causes suffering, not so much to the individual who is killed, but to their friends and relatives who will suffer the pain of grief. If the victim was a wage earner with dependents, then they will also suffer hardship. It is important that we measure the wickedness of killing in these terms. The person who has taken life does not deserve to die. If society requires a price to be paid, it should be in proportion to the grief and financial hardship suffered by the relatives.
My personal view is that we should regard death as sacrosanct. That we should neither kill, nor strive unduly to prevent death.