Q: If Christianity is the only true religion, why do other religions have a belief in the afterlife?
This is the fourth question in our series on apologetics called Redemptive Windows, where Campus Ministers answer faith-challenging questions sent in by CC readers.
Sam Boldenow responds:
There are a few ways of thinking about a religion as being true. We can think of religions as paths. Christianity is true because it leads us to God and therefore to flourishing, life and truth. But we can also think of religion as including a set of beliefs that might individually be true or false. Integral to Christianity, for example, are the beliefs that there is one God and that Jesus rose from the dead. From this perspective, each religion has some combination of true and false or distorted beliefs. Since religions deal with overarching questions of meaning and life, almost every religion includes beliefs about the afterlife or lack thereof.
As it turns out, belief in the after-life is rather widespread. It goes back to the oldest known literature. The epic of Gilgamesh is an exploration of the possibility of life after death. Ancient
Egyptian tomb inscriptions show that they hoped for an afterlife existence. It is also found around the world from the Aztec religion to Shintoism. This not to say that such beliefs are uniform; they differ considerably. Many religions believe in a sort of diminished life as shades or ghosts. Some religions count on judgment resulting in reward or punishment after death. Some religions have beliefs about reincarnation or the dissolution of individuals into some kind of generalized being.
In the case of Christianity, we understand our beliefs about the afterlife (along with our other beliefs) to have come from revelation. This is sometimes divided into two types — special and general. Special revelation is what God has taught us directly through prophets, visions and Scripture. God also teaches us truth through our ability to see and think about the world he has created, which we call general revelation. In all revelation we have the guiding help of the Spirit who works in our minds and hearts to give us understanding.
When truth shows up somewhere else
It’s easy to see how we have come to believe in a resurrection and judgment from special revelation. Jesus teaches us that there will be a resurrection and judgment. But we also have some clues about an afterlife from looking at the world. We ourselves — our bodies — are very much made out of the material of the world, and yet there seems to be some mind or soul that transcends mechanical being. So it is natural to wonder if, when the body dies, the mind is also lost. Furthermore, in a world of filled with good and evil where people don’t always get what they deserve, you can start to wonder if things will eventually be balanced out.
This is not to say that God reveals everything we might like to know or that Christians understand revelation perfectly. We are limited both by simply being finite and also by our fallen state, which has clouded our ability to see truth. And because everyone is hampered by these same limits, we shouldn’t be surprised by the diversity of beliefs around the world. At the same time, people of other religions are not completely cut off from revelation. It might not seem, at first, as if other religions have the benefit of special revelation. But even if people don’t choose to accept all of God’s revelation doesn’t exclude them from accepting it in part.
This is true of religions that have broken off of Christianity. Mormons, for example, reject the traditional doctrine of God but retain from Christianity a belief in the afterlife (albeit in a modified form). As Christians we should boldly proclaim the truth we have been given while not being surprised when the truth shows up somewhere else.