At one point, Job isn't realistic enough. He asks what he thinks is a hard question: "If a man die, shall he live again?" ( Job 14: 14). But the real question is, "When a man dies, shall he live again?" We know that we shall die, and unpleasant as that fact is, we cannot avoid it. So the question keeps cropping up, Is death the end, or shall I live again?
It is amazing how many people hold the "Row, row, row your boat" attitude without realizing that the boat goes down the stream until it topples over a waterfall and everybody gets killed. It is the realization of this fact that often pushes thoughtful people over into the "sound and fury" attitude.
There is something very honest about the "let's-face-it" response, when the people who hold it do not try to cover up the fact that it implies that we live in an alien, hostile universe, in which our most cherished ideals and values are ultimately of no significance. Work for a good world, if you wish, but do not expect your work to have any ultimate meaning, for even if your ideal lingers for a few generations after you die it will soon pass away, for in the end everybody dies and there is nothing left. This view of life has been compared to a road built of the ground-up bones of previous generations; soon your bones will be added to the road and it will be a little longer, but the time will come when there will be no more bones to add to it and the road will have no more travelers. Everything perishes along the way, until finally nothing is left. History is merely a row of tombstones.
The "pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die" option
A second false answer, adopted by many people who are afraid to be stark and stern, is characterized by the words of the old song: "You'll get pie in the sky when you die." In other words, things may get pretty tough here on earth, but take heart because after you die you'll get your reward. Eternal life is like the lollipop Mummy promises little Junior if he sits in the nasty old dentist's chair without screaming while he has a tooth filled. Life is pretty grim and ugly, but everything will get smoothed out in the end, and "in the sky" everything will be peaches and cream (in case you don't like pie). There is, of course, a kind of minimal truth in this view, namely, the assumption that there is something more ultimate than the here and now, but the notions that living on earth is simply a process of gritting one's teeth (thus making things harder for the dentist) against unpleasant things, and that there is some sort of automatic reward for "being good" -- these are highly dubious, as we shall later see more clearly.
The "living-on-in-the-memories-of-others" evasion
Other people say that eternal life is nothing more than the "immortality of influence." We do live on in the memories of others, because our influence, our ideas, our personality, are perpetuated in those who remember us. Abraham Lincoln, for example, is "as alive as he ever was" because his influence is still felt in America, and he lives "enshrined in the hearts of his countrymen."
True enough. We do live on in the memories of others.
But not true enough. For this notion fails to come to grips with the real fact of death -- its finality and completeness. What happens to the people who are not remembered? Or suppose you are remembered for fifty or seventy-five years. What happens when everybody who ever remembered you is dead? What happens when the whole human race has passed away and there is nobody left to remember anybody? This is a pretty frail kind of immortality.
The "wheel-of-existence" theory
Some religions look upon eternal life as reincarnation, that is, being born again in another form or shape. If you are bad, you may be reborn as a dog; if you are very bad, as a lizard. Then you have to work your way back up the scale by being a good dog or a very good lizard, and when you are gradually purified enough you will escape from this cycle of incessant rebirth and finally be relieved of the unhappy necessity of existing at all.
What does this add up to? It adds up to a very pessimistic view of life. The object is to escape from the cycle. Life is something to avoid-and you may be able to if you're lucky (which you probably won't be) or if you're good enough (which you probably won't be, either). There is also something depressing in the idea that the chicken you eat on Sunday may be your Aunt Gertrude, or that the mosquito you squashed may be your great-great-grandfather, who was evidently quite a scoundrel.
Why not "immortality of the soul"?
One other inadequate answer must be examined before we look at the Biblical view. And be forewarned, this one is hard to understand, particularly because many people confuse it with the Christian answer.
This is called "immortality of the soul." It comes from the Greeks, and when Greek thought and Hebrew-Christian thought came into contact in the Early Church, the Greek view often seemed to predominate. This view says, in effect, that there is a portion of me, my soul, that will continue to exist. During my lifetime here on earth this immortal soul is lodged in my mortal body. What happens at death is that my body dies and turns to dust, while my immortal soul is released and made free so that it can continue its immortal existence without being hamstrung by confinement in a body.
Sounds pretty good, doesn't it? But wait a minute. This means that my body is a nuisance to my soul, something that confines it, limits it, hampers it, subjects it to temptation. As the Greeks themselves put it, "the body is the prison house of the soul." This means that life on earth in the body is a waste of time, an unpleasant interlude in the life of the soul, something to be over and done with as quickly as possible. The whole aim of life is to escape from life, get rid of the pesky body, in order to resume a free and unfettered existence in eternity. Human life on earth has no final significance.