Nearly all of the world’s religions, past and present, believe in some version of an afterlife. Buddhism is an exception, but some view Buddhism as a psychology rather than a religion. Given the prevalence of an afterlife in the teachings of most religions, it would be reasonable to conclude, in the least, that the thought of annihilation at the time of death is utterly intolerable for most people. Annihilation at death introduces serious problems for both the philosopher and the common person attempting to establish a meaning or purpose for life.
Considering that Christianity, Islam, and Judaism claim billions of followers worldwide, religion seems to be a preferred method for dealing with the reality of death. Many people choose to practice hedonism, wherein the adherent maximizes their own pleasure in the present, a practice intended to cover over the certainty of impending doom. Depression is another common response. Published epidemiological studies have found that clinical depression is the most common medical diagnosis, worldwide. I expect that the majority of people, Christian or otherwise, exercise more than one of these options simultaneously.
Contemplating annihilation is understandably frightening and ultimately depressing. I, for one, do not have words to describe what would happen if death were followed by (or involves) annihilation. Transitioning from life to empty blackness does not adequately describe annihilation because appreciating the “blackness” requires some level of consciousness, which by definition would not be present. For the same reason, “nothingness” fails, too. Stop comes the closest to a descriptive word. Death with annihilation means that everything stops.
When it comes to the question of what happens after death, there are really only two answers. You either go somewhere or you go nowhere. From time to time, anecdotal evidence for an afterlife appears (e.g., Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife, Eben Alexander), but there are always alternative and seemingly sound explanations for such experiences.
Religions across the ages have mapped a route into the afterlife, but they could not provide evidence that the journey on which they sent people ends up on the “other side,” as opposed to absolutely nowhere. But, then, 2100 years ago, Jesus predicted, not only his own death, but the fact that three days after he was buried, he would rise from the dead. No one believed him because there was ample data collected over ten thousand years, or more, that no one could survive death. The disciples, being similarly convinced, fled when Jesus was arrested, and went into fearful mourning after he was crucified. Mary went to Jesus’ tomb to grieve the loss of her friend, and when she saw him, she mistook him for the gardener. We can be sure that Mary could have picked Jesus out of a crowd on a busy sidewalk in New York City, completely out of their usual context. But she did not recognize Jesus when he stood right in front of her outside his empty tomb. The psychological block is impressive. Despite his repeated predictions, Jesus’ resurrection was utterly unexpected, even by his closest friends and confidants, those who hung on every word he spoke.
Christianity has a lot to offer the world, but the resurrection of Jesus Christ stands alone at the pinnacle. If Jesus was not raised from the dead, then nothing else matters. Nothing. Not church. Not faith. Not doctrine. Not good works. Not justice. Not war. Not peace. Not love. Not life. “If Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain… Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” The apostle Paul was a realist; he knew that the meaning of the resurrection of Christ could not possibly be overestimated. It is everything, for without it we have nothing.
I prefer to let the theologians argue about what happens, and when, at the time of death. But I imagine this: at the moment of my death, everything will disappear. I will have no consciousness, no awareness. I will not perceive a blackness or even a nothingness. Everything stops. Then, Christ will touch me or call me, and thereby rescue me from annihilation. If it were not for his call, I would cease to be “I”. It would be like I had never existed. But, with his call, it will be like I was awakened from a deep sleep. His will be the first face that I see. And I will know him, as I have known him in this life, or perhaps even better.
I do not know if this is what will happen or not, but you must agree, it begins with a worst case scenario: annihilation. If rescuing me from annihilation involves only a call from God, then any other scenario would be a proverbial piece of cake for God Almighty.
All of this seems a little crazy because it defies every law of the universe on the books. I am a comparative biologist by training and I know that it is an incontrovertible fact that death is irreversible and final. The laws of thermodynamics rule out any reversal of death. But we have a strong tendency to grossly underestimate the power of God, who created the universe in the first place. We know that God is very powerful, but we compare His power to other examples that we have seen. We have known powerful people (Mao Tse-tung), and powerful processes (the nuclear bomb), and powerful ideas (“I have a Dream,” M.L. King). Unlike these demonstrations of power by human beings, God’s power knows no bounds at all. Fetching me from death, even from annihilation, is no more difficult or unreasonable than creating the universe, or being timeless, or living outside or separate from His creation. He makes it all look easy.
So, what will happen to me when I die? The same thing that happened to Christ.