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“Ask a Priest: Is There Evidence of an Afterlife?”
Q: I was wondering if there’s any evidence of an afterlife. I believe in the presence of a God, but I don’t know if we live on after death. I hope someone can make this clear to me. Thanks. -J.A.
Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC
A: While anecdotes abound about near-death, out-of-body experiences, there is no undisputable scientific proof for the existence of an afterlife. If there were, we wouldn’t need faith. And there wouldn’t be any more disputes over the afterlife.
A lack of hard evidence shouldn’t rattle us, however. Some of the most important things in life cannot be proved scientifically. Think of a mother’s love for her child — unprovable in the strict sense, yet few of us would deny it exists.
It is a little like that with the afterlife. The circumstantial evidence seems to be there. Some of the earliest Christians testified to the presence of the resurrected Jesus, for instance, and they were willing to die for that belief.
Scripture attests to the afterlife. Matthew 25:31ff quotes Jesus testifying about the Last Judgment and the afterlife.
The Old Testament implies an afterlife too. It tells of how Judas Maccabeus “took up a collection among all his soldiers, amounting to two thousand silver drachmas, which he sent to Jerusalem to provide for an expiatory sacrifice. In doing this he acted in a very excellent and noble way, inasmuch as he had the resurrection in mind; for if he were not expecting the fallen to rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead” (2 Maccabees 12:43-44).
There are philosophical/moral arguments for an afterlife. For instance, deep down we all have an innate sense of good and evil. We know that some things are good by nature (a man risks his life to save a child from a fire) and some things are bad (a violent crime). Now, if death is the end of everything, then it doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense to care about good and evil in this life. If this life is all we have, then why not just look out for ourselves and try to enjoy the few years we have here?
But if there is an afterlife – and an afterlife where we will suffer or enjoy the consequences of our moral decisions in this life – then things seem to fit together better. It makes sense to try to live a good life, and to help others live good lives.
Another argument goes like this: We all have deep-rooted desires: to find perfect love, perfect happiness. It seems absurd that we would have such desires if nothing existed to satisfy them. And one of the realities of this world is that our desires never seem to be fully satisfied. Even the best moments of happiness and satisfaction pass by all too quickly, leaving us to retreat into restlessness.
St. Augustine sensed the solution: God. Thus his famous line in his Confessions: “You [Lord] have formed us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in you.” Resting in God is ideally what we all reach in the afterlife.
There is also testimony over the centuries of people who have seen or heard from loved ones or acquaintances who died and returned to communicate with them somehow. Again, the scientific evidence might be lacking, and maybe some of these cases might be explained as psychologically triggered. But many of them can’t be dismissed so easily, being attested to by respected and sober people.
Most cultures throughout history have embraced some belief in the afterlife – hence the presence of funeral rites and cemeteries and grave sites. The pyramids in Egypt were stocked with items that a pharaoh would presumably use in the afterlife.
Obviously, these are not proofs of an afterlife. Perhaps God in his wisdom gives us just enough circumstantial evidence to believe in an afterlife but allows just enough uncertainty in order to see how we would respond. Would we, sensing that tug toward moral behavior in ourselves, live our lives in preparation for an afterlife?
Christian Revelation teaches us that the God who created us is a loving Father who wants us to be with him forever in heaven. Many people of faith have embraced that message of Revelation and try to act accordingly.
I pray that you too will find your way to making the right decision in this case. God bless.