The human desire to avoid death is instinctive, genetically programmed, and can only be overcome with great difficulty. People don’t think of actual “immortality”, of living “forever”, but they don’t want to die quite yet. Not this year. And if they are offered the option of somehow continuing to live on after death, in a nice place, and made young and healthy again, they will choose to believe it’s possible, unlikely though it might seem.
Rumors were always out there, inspired by hopes and dreams and visions, that there was a place on Earth where you could live forever. Maybe Dilmun (now Bahrain) where Gilgamesh sought out Utnapishtim the Faraway, survivor of the Flood… Maybe in the West, where the sun goes, beyond the Gates of Hercules, the Isle of Avalon, you can get there from the Grey Havens…
And others (more primitive in their thinking, or more advanced) say No, when you die you get put in a hole in the ground or your body is burned and that’s the end. In the time of Jesus, that was the Sadducees’ position. As wealthy and influential collaborators with the Romans, they didn’t like the idea of any Egyptian-style afterlife and assessment of their morals. But the Pharisees expected a resurrection of the body, so that God could manifest his essential justice and reward the good and punish the evil, and balance out their otherwise unfair lives.
Religious Jews of Jesus’ time certainly thought resurrection of the dead was possible. There are three stories in 1 and 2 Kings of people being restored to life: one an intervention by God after Elijah prayed; one a raising from the dead by Elisha; and the third being a dead man who was thrown into a tomb and came back to life when his body touched Elisha’s bones.
Raising the dead was therefore a good indicator of a prophet. Jesus not only claimed to have brought back the daughter of Jairus, and a young man in his own funeral procession, and his friend Lazarus, but he commanded his disciples to raise the dead (as well as heal the sick). Peter and Paul were each said to have raised a dead person on different occasions, as recorded in Acts.
And at the moment that Jesus died, Matthew records that the earth shook and tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people were restored to life. (They were a little slower than Lazarus, because Matthew also says that they didn’t come out of their tombs until Jesus’ own resurrection, a day and a half later, when they went into Jerusalem and appeared to many people.)
So not all these stories are coherent, let alone credible, but that’s not the point. The point is that humans want to believe that they aren’t going to die. In fact when you offer a belief in the afterlife to someone for the first time, they rarely assess it on grounds of logic, but they choose what to believe regardless.
Modern thinking about an ancient problem
A classic example is the story of Radbod, ruler of Frisia from about 680 to 719. He was nearly baptized a Christian, but then refused when he was told that he wouldn’t find any of his ancestors in Heaven after his death, because they hadn’t been baptized. He said he would rather spend eternity in Hell with his pagan ancestors, than in Heaven with his enemies – especially the Franks. He chose not to be a Christian because he preferred the idea of the Germanic afterlife to the Christian one. Or because his family loyalties were more important than the wishes of God. Or because he couldn’t really tell the afterlife ideas apart, and feasting with Woden is more fun than sitting around on a cloud singing hymns of praise.
The pagan afterlife party (until it all ends in Ragnarok) is one version; the Muslim paradise for believers is another; Hindus and Buddhists see you coming back to life in a different way; Taoists and others let you keep on living as long as your descendants keep on looking after you – buying and burning the things the priests sell, paper money, paper houses.
And as science slowly puts an end to all this wishful thinking, is it any wonder that we start looking to science for genetic intervention and rejuvenation, with the fallback of cryonics as a sort of ambulance to the future if we die before the medical miracles are fully developed?