My previous post, which explored the meaning of belief, was a first step in answering the question of whether I believe in life after death. This second, in a series of four posts that answer that question, examines what life after death denotes.
Life after death does not and cannot denote a continuation of physical existence. Many of the atoms in each human body have previously been part of another human body. Even substituting replacement atoms would result in a physical body that is not literally identical with a person’s original body. Additionally, if life after death denotes a continuation of physical existence, then many people (including the elderly, mentally retarded, physically handicapped, and severely diseased) would fare poorly, stuck with bodies that most of us would strongly prefer not to have.
Incidentally, defining the resurrection body as the physical body come to life explains why the Church burned heretics (to destroy the body) and forbid cremation (thereby preserving the body). Thankfully, most Christians have abandoned physical conceptions of new life that equate their current body with their body in life after death.
Similarly, life after death cannot reasonably connote continuation of a person’s spiritual existence unless humans possess an eternal soul (the finite necessarily has both a beginning and an end). As I have previously argued in this blog (Ethical Musings: Solving the mind-body problem; for a secular perspective, cf. Michael Graziano: The Spirit Ends When The Brain Dies), the existence of an eternal soul seems at best an exceedingly difficult claim to justify. Only when Jews borrowed from the Greeks and others the idea of an eternal soul (this was happening during Jesus’ time – recall the debates between the Pharisees and Sadducees about life after death) did it become necessary to envision eternal destinies for the good and bad. Prior to that time, Jews generally accepted death as the end of a person’s existence. If so, then God might graciously give a gift of new life to any God chose without any necessity to do so for those whom God did not choose.
Alternatively, one of my seminary professors, process theologian Marjorie Suchocki, contended that life after death consisted of a person living forever in the mind of God. Although that proposal has its challenges (e.g., how can a person sustain an independent existence?), her suggestion avoids the difficulties inherent in traditional physical and spiritualized definitions of life after death.
The Christian scriptures offer little help beyond a consistent affirmation that there is life after death and that this is a positive experience. The images and metaphors for life after death, as one would anticipate, have strong roots in the authors’ historical and cultural milieu. After all, what other images and metaphors would make sense to an author or to the author’s audience?
Christian biblical scholars and theologians have generally supported a dichotomous view of life after death: heaven for God's people and hell for all others. They sometimes understand hell as death, because apart from God no life can exist and because the idea of eternal punishment seems incongruous with a God who is love. A minority of biblical scholars and theologians, notably including William Barclay as well as the 18th and 19th century Universalists, have argued that God's love so firmly embraces each person that all receive the gift of eternal life.
Epistemologically, little or no evidence exists for life after death. Investigators routinely debunk claims of alleged contact between the living and the dead. The world’s great religions diverge widely in their teachings about life after death. Hinduism and Buddhism both teach reincarnation; ultimate liberation in both religions consists of ending an endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth by entering into unity with the ultimate. Some Jewish traditions still teach that death marks the end of a life. Christianity and Islam both affirm life in heaven for the faithful. This lack of consistency makes drawing a conclusion based on human experience problematic.
Let me repeat the question with which I began the last post, what do I believe about life after death?
Frankly, I don’t know. I believe in the sense of desire and hope. But when I critically examine my life, I see little evidence that the trajectory of my life reflects an opinion, one way or the other, about life after death. The concept of life after death being life in the mind of God appeals but somehow seems unsatisfactory or inadequate.
In my next post, I’ll address the questions of whether belief in life after death is important and then in a fourth post what salvation means.