Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Is believing in life after death important?

Does it matter if a person believes in life after death? That is, does it matter if a person lives in a way such that it is impossible to tell from her or his actions whether she or he truly believes in life after death? (This post builds on the previous two posts about the meaning of belief and of life after death.)

The Apostle Paul’s conviction of life after death gives evidence of a courage and boldness that result from his conviction. The same qualities are evident in the lives and deaths of many martyrs, both Christian and Islamic. Careful analysis of the factors that led to the death of many martyrs exposes a misguided religious fervor, e.g., the martyr who chooses death rather than step on a cross and the martyr who chooses to die in a suicide bombing in order to kill many enemies of the faith.

Conversely, Stoics and others (e.g., Marcus Aurelius and Bill Lawrence (a U.S. POW in Vietnam inspired by Stoicism) exhibited the same qualities of courage and boldness as religious martyrs. Buddhist monks who set themselves ablaze to protest injustice do so recognizing that their act may incur negative karma and will certainly not help them end their participation in the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth.

In other words, my studies of religion and history makes it difficult to identify any unique quality or character trait associated with a conviction in life after death.

In seminary, one of my theology professors found my lack of firm conviction about the reality of life after death troubling. He pushed me to explain how people faced with unfairness in this life (e.g., the chronically ill, the economically exploited, and the politically oppressed) could have hope unless these people could believe that God would set things right through judgment after death.

The professor’s line of reasoning has remained profoundly unsatisfying to me for more than thirty years. I cannot escape nor silence the insistent, reverberating counterpoint to my professor’s position of Marx’ critique of religion as the opiate of the masses. Too often, people in positions of power have used the promise of future rewards to pacify those of whom they sought to take advantage. Too often, religions, and especially Christianity, have emphasized acceptance of present difficulties as the will of God in preparation for the glorious reward of heaven.

Future rewards, even when pictured in conjunction with the future punishment of evil doers, does not cancel the unfairness of this life in which some very good people – good by almost any standard – enjoy multiple comforts and luxuries and other very good people – good by the same standard – suffer multiple discomforts and harms. Presumably, both can expect the same reward, for both exhibited the same goodness. The converse is also true. Some evil people live enjoyable lives while others live miserable lives. Why should they expect different punishments? In biblical language, the rain falls on the just and the unjust. What happens in the future cannot undo what has happened in the past or is occurring in the present.

Finally, no way exists for anyone to explore what happens after death and then to report to the living on that experience, if indeed there is any experience at all. The reports of near death experiences by people, while suggestive, also seem very culturally conditioned.

Scripture similarly represents an unverifiable witness and raises the question of which religious tradition’s scriptures to accept as authoritative. Accepting the Christian scriptures as authoritative because I am a Christian begs the basic epistemological question of why I accept the Christian scriptures as authoritative and reject other scriptures. Most people inherit a religion by virtue of their birth rather than making a free and equally informed choice among the various religions – if such a choice is even possible. The strongest epistemological approach is to seek common ground among the world’s religious traditions. Sadly, common ground does not exist with respect to their teachings about life after death.

The Apostle Paul clearly acted as if confident of life after death because of his encounter with the risen Christ. However, some interpretations of the resurrection do not necessarily entail belief in life after death for all of God's people. And as I will argue in my next blog post, Paul was wrong when he maintained that if there is no resurrection of the dead that Christians of all people are most pitiable.

In sum, a Christian’s attitude toward and ideas about life after death seem unimportant because they rarely alter how a Christian lives his or her life today.

Jesus gave those who would follow him two great commandments: love God and love others. My love for God prompts me to desire to be with God and to entrust my future to God. That is sufficient for me. My love for my neighbor prompts me to work for justice and peace in this world and to hope for the best for my neighbor in any life that may follow this one.

What then does the traditional Christian proposition that only the saved receive eternal life mean? My fourth and last post in this series on the meaning of salvation addresses that question.


George Clifford said...

A reader sent me this comment:

Dear Rev. Clifford,

I stumbled upon your blog and found it very interesting. I attempted to leave a comment, but couldn't do it, as the word verification wouldn't take.

My comment was to take issue with you relative to your statement that "Investigators have routinely debunked stories of communication between the living and the dead," or words to that effect. That is what both the scientific fundamentalists and religious fundamentalists would like you to believe, but any one who has really studied the subject knows better. There is a preponderance of scientific research strongly suggesting spirit communication, most of it developed by reputable researchers, including some very distinguished scientists. I say "strongly suggesting" because I realize that it is not absolute proof. Is there absolute proof for anything? However, the evidence easily meets the preponderance standard of our civil law and for the open-minded person even meets the "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard of our criminal courts.

It is true that most of the evidence was developed between 1850 and 1930, although there is research going on today supporting the old research. Unfortunately, psychical research reached the point of diminishing returns around 1930 and further research amounted to continually reinventing the wheel. Moreover, as academia had adopted a completely materialistic worldview, further research in the area was discouraged and the research of such eminent scientists as Sir Oliver Lodge, Sir William Crookes, Sir William Barrett, Dr. Charles Richet (a Nobel Prize winner), Professor William James, and man others was filed away in dust-covered cabinets. The claims of the debunkers that it is "outdated science" can only be overcome by the open-minded seeker of truth. If you really want the truth of the matter, may I suggest that you begin by going to and especially to The Legacy Files section. I would also recommend which is edited by one of your fellow clergyman, an Anglican priest. And, after all that, you might want to check out my blog at
I have signed up for your blog notices and look forward to your future posts.

Aloha from Hawaii!
Michael Tymn
Author of
The Afterlife Revealed.
Running on Third Wind,
The Articulate Dead

George Clifford said...


Thank you for your kind note and welcome aboard the Ethical Musings community.

That said, I stand by my original observation. Incidentally, I am familiar with and respect William James' work, having used his Varieties of Religious Experience as a text in a philosophy of religion course that I taught.

As you note, proof is impossible and disagreement welcome. We are discussing things glimpsed dimly, if at all.

Michael Tymn said...

Rev. Clifford,

I don't want to debate the issue, but I find it difficult to understand how you can make a definitive statement about a subject when by your own admission, i.e., your lack of any knowledge of the pioneering researchers, such as Lodge, Crookes, Barrett, and Richet, you clearly know very little, if anything, about the scientific research in this area,

Again, you state that "investigators have routinely debunked stories of communication between the living and the dead." You state it as fact, as if your reader should believe you because you have special knowledge in that area. You offer nothing in support of your statement. Some Philistines might assume that because you are an ordained clergyman that you know what you are talking about, when obviously you haven't even scratched the surface. Sure, you can find pseudo-skeptical debunkers to support you, but if you are really interested in the truth you will look beyond the debunkers to scientists who have done the research. With very few exceptions, the scinetists and scholars who have thoroughly investigated mediums, have come to the conclusion that spirits can communicate with us and have done so.

It might interest you to know that in 1937, the Church of England published a report after extensive investigation of mediums, that some of those claiming to be mediums were genuine and in touch with the world of spirits. The report was, however, supressed for fear of a backlash from conservative Anglicans. It did not become public until some 20 years later. I can provide you with references if you care to investigate and get to the truth.

I apologize if I come across as being on the attack here, but I just cannot let such an untrue statement pass for truth.

George Clifford said...

Science requires testable hypotheses. Nobody has proven a testable hypothesis (e.g., incontrovertible proof of genuine contact from a spirit) true. Therefore, there is no actual science that supports contact with deceased spirits. Admittedly, one cannot prove a general negative (no contact with spirits ever happens). However, debunking in specific cases is certainly possible. Furthermore, Crookes, Barrett, Lodge, and Richet are on the shelf (i.e., ignored) precisely because of the lack of genuine science behind their work. William James reported his observations, but his work does not include evidence confirming testable hypotheses, i.e., his work lacks scientific validity. Prima facie, if genuine scientific existence of contact with a spirit existed, that evidence would be front page news. People want to believe in contact with the spirits, which produces the widespread gullibility that so many mediums exploit.

Mark Diebel said...

It may not be important to believe this or not, especially if there is no consequence to the belief, but can one ever know, in principle?

George Clifford said...

Certitude is impossible. Life, as the French philosopher Blaise Pascal famously recognized, is a gamble.

Michael Cocks said...

Thank you for being a clergyman willing to debate such issues in such an open manner. To me, the focus is on consciousness and mind. If mind is nothing but the dance of random electrons, then the discussion of afterlife or of some kind of "God" would be meaningless. But as you say, certitude is impossible. There is no scientific proof for the materialist hypothesis.
As a former member of CSICOP or Skeptics, I am aware that they do not do science, but rather exist to debunk scientists with whom they disagree. They make authoritative statements, without foundation, that 150 years of psychic research has been fruitless. See non-materialist Nobel physicist's address to other Nobel winners: < >
See also Kelly and Kelly's landmark "Irreducible Mind, A Psychology for the 21st Century" 2007.
Professor Darryl Bem's work is so convincing that a group of Dutch physicists were led to question the whole statistical basis for scientific endeavour.
Prominent Skeptic Richard Wiseman acknowledged that by ordinary scientific standards, the combined US, Russian and Chinese studies of distance viewing for military purposes would demonstrate the reality of the phenomenon. But his prejudice was so strong that he compared these military studies to his claiming that he had seen a UFO in his back garden. Following David Hume he said that enormous claims require enormous proof.
Other non-materialist physicists include Einstein, Pauli, Bohm, Peat, Sarfatti, Eddington.
As a fellow clergyman I am sincere in appreciating your willingness to engage with the topic in this way. I am continually frustrated with a church that keeps silent on these matters. It keeps silent since so many church congregations are composed of people of varying beliefs, and varying stages of development.

Michael Tymn said...

Rev. Clifford,

I don't get it. You say that there is no genuine science behind the works of Richet, Lodge, et al, some of the greatest scientists of their day, and yet you say you have never read their books or research reports. How can you possibly know there is no genuine science behind it if you haven't read their reports? In the journalism field, that would border on the unethical, i.e., making an authoritative statement in an area where one has no experience or knowledge.

I totally disagree that genuine spirit contact would be front page news. The media would see it as just another "spook story" and treat it as tongue in cheek.

I have put in the mail to you a write up of the experiment conducted by Professor Richet and Dr. Gustave Geley in which they developed paraffin molds of the hands of spirits. This was done under the strictest scientific conditions. I challenge you to find fault with their methodology. Of course, the pseudo-skeptic would simply say that there must be more to it than is reported. This is called "Brewster Syndrome," after Sir David Brewster, who witnessed D. D. Home being levitated by spirits, yet refused to believe it because it was impossible and therefore it had to be trick beyond his comprehension.

The form of science you refer to is scientific fundamentalism, the other side of the coin of religious fundamentalism. While the religious fundamentalists don't believe it unless it is spelled out in in language they can understand in the Bible, the scientific fundamentalist doesn't believe it unless he sees it take shape in a test tube in his own lab. Keep in mind that there is laboratory science and court room science. Most psychical research falls in the area of court room science. While court room science is never exact, even with DNA evidence, it provides a certain degree of "certitude," and that is all we can hope for in this area. Science has accepted biological evolution based on inductive evidence, but it is not absolute proof. Even if scientists could see an ape turn into a man, it would still fall short of the absolute.

The objective is to move from the blind faith of orthodoxy to true faith or conviction.