Plan of the Book
- ’Once a man is dead, can he come back to life?' Job's question is echoed in the puzzlement of many Christians today. Talk of life after death1 seems strangely remote from our everyday thinking, and although most Christians will say they believe in it when asked in an opinion poll, their common expressions seem to belie this claim. How often one hears remarks like, ‘after all you've only got one life', or ‘Christianity is not concerned merely with life after death2'. Indeed it is easy to find oneself speaking in this way, so all-pervasive are the secular assumptions of our present society3. Yet if we really believe in life after death4, how can we use such expressions? What could be 'mere' about living for ever? What could be more inspiring to our present concern that God's will should be done on earth, than our conviction that it is already being done in heaven? St Paul's priorities were wholly different from our own: ‘If it is for this life only that Christ has given us hope, we of all men, are most to be pitied'.
- Early Christianity was a thoroughly other-worldly religion. Not for nothing is ‘heaven' mentioned more than two hundred and forty times in the New Testament, for the first Christians all thought of heaven as their true home. Thus I Peter speaks of Christians as .’aliens in a foreign land'; the author of the letter to the Hebrews sees the heroes of faith as ‘no more than strangers or passing travellers on earth'; and St Paul declares that the reason Christians' minds are no longer set on earthly things is that they already feel that their ‘commonwealth is in heaven'. Likewise in the second century other-worldliness was so central a characteristic of the Christian approach to life that the unknown author of the Epistle to Diognetus saw this as their distinguishing trait: ‘They spend their existence on earth but their citizenship is in heaven ... Christians dwell in the world, but they are not of the world.' It was this absolute assurance of the reality of heaven which made the first followers of Christ so ready to suffer and die as martyrs to their faith, and thereby to convert the world by their fearlessness. Thus when Justin was challenged about his belief in heaven he could reply with utter assurance: ‘I do not think, I know', and it is certainly a fact of history that through the manner of their dying ‘the blood of the martyrs' became ‘the seed of the Church'. And even when martyrdom was not directly involved, as in the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons, it was the promise of life beyond the grave which, according to the Venerable Bede, persuaded our ancestors to embrace Christianity.
- Throughout the Christian centuries belief in a future life was at the heart of all living faith, and it seems likely that the decline of religion in our own age is, at least partly, a consequence of the relative eclipse of this doctrine. Certainly, eighty years ago, William James' classic study of The Varieties of Religious Experience found that for almost all believers of his day God primarily mattered as the provider of immortality. This view was echoed by the Spanish philosopher Unamuno who argued that the hunger for immortality is at the root of all religion, is the essence of Catholic and Orthodox Christianity, and the spur of all significant religious philosophy.
- For St Athanasius and the whole Orthodox tradition our immortality was the reason for the incarnation: God became what we are5 so that we might become immortal as he is. And the sacraments have always been linked with the future hope: at baptism we are made heirs of the kingdom of heaven, and at communion we receive ‘the bread of immortality' (in the Orthodox liturgy) or the bread of ‘eternal' or ‘everlasting life' (in Anglican formularies).
- In our own day John Hick has argued that a future hope is essential for any version of Christianity which is to be philosophically satisfying, or is to meet the demands of a truly systematic theology, for the gospel teaches that God is an all-loving and all-powerful Father, and if this is true, suffering and evil cannot have the last word as they so frequently do in this life. Hick has shown that given life after death6, then the changes and chances of this world with all its potential for joy and sorrow, for good and evil, can make sense as providing an environment for our development as free responsible agents. As a ‘vale of soul-making' the hardships and challenges of this world can serve a larger purpose; but if there is no soul to make, no larger purpose to serve, then the fact of inequitable suffering would simply make nonsense of belief in an all-powerful and all-loving God.
- Christianity also teaches that God loves each one of us and that we can experience real fellowship, and communion with God through prayer, worship and participation in life. Yet, if man in this life can truly enter a personal relationship with God which God values, and if each person as a unique individual really matters to the all-powerful and all-loving God, then God will not allow that individual and that relationship to be destroyed at death.
- Moreover Christians believe that this conviction has been given a strong factual foundation through Jesus' resurrection from the dead, which proved that death has no final dominion. This was the message the Church came into being to proclaim, which the New Testament was written to record, and which Christians throughout the ages have seen as the distinctive ground for their sure and certain hope in the life of the world to come.
- But to show that a particular belief was for nineteen hundred years regarded as absolutely central to the Christian gospel is not enough in itself to vindicate the truth of that belief. As T. S. Eliot put it: ‘Christianity is always adapting itself into something which can be believed'. And it is easy to point to a whole range of doctrines which were formerly seen as essential to Christian theism yet which few modern Christians feel any compunction about discarding - none but the fundamentalist would want to defend belief in an infallible Bible, a six day creation, or an historical fall, for example. Should we then join the young Schleiermacher in categorising the hope of immortality as part of the ‘rubbish of antiquity' from which Christianity must be cleansed if it is to speak again to the modern world? That this ‘father of modern theology' subsequently changed his mind on this point in his maturity and came to think of the beatific vision as the goal of the Christian pilgrimage does not remove the possibility that his first thoughts were correct.
- None the less the fact that for nearly two thousand years the doctrine of life after death7 was thought of as being crucial to Christianity makes the question of its truth or falsehood an urgent and important issue for the believer.
- We have therefore set ourselves the goal of trying to state as clearly as we can the arguments for and against the belief in a future life. And because philosophical, theological, scientific and parapsychological considerations all need to be taken into account, we have written this book together, hoping that our widely different backgrounds might enable us to cover the issues more fully.
- We start by asking whether or not the idea of personal survival is a thinkable possibility. Readers who are not familiar with contemporary philosophy will probably think this an odd question to ask. They may well share with Joseph Butler the view that ‘whether we are to live in a future state, as it is the most important question which can possibly be asked, so it is the most intelligible one which can be expressed in language'. However many modern philosophers have challenged this popular assumption and have argued instead that to ask whether or not we are to live after death is a non-question, indicative of a failure fully to understand the implications of the words ‘we', ‘live' and ‘death'. Clearly, if the question of a future life really is a non-question all our attempts to explore answers to it are doomed to futility. For this reason our first chapter attempts to rebut this view in order to justify the rest of the book.
- Chapter 2 may in a similar manner puzzle non-theologians. For we devote many pages of argument to demonstrating the fact that in their primary usage the words ‘immortality', ‘resurrection' and ‘eternal life' relate to what may or may not happen after death. Few non-theologians would think of doubting this, but a whole host of contemporary Christian scholars have done so, and their views must be attended to so that we can be as clear as possible about what it is we are discussing.
- There is therefore a sense in which our argument proper begins at chapter 3 with our presentation of the case for believing that death entails the permanent extinction of individual consciousness. The argument largely derives from the findings of the natural sciences concerning the place of man in nature and the dependence of our thoughts and feelings upon our biological and cultural inheritance.
- Chapter 4 then strengthens this argument by showing just how much the traditional framework of Christian doctrine has been undermined by modern knowledge, with the consequence that the future hope has lost the support it previously enjoyed from other interrelated Christian beliefs. Indeed we conclude that confidence in any overall Christian world view has been so attenuated in recent years that if belief in life after death8 is to be considered seriously in today's world it will have to depend on more than an appeal to Christian tradition.
- We turn therefore in chapters 5, 6 and 7 to certain paranormal phenomena which at least at first sight appear to offer evidential support for a belief in personal survival. Of these, by far the most important are the near-death experiences9 reported by a large number of resuscitated persons. These reports speak of the self leaving the body at its apparent death and moving on to a new life, to which the experiencers believe they would have entered had they not been resuscitated.
- Whether or not it is plausible to regard these claims as evidential is of great significance to Christian faith. For they accord well with the traditional Christian view of death, a view endorsed by the latest document of the Roman Catholic Church concerning Man's condition after death (issued by the Holy See in 1979). This states: ‘the Church affirms that a spiritual element survives and subsists after death, an element endowed with consciousness and will, so that the 'human self" subsists, though deprived for the present of the complement of its body. To designate this element the Church uses the word "soul", the accepted term in the usage of Scripture and Tradition.'
- The concept of the soul has been very strongly criticised in recent years, and as we indicate in chapter 3 there are very good grounds for such criticisms, not least because it is exceedingly hard to reconcile any concept of the soul with what we know today about man's place in nature. Nevertheless, as one of us (Paul Badham) argued in an earlier work, Christian Beliefs about Life after Death10, some concept of the soul is indispensable to any theory of life after death11 which speaks either of personal immortality, or of the resurrection of the person into an utterly new mode of being.
- We then turn our attention to psychical research, and after a discussion of the possible contribution of this discipline to our understanding of the nature of man we explore the best attested evidence for survival to come through mediumistic sources, namely the ‘cross-correspondence' cases. We then turn to claimed memories of former lives, not because we are ourselves convinced that these data are necessarily relevant to the question of personal survival (cf. pp. 117-18), but because a better case can be made for the reincarnation12 hypothesis than is generally supposed, and we wish to explore as much significant data as we can.
- In the final chapter we begin to attempt the impossible task of integrating the results of our researches, and it has to be acknowledged that we fail to do so. The scientific evidence points firmly and decisively to a belief in extinction, and yet the well-attested paranormal data cannot be brushed aside as if they did not exist, and if full weight is given to this new evidence then the case for immortality is by no means hopeless. At this juncture we feel it relevant to call into the balance the religious experience of mankind concerning man's ability to enter into a living relationship with God, and to trust the reality of that relationship to endure even through death.
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