- Millions of people throughout recorded history have believed in a life after death1. In spite of the secularization of our present age, millions still do. Those who do not believe in it are apt to think that those who do are indulging in wishful thinking. No doubt some of them are, but it is also common for men to think of a hereafter with fear, rather than with hope. Consider Hamlet:
. . . who would fardels bear, Indeed, what is called fear of death may often be fear of what might follow it. Some think this fear is spiritually healthy — that it makes us, like Hamlet, reject suicide as an escape and conduct ourselves better for fear of judgment hereafter. Viewed in this light, it is skepticism, rather than belief, that is due to wishful thinking.
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover'd country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
- The writings in this book deal only indirectly with the motives men have for believing or disbelieving in an afterlife2. They are more specifically concerned with clarifying the meaning of this belief and with the question of its truth or falsity. These questions cannot be separated. It is possible that even a belief as widespread and familiar as this is so confused that a careful analysis of it would reveal that it cannot be expressed coherently. In that event, it could not possibly be true — or straightforwardly false either. So one of the questions our writers ask (especially Flew, Geach, Hick, and Price) is: Can a belief in survival after death be expressed coherently or not? The reader who finds this question surprising will find that these writers' contributions make it very clear why it has been asked, whether or not they answer it satisfactorily. As soon as we attempt to confront this question, however, we are faced with the fact that the belief has been expressed in many forms, some of which may contain confusions and others not. The two versions discussed here are the belief in the immortality of the soul and the belief in bodily resurrection.
- The doctrine of the immortality of the soul is the doctrine that a person survives death in an immaterial form. ("Form" here cannot, of course, mean "shape.") On this view, only the body dies; and when it does, the soul, or spirit, separates from it to live on, disembodied3. Many of those who believe there is an afterlife4 would unhesitatingly identify the doctrine of the immortality of the soul as the version of this belief which they espouse. It has two important implications.
This second implication is critically important, for if someone held that the soul survived the death of the body but did not identify the soul with the real person, he would not believe that the person survived the body's death; for him, the soul that continued would merely be a bundle of spiritual remains. We seem to find such a view in Homer; his gloomy view of the plight of the shades in Hades is the result of the assumption that they are only the sub-personal relics of organisms that have died.
- First, it implies the dualistic view that people are composite beings, consisting of an immaterial soul and a physical body.
- Second, it implies that the immaterial soul is the real person, and the body is merely his temporary residence.
- In sharp contrast, the doctrine of bodily resurrection is the doctrine that what will live on, at least in the final outcome, will be the physically re-created human person rather than an immaterial soul. This doctrine seems to be the only possible form of belief in survival for anyone who denies the dualistic view of the nature of human personality. In view of the familiar fact that human bodies disintegrate after death, the expectation of a resurrection is the expectation of a miraculous future act of God.
- So it is no logical accident that the belief in immortality is held by thinkers who consider that eternal life belongs to the essence of the soul and that the temporal restrictions of the body are alien to it; and it is no logical accident that belief in resurrection is found among those who think of eternal life as a gift rather than a right. The nature of the intellectual and religious environments of these two beliefs is the central topic of the article by Oscar Cullmann. He claims that the doctrine of immortality is not, as many have assumed, a Christian belief at all. It is well known that its most eloquent expression in Western literature is in Plato's Phaedo. Plato there represents Socrates as arguing for the soul's permanence and supreme value in a way designed to supersede the Homeric tradition. It has commonly been taken for granted that the views Socrates proclaims can be Christianized by simply denying his claim that the soul exists before it enters the body (which the most impressive arguments of the dialogue are supposed to prove) and retaining merely his conviction that it lives on after the body dies. Cullmann challenges this assumption by insisting that the primitive (that is, original) Christian doctrine is that of resurrection, which entails a totally different understanding of life and death from that expressed in the Platonic tradition. Cullmann's arguments have been challenged, but there is no better way to begin reflection on the religious place of the belief in an afterlife5 than by considering them.
- The writings in this volume will be concerned only with those survival doctrines that are found (rightfully or not) within the Christian tradition and in Judaism and Islam. Whatever their differences, these doctrines all envision an individual, personal, and unique form of survival. It is proclaimed and expected that all or some persons will live again after death, either immediately or at some future time of consummation; that each person who survives, survives as a personal being; that each person who survives has one and only one postmortem life that is usually thought to be eternal and does not return for another life-span in another human body; and that each postmortem person is identical with one, and only one, person who has passed through this life, however much transformed by the passage from this life to the next.
- These doctrines differ radically from the doctrines of reincarnation that are asserted, or presupposed, in the Hindu and Buddhist religious traditions. These traditions require separate and detailed study, and while some of the problems dealt with here are undoubtedly relevant to such a study, the coherence of this volume would have been destroyed by any attempt to embark upon it. This problem can easily be seen when we reflect that the cycle of incarnations is not confined to human or personal lives, and that the goal of the spiritual disciplines associated with these traditions is usually said to be liberation from, not into, individual personal existence.
- If we wish to understand the meaning of beliefs in life after death6, we must enquire into the nature of their religious connections, for these affect the forms in which the beliefs are presented. But the two main beliefs raise basic and intricate conceptual issues in epistemology and the philosophy of mind as well; and these issues must be confronted when we ask whether either form of belief can be coherently expressed.
- What is said to live on after death is a person. If so, then the form of life the postmortem being takes must be a form that is logically possible for a person to have. But what if activities essential to being a person are inconceivable in the postmortem state? This possibility is most obviously a problem for those who believe in disembodied7 survival; for a disembodied8 person is body-less. Could a disembodied9 person see (in the absence of eyes); or communicate (in the absence of organs of speech or hearing) ; or act (in the absence of limbs); or think (in the absence of a brain or nervous system)? The question in each case is a logical one: can one assert that such an activity takes place without contradicting the assumption that the being it is ascribed to has no body? It is not a question about whether, in this life, these activities take place without bodily performances, for most would agree that they do not, but rather a question about whether we can talk without contradiction of another world in which they do. If we cannot talk about such a world, then perhaps the very concept of disembodied10 personal existence is incoherent. Flew raises this challenge most pointedly, and Price attempts to meet it in his "Survival and the Idea of 'Another World.'" Price argues that a disembodied11 person could create for himself a psychical counterpart of the flesh-and-blood personal existence he knew before death.
- On the face of it, this problem only seems to arise for someone who believes in resurrection if he insists too unwisely on the degree to which the body of the resurrection is transformed. Obviously, St. Paul, in the famous and normative passage from his First Letter to the Corinthians, insisted upon it, but perhaps not to the extent that it raises this problem. On this matter each reader must be his own judge.
- A problem that neither view can avoid is the problem of identity. What can entitle us to say that the being who continues after a person's death is identical with that person? This problem is raised by Geach and by Flew in considering the doctrine of immortality. In daily life we usually identify people we meet as people we knew before by their physical characteristics. If this is not possible, we may resort to tests of memory. Philosophers disagree over whether the "physical" criterion of bodily identity is a more fundamental standard of personal identity than the “mental" criterion of memory. We do not have to decide such a question in daily life, but in reflecting on the possibility of survival we cannot escape so easily. For if the physical criterion is fundamental, then its obvious absence creates a critical difficulty for the doctrine of immortality. If possession of the same physical body makes a person at one time the same as a person at another, then no disembodied12 person can be identified with a previously embodied one, and there is an obvious problem in claiming that the disembodied13 person itself can persist through time.
- Perhaps one can resort to memory here also. Perhaps what makes the disembodied14 spirit the same as a previously embodied person is the fact that the spirit remembers experiences in the embodied person's life? However, there is a problem here in that only real memories, and not apparent ones, can be appealed to; but one of the essential differences between a real memory and an apparent one is that in real memory the later recollection is not only a recollection of something that really happened, but is of something that really happened to the person recalling it. But to concede this fact is to bring in once again some standard of identity other than memory; and the obvious standard, bodily identity, is not available.
- But does not the doctrine of resurrection once again, escape this difficulty? Would the resurrectee not have the same body as his predecessor? Unfortunately, these things are not so clear. A critic can easily suggest that what will rise in the future is not the very same person, in the very same body, but merely a replica of him. However many accurate recollections the resurrectee will have, however much he may feel guilt or pride about the doings of the man who died, the fact that the body which died may have been destroyed makes it just as correct to say that the resurrection body is a new (and perhaps superior) duplicate of it as to say that it is numerically the same. And if their bodies are not the same, how can we say with confidence that they are? (The natural move here is to reintroduce the belief in disembodied15 survival in order to bridge the gap between death and resurrection and thereby certify the identity. But to do this is to add the problems of the belief in disembodied16 survival to those one has already.) John Hick tries to meet these logical difficulties in his comments on resurrection, and in the two chapters included here from the Summa Contra Gentiles St. Thomas Aquinas describes and attempts to refute earlier versions of these same problems.
- These are the logical difficulties some have found in the belief in a life after death17. But many ask for more than a mere resolution of these issues before they will listen seriously to a doctrine of such importance. They want to know whether, when we know so much about the dependence of mental life in this world upon the state of the body, there is any positive evidence that any human personality has ever lived on after death. Of course, no present evidence could guarantee eternal survival or guarantee a resurrection in the future, and if we turn to empirical evidence there is the risk that it might support an unorthodox belief in survival rather than an orthodox one. But there have been, over the centuries, many alleged evidences of the persistence of human personality after death, and it is absurd not to pay attention to them. In "The Problem of Life After Death18," Professor H. H. Price offers his estimate of some of this evidence, especially that collected through observation of mediums who claim to be in communication with the dead. It is striking that when the hypothesis of survival seems the only reasonable alternative, many who do not wish to accept it will cheerfully postulate other paranormal processes such as telepathy or clairvoyance, which they would resolutely refuse to consider as explanatory possibilities in other contexts. Price discusses the plausibility of these alternatives, and his assessment of this material should be compared with that of Antony Flew, who believes that the survival explanation entails far greater complexities. These two discussions are an excellent introduction to the extensive, baffling, and perhaps important literature of psychical research.
- Most who accept the belief in survival, however, do so not because of the evidence of mediums but as a part of a personal commitment to the religious traditions encompassing the belief. In recent years, there have been widely publicized attempts to de-supernaturalize these traditions. The doctrine of survival has been reinterpreted, or dropped, in the interest of retaining what are considered to be more central religious doctrines in a secular age, These attempts may be true to religious essentials, or they may not. Both those who belong to these traditions and those outside them have an interest in deciding this. The skeptic is well-advised to be accurate in his understanding of what he rejects, just as the believer is to be accurate in his understanding of what he believes. For this reason, John Hick's theological assessment of the place of the belief in an afterlife19 in the Christian tradition is of general concern. It serves as a reminder that when we discuss life after death20, we are not only examining some of the most widespread and basic human hopes and fears but also examining a question in which the concerns of philosophical, religious, and historical thought cannot help coming together.
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