DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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Questions

Two contributors present brief essays in response to some perennial questions. Each writes independently of the other. One comes from a person closely linked to a Christian denomination. The other comes from a person at the fringes of the traditional Church.

2. Is there life after death?
A
nyone who has suffered the death of a loved one knows a moment of instinctive protest, "This can't be!" Only later can the stark fact of death be accepted. And it must be taken to heart if the bereaved is to know peace. Some achieve this sooner, some later. But all must.

There remains, despite everything, a desire to keep the dead in life somehow. Most of us have seen television images of ancient graves. They give apparently clear evidence of the need of our ancestors to think of their dead as somehow living on - of an instinctive refusal to accept death as the end.

This need still exists today. But it is now much harder to satisfy. Humanity has only recently had to face death as potentially a stark finality.

One consequence of medical science is the definition of death as the final and irreversible end of that system of cellular life we call "a human being". The human person is a biological entity. Death returns our constituents to the pool of nature. We begin as an assembly of cells. We end when those cells die and disperse.

It may be, say some, that at death some essence of a person other than the physical is preserved. If this is true, then nobody is able to say how - at least not in the sense that we can describe how the human organism works. Our "souls" are immaterial and indefinable, beyond the reach of scientific description or analysis.

All that remains is hope founded on the conviction that life itself is the purpose of the universe and that the Creator loves and treasures life. If that faith is correct then we may take it that God is unwilling to (in effect) kill us. Christians, taking their cue from Jesus of Nazareth, think that just as loving parents can't bear to see a child of theirs die, so God can't bear to see a human life end for ever.

But there is a problem. Everything we know about the universe today indicates that it is a total system made up of deeply interlocking parts.  It is seamless in its essence. To negate any one part is to destroy the whole. 

The death of biological systems is one aspect of how the universe works. When a person dies, a sub-system we call a "human being" merges with another sub-system we call "the earth". That process is an integral part of our seamless universe. Negate it and everything we know about the universe ceases to make sense.

Great thinkers have recognised this dilemma for centuries. One solution proposes that a person "sleeps" until the end of all things. To put this in modern terms, when space-time ends (for time and space are a single dimension) then all life may be renewed in some way. But because we are creatures of this universe and no other, we can't imagine any other reality. Therefore we can't know what form a new reality might take.

The possibility of eternal extinction seems deeply incongruent with our sense of "me". The prospect of an aeons-long sleep is daunting. Can it be that, to all intents and purposes, we all cease finally and irrevocably? Can it be that the "me" and the "you" will end? 

There is no answer - only the unknowable. That's the way God made it.
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Immortality has been a preoccupation of human societies since prehistory. In ancient Egypt life after death was raised to a level of importance not exceeded to the present. Eternal life is a corner stone of Christianity.

Aside from anecdotal reports of out-of-body experiences of people undergoing anesthesia or in some kind of trance, I am aware of no credible testimony of individuals who have entered an after life and returned to physical existence and were able to report the experience. 

Hence, an afterlife is inherently a subject of speculation wholly unprovable by materialist standards. Accepting the concept of eternal life is a matter of faith.

Some questions occur to me:

  1. Why do some people desire immortality and others do not?
  2. Does life after death include everybody or only those who desire it?
  3. Is immortality earned by "good behavior" during life?
  4. Will we be conscious in an after life?

There are many who have no interest in an after life. Personal extinction on death is of no concern. If afterlife is a universal phenomenon, would dissenters be dragged kicking and screaming into it?

For many, a continuation of an, albeit, disembodied existence is essential to their world views. In particular, Christians are encouraged to look forward to reunion with loved ones conditioned only by belief in Jesus Christ. I have known and know many who are absolutely sure they are going to heaven. Jesus has prepared a room for them.

Yet others consider an after life as a reward for doing specific things and living a good life. Despite all the injustices inflicted by earthly life there is recompense in heaven for endurance.

It seems to me that all who enter an afterlife should be fully conscious, aware of themselves and others. If not, what would be the sense of such an existence?

I for one would be ecstatic to be reunited with certain people I loved and respected during this life. I must also admit there are others whom I prefer not to meet again.

Perhaps it is presumptuous of me to impose any conditions on an afterlife. No doubt, if it is a reality, it will transcend all our earthly human experiences and rules.

Although I am not certain of what lies beyond the door of death, immortality still appeals to me. My uncertainty, however, in no way detracts from my belief in the essential message of Jesus for abundant life during our sojourns on earth.

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