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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Life After Death

Perhaps the most daunting thought any person can face, in this or any other age, is the possibility that you and I will cease when we die. It seems to us preposterous that self-conscious entities such as ourselves should live for a while and then simply cease to exist. How can it be that all our struggles come to nothing? If a caring God exists, how could death be called a "loving" gift?

An almost universal response to this thought is to speculate that death is not final, that each of us somehow continues afterwards. Of course, there are some who seem quite content with the prospect that death is the end. To them we are like any other organism. Just as bacteria or whales or butterflies live out their lives and then perish, so do we.

But this phlegmatic response doesn't seem to satisfy most people. The vast majority have some idea, however hazy, that they and their loved ones will somehow be united in a life after death. It seems impossible to them that hard-won bonds of commitment, loyalty, and deep affection can be summarily broken for ever.

Two initial points can be made:

  1. It's worth wondering if life after death is really that important. Whether we continue or cease when we die makes no intrinsic difference to the way we live our lives now. Some say that the prospect of answering to God for our sins on earth makes it easier to do good in the here and now. 

    This strikes me as a way of defining God which is singularly unattractive. God becomes a coercive bully. The rebellious part in us instinctively wants to rebel against being forced to be good. True goodness is behaviour freely and responsibly chosen - not that which results from duress.

  2. There is no evidence from beyond the grave. Even those who believe that Jesus rose from the dead have little or no certain knowledge about what life after death consists of. 

    However much we may hope or even suspect that death is not the end, nobody has ever come back to tell us about it. If they had, it's reasonable to assume that it would have been the biggest story ever, one which is certain to have been recorded. 

    True, many such stories do exist. But it's strange that they seem to have ceased since the advent of modern science and communication. Both would ensure that we all knew of them and that their authenticity could be rigorously tested.

A question which must concern most Christians is whether or not Jesus thought there is life after death. It appears from the account of his discussion about marriage in Mark 12.18-27 that he did. There is no doubt that Paul (1 Corinthians 15.35) and other early Christians did not question the idea. 

That this should be important depends, however, on concluding that they had some sort of special knowledge not available to us. That may be true - but if so it requires a way of regarding the Bible which is in direct conflict with the entire body of modern knowledge.

The teaching about life after death has been developed over the millennia by the Church. By the First Vatican Council (1869-1870) it had been elevated into a doctrine necessary to right belief. The result is that today the majority of Christians are expected to adhere to a rigid teaching about the next life.

In fact, the concept of life after death has a great variety of forms. Stephen Davis suggests that they can be sorted out into four main approaches to the subject [1]:

  • We survive death only in a "weak" sense. Some people are content to know that they have "survived" through the genes they pass on to their offspring. (They don't seem to care much about the continuity of childless people.)

    Others think that they survive in the sense that their influence over others carries on, in whatever small way, through succeeding generations. Such no doubt place great store in achievement.

    Yet others propose that our survival consists in a sort of "memory in the mind of God". Just as my parents "survive" in my memory, so we carry on in the memory of the Creator. This sort of survival may not include self-consciousness and life as we know it.

  • Death is not final in the sense that we live many lives before we finally "pass on". Successive reincarnations ensure that we carry on towards perfection, at which point we become one with an eternal perfection. 

    Though this approach appeals to many in the East and a few in the West, it remains difficult for the average modern thinker. This primarily because by its very nature, in does away with the uniqueness of the individual. For if I am reincarnated in another life as another person, in what sense can I be said to survive as the essential "me"?

  • It may be that it is not the entire person which passes on to a new life but an eternal component of the person - an immaterial self or what is usually called a "soul". 

    This solution assumes that the person you and I experience in the "other" is really only a physical cloak for the real person. It's a dual-person solution. We experience the essential person through the medium of a physical but inessential person. 

    Though this response is intuitively attractive, for the ordinary modern it lacks compulsion. This is because it is not easy, knowing something of how the body as a whole works, to envisage an elusive "something" within it which contains its essential character.

  • The traditional Christian answer to the apparent finality of death is that survival after death happens when the entire person is resurrected. Although the body disintegrates at death, God is able (if one passes certain tests) to miraculously reconstitute the person exactly as when he or she was living.

    The guarantee that this will happen to the faithful is the resurrection of Jesus, which is an actual event just like any other event in history.

    A weakness of this response is that it depends on the plausibility of the historical evidence of the resurrection - a notoriously difficult thing to carry through.

Arguments for and against immortality are many and varied. Generally, however, they revolve around (a) the problem of the continuity of the individual personality; and (b) the evidence by which today we decide what's true and what isn't. These two points are extremely complex, so what follows is the briefest of summaries.

(a) We know that the cells which make up every person are constantly changing. Each cell dies and is replaced. Although estimates vary, we can be certain that in a normal lifespan, each of us is completely reconstituted several times, perhaps once every few years of our lives.

If the Christian solution to death is resurrection of the person, which person is to be brought into new life? Is it the frail 90-year-old? Or is it the hale and hearty 25-year-old? That is, in what sense am I able to say that me at 67 is "the same" as me at 17 years old?

It's all very well to say that an omnipotent God can do anything. That may be - but it does not answer how am I going to recognise you in an afterlife, miracle or no miracle. 

There is a further difficulty. Time is not a succession of moments, but an indivisible continuity. When we think of time as comprising seconds or milliseconds, that is purely a convenience. If we were to consider the person in this light, it would seem that "you" are the sum of all your moments. How can this "you" be resurrected? The answer is not obvious.

There is yet another sense in which "you" do not stand alone as an entity entirely separate from everything else. We are all open systems, constantly exchanging energy with our environment. That is, we only exist insofar as we are part of a total system we call "the world". Without that system it is impossible for a human being to stay alive.

That we should somehow be what is normally called "alive" without the highly complex system which supports us is not credible. Can we breathe without air, or survive without eating? If we could, we would no longer be human - and if not human, then not "you" or "me".

(b) I mentioned above that "there is no evidence from beyond the grave". I suggest that this statement stands unless someone can demonstrate otherwise. But that is not all.

It must be granted that there are many kinds of "truth". There is truth conveyed by poetry and music; truth which comes through tradition and culture; and truth which is intuitive and subjective, which only each individual has for himself or herself. Is that sense, a "gut-feel" that I will not pass away for ever may be intensely true for me.

But when we ask if life after death is "true", I think we are asking a different class of question. We want to know what observed phenomena exist which indicate that there is such a thing. Those "facts" should be supported by enough other facts to convince a broad spectrum of experts in life after death, If so, then the amateur like you or I can accept that life after death is a "fact" in the sense that it warrants a high degree of probability.

Regardless of strident Christian claims that Jesus rose from the dead, the quality of the gospel accounts is not enough to warrant their claims. If it were, many more non-Christian historians would back them up. As it is, only a tiny number do.

Addressing historical warrants as statements which allow "the passage from data to conclusion", Van Austin Harvey writes:

Some warrants authorise us to accept a conclusion unequivocally while others make it necessary to introduce some kind of qualification. [2]

In the case of life after death, only those who short-change the historical process from enquiry to conclusion have enough evidence to claim that "Jesus rose from the dead" without extreme qualification. That is, the historical probability that Jesus came back to ordinary human life (as distinguished from some sort of "spiritual" life) is extremely low.

Much more importantly, though, is that history as a discipline is but a part of a large grouping of disciplines - all of which depend upon analysis and corroboration for their strength. If we discount history as a critical element in "proving" the resurrection of Jesus, we are forced also to discount all the other disciplines. They all share the same rationale. To discount one is to discount all.

It is in this sense that it is probably impossible to make a "true" claim that there is life after death. There may be nothing wrong with poetic stories which validate our intuitive sense that this life can't be the end of everything for you and me. But this is a far cry from claiming that you and I will in any sense be alive after we die. Every scrap of evidence we have indicates that this is not the way the universe is put together.

To sum up so far: There are many versions of the assertion that "there is life after death". Though many of them will be intuitively true to those whose culture validates them, it seems impossible to demonstrate the objective truth of the claim.

There remains one important aspect of life after death to consider. It derives from the suggestion that it may be detrimental to this life if people are convinced of the next life. Isn't it possible that we will tend to be less focused on today if we know that tomorrow is for ever?

The Church appears to have considered this possibility - which is no doubt why it has introduced the threat of hell. For most people, life after death means being at one with God, in some way experiencing a blissful existence. Hell is for other people. But the threat of eternal punishment nevertheless theoretically reduces the possibility that we won't take this life seriously.

I know of only one approach which has a degree of face value for the average person who accepts God as a caring, loving "person" who is concerned with each of us in a supremely intimate way. Given that belief, it is inconceivable that God can bring you or me to final extinction as a person.

Having said that, it has to be cautioned that in the 21st century the assertion that a personal God is not useful is increasingly being accepted. In other words, the gaze of Christians is more and more being withdrawn from heaven and focused on earth. The word "God" is less personal and more universal in meaning. The more this way of perceiving life takes hold, the less easy it is to maintain the above argument.

As a result, it appears that more people recognise that to affirm the possibility of life after death is to state their need for it, rather than its objective reality. They find it difficult to be more than determinedly agnostic about its likelihood.
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[1] Survival of Death in A Companion to the Philosophy of Religion
Blackwell, 1999
[2] The Historian and the Believer, SCM Press, 1967

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