Life after Death?
Life after death. It's one of the central tenets in Christianity. Assent to this doctrine is often used as a litmus test for orthodoxy, although it was a late idea in Judaism and was still a matter of dispute in Jesus' time. It's seen not only as a test of orthodoxy but as a major reason for faith. If the dead are not raised, said Paul, then we of all men are to be most pitied.
Is there life after death? Let's not hide behind the technicalities of resurrection. However we describe it, we are talking about some kind of conscious personal survival beyond death. Whatever the intricacies of theology this is what people generally mean. Does it happen?
In an interview Phillip Pullman spoke of a distant view and a close-up view when he wondered about the existence of God. Viewing at a distance, looking at the whole of what we are dimly aware of, he could not rule out the existence of God. But up close in the tiny candle lit area of what he could actually see and understand, he could find no evidence at all for belief in God. This is how I think about life after death.
Looking at the Whole, such a thing cannot be excluded. Indeed, classic Pauline theology speaks of resurrection as a completely different sphere of existence; different as the plant is from the seed which has died. But we know so little of what might be, or what actually is, in this view of the Whole (whatever that actually means!) we can say very little that is not simply hope, wistful thinking, or speculation.
When we look up close at what we know well, the view is very different. As in Pullman's example, there is very little evidence. If anything the evidence is contrary.
On the physical front, it is very hard to conceive how we can consciously survive death. It is all very well to say that a "soul" survives, but how could this be so? Our mind and consciousness seen inextricably linked to the biological structure of our brains. Damage the brain and you damage the mind. If the brain is dead, how can mind and consciousness continue?
We cannot demonstrate the mind operating independently of a brain even when a person is alive. There are some odd phenomena, perhaps, but no real understanding of what is happening. Near death experiences, out of body experiences and the like, are not life after death- we are still alive. Their meaning and significance is open to question. They are really no use as an argument for the survival of consciousness after death.
There is no demonstrable life after death. Claims of communication with the dead are mostly the province of charlatans, or at best, the naive and the grieving. Even the common experience of the closeness of the recently dead can be accounted for with other, more convincing hypotheses.
Everything dies. Even the mountains are brought down to the plains. The lakes fill, and continents sink beneath the sea. Bacteria die by the billion each second; no more life for them... Animals all die, perhaps mostly at the claw of another. Plants die- even Sequoia and olives which live for millennia. We see it as a natural part of life. We do not expect there to be a resurrection for these. What arrogance decides that we alone should be different?
Based on "created in the image of God" theologies, and simple human centred arrogance, it has been argued that we are different. We are at the pinnacle of creation. In reality we seem also to be at the pits. We do not kill simply to eat. We kill for greed and ego. Are we so special? Biologically, we are just another animal, and perhaps more destructive of Earth than most. Religion simply teaches what we have assumed from our own self centred perspective, and our fear of not being. It adds a gloss of theological justification, having first created God in our image. Argument's that we are special are circular.
If the notion of life after death is a fiction, is it a useful fiction?
Perhaps it can provide a comfort in the face of our fear of not being, and our sense of smallness and insignificance in the universe. But it seems to me to be the comfort provided from a violent storm by a glass window. The glass is inherently fragile, and will easily shatter. It provides illusory protection. Our real protection in such a case is provided by the strength of the house in which we live. Can we really will ourselves to believe in something we know is untrue? Life after death is like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny for a ten year old. It is time to grow up!
In fact, life after death is an unhelpful and dangerous fiction; suicide bombers often believe that the reward of life follows their dying. Life after death means it doesn't matter what happens.
The same situation exists for good Christians. It doesn't really matter what happens to people because there is life after death and God will make it alright. It seems to me that life after death is an excuse for inaction on matters of justice. The same applies to the illness of earth. What happens to the planet won't rally matter because we are going to heaven and won't have to deal with it.
There is some suggestion that not having life after death leaves people in a kind of sterile waste land because there will be no point to life. This seems ridiculous to me. Again, if is based on a premise that says this life we have now is not really important. And it gives in to the fear of death and the fear of not being.
I find wonder, not sterility! Among all the enormous forces of the universe, I am. In the presence of unbelievable power, something as small as me has been given consciousness. I can feel! I can grieve, and love, and dream. I know hope. I know joy. I hope for justice. In this brief life I can also seek to bring justice. I can have compassion. I can make a difference in another's life.
In the end, I will die. My life is short, only 613210 hours if I live my 70 years, and perhaps much less. Is this fair? I don't know: it seems unfair that many people live far shorter lives- and in pain and squalor. Despite that I will rejoice in what I have been given, and not pine for what cannot be. I refuse to delude myself and denigrate the good I have been given. Life is good. THIS life is good.
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