This essay’s first part began by enumerating some of the reasons why people find the prospect of life after death appealing. I then considered why both a physical and a spiritual understanding of life after death are problematic in light of advances in astronomy, particle physics, and biology. Part 1 ended with this question: If human spirituality does not connote an ethereal, eternal aspect of human existence, then what is the human spirit?
My efforts to answer this last question shape my thinking about life after death. If the human spirit is entirely the result of evolutionary processes, then aspects of that spirit should be apparent in some other lifeforms but most fully developed in humans. The human spirit, in other words, is the quintessence of what makes a human fully human and has at least six overlapping yet distinctive elements: self-awareness, linguistic capacity, the aesthetic sense, creativity, limited autonomy, and the ability to love and be loved. All six aspects presume that a human is an indivisible physical whole. All six in some measure also entail the emergence of new, non-physical capacities or complex properties in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, e.g., consciousness. (For a fuller discussion, cf. my article, “Making the Ethereal Earthly: A New Definition of the Human Spirit,” Journal for the Study of Spirituality, Vol. 5, No. 2, (October 2015), 113-127.)
Process theologian Marjorie Suchocki proposed the concept of life after death that I find most provocative and attractive. She suggested that life after death consists of a person living forever as an idea in God’s mind. Although her proposal has some potential shortcomings (e.g., can a person have an independent existence as an idea in God’s mind and is existing as an idea in God’s mind dynamic or static?), her proposal coheres well with my concept of the human spirit and avoids difficulties inherent in physical and spiritualized concepts of life after death. Perhaps the next generation of Christians will identify still other alternative concepts of life after death compatible with scientific progress, human anthropology, and current biblical and religious studies.
Post-modern twenty-first century people seem more comfortable with doubt and uncertainty than did people even fifty years ago. Although considerable numbers of individuals continue to find the prospect of life after death appealing for one or more reasons, doubt and disbelief have eroded Christian confidence in life after death. As my own death inescapably approaches, I am in no rush to embark on an irreversible journey of personal discovery but want to savor this life as long as I can. I suspect that a majority of Christians, if they were to be completely open about their thoughts and feelings, share both my uncertainty regarding the future and my reticence to relinquish this life in the hope of receiving eternal life.
Diminished belief in life after death has led to at least three observable changes in Christianity and pastoral ministry. First, funerals and memorial services have largely shifted from ritualized affirmations of Christian hope in life after death to celebrations of the deceased’s life. This is true even for active Church members. Second, fewer persons seem motivated to belong to a Church to avoid hell or to gain admittance to heaven. Third, Christians increasingly subscribe to a realized eschatology centered around actualizing the fullness of God’s kingdom on earth. More people now participate in Christian community to nurture their individual spirituality and to affect their local community and the world positively.
In short, the Church today is less likely to understand its liturgical affirmations of life after death in traditional ways. Instead, contemporary Christians increasingly interpret those affirmations in new ways, while concurrently preserving continuity with the way prior generations expressed their hope and trust in God’s goodness and love.
Episcopalian and noted biblical scholar Marcus Borg exemplified these shifts when he wrote that he had no clue what happens after death but was confident of being held in God’s unending love (The Heart of Christianity (New York: HarperCollins, 2003), pp. 181-184). My thoughts similarly remain open about what, if anything, happens when a person dies. Perhaps death is the end. Perhaps there is life after death. For forty plus years, I have contentedly left my questions with God, both fully aware that death constrains my ability to look into the future and confident of God’s limitless love.
George Clifford is Priest-in-Charge of the Church of the Holy Nativity in Honolulu, HI. He served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years, has taught ethics, and blogs at Ethical Musings.