by George Clifford
In listening to parishioners, I’ve learned that life after death can appeal in several ways. Some persons enjoy this life but also hope for even greater enjoyment in an unlimited future of life after death. Conversely, some persons experience so much exploitation, pain, suffering, or deprivation in this life that the possibility of a new life without pain, suffering, tears, or death appeals greatly. Of course, the abuse of this appeal prompted Marx, among others, to characterize religion as the opiate of the masses. More broadly, many persons believe that this life rarely, if ever, provides justice for both the righteous and the wicked, a justice that seems achievable only after death. Finally, if God’s love for people is as great as many persons believe, then God’s infinite love can never find fulfillment in finitude but only in eternity.
Regardless of life after death’s appeal, some of its traditional attributes now seem dissatisfying to people to whom I have ministered. Illustratively, change appears essential for anything to remain continually interesting, enjoyable, or beautiful. The prospect of heavenly eternal stasis – an unending, unchanging perfection – feels more like eternal punishment (hell) than a blessing (heaven). Jokes about individuals preferring to party in hell instead of eternally strumming heavenly harps are funny largely because of our aversion to stasis.
Moreover, historic Christian understandings of what happens when a person dies, views that usually presume an empty tomb and Jesus’ bodily resurrection, are increasingly anachronistic in view of advances in astronomy, particle physics, and biology.
Astronomers, after losing their initial clashes with Christianity, have triumphed over Christian efforts to cling to literal interpretations of the Bible’s three-tiered cosmology (heaven, earth, and hell). Heaven and hell, if they exist, are almost assuredly not actual physical places.
Particle physicists and biologists have shown that the human body, which is comprised of trillions of atoms, constantly exchanges substantial numbers of atoms with the environment by ingesting air, water, and nutrients and then egesting various wastes. This occurs not only in obvious ways (e.g., respiration and digestion) but also in less obvious ways (e.g., atoms entering and exiting the body through the skin).
Consequently, life after death does not, and physically cannot, denote a literal continuation or resumption of a person’s bodily existence. Numerous atoms in each person’s body have previously been part of other individuals’ bodies. Intriguingly, scientists estimate that every person now alive probably has one or more atoms that had been, at least temporarily, part of Jesus’ body. Literal continuation or resumption of a person’s bodily existence would thus entail multiple people simultaneously sharing an atom. Replication of atoms might allow an apparent continuation or resumption of bodily existence but would in fact be at best a copy of the original and not the original itself.
Additionally, if life after death denotes a continuation of physical existence, then many people would fare poorly, stuck with bodies that most of us would strongly prefer not to have. Many elderly, mentally retarded, physically handicapped, and severely diseased persons of my acquaintance would consider themselves accursed if life after death denotes continuation of one’s physical existence.
Simplistic suggestions that transitioning to life after death eliminates all disease, handicaps, and other physical limitations/deterioration are overly facile, ignoring the indissoluble physical oneness of human existence. I am who I am partially because of disease, handicaps, and bodily deterioration. Changing any of those, even for the better, would profoundly alter, with no guarantees of improving, the person who I am. That is, my body might be physically perfect but my mental processes, emotions, and personality (all aspects of physical existence) might suffer significant impairment caused by narcissism, a sense of invulnerability, etc.
In sum, the image of an empty tomb may be a powerful metaphor but offers little substantive insight, given the advances in science, into the possibility or nature of life after death. Platitudinous affirmations of physical resurrection and life after death endlessly repeated in Eastertide, at funerals, and on other occasions, partially explain why growing numbers of educated reject traditional Christianity.
Theories about life after death that spiritualize resurrection superficially appear to rest on firmer foundations. Gospel accounts of the resurrected Jesus are clearly paradoxical and point to a mysterious, qualitatively new form of existence. For example, the risen Jesus suddenly appears in a locked room yet is sufficiently corporeal to eat a meal and for the disciples to touch him. The New Testament epistles enticingly refer to the human body as a seed that must die so that God can give it a new body and of the need for mortality to put on immortality.
Spiritualizing life after death, however, poses its own set of difficulties. Among the least of these is describing a credible twenty-first century cosmology that includes a spiritual (as opposed to physical) heaven and, depending upon one’s theology, hell. Imagining a spiritualized heaven is arguably little more difficult or problematic than imagining the multiple parallel universes that some scientists hypothesize exist.
However, spiritualizing life after death raises two questions unanswered in spite of centuries of discourse. First, what is the nexus between the spiritual and the physical? That is, how does the immaterial spiritual interface with the material, physical world? No explanation of that interface has gained widespread traction among scientists and theologians. In the absence of such an interface, how can humans, whose senses and cognitive processes are all physical, think, speak, or otherwise describe, much less interact with, the spiritual? This dilemma is relevant to all forms of revelation, from mysticism to the inspiration of scripture.
Second, what does it mean to describe humans as spiritual? If human spirituality connotes that humans have an ethereal, eternal aspect, then what is the origin of that spiritual aspect? Postulating that God created through evolution, is the spirit a latent, barely developed aspect of non-human lifeforms that only becomes fully developed in humans? If so, what was the catalyst for that development? Since evolution appears to proceed through random events and natural selection, is it reasonable to believe that God somehow knew that spirit’s more fully developed emergence would coincide with the evolution of humans? Even if one can explain the evolutionary development of an ethereal, immaterial spirit, the conundrum of describing the nexus between the physical and the spiritual remains unsolved.
Conversely, if human spirituality does not connote an ethereal, eternal aspect of human existence, then what does stating that humans are spiritual beings mean? The second part of this essay begins with my answer to that question, explores a contemporary concept of life after death that I find attractive, and then examines how diminished confidence in life after death has affected individuals and altered the Church and its ministry.
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.