The lesson last week was entitled The Human Condition and the lecture material and DVD discussion focused on the so-called Problem of Evil. This week the DVD conversation lead by Dr. Nicoli returns to much of the same material but there is more of an emphasis on our mortality and what may lie beyond. So this commentary will not revisit issues of the Problem of Evil (although one could profitably spend weeks on the subject) but will instead consider the issues of death and possible afterlife.
I have never seen the subject of death substantively and directly addressed within local-church Adventism, either in Sabbath School or sermons, unless you include the standard funeral oration. Perhaps I just lead a sheltered life. But there are few subjects more important to seriously reflect on. Unsurprisingly death has been discussed extensively throughout the history of both Christianity and philosophy and we will look at some of this. But discussing mortality purely from an abstract perspective is a bit like assuming we are scientists peering into a test tube where what we’re looking at is ourselves. So I want to divide this session and take part of it for us to reflect more personally. It seems both incomplete and a bit cowardly if we do not spend some time addressing our deaths. But we will start with the abstract and move to the personal.
Dualism, Survivability and Naturalistic-grounded Proof
There are two fundamentally different views on what a human being is.
- The physicalist view posits that we are essentially only one sort of ‘stuff’ – matter. We are certainly enormously sophisticated machines, capable of acting and thinking (with all that implies – consciousness, creativity, etc.). But, when this physical entity dies, that’s it. There is nothing beyond the grave.
- The dualist view postulates that humans are composed of two parts which I will call the body and the soul. A fairly decent analogy here is software and hardware. They are essentially different in the sense that the body inhabits time and space. But the soul is immaterial. And it is not necessarily tied to its current body or any body at all. All Christians – yes, even Adventists – hold this view. We die & our present body disintegrates. At the resurrection we are provided with new, glorious bodies (Philippians 3:21). Most Christians believe we go to heaven immediately upon death and are conscious there in some ill-defined form until the resurrection. Adventists instead adhere to the doctrine of ‘soul sleep’ which denies that souls may be both conscious and disembodied. But this distinction doesn’t change the basic dualist premise.
So are there any experiential or rational ways to determine whether dualism is true – i.e. whether we actually have a soul? And if so, does it survive the death of the body?
The expected way to pursue this question I suppose would be to try to detect something, distinctly separate from the body, that we would label ‘soul’. What we see every day is a united mind and body, and there is nothing in that that cannot be adequately explained from the physicalist viewpoint.
But consider these two possibilities:
- Near-death experiences. This phenomenon is persuasive to some. Adventists would reject this as evidence for a soul on doctrinal, not evidential grounds. But a physicalist would note that near-death does not reach all the way to death and beyond. So the reports of the returnees could be explained physiologically just as dreams might.
- Spiritualism. I use the term loosely to cover the range of ways historically people have claimed to be communicating with the dead. Again Adventists are theologically adverse to spiritualism but readily believe in communication from and to humans by other beings, both angelic and demonic. While there are many cases of fakery there are still many unexplained occurrences of paranormal activity. But just being unexplained is not proof. A physicalist view could admit the paranormal and provide possibilities other than dualism, such as extra-terrestrials, latent human capabilities, etc.
There have also been attempts to demonstrate a separable soul through rational argumentation. Notably Plato in the Phaedo has Socrates discussing this with his friends the morning he is to die by drinking hemlock. Working through those arguments is beyond the scope of this essay but, for what it’s worth, I have not found them very compelling .
What I have concluded is that proving we have souls, via experience or reason alone, is analogous to the attempts made to prove God exists. You cannot get there by these methods alone. And if we live after death, as outlined in the Bible, this is a consequence of our larger belief in God and in the reliability of the Bible.
God’s Capabilities Needed for Our Resurrection
Belief that we will be resurrected takes, I contend, a significant amount of faith. Consider what capabilities God would have to possess to do the job (assume standard Adventist theology):
- Every detail necessary to capture the full identity of each individual who has ever lived must be either acquired by God at the point of death or a running knowledge of the ‘state’ of our current identity must be known and constantly updated so when death comes the fullness of each of our selves can be saved to later be instantiated into the new body.
- New bodies must be created for these ‘sleeping’ souls, presumably from scratch, but who knows. In any event it will have to be sufficiently like the original so we will be recognized by others but no longer subject to decay. Then our saved identities must somehow be melded into this new vehicle. It doesn’t take much scientific familiarity to realize how complex our current bodies are and they are inferior to what has been promised.
- An adequate surrounding living environment must be prepared if these reinstantiated humans are to survive, let alone flourish. This is the ‘new earth’ part of the Biblical narrative. Our current planet suffers from analogous frailty as each human does. Presumably things like earthquakes, disease, floods, etc. would have to be dealt with to provide a superior, stabler environment. Stated differently, the component of The Problem of Evil discussed last week called Natural Evil would have to be fixed.
- God would have to want to do all this. Perhaps this seems trivial or obvious. But it calls attention to the emotional component of God. It’s not that any potential lack of desire would be because of the difficulty involved in doing the work. Rather, it should help us appreciate the amount of love required. Consider the lengths a loving parent would go to return their children to health, if death threatened them. Then multiply this by all who will be saved. The new world envisioned by the Bible implies an immense amount of God’s love driving such a massive restoration.
So where am I going with this? Reflecting on the immensity of the change from what we know and see now can move us in one of two directions:
- Under-appreciating God’s capability can shrink our concept of Him.
- Recognizing the enormity of the restoration can make us ask whether we really believe such a God exists. Atheism in modern society is a live option and the Problem of Evil has not yet gone away or been fully explained. Yet our hopes are pinned to this ‘God-adequacy’.
Another likely unconsidered question when reflecting on death and possible resurrection is – what sort of person would we come back as? There are two interrelated issues we might wonder about:
- Presumably, in order to maintain my identity from the past I have to be recognizable – to myself and others. But we change over time. Our bodies age and deteriorate. And it is difficult separating our identity from the body we have. I think we would assume that any crippling mental or physical deficiencies like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease, would be removed. But at what point in our life’s timeline does God choose when ‘sculpting’ our new body? Consider, for example, an American man who moves to France at age 35, learns the language fluently, and then marries a French woman when he is age 50, paunchy and balding. Now, should he be resurrected with, say, a 21 year-old body? He might be nearly unrecognizable to his wife.
- But beyond age deterioration each individual is born short of what might be called an ideal human. The defect might be physical or mental. Stephen Hawking might exemplify an extreme in physical defect yet no mental defect. Conversely we can easily envision a severely retarded person who is physically sound, perhaps even attractive. Yet in both instances the person’s identity is intimately connected to the mind and body they lived in. How does God ‘fix’ this?
One can say this is idle speculation and not be concerned. Fine to a point. But if any narrative makes too many assumptions beyond our understanding, people start to wonder if the story is just a myth. And many have rejected Christianity because the story of death, resurrection and afterlife – as told throughout Christian history – has had too many problems for them to believe it.
The Afterlife and Hell
Once we get past the silly caricatures of playing harps on clouds or devils with horns and pitchforks there remains the question of what heaven and hell really are. We tend to focus on heaven – planning I suppose to get there – but is our concept of heaven adequate? What is a now immortal human being meant to be and become? Our focus in this life is, understandably, getting beyond death. But I think our conception of heaven, if we think about it at all, is too frequently like some celestial Disneyland. And just how many ‘rides’ can you go on – for eternity – before you ask some fundamental questions about man’s ultimate purpose?
The flip side of heaven is hell and the classic doctrine – not shared by Adventists – has people being tortured for eternity as punishment for their current sinful life. This issue is explored in the DVD conversation. Jeremy Fraiberg says:
We haven’t spoken much about hell here, which I think is actually an obstacle of faith for some people. That is, if God is all good, and all powerful, forget the fact that bad things happen to good people, but what about people like Michael and me who have been struggling with these questions? It would seem kind of unfair if we had to suffer for eternity because we didn’t believe after doing the best we could living according to our lights. I find that a troubling concept.
I agree with him. This objection gets at the issue of whether God is fair. And it is very hard, I’d contend, to argue how such a scenario is fair. Adventist doctrine provides a significant easing of the problem. But one can still ask the fairness question about supposed good people who lived under circumstances where they never heard the Christian message. Are they damned simply because of circumstance? Some Christians would answer yes.
I think it is reasonable to say that hope for resurrection is one of the most central concerns of the New Testament, summed up best perhaps in 1 Corinthians 15. Especially:“And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men” – 1 Cor. 15:17-19.
Fear of Death
Paul uses the term lost but I take him to mean by that – annihilation. That is, if our Christian hope of resurrection turns out to be false we would cease to exist forever at our death. Should this possibility cause us to be afraid?
Epicurus (341-270 BC), who did not believe in an afterlife, claimed we should not fear death because “Death, the most frightening of bad things, is nothing to us; since when we exist death is not yet present, and when death is present, then we do not exist” (Letter to Menoeceus, p. 125). The idea here (at least in part) is that when you’re dead there is nothing more that we experience, so there is no ‘other side’ that might have bad things to be concerned about. If death is like going into a dreamless sleep forever then there would be no fear in that final state. Notably, there would be no worries about some sort of judgment.
I find his argument unpersuasive. Here are two possible reasons why we might fear death:
- Suffering Before Death One component of any fear is contemplating the possibility of personal suffering as death approaches. We have all seen examples of this. Some debilitating illnesses cause years of suffering before death. Both physically and emotionally, we are understandably pain-avoidant.
This is the idea that life is without objective meaning, purpose, or intrinsic value. Years ago there was a popular song by Peggy Lee entitled Is That All There Is? The chorus sums it up well, I think:
"Is that all there is, is that all there is?
If that's all there is my friends, then let's keep dancing.
Let's break out the booze and have a ball
If that's all."
Without some meaning to motivate us and hope in a future where those aims may be realized and the results retained, it seems to me that nihilism inevitably follows. Here then is where the hope advertised by Christianity contains its maximum punch – and there are few options out there claiming to defeat death. This I think this is part of what keeps many Christians hanging in there with church, even when it might perform badly and even hurt them.
We Act Immortal
Armand Nicholi, in the video, quotes Freud as observing that our unconscious does not believe in its own death. It behaves as if it were immortal. I would agree, from my experience. It seems that people act like they are going to live forever – at least until or unless circumstances make this perspective impossible to sustain (like realizing you have a terminal illness). We humans have hopes and we make plans. It’s almost like (and I can’t offer anything like proof for this) we were designed for immortality. This is a very C.S. Lewis-like argument. We look forward, but if we cannot expect our future to last, then despair would seem to be a natural consequence (at least if you are at all reflective). Can we even orient our minds to live with expected annihilation? This seems analogous to the sense we have of free will. Whether true or not, humans live as if we are free.
In summary, it’s difficult to be casual about death. It’s coming for each of us. And there seems to be very little traction in demonstrating life beyond death, either by looking at empirical evidence or through some rational process. The prospects appear brighter if one believes the Biblical promises and follows the Christian path. Pascal’s Wager  makes that point explicitly. But faith is not always easy – notably when we contemplate the evil around us and ask why God is allowing it. And when we recognize the enormous capability (speaking humanly) that is needed to accomplish this promised restoration, we should at least realize the faith we must express is not trivial. This question of bedrock faith, so that we may have a future, is more important and difficult, I suggest, than any other activity we do in our lives.
- end-of-series -P.S. I hope this series of essays has been interesting and at least provided some food for thought. But, obviously, they were also structured as an attempt to be a workable vehicle for a Sabbath School Class to use - a class that wants to explore issues outside of and beyond the scope of the S.S. Quarterly.
If any reader here takes this material and tries it out in their church I'd be interested in hearing about your experiences. You can contact me at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Video Conversation [12 minutes, 30 seconds] – Transcript
Some Questions to Consider:
Q: In the video Frederick Lee states “faith creates the problem of pain.” Michael Shermer responded “So just get rid of the faith, and that’s it.” Does this fix the problem? What’s your reaction to this exchange?
Q: Do you believe the doctrine of Hell (as classically taught in Christianity) is an impediment to belief?
Q: Do you fear death personally? Is so, why? If not, why?
Q: Would you rather know in advance that your death was imminent (e.g. from diagnosed cancer) or have it come without warning (e.g. a traffic accident)? Why?
Links to the other essays in this series:
1) Introduction 2) A Transcendent Experience 3) Science or Revelation 4) The Exalted Father 5) Why Believe? 6) Miracles 7) Moral Law – Part A 8) Moral Law – Part B 9) Love Thy Neighbor 10) The Human Condition 11) Suffering and Death
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/2348