The Yellowbrick Road to Immortality: Is There Really Life After Death
by Vicki Parker
Is immortality as simple as living beyond death? Is the afterlife all that religion suggests? William Hocking - author of The Meaning of Immortality in Human Experience - says,
"The depth of yearning for valid judgment is far deeper than any hope for a rewarding justice, or any fear of retributive justice in unchanging heavens or hells" (219).
What does this mean? It means what motivates us in this life should be more than the hope of heaven or the fear of hell in the next life. Again, as Hocking commands, the point here is to separate an uninquiring belief from philosophical truth and sound judgment (192-93). But how do we make that distinction? How do you take concepts like heaven and hell out of eternity? And if you do, what’s left on the other side other than a mere extension of the same life, or possibly even nothing at all? And if the good deeds we do in this life are because we fear hell or we hope for some reward (heaven), are we stripping ourselves of the immortality we hope for because we've missed the point somehow?
Thoughts of immortality generally pose more questions than they do answers. Fortunately, however, the prospect of immortality does not rest entirely on religious shoulders. There are many theorists who have grappled with what happens when we leave this world, and in fact, four main doctrines have forged themselves in the annals of time. You don’t need a Ph.D. or a dictionary to understand these doctrines, but you might find it difficult to hear what they’re saying above the white noise of philosophy. Be still my heart and listen!
The Doctrine of Disembodied Survival
The doctrine of disembodied survival was introduced by Terrence Penelhum. He suggests that we will survive our bodies in an "immaterial sense." That is, we can exist without a body in the afterlife, even to the extent that we may have existed without one to begin with (2-3). The disembodied cannot "walk, smile, or frown" ... but what they can do is "perceive, imagine, form intentions, or feel angry (Penelhum 21)". In this model for immortality, the dead are like a player without a piano, a dancer without a step, or a singer without a song. They are invisible to mankind, but they are discernable in the spirit world by the "traits" that defined them in the living world – traits such as tenacity, creativity, guilelessness, or even selfishness and greed (Penelhum 20).
In order for disembodied survival to prevail, the deceased must be "intelligibly" identifiable with someone previously embodied (Penelhum 11). In other words, there must be a significant recognition between the identity of the person who lived and the identity of the same person once they have died. This recognition may be one of the traits mentioned (Penelhum 14), but if there is no connection of the once living–now dead, death becomes an end in itself and disembodiment becomes a fallacy, a new beginning rather than an extension of mortality. And let’s not forget, there must be a second disembodied to recognize the first one.
You may ask what good it does to recognize and be recognized if you cannot communicate? Penelhum’s theory, however, suggests these beings DO communicate. Spirit communication is a common phenomena in our culture today, but it is usually the dead with the living or vice versa. "Mediumistic communications" ranging from seances to physic interfaces (24) are on that end of the spectrum, but if we believe we can communicate with God, that communication is a reverse form of "mediumistic communication." Therefore, if you follow Pennelhum’s train of thought, supernatural or paranormal activity could be the result of the disembodied showing their traits in our world (Penelhum 24). Stay with the train of thought, and clairvoyance or deja vu could actually be the result of disembodied beings living vicariously through us.
The Doctrine of the Immortal Soul
The immortal soul doctrine was introduced by Plato in The Phaedo. This doctrine contends that the human soul is essentially held captive by the body for its life span. It refers to the soul as a separate entity from the body, though still an intimate part of it. Norman Geisler, a Christian philosopher, interprets the doctrine to mean the soul "is the real, true or essential person ... and it does not decay or deteriorate as our body does" (212-13). The translation: Our soul is part of our physical being, but it is very capable of existing beyond our death (Lewis 155, Hocking 188).
The immortal soul doctrine goes on to assert that "life is incompatible with death just as equality is with inequality." (Giesler 216). In other words, "opposite ideas may appear to co-exist but they do not" (Jowett 168). Socrates said it yet another way – the soul is not in communion or "harmony" with the body, but in conflict with it (Jowett 236-37, Pringle-Pattison 170). This is so because the soul cannot have qualities which are opposed to it. For example, the body lusts after the desires of the flesh while the soul knows truth from lies or right from wrong. The soul remains pure "having never voluntarily had connection with the body, which she is ever avoiding... gathered into herself" (Jowett 219). This means if the body suppresses the soul, the result is evil. It also means if the body gives in to the soul, the result is good and "returning to herself, the soul passes into purity, eternity, immortality, and unchangeableness" (Jowett 163, 217).
Are you hearing the white noise yet? It sounds like our bodies have a significant degree of control over our souls? Yet the souls are the eternal ones? Bodily desire certainly parallels with Western Christianity’s concept of free will where free will is paramount to personal morality (McDermott 128). St. Thomas Aquinas philosophies that bodily thoughts and actions, if abused, alienate us from God or the supernatural (McDermott 128). Perhaps sensing or perceiving does demonstrate that humans are a whole made of two parts: the body AND the soul (McDermott 110). The soul is like an energy source – the mind, its conductor. The two must work in tandem or they will remain at odds.
The doctrine of the immortal soul has another essential principle -- the pre-existence of the soul. Plato suggested that concepts like justice or equality are drawn from something far greater than our limited experiences. They might be reminiscence, the power of association, or intuition (Jowett, 163), but whatever we call them one must ask where did they come from? Plato reasons that we must have been privy to them "prior to the embodiment of our soul" (Giesler 216). So in essence, disembodied survival doctrine asserts that human intrinsic abilities or senses survive us. And the immortal soul doctrine, asserts they pre-exist us.
Are you hearing more white noise yet? If the soul can pre-exist the body, how is a soul assigned to a body? This is certainly a cornerstone of predestination. But without predestination, a body could conceivably receive a bad match casting a misfit or mismatch out into society! Without pre-destination, we could also conclude that life has no real meaning or purpose; it is merely fate. But on the other hand, if there is predestination, was there really any separation of body and soul to begin with? (Hence the arduous doctrinal battle between the Baptists and the Presbyterians in Western religion.)
The Doctrine of Reconstruction
The reconstruction (or reconstitution) doctrine (also called the resurrection doctrine by contemporaries) owes much of its credit to St. Thomas Aquinas (Flew 140). This doctrine is a relieving departure from the prior two, yet it is laced with subtle likenesses. The primary principle of the reconstruction doctrine is that we will be called into a "re-existence" after our death. That is, after we die our body will be resurrected and our "person reconstructed" (Giesler 213, Ducasse 18-19, Gaskin 167). In order to have this experience, we must have first had a body (Giesler 213).
There are two opposing views stemming from this doctrine. The first is centered around the reconstruction of pre-mortem "identity." For instance, Jesus was raised as a disembodied spirit – that is, he was a physical body to begin with and was raised as a spiritual body (Gaskin 167). The second view is similar, except that the reconstruction is much more than "identity" or "traits." It is literally physical. In this scenario, Jesus was raised as "transformed" flesh and blood (Lewis 78-79). In either case, Jesus is immortal, but the second view requires something the first view does not – the omnipotent power of a supernatural being or God (Lewis 99).
Contemporary philosopher Loyal Rue points out that both views are a variation on disembodied survival (41-42). Resurrection doctrine requires that the soul remain alive when the body dies in order to bridge the gap between death and resurrection (Flew 100). This means a brief period of disembodiment is necessary. But what then, as Lewis inquires, is "resurrected"? Will we live in space in some embodied form - a physical purgatory?" Or will we live with no body at all, our "personage" having been reconstructed (54) - a spiritual purgatory where we wait for re-embodiment or recognition.
How literal should we take reconstruction doctrine? If physically resurrected, could we return to a diseased or disabled body? Or let’s assume we get new or refurbished parts – do we somehow manage to escape the mortal requirements of bodily maintenance and upkeep?
The philosopher C. J. Ducasse suggests it is a fallacy to assume that man shares the same fate as the divine Son of God (18-19). His attempt to turn down the white noise is honorable. If reconstruction is a complete refurbishment, free from physical encumbrances, things still get complicated! At what stage of our lives are we be restored to – Our age at death? Our age at realization or salvation? And perhaps the biggest white noise maker of all is, how do you determine what form physical reconstruction will take at the risk of being recognized by those who knew us in one stage of our lives, but unrecognized by others who knew us in another? For instance, we may live on to be a ripe old age having lost our parents at a very young age. The answer is simple in disembodied survival doctrine and the immortal soul doctrine – it doesn’t matter because the immortal know us by our "traits."
Aquinas expounds on a spiritual resurrection by claiming our souls do not die with our bodies because the soul is "self-subsistent". Socrates goes further to say the soul is separate and "while the soul is in company with the body, the soul cannot have pure knowledge..." (Jowett 198). Socrates seems to be saying the soul has pure knowledge only before birth or after death. If so, this raises the question of how the soul can fall prey to the whims of the body to begin with?
Lewis raises the same question of the resurrection doctrine that he raised of disembodied existence – can you really be who you once were after you are dead? Lewis claims the ability to identify someone after death depends entirely on memory. Not the memory of rote facts, but an extension of the deceased’s connections and personal feelings (Lewis 61). So does this mean there is no place for the superficial on the other side?
The Shadow-Man Doctrine
The shadow-man doctrine has received little attention but seems to combine the most plausible arguments of the other three theories. Originally set forth by Tertullian in Aristotle's De Anima, this doctrine asserts that our real person is a shadow, but it is physically sufficient to establish our real person (Flew 141). It further asserts that our spiritual being is quite capable of separating itself from our body at death (Giesler 213). In essence, an "astral body" detaches from our physical body and travels on to some other space (Lewis 82).
Anthony Flew suggests this astral body is the "real, essential person", it has simply been removed from the physical person (Lewis 101). A good example is the movie Ghost where the character is murdered, yet reappears to his mate in a shadow or spirit form which has detached from his body. Notably, he reappeared ONLY to his former girlfriend and went unseen and undetected by others, thus indicating the recognition or identification was only by her.
A potential problem with the shadow-man doctrine is finding the identity between the original and the astral body. St. Thomas Aquinas explained,
'...the soul, even after separation from the body, retains the being which accrues to it when in the body... Consequently there has been no interruption in the substantial being of a man, as would make it impossible for the selfsame man to return on account of an interruption in his being.' (Flew 141, Op. cit., IIIa, Supp. 79, 2, ad 1).
White noise again! It sounds like Aquinas just said we are all immortal regardless. Or did he say we are ONLY mortal?
The Yellow Brick Road to Immortality
There is empirical evidence that the human body decomposes after death. Consequently, is it not scientifically plausible for a body to reconstruct itself post-mortem without divine intervention. So if you believe in physical resurrection, you are committed to a belief in some omnipotent power. Putting that aside, we must ask ourselves if a spiritual resurrection is plausible, why would a body voluntarily reconstruct itself with a soul it has already spent a lifetime at odds with as the immortal soul doctrine suggests. It seems to me, it would beg to be free from it.
Is it more plausible, that the soul simply seeks to stay joined with itself? But this means immortality of the soul is imminent and the fear of hell or the hope of heaven is irrelevant – unless of course, a disembodied soul can feel the physical fires of hell ablaze!
Is it possible that the soul can decide for itself whether it chooses to escape or detach itself from the body at death? Does the soul, with a sort of ‘mind of it’s own,’ choose to stay in the marriage of body and soul, or opt for divorce? The modern paranormal gig certainly suggests that spirits which ‘loom’ in their former environments had turbulent separations from them.
It may be more palatable to believe that a body and soul exercise as a team, each giving and taking. More like the harmony between a musician and his instrument than the fatalistic nature of opposites proffered in the immortal soul doctrine. Or like the musician who dies, but his music (the soul) lives on. Sadly, however, is the prospect that the body and soul can also exercise as a team to perpetuate evil. Like the uselessness of a loaded gun without the finger who pulls the trigger. And are they necessarily at odds if they both enjoy the kill?
When it comes to immortality, it is quite clear that there are more questions than answers. Evidence of the white noise is found in hundreds of religious doctrines, usually five fingers point out and one right back at itself. Against this veil of white noise, it seems the crux of immortality is ‘what is needed to perpetuate the soul through recognition by others’? Because without this recognition, according to all four doctrines, there is no transcendence from this life into another. As Socrates said, "the soul on the approach of death does not perish but removes" (Jowett 168).
If we understand the nature and purpose of the human soul, we are better equipped to understand immortality. Hocking reminds us that unless we are bodiless in some way, there is no personal living (188). That seems easy to agree on. There is no place for the superficial in immortality. As contemporary philosopher Loyal Rue argues, without our brains, the ability to communicate in mortality is impossible. But disembodiment splits the "real" person, leaving only a shell on one side and only a possibility of intelligible existence on the other (Rue 41). So without our hearts and souls, the ability to communicate in immortality is improbable.
Giesler points out that there are many sources for validating our beliefs – affirmation testimony, intuition, gut feeling, sound logic, reason, body language or sensory perceptions (103). Did we just define emotional intelligence? And these appear to be the exact same sources needed for validating our existence in the afterlife. In order to survive in the afterlife, our soul must be a part of a collaborative effort to guide the heart, mind and body toward something more meaningful.
After an exploration of the four doctrines on immortality, you may feel like the quest to understand immortality is a vicious cycle. As Pringle-Pattison states, "unbelief in death seems to be the characteristic ... of true spiritual life." (208). Or like Dorothy says,
"if I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own backyard. Because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with."
Perhaps all we really need to know about immortality can be found in MGM’s flick, The Wizard of Oz. But while we are focused on the issue of not looking further than our own backyards, let’s not overlook the most valuable thing Dorothy was saying -- we SHOULD be LOOKING!
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Dodds, Marcus, trans. City of God. By Saint Augustine. New York: Randomhouse, 1950.
Ducasse, C. J. The Belief In a Life After Death. Springfield, Ill.: Charles C. Thomas Publishers, 1961.
Flew, Antony, "Immortality". The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. New York: MacMillan, 1972. Reprint ed.
Gaskin, J. C. Hume's Philosophy of Religion. 2d ed. Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press, 1988.
Geisler, Norman L., and Paul D. Feinburg. Introduction to Philosophy: A Christian Perspective. Michigan: Baker Book House, 1980.
Ghost. Dir. Jerry Zucker. With Patrick Swayze, Demi Moore, and Whoppie Goldberg. Paramount Pictures, 1990.
Hocking, Williams. The Meaning of Immortality in Human Experience. New York: Harper, 1957.
Jowett, B. The Works of Plato. New York: Tudor, N.d.
Lewis, Hywel. Persons and Life After Death. London: Macmillan, 1978.
McDermott, Timothy, ed. Summa Theologia: A Concise Translation. By St. Thomas Aquinas. Westminster: Christian Classics, Inc., 1989.
Penelhum, Terrence. Survival and Disembodied Existence. New York: Humanities Press, 1974.
Pringle-Pattison, Seth. The Idea of Immortality. London, England: Oxford, 1922.
Rue, Loyal. "How Shall I Think About Death?" Humanist (July 1995): 41-42.
The Wizard of Oz. Dir. Victor Fleming. With Judy Garland, Bert Lahr, Ray Bolger, et al. MGM Pictures, 1939.
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