Is There Life After Death, or are we on the "Yellowbrick Road"?
by Vicki Parker
Is immortality as simple as life after death? Is the afterlife all that religion suggests it is? William Hocking, author of The Meaning of Immortality in Human Experience, suggests it isn't. He 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."
What does this mean to you? To me, it means that what motivates us in this life should be more than the hope of heaven or the fear of hell in the next life. As Hocking suggests, the point here is to separate an unverifiable belief from philosophical truth and sound judgment (Hocking, pp.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?
It's all a bit mind-boggling. The question of immortality generally poses more questions than it does true answers. Fortunately, at least in my mind, the prospect of immortality does not rest entirely on religion-based shoulders. In other words, you can make a case for immortality without religion. Many theorists and philosophers have grappled with what happens when we leave this world. In fact, four main doctrines have forged themselves and they still exist today.
You don’t need a Ph.D. or a dictionary to understand these doctrines, but you might find it difficult to hear them 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." The disembodied cannot "walk, smile, or frown" ... but what they can do is "perceive, imagine, form intentions, or feel angry." In his 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 "traits" that defined them in the living world – traits such as tenacity, creativity, guilelessness, or even selfishness and greed. (Survival and Disembodied Existence, pp. 20-21)
In order for disembodied survival to prevail, the deceased must be "intelligibly" identifiable with someone previously embodied. 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, 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. (Penelhum, pp. 11-14)
You may ask what good it does to recognize and be recognized if you cannot communicate? Penelhum’s theory suggests supernatural beings do communicate. We can't deny spirit communication is a common phenomena in our culture today (paranormal activity, etc.) but it is the dead communicating with the living or vice versa?
Mediumistic communications ranging from seances to physic interfaces are on the supernatural spectrum. And if we believe we can communicate with God (send and receive messages), well, that's nothing more than mediumistic or supernatural communication. Now hang on! If you follow Pennelhum’s train of thought to the station, supernatural or paranormal activity could very well be the result of the disembodied showing their traits in our world. Check in at the station and take the next train. The boxcar containing clairvoyance and deja vu could actually be the disembodied speaking to us or vicariously still living through us. (Penelhum p. 24)
The Doctrine of the Immortal Soul
The immortal soul doctrine was introduced by Plato in the ancient work, 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 modern 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" (Introduction to Philosophy: A Christian Perspective, pp. 212-13). Translated, our soul is part of our physical being, but it is very capable of existing beyond our death.
Plato's immortal soul doctrine also asserts that life is incompatible with death. In other words, opposites don't always attract. Socrates said it this way – the soul is not in communion or "harmony" with the body, but in conflict with it 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". 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" (The Works of Plato, B. Jowett, pp. 163-219).
So, be good and live forever. Be bad and get buried forever. Are you hearing the white noise of immortality yet? Do our minds and bodies control our souls? Bodily desire certainly parallels with Western Christianity’s concept of free will where free will is paramount to personal morality. St. Thomas Aquinas proffers that bodily thoughts and actions, if abused, alienate us from God and the supernatural. Perhaps sensing or perceiving does demonstrate that humans are a whole made of two parts: the body AND the soul. The soul is like an energy source – the mind and body, its conductor. The two must work in tandem or they will remain at odds. (Summa Theologia: A Concise Translation, Timothy McDermott, pp. 110-128)
Just when you think you've made sense of this, the doctrine of the immortal soul throws in another essential principle -- the preexistence of the soul! What? How can be here before we get here? 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, 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." So in essence, disembodied survival doctrine asserts that human intrinsic abilities or senses survive us. And the immortal soul doctrine, asserts they preexist us.
I don't know about you, but I'm getting dizzy! If the soul can preexist 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 predestination, 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
Are you ready for another? The reconstruction (or reconstitution) doctrine (also called the resurrection doctrine by contemporaries) owes much of its credit to St. Thomas Aquinas. 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 death. That is, after we die our body will be resurrected and our "person reconstructed." In order to have this experience, we must have first had a body.
There are two opposing views stemming from this doctrine. The first is centered around the reconstruction of premortem "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. 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. 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 (Persons After Life and Death, Hywel Lewis, pp. 78-99).
Contemporary philosopher Loyal Rue points out that both views are a variation on disembodied survival. Resurrection doctrine requires that the soul remain alive when the body dies in order to bridge the gap between death and resurrection. This means a brief period of disembodiment is necessary. But what then, as Hywel Lewis inquired, 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 - a spiritual purgatory where we wait for re-embodiment or recognition.
I'm still standing at the train station and I'm still dizzy. 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?
Philosopher C. J. Ducasse suggests it is a fallacy to assume that man shares the same fate as the divine Son of God (even though the Bible says we're made in His image) (The Belief in Life After Death, C. J. Ducasse, pp. 51). His attempt to turn down the white noise is honorable, but 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."
St. Thomas Aquinas expounds on spiritual resurrection by claiming our souls do not die with our bodies because the soul is "self-subsistent". Socrates explains the soul is separate and "while the soul is in company with the body, the soul cannot have pure knowledge...". 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?
Hywel 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 (p. 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. It further asserts that our spiritual being is quite capable of separating itself from our body at death. In essence, an "astral body" detaches from our physical body and travels on to some other space.
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. 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. 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. 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 vigorous exercise in futility. As Pringle-Pattison states, "unbelief in death seems to be the characteristic ... of true spiritual life." 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."
Indeed, perhaps the best and greatest answer to the question of immortality can be found in the famous MGM flick, The Wizard of Oz. The road to eternal life is really no further than our own backyards. We're better off focusing on this life!
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