Life After Death

views updated Jun 11 2018

Life after Death

Myths that explain the origin of death have been found among many cultures. Clearly, reflection on death and on life after death belongs to the oldest layers of religion. Yet because of the oral nature of these myths, their approach to the problem of death is relatively unsophisticated. A steady progress became possible only after the Greek invention of simplified writing. This process has continued through the twentieth century, and philosophy and theology, directly or indirectly, have exerted the most important influences on religious thinking about life after death.

The terms soul and otherworld have not always carried the same meanings during the course of history. "Primitive" conceptions of the soul were usually of two types: the so-called free-soul, which represents the individual personality but which becomes inactive when the body is active, and thus represents the person after death; and the body-soul, which endows the body with life and consciousness, and which perishes with the body. This dualistic conception of the soul changes when small "primitive" peoples become more differentiated. In these cases, the free-soul starts to acquire the qualities of the body-soul. The process is well documented in ancient Greece, where, after Homer, the free-soul (psyche ), started to incorporate the thymos, the most important of these body-souls. As for the underworld, modern people are so used to thinking in terms of heaven and hell that they must be careful not to retroject them into earlier civilizations. Like ideas about the soul, conceptions of life after death have a history too.

Ancient Israel and ancient Greece

Even a cursory look at the Old Testament reveals that it has little to say about either soul or afterlife. In fact, ancient Hebrew does not even have a term equivalent to the modern English word soul. The closest equivalent is nephesh, which can be translated "life" or "life-force," but which can also signify the seat of emotions. Yet this term never refers to the "soul" of the dead, nor is it ever contrasted with the body. Israelite anthropology was strictly unitarian and remained so until influenced by the Greeks after Alexander the Great (356323 b.c.e.). The grave must have played an important role in ancient Hebrew culture, since "to go down into the grave" (Gen. 37:35) is equivalent to "to go down into Sheol" (King James, Ps. 16:10). Sheol was a place located beneath the Earth, filled with worms and impossible to escape from, where the shadow-like deceased were supposed to continue their earthly existence. However, the scarcity of references to Sheol suggests that ideas about life after death were vague and played little role in the imagination of the early Israelites.

Ancient Greece presents a different situation. In Homer (c. 800 b.c.e.), who constitutes the earlist Greek source, the soul (psyche ) does not yet have any connection with the emotions of living people. Yet in contrast with ancient Israel, the Greek notion of soul does represent people after their deaths. The soul goes straight to the underworld, Hades, an area located under the Earth, but also in the west; the soul can reach this "mirthless place" only by crossing the river Styx. The Greek picture of the underworld is bleak and sombre, causing the dead Achilles to remark: "do not try to make light of death to me; I would sooner be bound to the soil in the hire of another man, a man without lot and without much to live on, than be ruler over all the perished dead" (Iliad 11.489491).

This traditional picture became radically nuanced in southern Italy during the fifth century B.C.E by Pythagoras (c. 570495 b.c.e.) and the Orphics. The former is seen by many as the inventor of Western notions of reincarnation and celestial immortality. Unfortunately, information about the origin of ideas about reincarnation is scarce. It may well be that Pythagoras developed the idea in order to give his aristocratic followers new status in a time when the aristocracy was under stress. In any case, his new vision presupposed the idea of the immortality of the soul, an idea popularized by Plato (428347 b.c.e.). Belief in celestial immortality became more evident around 432 b.c.e., when an official war monument pronounced the souls of fallen Athenians to have been received by the aithêr (upper air), but their bodies by the Earth. Shortly after Pythagoras, the Orphics, an intellectual movement named after the mythical poet Orpheus, introduced ideas about an attractive afterlife in the shape of a "symposium of the pure," where sinners had to wallow in the mud in a kind of hell. The contours of the Christian distinction between heaven and hell, then, first became visible in the fifth century b.c.e. This did not mean that the older ideas disappeared. On the contrary, belief in a life after death remained limited to a small group of intellectuals; most ordinary Greeks did not seem to have expected much of an afterlife. "After death every man is earth and shadow: nothing goes to nothing," states a character in Euripides' play Meleagros, and it is this attitude that predominantly survived into the Roman and Byzantine periods, even among Christians.

A startling new conception of the afterlife developed after Alexander the Great spread Greek civilization into the Mediterranean world in the last decades of the fourth century b.c.e. Before this time, the Greeks had denied the possibility of resurrection, but the publication of the Aramaic fragments of Enoch in 1976 show that among an as yet unidentified group of Jews the belief in resurrection, which is absent in the Old Testament, had become apparent already in the early second century b.c.e., although it was not until the Maccabean revolt that it became widely popular. Moreover, the same book of Enoch mentions heaven and hell. It seems likely that intellectual Jews had made contact with Greeks, probably in Alexandria, and had received information about Orphic views of the afterlife.

Although several groups of Jewish intellectuals, such as the Sadducees, the Essenes, and the community of Qumran (that has given us the Dead Sea Scrolls) continued to reject resurrection, others like the Pharisees enthusiastically took up the idea. However, the resurrection was not exported out-side the Jewish world until the appearance of Jesus of Nazareth, although Jesus himself did not believe in the restoration of the former body, since the resurrected would be "like angels" (Matt. 22:2333). The caution of Jesus was soon abandoned by his followers. In fact, Christian apologists and theologians spent an enormous amount of energy explaining and defending the resurrection, beginning with Paul's words: "For if the dead rise not, then is Christ not raised. And if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain" (1 Cor. 15:1617). Indeed, all four gospels reach their dramatic climax with reports of Jesus' resurrection. Paul seems also to have been the first to present Jesus' resurrection as the beginning of the collective eschatological resurrection, whereas in traditional Jewish thought individual resurrection, as in the case of Jesus, had been typical only of martyrs, such as the Maccabees. This intellectual Christian effort becomes more understandable against the backdrop of Greek skepticism regarding the afterlife, a skepticism that was shared by the Romans, who had virtually no idea of an afterlife and, correspondingly, lacked an idea of an immortal soul.

The early Christian era and the Middle Ages

Early Christian ideas regarding life after death received great stimulus through the Roman persecutions. Whereas the New Testament had been reticent about the actual nature of the afterlife, it now became necessary to develop a picture that would help martyrs persist in their faith. Reports of executions of Christians during this time show the gradual appearance of new views of the afterlife, not surprisingly beginning in North Africa where funerary attention was more prominent than elsewhere in the Roman empire. Inspired by the Jewish idea of paradise as the place for the deceased, as well as by the great parks of contemporary local grandees, there arises an idea of heaven as an attractive landscape with a mild climate and plenty of light, where the deceased walk around in the body. Their main activity consists in praising God. This theocentric view of heaven would dominate until the Enlightenment. Hell, on the other hand, is little mentioned in the Christian literature of the first centuries c.e. Early Christian theologians were primarily interested in salvation, not damnation.

At the same time, the Jewish heritage of Christianity meant that a marked body-soul opposition was introduced relatively late in the second century by Christian intellectuals, such as Justin (c. 100165) and Tatian (late second century), who were heavily influenced by Greek philosophy. They tapped Greek concepts of the immortal soul in order to bolster their arguments for the resurrection, albeit with a number of modifications, such as different fates for sinners and saved. Speculation about the soul, fed by Stoic and Aristotelian views, occasionally appears in the writings of later Church fathers like Origen (c. 185254) or Augustine of Hippo (354430), but they did not much influence ideas about life after death.

It is only in the early Middle Ages that a major change in attitude towards the afterlife appears. Christianity's growth from a minority into a majority, coupled with Augustine's stress on sin, led to an emphasis on hell rather than heaven in medieval views of life after death. Whereas Origen had argued for the temporary nature of hell, theologians like Augustine and Gregory the Great (c. 540604) started to paint the penalties of hell in the most shrill of colors. The latter was more concrete than the former and thought that the penalties of hell started immediately after death, unlike Augustine and the early Church Fathers, who most often let them begin after the Last Judgment.

In the twelfth century, ideas about life after death became more differentiated. The Church introduced Purgatory as a third place for the dead, where they could be purified from their sins before they go to heaven. Strangely enough, the intellectual milieu where Purgatory was invented is still uncertain, but there are indications of a Cistercian origin, fueled by the need to counter the eschatology of the Cathars who had made salvation much easier than normative Christianity. Although the tripartite division of life after death was never accepted by Greek-Orthodox Christianity, it was promoted by scholastic theologians like Thomas Aquinas (c. 12251274). They did not agreed on all details, and disagreed in particular on the moment when the elect would attain full beatitude and the precise relationship between body and soul. Nonetheless, this general picture of the afterlife did not change significantly until the Reformation.

The Reformation and the Enlightenment

With the arrival of Martin Luther (14831546) and John Calvin (15091564) on the theological scene in the sixteenth century, God returned to center stage. The Reformation rejected Purgatory and, like post-Tridentine Catholic theologians, concentrated on the encounter with God in the hereafter. Until the eighteenth century, Western Christianity was united in seeing heaven as the place for the elect, where life was perfected by existing with God, without decay, but also without everything that characterizes human life, such as sex, illness, and family. The idea of hell, on the other hand, was increasingly questioned, especially after the reprinting of Origen's works during the Renaissance and after a rise in sensitivity towards the suffering of others.

During the Enlightenment, both Christians and adherents of natural religion could still agree on the idea of the immortal soul, but for the first time in Western history materialists and atheists could publicly, if guardedly, pronounce their views. They went too far for the majority, but in varying ways philosophers like Thomas Hobbes (15881679), John Locke (16371704), Denis Diderot (17131787), and Voltaire (16941778) now openly brought belief in eternal punishment into discredit. David Hume (17111776) could even claim, not without exaggeration, that the damnation of one man was an infinitely greater evil than the subversion of millions of kingdoms. It seems safe to say that ever since this time the traditional picture of hell has remained unacceptable to enlightened classes.

The picture of a static, theocentric heaven could also no longer satisfy an age more interested in man than God. Starting with Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz (16461716), but especially in the work of Emanuel Swedenborg (16881772), ideas about life in heaven became adapted to the anthropocentric needs of the time. Swedenborg promoted a view of heaven that was not so different from life on Earth. According to Swedenborg, the souls of the deceased entered a spirit world where human frailties were clearly visible. Only after perfecting their spiritual outlook could souls move on to heaven, where they became angels. Here, life on Earth was continued but in a more attractive setting of parks and palaces. Eating, drinking, and sexuality remained vital needs, friends and family could be met, and progress meant that men and women became more and more like "noble savages." Condemnations to eternal torment or a Last Judgement had no place in this vision. Such a stress on heaven in the era of the Enlightenment may be surprising, but in fact in Germany in the 1750s alone more than fifty treatises appeared discussing the problem of immortality. Evidently, growing scepticism led to deepened interest in defending immortality.

The nineteenth and twentieth centuries

Swedenborg's view coincided, and was probably part of, the Romantic interest in love between man and wife, and this interest was shared by Protestants and Catholics alike. Although Swedenborg was viciously attacked, even by Immanual Kant (17241804), he was triumphant, especially in America. The Transcendentalists became much enamored of Swedenborg's thought, and their influence was felt in America and Europe. The Unitarians in England, in particular, embraced the new insights against the more traditional views of the established churches. They began stressing that heaven consisted in "enjoying God through accordance with his attributes, multiplying its bounds and sympathies with excellent beings, putting forth noble powers and ministering, in union with the enlightened and holy, to the happiness and virtue of the universe" (Channing, pp. 225226). Moreover, after Charles Darwin (18091882), this enjoyment was seen as the end of a long evolution. Immortality became a possibility rather than a reality. Similar conceptions of the afterlife were widely promoted in Germany as well. Naturally, even heaven could not escape the lure of Victorian "Muscular Christianity": "Want and pain, toil and trial, cannot be wholely banished out of my Heaven," wrote the brother of Cardinal Newman (Newman, p 34).

The heyday of Unitarian theology coexisted with the birth of spiritualism (1848). This movement would be the last attempt at proving scientifically the existence of the hereafter by means of controlled experiments. Yet the success of spiritualism would be shortlived; it was soon discredited by the frauds of its adherents and the trivialities of its results. Still, during its heyday, especially in America and England, its picture of heaven conformed closely to that developed by Swedenborg. Moreover, its rejection of hell, sin, and guilt was widely shared by liberal theologians everywhere.

By the end of the nineteenth century, the general picture of life after death had assumed the contours of what would be the rule for most of the twentieth century. Hell was no longer the subject of serious theological discussion and eventually disappeared even from folk belief, except perhaps for that of the most conservative Christians. In the wake of its demise and with the rise of a more materialistic view of the person, the idea of an immortal soul lost wide acceptance. Many people still believe in heaven, but it is no longer the subject of serious intellectual debate. Leading theologians, such as Reinhold Niebuhr (18921971) and Paul Tillich (18861965), even pronounced their hesitations about eternal life. Admittedly, systematic theologians have not given up presenting new eschatological designs, but none has found success in the last decades of the twentieth century. Not surprisingly, mainline churches have stopped worrying about the afterlife, since their members are too much concerned with this life. It seems that the world of theology, of rational reflection on life after death, is no longer influential among common believers.

Relection on life after death has not broken down completely, however. Among adherents of the so-called New Age there is a new interest in the soul, which is considered to be a part of the Higher Self, the New Age notion of an interface between the Universal Mind, or God, and the individual personality. It is the soul that continuously creates new lives and chooses its present incarnation. In other words, there no longer is a definite "Beyond" as the final resting point, but the soul is perpetually en route towards its spiritual perfection via reincarnation.

Finally, life after death has come once again to the fore in discussions of so-called near-death experiences, as first collected in the 1970s by Raymond Moody, an American philosopher turned psychiatrist. In these experiences, which relate a visit to the hereafter, the idea of a life after death seems to reflect widely ruling modern ideas: the dead go to heaven, but God is no longer there; the soul is not mentioned, and neither is hell or judgement. Scholarly discussions concentrate on the nature of these experiences, the age of those who have these visions, and the medical circumstances allowing such visions. Yet serious scholars no longer discuss these visions as testimonies of a postmortem existence. It seems that after a 2,500-year discussion, the problem of life after death has largely been abandoned.

See also Darwin, Charles; Hume, David; Reincarnation; Soul; Thomas Aquinas; Transmigration


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jan bremmer

Life after death

views updated May 11 2018

Life after death: see DEATH.

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