Is there life after death? This question is raised by many people, both believers and non-believers alike.
Surveys in the Netherlands have shown that 57% of church members (Roman-Catholic and Protestant) and 55% of the unchurched believe in a life after death. It is remarkable that so few members and so many non-members believe this.
Even more remarkable is that in both categories more people believe in life after death than in God (40% among church members and 7% of non-members). Consider that church attenders, whenever they recite the Nicene Creed, affirm in the first line their belief in ‘God, the Father, the Almighty’ and in the last line their belief in ‘the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come’.
All this appears to indicate a considerable degree of ‘wishful thinking’ among the unchurched on the one hand and a rather confused belief among many church members on the other.
This seems to me sufficient reason to reconsider the question of life after death extensively and critically. The biblical grounds for the belief in life after death will be discussed. Other religions are also considered. In this context, I also discuss reincarnation belief that has come to us from eastern religions and that is accepted by 25% of church members in the Netherlands.
Special attention is paid to the interim period between death and resurrection, a subject about which the Bible tells us little and on which most theologians remain silent. I consider therefore what we can learn from the so-called ‘near-death experiences’ about which there has been much discussion lately due to the work of scientists such as Pim van Lommel,3 whose recent book, Consciousness Beyond life: The Science of the Near-Death Experience, has received much attention. It appears to provide information about the interim period between death and resurrection, a subject about which the Bible tells us little and on which most theologians remain silent.
It is also to consider our scientific knowledge of life and its inescapable limitation. This further requires a discussion of the images that bible and science present of the human person.
In this way I arrive at a novel answer to the question: “Is there life after death?”
About the author
Sjoerd Bonting is a biochemist and an Anglican priest-theologian. After receiving a Ph.D. in biochemistry at the University of Amsterdam (1952), he worked at three American universities and the National Institutes of Health, Bethesda (1952-65). In 1965 he was appointed professor and chairman, Dept. of Biochemistry, University of Nijmegen, the Netherlands. In 1985 he returned to the US as a scientific consultant for NASA in designing biological research facilities for the International Space Station (1985-93).
He studied theology (1957-63) and was ordained priest in the Episcopal Church USA in 1964. He worked as Anglican chaplain for English-speaking people in the Netherlands (1965-85), founding four congregations. Since his return to the Netherlands in 1993 he has mainly occupied himself with the science-theology dialogue, publishing 6 books and 106 papers.
Sjoerd can be found at http://www.chaostheologie.nl.
3.1 The human image
The human image in the New Testament hardly differs from that in the Old Testament (ch.2.2). Here the human personality is also seen as a body-mind unity, particularly in the letters of Paul and the synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew, Luke).1,2
Paul offers the most extensive treatment of the subject. He uses three words: kardia, pneuma and nous. For Paul, the word kardia (lit. heart) means personality, character, inner life (the secrets of the unbeliever’s heart, 1Cor.14:25), the seat of the intellectual and spiritual activities (Rom.1:21) and will power (your hard and impenitent heart, Rom.2:5). For Paul pneuma and nous are the thinking, reasoning, reflecting, and purposeful aspect of the human self, the mind, while the body (soma) is the self and the object of these activities. The ‘mind’ permits us to understand God’s revelation and to act in accordance with it.
The human mind (nous) can be debased (Rom.1:28; 1Tim.6:5) but can also be renewed (Rom. 12:2). For Paul the mind encompasses the entire human being and can be considered the equivalent of ‘character’. He uses the word nous (Rom. 11:34; 1Cor.2:16) for the thinking and the intellectual ability of humans, and it can be morally good as well as bad. In 1Cor.14:14f nous is translated as ‘mind’ and pneuma as ‘spirit’; in Phil.4:7 nous is tanslated as ‘understanding’ and kardia as ‘heart’.
For the Hebrew word nephesh Paul uses the word psyche and for ruach the word pneuma. Psyche is translated simply as ‘life’ (Phil. 2:30), as life that brings ‘anguish and distress’ (Rom.2:9), in the sense of ‘from the heart’ (Ef.6:6) and as ‘soul’ (1Thess. 5:23). In these three texts psyche means the emotional side of consciousness. Pneuma is commonly used by Paul to mean ‘supernatural influences’, and occasionally for the ‘life principle’. He often uses the word to mean ‘human spirit’, however in Rom.8:16 he uses the word pneuma for God’s Spirit as well as for the human spirit (that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit).
In the synoptic gospels there is – compared to Paul – a change in emphasis but not in content. Jesus emphasizes the need for a spiritual life (Lk.10:38-42) and not so much for an ascetic life (Mt.11:19). Justice, mercy and faith are to him the most important aspects of the Law (Mt.23:23). For John, on the other hand, Christ brings the light of life into a world full of darkness (Jn.8:12, Jn. 12:46). He distinguishes between sinfulness as a character trait (a slave to sin, Jn.8:34) and the committing of a specific sin that can be forgiven (1Jn.1:9). The latter requires our moral will to ‘purify ourselves’ (1Jn.3:3).
The later theological discussion about the human mind has been mainly directed to the ‘soul’ and its role in sin and redemption. The thinking at the time was strongly influenced by Greek philosophy, successively Stoicist, Platonist and Aristotelian. The following summatries demonstrate that the ‘soul’ was considered virtually the same as the human mind, as defined in ch.1.1.
Tertullian (circa 200), influenced by stoicism, sees the soul as an entity with many functional activities of which intellect and will are the highest. The soul is for him localized in the heart, while the body is merely the instrument of the soul.
Clement of Alexandria (circa 200), under platonic influence, believes in a tripartite soul, consisting of one part intellect (nous, divine and immortal), one part passion, and one part desire.
Origen (circa 225), also a Platonist, assumes a unity of body, soul and mind, which brings him close to the thinking of Paul.
Gregory of Nyssa (circa 370) proceeds from the Aristotelian form of a soul with vegetative, animal and intellectual parts, independent of the body.
Augustine (354-430) adopts Origen’s idea of a unity of body, soul and mind. He believes the soul is created by God but is transferred from parent to child. This transfer is a confirmation of the doctrine of original sin proposed by Origen.
Thomas Aquinas (1225-74) also believes that the soul is created and inserted in the body by God. He does not believe in a transfer of the soul from parent to child. The soul is capable of acquiring merits but only with the action of divine grace. Thomas accepts free will, but states that it cannot be addressed to God unless God converts it to himself.
Duns Scotus (1264-1308) emphasizes the will, divine as well as human, rather than the intellect as Thomas does. The will serves to maintain order in the rebellious nature of humans that is corrupted through the Fall. He sees humans as a unity of body and soul in a unique individual. The soul is capable of intuitive knowledge of the spiritual life.
The Reformers have added little to our understanding of the human mind. Martin Luther (1483-1546) proclaims sola fide, justification through belief alone. Belief is for him a full trust in God rather than an intellectual assent. He believes in original sin and predestination.
Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560), the most prominent theologian of the Lutheran movement, brings a nuance to sola fide by recognizing the need for cooperation between God’s Spirit and the human will in our conversion.
John Calvin (1509-64) maintains the loss of free will through the Fall. His strong emphasis on God’s omnipotence and omniscience leads him to the doctrine of ‘double predestination’, i.e. before their creation God predestined some of his human creatures to redemption and others to eternal perdition. For me this doctrine is the lowest point in theological thinking about the human mind.
3.2 Death and resurrection
In the New Testament, particularly in Paul’s writings, our mortality is seen as related to human sinfulness (the sting of death is sin, 1Cor.15:56; the wages of sin is death, Rom.6:23).
Paul bases this idea – incorrectly—on Gen.2 and 3. Although in Gen.2:9 in addition to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil the tree of life is mentioned, only the eating of the fruit of the first-mentioned tree is forbidden (Gen.3:3). Loss of immortality is not mentioned among the punishments allotted by God to Adam and Eve for eating the forbidden fruit (Gen.3:16-19). Only later, when God chases Adam and Eve from Paradise, it is said that this is to prevent them from eating the fruit of the tree of life and thus becoming immortal (Gen.3:22-24). The humans created by God were not immortal at any point. Gen.2:17 should not—according to most exegetes—be read as an indication that humans were initially immortal.
At best one might conclude from Gen.3 that Adam and Eve through their disobedience lost the possibility of becoming immortal. Furthermore, we should consider that Gen.2 and 3 are mythical stories and thus we should be cautious about drawing literal conclusions from them.
The resurrection of Christ is seen in the New Testament as a unique event, as the resurrection of the Messiah.4 Paul ascribes the resurrection of the human dead to that of Christ (1Cor.15:22). But he also says that if there were no resurrection of the dead, then Christ would not have risen either (1Cor.15:13). I do not find the latter two claims strong, since Christ is the divine Son of God. Peter is a little more cautious: By his great mercy he [God] has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead (1Pet.1:3). Through his death and resurrection Christ opened the heavenly kingdom to all believers (Eph. 2:5-6; Heb.10:20). In Jn.10:10 Jesus says: I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. Paul connects our justifi¬cation to the resurrection of Christ (Rom. 4:25).
However, our resurrection awaits the return of Christ (parousia) at the coming of the new world (1Cor.15:23). For Paul this expectation was so central that he says to the governor Felix: It is about the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial before you today (Acts 24:21). Paul also says that we are now already transformed towards the resurrection life through the action of the Spirit (2Cor.3:18). About the resurrection body Paul poses that it will be radically different from our transitory earthly body and that God will choose the form for each one of us (1Cor.15:37-49).
In 2Cor.5:3 Paul seems to allude to the interim period between death and resurrection when he says: when we have taken it [the earthly body] off we will not be found naked. Very little is said in the Bible about the interim period, probably because Jesus and his disciples expected the last day to occur in their time. Meanwhile we, living 2000 years later, are still expecting the return of Christ.
In ch.7 I shall extensively discuss the interim period.
Paul’s argument that the resurrection of believers follows from the resurrection of Christ (1Cor.15:22) is not compelling in my opinion. After all, we believe that Christ is the Son of God and then his resurrection is to be expected: the divine cannot remain in the fetters of death. But the resurrection of the human dead – who are not divine – does not necessarily follow from the resurrection of Christ. In my opinion our resurrection derives from the doctrine of creation, which tells us that the world and all living creatures, including humans, were created out of love by God. The mortality of all living beings was necessary to enable the evolution of life from protocell to humans. But God will not leave it at that. The doctrine of creation also tells us that God is bringing his creation to perfection, to the new world. This will include the raising of the dead and their entrance into the new world, where there is no more mortality but eternity life. The risen Christ plays the role of the pioneer. Key to the new world is our belief in Christ.
The question of what will happen to those who have not come to know Christ during their lifetime will be discussed in chapter 7, which deals with the interim period between death and resurrection.
3.3 Later developments
Whereas the Bible says little about the period between our death and the resurrection of the dead on the last day, there arose in the twelfth century the idea of purgatory. Here the dead are subjected to horrible tortures in order to purge them from the sins committed during earthly life.3 This is described in lurid detail in the journeys to the hereafter of St. Bandan and Tondalus, 4 and particularly of Dante Alighieri.5 These stories were probably conceived in order to frighten simple believers into improving the quality of their lives.
The Reformation eliminated ‘the bookkeeping of the masses for the dead and letters of indulgence’ but, because of the predestina¬tion doctrine, people were anxious to know whether they belonged to the elect or the damned.
The Enlightenment brought a new development, whereby the Church lost more and more influence and the ‘secularization of death’ arose. The hereafter became less frightening, hell retreated to the background and the eschatological meeting with loved ones became more important than meeting God.
In the twentieth century death is being ‘professionalized’ of death, in which physician and undertaker take over the helm from the pastor. Palliative care and euthanasia, at home or in a hospice, and mourning care make their entrance. Where the ‘in memoriam’ card, common in Roman-Catholic circles, was traditionally composed by the priest and included a request to pray for the repose of the soul of the deceased person, it is now usually a farewell message written by the next-of-kin or the undertaker. The funeral service is now more directed at the relatives than at the deceased person and is now often conducted without a pastor at the funeral center rather than in church. A healthier tendency, particularly in Anglican circles, is to make the funeral service a cele¬bration of the life of the deceased person.
3.4 Revolt against death
Those who do not believe in the biblical message about death and the future life, or are not even aware of it, are inclined to feel a resistance against death. They see death as an evil that should not exist. Our mortality is, however, a natural phenomenon that is necessarily connected with the evolution of life. Without the mortality of all living beings, natural selection could not operate and the evolution of life from protocell to humans could not have taken place. Death is therefore not an evil in a theological sense.
Nevertheless, the death of a young child or of a parent of young children through illness or accident, remains a tragic loss. In such cases one could call this an evil. The death of an elderly person, even though this may be the immediate result of illness, is the inescapable consequence of our mortality. It is an event for which we should prepare ourselves during our lifetime and about which we may know on biblical grounds that it will lead to a new life that knows no more death. Thus it has been ordained by God, who created us through evolution in order to grant us eternity life6 at the completion of his creative work.
The humanist philosopher Christa Anbeek, after the sudden loss of her partner, has searched for the meaning of death, apart from its biological necessity.7 In Zen Buddhism that teaches us to live without support, she found no consolation for her loss. She then sought counsel from the existential psychotherapy of the American psychiatrist Irvin Yalom, the classical art of life of Joep Dohmen and Wilhelm Schmid, the writings of philosopher Patricia de Martelaere, the authors Kristien Hemmerechts and Anna Enquist, cardiologist Pim van Lommel on near-death experiences, the poets Rutger Kopland and Thich Nhat Hanh, and the atheist evo¬lutionary biologist Richard Dawkins.
She presents their thoughts about life and death tersely, but she also looks critically at their philosophies and compares them to her own experience. Her conclusion in the end is: “I have no answer to death. There is no sense in death. From it all it appears that there is only sense in life”. To which I would like to add: and in the future life. Unfortunately, this lies outside her scope.
3.5 Conclusions and summary
In the New Testament humans are seen as a unity of body and mind as in the Old Testament. This is particularly true for the letters of Paul and for the synoptic gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke. For the Hebrew word leb Paul uses the word kardia (heart), meaning personality, inner life, and seat of intellectual and spiritual activities, in other words the human mind. For nephesh, neshamah and ruach (breath of life) he uses the words psyche, pneuma and nous, understood as life, the emotional side of consciousness, and the life principle.
Later theological discussions about the human mind were virtually entirely directed to the ‘soul’ and its role in sin and redemption. The thinking was strongly influenced by Greek philosophy. Tertullian sees the soul as an entity with several functional activities, particularly intellect and will, localized in the heart. The body is only an instrument of the soul. Clement of Alexandria believes in a tripartite soul with one part for the intellect, one for passion, and one for desire. Origen assumes a unity of body, soul and mind, coming close to Paul. Gregory of Nyssa proceeds from a soul with vegetative, animal and intellectual parts, independent of the body. Augustine follows Origen in assuming a unity of body, soul and mind. He believes the soul to be created by God, but transferred from parent to child, through which he confirms Origen’s doctrine of original sin. Thomas Aquinas rejects the transfer of the soul from parent to child. He accepts free will, but claims that it cannot be addressed to God unless God converts it to himself. Duns Scotus sees humans as a unity of body and soul in a unique individual, the soul being capable of intuitive knowledge of the spiritual life. The human will serves, according to Aquinas, to keep order in the rebellious human nature that is debased through the Fall. The Refor¬mers have added little to our understanding of the human mind.
Ascribing our mortality to the Fall, as Paul does, is not correct. Nowhere in Gen. 2 and 3 is it said that humans have ever been immortal. His ascribing human resurrec¬tion on the last day to the resurrection of Christ is logically not strong: the rising of Christ, the divine Son of God, is a unique event that need not necessarily lead to our resurrection. It can, however, be said that through our belief in Christ we shall participate in his resurrection. In 1Cor.15 Paul says that our resurrection awaits the return of Christ (parousia) that will lead to the transformation of this world into the new kingdom. He also speaks there about the resurrection body that we shall receive.
About the interim period between our death and resurrection the Bible remains virtually silent, presumably because Jesus and his disciples expected the return during their time. Since the interim period has now already lasted 2000 years, it is important to pay attention to it (ch.7). In the Middle Ages this led to the idea of purgatory. The Reformers emphasized predestination. All this led to anxious thoughts about death and the hereafter. The Enlightenment led to changes but also to secularisation. In the 20th century death became ‘professionalized’: physician and undertaker replace the priest, the funeral center replaces the church.
Secularisation also leads to a revolt against death as an evil that should not exist. The mortality of all living beings is, however, required for the evolution from protocell to human. Death is, therefore, not an evil in the theological sense. It is an event for which we should prepare ourselves during our lifetime and about which we know from the biblical message that it will lead to a new life without death. Thus it has been ordained by God who created us through the evolutionary process and who will give us eternity life upon the completion of his creative work.
Publisher: White Crow Books
Published February 2012
Size: 216 x 140 mm