Two contributors present brief
essays in response to some perennial questions. Each writes
independently of the other. One comes from a person closely linked to a
Christian denomination. The other comes from a person at the fringes of
the traditional Church.
2. Is there life after death?
Anyone who has suffered the death of a loved one knows a moment
of instinctive protest, "This can't be!" Only later can the stark fact
of death be accepted. And it must be taken to heart if the
bereaved is to know peace. Some achieve this sooner, some later. But all
There remains, despite everything, a desire to keep the dead in life
somehow. Most of us have seen television images of ancient graves. They
give apparently clear evidence of the need of our ancestors to think of
their dead as somehow living on - of an instinctive refusal to accept
death as the end.
This need still exists today. But it is now much harder to satisfy.
Humanity has only recently had to face death as potentially a stark
One consequence of medical science is the definition of death as the
final and irreversible end of that system of cellular life we call "a
human being". The human person is a biological entity. Death returns our
constituents to the pool of nature. We begin as an assembly of cells. We
end when those cells die and disperse.
It may be, say some, that at death some essence of a person other
than the physical is preserved. If this is true, then nobody is able to
say how - at least not in the sense that we can describe how the human
organism works. Our "souls" are immaterial and indefinable, beyond the
reach of scientific description or analysis.
All that remains is hope founded on the conviction that life itself
is the purpose of the universe and that the Creator loves and treasures
life. If that faith is correct then we may take it that God is unwilling
to (in effect) kill us. Christians, taking their cue from Jesus of
Nazareth, think that just as loving parents can't bear to see a child of
theirs die, so God can't bear to see a human life end for ever.
But there is a problem. Everything we know about the universe today
indicates that it is a total system made up of deeply interlocking
parts. It is seamless in its essence. To negate any one part is to
destroy the whole.
The death of biological systems is one aspect of how the universe
works. When a person dies, a sub-system we call a "human being" merges
with another sub-system we call "the earth". That process is an integral
part of our seamless universe. Negate it and everything we know about
the universe ceases to make sense.
Great thinkers have recognised this dilemma for centuries. One
solution proposes that a person "sleeps" until the end of all things. To
put this in modern terms, when space-time ends (for time and space are a
single dimension) then all life may be renewed in some way. But because
we are creatures of
this universe and no other, we can't imagine any other reality.
Therefore we can't know what form a new reality might take.
The possibility of eternal extinction seems deeply incongruent with
our sense of "me". The prospect of an aeons-long sleep is daunting. Can
it be that, to all intents and purposes, we all cease finally and
irrevocably? Can it be that the "me" and the "you" will end?
There is no answer - only the unknowable. That's the way God made it.
Immortality has been a preoccupation of human
societies since prehistory. In ancient Egypt life after death was raised
to a level of importance not exceeded to the present. Eternal life is a
corner stone of Christianity.
Aside from anecdotal reports of out-of-body experiences of people
undergoing anesthesia or in some kind of trance, I am aware of no credible
testimony of individuals who have entered an after life and returned to
physical existence and were able to report the experience.
Hence, an afterlife is inherently a subject of speculation wholly
unprovable by materialist standards. Accepting the concept of eternal life
is a matter of faith.
Some questions occur to me:
- Why do some people desire immortality and others do not?
- Does life after death include everybody or only those who desire it?
- Is immortality earned by "good behavior" during life?
- Will we be conscious in an after life?
There are many who have no interest in an after life. Personal
extinction on death is of no concern. If afterlife is a universal
phenomenon, would dissenters be dragged kicking and screaming into it?
For many, a continuation of an, albeit, disembodied existence is
essential to their world views. In particular, Christians are encouraged
to look forward to reunion with loved ones conditioned only by belief in
Jesus Christ. I have known and know many who are absolutely sure they are
going to heaven. Jesus has prepared a room for them.
Yet others consider an after life as a reward for doing specific things
and living a good life. Despite all the injustices inflicted by earthly
life there is recompense in heaven for endurance.
It seems to me that all who enter an afterlife should be fully
conscious, aware of themselves and others. If not, what would be the sense
of such an existence?
I for one would be ecstatic to be reunited with certain people I loved
and respected during this life. I must also admit there are others whom I
prefer not to meet again.
Perhaps it is presumptuous of me to impose any conditions on an
afterlife. No doubt, if it is a reality, it will transcend all our earthly
human experiences and rules.
Although I am not certain of what lies beyond the door of death,
immortality still appeals to me. My uncertainty, however, in no way
detracts from my belief in the essential message of Jesus for abundant
life during our sojourns on earth.