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Immortality and the Afterlife


Modern thinkers often begin their discussions of immortality and the afterlife with Plato, (c. 428–348 or 347 B.C.E.) which makes sense given that his Republic is one of the most influential works in Western philosophy. However, his view on immortality is not as straightforward as some take it to be. Book X of the Republic contains the Myth of Er, which puts forward the view that souls exist in separation from the body after death and that when separated from bodies, souls are omnipotent. This allows Plato to provide some footing for the view that knowledge is merely recollection of what we already know, a view discussed in his dialogue Meno. But as with his teacher, Socrates (c. 470–399 B.C.E.), Plato's "views" are not always consistent.

Indeed, in the early twenty-first century, Nicholas Smith has argued that Plato's views in the Republic seem to be intended to provoke thought rather than to set forth consistent views. As such, we should not be surprised that in Plato's work another "view" of immortality can be found. Plato's Symposium offers this alternative view. Here Plato's Socrates recounts Diotima's speech on true love, which puts forth the notion of being pregnant in body and in soul. This latter pregnancy gives birth to wisdom as its offspring (Symposium 208e1–209a4), which is immortal. This view is strikingly similar to Aristotle's in De Anima (430a23–24, 408b13–29, 413b24–27), where he argues that while the soul does not survive the death of the body, the active intellect does. He argues that active intellect is eternal and immortal; it produces ideas and in so doing reproduces itself in much the same way that the body produces physical offspring and in so doing reproduces itself. In this way, modern thinkers may be overreading Plato's view on immortality. The death of the individual involves the cessation of function for that individual, but the life of that person does not end if he or she has produced offspring, if that person has been pregnant in body or soul.

Early Judaic tradition held very similar views of immortality. These views held that immortality was reached through the survival of one's children and people (though there were vague references to a netherworld known as Sheol). The first emergence of a notion of bodily resurrection did not come until the Jews encountered the Greeks, who began to make successful incursions into the Middle East in the late fourth century B.C.E. Then righteous Jews killed in battle were promised bodily resurrection (Isa. 27:19), which helps to explain the prohibitions on cremation and the various rituals of Jewish burial (Moed Katan 3:5, Deut. 21:24, Amos 2:1). Of course, the statement at Genesis 3:19 that the body begins with dust and ends as dust runs counter to the view of bodily resurrection, but this reflects the earlier view that bodily resurrection does not occur.

The basis of Christianity, of course, is bodily resurrection. Paul's first letter to the Corinthians states this view very clearly: "Now if Christ is preached as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?" (1 Cor. 15:12). However, this central teaching of Christianity is not necessarily so obvious to contemporary Christians. Contemporary Christians, according to Oscar Cullman, tend to confuse the Christian teaching of bodily resurrection with the Platonic/Aristotelian view of the immortal soul (or part of the soul). For Cullman, the doctrine of the immortality of the soul depends upon the resurrection of the dead. The immortality of the soul view cannot be held without the bodily resurrection view.

Strictly speaking, then, for Christianity the soul is not immortal. It dies with the body and is resurrected at the end of time. Hence the connections drawn between any presumed body/soul duality in Plato or Aristotle and the Christian view of afterlife via resurrection must be faulty. Connections between immortality of soul and other religious views, however, are quite strong. Indeed, discussions of the transmigration of souls (or reincarnation) significantly predate Plato. Empedocles of Acragas, who was born in the early fifth century B.C.E., was known to have said: "For I have already been once a boy and a girl, a bush and a bird, and a leaping journeying fish" (Kirk, Raven, and Schofield, p. 319). Xenophanes reports that Pythagoras held similar views, leading to an argument against mistreating any living thing as it may contain the soul of a loved one (p. 219). Herodotus claims that the first people to postulate "the doctrine that the soul of man is immortal" were the Egyptians (p. 219). It is not clear, however, that the Egyptians really were the origin of the immortal soul view, and it is even less likely that they originated a view of reincarnation. Beliefs in the transmigration of souls probably originated in the East and eventually made their way to the Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, and so on.

For Hindus, for example, life on earth is characterized by a cycle of birth, death, and rebirth, a cycle that ends only once spiritual enlightenment is attained. The type of rebirth one can expect is based on the quality of one's "karma." Karma is caused by the actions of a person and it is good when it is objective or unattached to the interests or benefit of the actor. This is then grounded in "dharma," which means the path of righteousness or duty or obligation or virtue or many other similar notions. The word dharma itself comes from Sanskrit and means to sustain or to hold. In this way, dharma is understood to be the sustenance of the universe, and good karma then becomes acting in accord with the cosmos. Righteousness, understood as selflessness, is the order of the cosmos, and release from the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth comes as a result of communing with this order. The views of Buddhism and Sikhism are very similar, even incorporating some of the same principles (e.g., karma and dharma), though at times in subtly different ways.

Interestingly, some modern philosophers have developed views that rather closely follow Eastern views of karma and dharma, though no direct connection seems to exist. Immanuel Kant, for example, claims that for an action to be moral, it must be undertaken from a motive that is exclusive of the interests of the actor—a motive of duty or obligation to act according to a self-willed universal law. This position closely resembles karmic action grounded in dharma but, interestingly, it carries with it no connection to the divine, immortality, or an afterlife. Other philosophers in the Western tradition, however, have tried to compel good action by highlighting its consequences for the actor. John Locke's view of the state of nature, for example, depends upon the view that good actions on earth will be rewarded with good consequences in the afterlife, while evil actions will be divinely punished.

In more recent times, we have become rather incredulous toward such arguments. John Hick spoke about this in his 1977 Ingersoll Lecture on the Immortality of Man. He argued that many of his "thoughtful theological contemporaries" felt "that talk of an afterlife is not only too improbable factually, but also too morally and religiously dubious, to constitute a proper branch of Christian belief" (p. 2). As a result of the takeover of scientific reasoning, we have found it increasingly difficult to fathom a "belief in a post-mortem life" (p. 2). Indeed, cognitive science has made it difficult for us to conceive of a mind/brain duality, much less a soul/body duality, which means that the notion of the personality living beyond the death of the body becomes unfathomable to the modern scientific mind/brain. And so even some Christian theologians (such as Wolfhart Pannenberg and Gordon Kaufman) have argued that modern science makes belief in the idea of the immortality of the soul "untenable" (Pannenberg, 1970, 1968; Kaufman). Hick vehemently disagrees with such views, arguing in part that they cannot possibly be consistent with a Christian viewpoint (or, indeed, any other viewpoint that contains a belief in divine consciousness) because the belief in God depends upon a belief in a divine consciousness that is separate from any sort of embodiment.

These same theologians, Hick reports, have also argued that the afterlife principle, while problematic in factual terms, is actually damaging in moral terms. Here Hick is not referring to the Marxian view that a promise of immortality allows people to become inured to their misery here on earth as they count on eternal splendor in the afterlife (and a similar perspective can be found with respect to beliefs in reincarnation). Rather, he calls attention to the idea "that the concern for personal immortality (whether by the resurrection of the body or the immortality of the soul) is a selfish and thus a basically irreligious concern" (p. 5). We might say, then, that the problem with the belief in personal immortality is that it causes us to focus on selfish concerns rather than on selfless ones. Indeed, the Hindu or the Sikh or the Buddhist might raise just such an objection, since good karma relies on selfless actions.

In fact this is precisely the point Hick makes. He says that the problem does not lie with the principle of the afterlife but instead with the way we think about the afterlife. Drawing on the many similarities between Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, Hick concludes that the Christian view of the afterlife is too limited because it encourages us to think that we have one mortal life in which to get things right and that failing to do so will lead to eternal damnation of the self. This is a view that is too individualized to cohere with Christian tenets (as well as the tenets of the other major religions). It makes more sense to rely on the basic principles of the world's major religions regarding (1) the potentialities of the human spirit (e.g., as child of God in Judeo-Christian tradition, as a potential Buddha capable of liberation in nirvana, as in communion with Brahman and thus a liberated soul while still on earth); (2) the realization that attaining deeper human potential "is not a matter of perpetuating but rather of transcending our present self-enclosed individual existence" (e.g., Jesus' teaching of love of others before self, Judaism's obedience to the Torah, Islam's submission of the ego to Allah's will, etc.); (3) the present conscious ego, which "must voluntarily relinquish its own self-centered existence" and the purpose of all the world's major religions, which "is to carry men and women through this momentous choice" (Hick, pp. 6–8).

Given these connections, Hick encourages Christianity to consider the possibility that this mortal life is not our only mortal life. Rather, since the goal is to actualize the potentiality of the human spirit to transcend its self-enclosed existence, Christian religion needs to incorporate the idea that mortal life was intended by God to engage a learning process leading it toward the goal of self-transcendence, and until this is accomplished, mortal life and death must continue for each individual consciousness. This view is strikingly familiar, since it seems to be an argument for reincarnation. But Hick's view differs from the Eastern view insofar as it postulates the idea that our different mortal lives occur in different worlds (perhaps even different dimensions?) until we make the proper "momentous" choice, a choice that will depend in part on the conditions in which the mortal life is lived.

This raises an interesting point. Perhaps our current world provides a terrible context for those of us currently living our mortal lives. Living in a world that valorizes individual choice in a social and economic environment that lauds competition between individuals for scarce resources and rewards because such competition makes our production more efficient, we may be in perhaps the worst milieu for the encouragement of self-transcendence. Hick's argument, then, seems to require that religion actually play a part in altering the mortal context, so that we might become capable of the self-transcendence that the major religions support. The implications of this are staggering, though not especially surprising given that many have argued that religion's cousin, philosophy, ought to play just such a role (Aristotle and Marx come immediately to mind). What is surprising is that few, if any, contemporary philosophers would make such an argument, in spite of the fact that this is a role to which philosophy (before the death of metaphysics) seems particularly well suited.

Tim Duvall

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Hydrazones to Incompatibility