Sunday, September 27, 2009

What Happens After Death?

Death is one of the most persistent problems faced by us human beings--and by the religions of the world. Of central concern is what happens to individuals when they die.

There are many ways the central questions of what happens after death can be answered. Three such possibilities are: (1) "Eternal life" in full fellowship with God and other people--a belief that in Christianity is tied to the concept of resurrection, however that might be understood. (2) Reincarnation--the "transmigration" of the soul after death into another form of existence, human or otherwise. (3) Complete cessation of existence--except for the memories that linger in the minds of family, friends, and acquaintances.

It is obvious, I think, that all three of these possibilities can't possibly be true. It is possible that all three are wrong and that the truth of what happens after death is something distinctly different from all three. If someone adopts any one of the three possibilities given above, though, logically that means the rejection of the other two.

I bring this topic up in order to make a point about relativism or religious pluralism. As I indicated in my posting on September 5, when there are conflicting truth claims (as there often are), one possible response is to say that both (or all) are (somehow) true and there is no need to choose between them. This kind of thinking is usually linked to the idea of relativism, the concept that truth depends on the social location and philosophical perspective of any given person.

But does relativism work for a concrete question, such as about what happens after death? Could it possibly be true that if a Christian believes in conscious, personal life after death that will be what he or she will experience whereas if Buddhists believes in reincarnation, that is what they will experience? That seems highly unlikely. While perceptions of reality may, and do, vary greatly, reality is not shaped by perceptions.

Some may say that we don't know what happens after death, so we shouldn't make any strong statements about the subject and just let everyone believe what they will. Of course it is true that we don't know with absolute certainty, and of course people should be free to believe whatever they think is right.

But what is the basis of the Christian belief in eternal life? And what are the consequences of such a belief in comparison with the other two mentioned? Don't the basis and the consequences make the Christian view worth witnessing to and commending to other people, regardless of what position they might hold?


  1. My "thinking friend" whom I have previously cited anonymously sent the following comments about the the above posting:


    "I'm not sure of the power of any argument against relativism supported by 'truth' that cannot be validated/proved.

    "How can we compare the truth claims (regarding the afterlife) of any tradition when we have no ability to test or prove it? You make the argument that a person cannot experience the Buddhist understanding of afterlife while experiencing the Christian understanding, because it 'seems highly unlikely.' You have not disproven the possibility, however, and, as a result, are not in any position to assert truth other than what you, subjectively, understand to be that truth--a very relativistic position.

    "You state that from a relativistic point of view 'both (or all) are (somehow) true and there is no need to choose between them.' That is not a relativist position necessarily. It is not that a relativist like myself believes all faiths are true such that we cannot or do not choose between them, but, rather, all faiths are true for those particular adherents at a particular moment in history, and that we all have a right to, and actually do, choose the one most appropriate for us in our social location and philosophical perspective. There is a difference.

    "You in fact, give a powerful argument for the appropriateness of relativism/pluralism with your question regarding the truth of the afterlife. Since no one can prove it, then every view is equally valid. Your argument does not advance the truth of Christian doctrine or the superiority of it, rather it seems to advance an argument that a relativist like myself would advance, that, because we cannot prove the validity of any afterlife truth claim, your stance regarding your beliefs about the afterlife are as valid as any Buddhist's stance regarding her beliefs about the afterlife, or Hindu's, or Jainist's, or Muslim's, etc. I agree that you have a right to your beliefs, just not a right to judge the merits of any other, especially with respect to any question that cannot be answered.

    "By the way, there is a Christian theologian (Mark Heim, I believe is his name) who asserts that the various views of the afterlife can, in fact, all be true. He suggests that our religious life/beliefs can create the afterlife we find following death. A Buddhist will find the nirvana she seeks, and it will be very different from the Christian heaven although just as 'real.'"

  2. At some point I want to respond more fully to the above comments, but first let me say that I have known Mark Heim's name for a long time and have read him a little. But I must confess I have not read his recent writings on religious pluralism.

    FYI, Heim is an ordained American Baptist minister who has taught theology at Andover Newton Theological School since 1982.

    I have just printed out and soon hope to read "The Pluralism of Religious Ends: Dreams Fulfilled," an article he wrote for the January 17, 2001, issue of "The Christian Century."

  3. There are so many things about this post on life after death I find troublesome, I have waited some time to write. And, of course, on the night I have the most grading to complete, I'm feeling like writing.

    Your claim is that relativism is only meaningful up to the point of particular affirmations. Thus, affirming one particular view of life after death necessarily eliminates the possibility of another. But I don't see how an affirmation that is made in faith can eliminate any other possibility at all. Faith is subjective; it is not something that exists by being founded on anything objectively real. Even the resurrection can only be affirmed on the basis of faith, certainly not on any kind of knowledge. An empty tomb, in the case of Jesus, is only negative evidence and must be supplemented with one's participation through personal commitment of faith. So, I don't see how any competing claim, where faith alone is the foundation, can be eliminated in any objective way. Perhaps subjectively individuals at least narrow competing possibilities, but certainly do not eliminate them. And in the realm of unknowable objectivities is where the competing possibilities continue to exist.

    In fact, there are so many things about "eternal life" and "fellowship with God" I cannot even begin to understand in any meaninful subjective way. I simply do not know how to appropriate such ideas anymore. Eternity? What is that? What would it mean about the things I cherish--companionships with other human beings; deep introspection as I listen to music; fine craftsmanship in pianos (I'll take a Fazioli over a Steinway any day). All of these things I cherish, and I suspect I do, precisely because they do not last, they are not eternal. Their beauty derives from their ephemerality.

    So, life after death? I cannot conceive of what it might mean. It is truly a mystery, unless life only continues through memory, perhaps the memory of God. In any case, it must rest in God's hands alone; and that's a cipher for there's no way to know, thus no way to eliminate a competing claim.