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Out of the question: Life after death

22 June 2010

Write, if you have any answers to the questions listed at the end of this section, or would like to add to the answers below.

Your answers

Science states definitely that emo­tions and memory are associated with and die with the brain. How can Christians maintain that emo­tions and memories persist and form the basis of the life after death?

Science is concerned with the tangible and measurable. Science is limited by its own definition, and cannot ex­amine the immeasurable, except in a statistical sense. Hence a scientist could survey belief in life after death and conclude that the vast majority of people believe in it, without conclud­ing that it must therefore exist. But concluding that life after death does not exist would be equally non-scientific.

We can see the love of a mother for her newborn child, and can es­timate the degree to which it exists at different times or with different mothers, without being able to meas­­ure it. We can experience the emo­tions generated by beautiful music, and even have a list of fav­ourites, while accepting that beauty is im­measurable.

Christianity, in common with some other faiths, sees the human person as a whole, composed of body, mind (or brain), and spirit (or soul), where each influences the other. Phys­ical gestures such as Charis­matic raised hands or blessing with the sign of the cross affect the mind and spirit. We know almost every­thing about the workings of the body, and more and more about the workings of the mind, but cannot extend this to the spirit. We can check whether a person kept alive artificially is brain dead, but we cannot measure the human spirit.

Teaching that the spirit lives on even as the body and brain are dead cannot be gainsaid by science.

Christopher Haffner (Reader)
East Molesey, Surrey

There are two main answers to this. The first is that while science does show that emotions, memories, and “thinking” in general (taken widely) are associated with the brain, and indeed with particular areas or activities of the brain, it cannot show for certain that thinking depends upon the brain.

Think of a violinist, who can make music only with her violin. If the violin is destroyed, the violinist still survives, and perhaps may go on to play her music with a new violin. Similarly, it may be that we have immortal souls, which think “with” the brain, but nevertheless survive when the brain dies and perhaps find new ways of thinking or expressing their thoughts.

Nevertheless, the existence of such a soul seems unlikely for a wide range of reasons, including the problem of explaining how the soul interacts with the body, and how immortal souls could have emerged in the first place, on the assumption that human beings evolved from creatures with­out them.

This is where the second answer comes in: Christians are not obliged to believe that emotions, memories, or any other aspect of “thinking” persists after death. The New Testa­ment teaches not that the human per­son lingers after the body has died, but that the human person will be resurrected at the end of time by God, just as Christ was.

In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul presents Christ’s resurrection as the prototype — the “first fruits” — of the resur­rection of all people, which, as a Pharisee, he believed would be one of the major features of the eschaton, the coming of the Kingdom. Christ’s resurrection thus both serves as the model of our own and as the signal that the eschaton is on its way.

On this model, when you die, you are completely dead — but God will raise you at the end of time. Many of the Reformers, including Luther and Tyndale, held this view and explicitly opposed the notion of the immortal soul, which they held to be a corrup­tion of Christian theology from the influence of pagan Greek philosophy.

Many modern theologians, from Barth onwards, largely agree, and point out that the concept of bodily resurrection is more defensible and biblical than that of the immortality of the soul (although cf. 2 Corin­thians 5.1-4). Of course, this model of life after death faces its own prob­lems, not least the problem of ex­plaining how a person who dies now can be said to be identical with a person who is raised at some time in the future, if there is no substantial or psychological continuity between them.

Jonathan Hill, London SE14

Your questions

I am confused about man’s free will and the foreknowledge of God. If God already knows what choices I will make, is this really free will? If God already knows what I will be praying, would it make any differ­ence to my predetermined future if I didn’t pray at all? D. B.

Address for answers and more questions: Out of the Question, Church Times, 13-17 Long Lane, London EC1A 9PN.





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