THERE IS NO VERIFIABLE CASE FOR LIFE AFTER DEATH
I was disgusted this week to read that a conservative Christian theology teacher in the USA had posted online, “I morn for Ruth Bader Ginsburg. A Jew called by HIS name who did not receive her KING. She is in ETERNAL torment. ‘Rest in peace’ she will not be doing. … This is a hard core fact. There is NO other way to enter heaven but by Jesus Christ.” She went on, “…she will burn in hell for the sin of rejecting Jesus.”
I was shocked into reconsidering two questions: (1) what has happened to Christian theology? (2) Is it respectful to admit that Justice Ginsburg’s physical life has ended?
Every religion insists there is life after death. Sometimes the argument is based on testimony from those who have experienced “near death.” A previous generation was fascinated with the new science of parapsychology about messages from beyond. Before the Age of Enlightenment the declarations of Christian theologians and of authorities on the Bible were sufficient. Something about us is still alive after we die – that is the nearly universal testimony of the most profound thinkers in history and of the wisdom keepers of every ethnic community ever studied.
So, it is with considerable care that I propose one of several arguments that when we die we stay dead forever. The purpose of this is to consider its potential effect on theology and religion because I contend that it need not be the ultimate purpose of religion to prove we are immortal.
If CONSCIOUSNESS IS AN ELECTRO-CHEMICAL PROCESS consciousness ends when our electro-chemical processes end. That is, consciousness has no independent existence.
All contemporary world religions postulate that something goes on after a person dies. This “thing” is usually called a soul. Twentieth century theologians began to identify “soul” with mind or personality. Many contemporary religions invest this soul with a capacity to continue after death. Based on Persian concepts, theistic religions describe realms of existence after death as heaven and hell. In those places the deceased are conscious of their past actions and understand their present states are a result of those deeds. Popular Buddhist faith perpetuates vivid concepts of hell. Popular Christian faith has largely consigned those ideas to antiquity in favor of the notion of an ongoing consciousness and ability to be reunited with predecessors in an afterlife.
These results would be impossible if all consciousness is thought, all thought is a function of brains, and brains function through electro-chemical synapses. It is now believed that those electro-chemical sparks continue for about ten minutes after a brain ceases to receive necessary oxygen through refreshed blood supply. First, stimulation ceases from sensory sources (sight, sound, touch, etc.). But then all thought ends, even (as in deep dreams) that which is independent of the senses. That is the end for a person.
If this materialistic view of human life and consciousness is true, religious views of life-after-death are false.
If there were SCIENTIFIC EVIDENCE FOR LIFE AFTER DEATH, that would, of course, settle the matter in favor of “going on.” After all, “The human race as a whole has refused to believe that when the brain ceases to function the mind ceases to exist.”
On the whole, the argument for life after death has been along the lines “we so much want it to be so that it must be so.” Emerson declared, “The blazing evidence of immortality is our dissatisfaction with any other solution.”
My first encounter with this discussion was about 60 years ago when I obtained a copy of You Will Survive After Death, by Dr. Sherwood Eddy. He was probably the most internationally distinguished person in my home town at the time. He had completed an illustrious career with the Student Volunteer Movement and the YMCA, first in South India and then throughout South Asia, the Middle East and Russia. After he retired he lived right up the street from our house. Toward the end of his life he compiled his scientific research about life after death. He was clear that he meant it literally.
“When I speak of life beyond death, I mean the survival of individual, personal consciousness, with memory of the past and a personality that shall be spiritually recognizable to my friends, past and future.” [p. 3]
Eddy first argued philosophically, “Because of the testimony of science to a rational and trustworthy universe I believe I shall survive physical death.” [p. 5] Then he turned to the “new science” of parapsychology. One by one he summarized the “scientific” findings of scientists in this new field. This, it turns out, was his scientific evidence.
Parapsychology, briefly, was a fad during the early twentieth century based on experiences of mental telepathy, séances involving conversations with those who have died, psychic healing, and teleportation of material objects. This has been labeled a pseudoscience by various scientific societies after 1950, the year Eddy’s book came out.
Many other authors have written about theories explaining why it is scientifically probable that some form of life goes on, sometimes with memory of past lives and sometimes without, as when one “merges with the cosmos” or enters the body of someone just beginning life. The end result is that none of these theories is verifiable, and they are supported largely on the assumption that due to the immense number of galaxies and universes the likelihood is there, somehow. It is tantamount to saying “Nothing is impossible so everything is possible.”
One does not have to believe “nothing goes on.” Believe there is a going on if you want (as I do), or if you have experiences that convince you to believe it. But my point is “It’s not the end of any current faith system if our physical bodies just quit.”
That brings us back to the only scientifically verifiable thing we know for sure: “When we die, our electro-chemical processes stop and the systems in which they operated begin deterioration that nothing can reverse.”
IF THIS IS THE CASE, RELIGIONS NEED TO BE DOING SOMETHING ELSE THAN PRESCRIBING CONDITIONS FOR IMMORTALITY. There’s plenty to do.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.