Recently we celebrated Easter: the resurrection of Jesus on the third day after his crucifixion. The belief in the resurrection not only of Jesus but also of every human person is central to the Christian faith.
But what really happens to us when we die? Philosophers and theologians have debated this question for centuries, some arguing that we survive death in one form or another, and others contending that death spells complete annihilation.
If we go back to ancient Greece, we will find philosophers there advocating the immortality of the soul. Plato, for example, believed that who you are (your true ‘self’) should not be identified with your body, but with your soul – that spiritual thing in you which reasons, imagines and remembers. The soul, for Plato, is indestructible and therefore immortal, and upon physical death the soul escapes the prison-house of the body and achieves endless life.
Another view of the afterlife, also found in ancient Greece and prominent in Eastern religions, is the belief in reincarnation: upon death, each person is reborn in another form or body. Hinduism, for example, teaches that within everyone there is an eternal and unchanging essence, the ‘atman’, and this alone survives death and is reborn many times in different bodies. What kind of body one receives in the next life (eg., the body of a bug, or of a privileged aristocrat) will depend on the amount of good or bad ‘karma’ one has accumulated during their lifetime. And one remains trapped in the cycle of birth, death and rebirth (called ‘samsara’) until one reaches liberation (or ‘moksha’), this being the highest goal of existence.
Christianity provides yet another perspective in teaching that, after death, people are resurrected to eternal life. On this view, the person is not identified with their soul, but with a unity of soul and body. After death there is an interim period, during which we exist merely as disembodied souls. But later, at the end-time, our bodies will be miraculously raised by God and reunited with our souls, thus making us whole and complete persons again. After this general resurrection, the Last Judgement will take place: the ‘damned’ will end up living forever apart from God in Hell, while the ‘blessed’ will enjoy God’s presence in Heaven.
Philosophers have raised various difficulties with these beliefs about the afterlife. To begin with, what is it for something to be a person? If you are a ‘materialist’, you will believe that a person is nothing but a physical or material body, so that when the body goes out of existence at death, so too does the person. Life after death, on this view, is impossible. In our scientific culture materialism is accepted almost dogmatically, but it is highly questionable whether everything that goes into making up who we are can be explained purely in scientific or material terms. Try, for example, explaining with nothing but the tools of science the nature of consciousness, or the experience of love and beauty, or what it is like to see red or taste wine.
But the believer in the afterlife is not out of the woods just yet. Another important problem concerns ‘personal identity’: what is it for something to be the same person? So, even if we believe in the afterlife, it might be asked: how do we know that the person that exists after bodily death is the same person that exists before bodily death? I won’t try answering this question now. But notice that the same question could be asked even of someone in this life: eg., are you essentially the same person you were 20 years ago? How can you tell?
If we assume that you do continue to live after physical death, and it is you (essentially the same person you are now) who survives death, then you might wonder: what happens to you in the afterlife? What do you do or experience in the afterlife?
Perhaps, as some Christians believe, some people will be consigned to the fires of Hell as punishment for the life they led on Earth. However, the idea of eternal torment in Hell strikes many of us as completely unjust. No wrongdoing committed in this life could be deserving of eternal punishment. Also, if God knew that some people would end up in Hell, why did he not simply refuse to create such people? Even more problematically, how can those in Heaven experience joy when they know that they have friends and loved ones suffering in Hell?
In the face of such problems, many Christians today reject the idea of Hell and instead accept the doctrine of ‘universalism’. This is the belief that all people will in the end be saved and live eternally with God. Even if people do go to Hell, they will not be there forever but only temporarily. Another way of expressing this idea is by saying that God’s love is so great and God’s grace so attractive that eventually everyone will freely say ‘yes’ to God and be saved.
There is even some precedent for this view in the work of the great fourth-century Church Father, St Gregory of Nyssa. For Gregory, there will come a time when evil and sin will finally be defeated. This is what Gregory calls the ‘apocatastasis’ – the restoration of every creature, even the devil, to its original condition of communion with God. A controversial view, no doubt, but the only one that makes the afterlife worth believing.
*Dr Nick Trakakis is a senior lecturer in Philosophy at the Australian Catholic University.