Reflections on life after death
My wife, Neva, passed away during Christmas week. Writing at this time, this blog installment can be considered part of my grieving, but it deals with difficult intellectual and theological issues. In the days after her death, my mind uncontrollably asked questions, even though I knew there could be no answers. I know perfectly well that these questions are unanswerable, but at the same time, I can’t stop asking them. They are intrinsically compelling. Christian faith undergirds my questioning. That faith makes the questions both necessary and possible. If I believed, naturalistically, that we are nothing more than bundles of matter, dispersing through burial or cremation, there would be no doubt about where things stand — at least in the short-term — the days or weeks or centuries it takes for our molecules to merge with the environment. Life after death could be traced to the remembrances of those who live after us, as well as the lasting impact of our actions and ideas. Believing in a resurrection of soul and body quickens the mind’s inherent curiosity about something more — questioning ensues.
The days after Neva died, I asked myself “Where is she now?” And “What is she doing?” I really wanted to know. If you have a picture of the heavenly city with streets paved in gold, then you “know” where she is. A friend whose husband died a year ago, said to me, “I like to hope that the two of them have met and are walking together.” Of course, that isn’t really an answer to my question. Just where is the New Jerusalem and where are they walking?
My question seems to be asking about location, but geography doesn’t work here. There is no geography to the soul’s location after death. It’s like asking, “What happened before the Big Bang?” Since time came into existence with the Big Bang, there is no “before.” We, on the other hand, are permeated by “time,” so we cannot avoid asking questions that assume “time.” It is impossible to “locate” the soul of a living person; if anything, even more impossible after death. We use emotive terms that provide no answers: “with God,” “in eternal peace,” “in paradise with Jesus,” and the like. Just as common sense has difficulty comprehending the non-temporal happening of the Big Bang, it is incomprehensible that after death the deceased is “nowhere” and “doing nothing.” That’s why my mind uncontrollably asks questions it knows it cannot comprehend.
Questions about the body are another matter. Since the matter of our body — its atoms and molecules — will never disappear, immortality and resurrection of the body is a credible belief. Those atoms will surely enter into new relationships and be transformed, but will not be destroyed. Although as a practical matter it may not be possible to trace the future course of our body, in theory it would be possible, if we made adequate observations with appropriate instruments. But, practically, even though we know that our atoms and molecules are still in existence in some ways, it is impossible to locate them. It is exciting to contemplate, however.
In the Apostles Creed, Christians affirm the resurrection of the body. After all, since our bodily matter is indestructible, resurrection of the body, in some form, is a credible belief. St. Paul writes that the resurrected body will be different from our earthly body. But how are the resurrected body and soul related? Some Jews believe that the soul loosens from the body only in a slow process. Bodies are stored for a week or more in the mortuary before they are cremated or interred. Has the soul already gone its way? As the atoms of our body are evolving in new forms and relationships, do they meet up with our soul at some point?
In my theological education, I was instructed to be skeptical of a soul separable from the body. Ted Peters recently blogged on this point, referring to the thinking of Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict that resurrection of the body was the correct belief, with no emphasis on separable soul. Ratzinger was standard reading in my seminary and graduate school days, too.
However, as Neva’s body lay in storage for more than a week until official permission was finalized for cremation, I concluded that Ratzinger’s proposal is also this-dimensional language, trying to deal with the other-dimensional world I was asking about. What was “resurrection of the body” in those storage days? And was she not also a soul? I agree with Peters and Ratzinger. I also agree with mentor Church historian Jaroslav Pelikan, who reminded us that talk about soul and its immortality (which is a dominant belief in the early centuries of Christianity) and talk about resurrection of body (equally ancient belief) are both appropriate if we are clear that both take place as God’s action.
These reflections may seem pointless, even absurd. From this I take a lesson. We are fully embedded in a world with certain dimensions. Death and resurrection bring in another dimension. It is impossible for us to comprehend or enter into this dimension. Our dimensionality defines our finite nature. The dimensionality of other worlds stretches our finitude beyond its limits. Our dimension thinks in terms of time and location, so it no wonder we irrepressibly ask our questions.It is amazing that our minds and spirits can entertain the idea of other-dimensional world and recognize the impossibility of our entering those worlds. We can define our own finitude. In pondering death, we hit up against the other-dimensionality. Afterlife and resurrection are beyond the dimensional barrier. That is why our only option is faith. Faith is not holding absurd ideas: it is trust—that, as St. Paul writes, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. We cannot say more. Whether my present dimension or Neva’s, We are the Lord’s.
Dr. Philip Hefner is an ordained minister in the ELCA and is professor emeritus of systematic theology at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. He directed the Zygon Center for Religion and Science from 1988 to 2003 and is the former Editor-in-Chief of Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science. He has authored numerous books and articles, and is best known for his book, The Human Factor: Evolution, Culture, and Religion.