Immortality and Resurrection

Discover The Secret Of Immotality

Discover The Secret Of Immortality

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We resume, then, the question of how the future life beyond death, promised in the Gospel, is best to be conceived. This brings us to the topics of immortality and resurrection. In a wide sense, as when Christians speak of 'the hope of immortality', the word 'immortality' simply means unending life and, as such, includes resurrection. But, more usually, 'immortality' and 'resurrection' are contrasted, the former meaning the soul's non-susceptibility to death, the latter meaning a divine act of reconstitution as the sole source of life beyond death. But even here the contrast is not absolute. Strictly speaking, only God is intrinsically immortal. Dualists who believe in the immortality of the soul as a simple substance still, for the most part (an exception being the atheist philosopher, McTaggart ) hold the immortal soul to be a created substance, held in being by God both in this life and the next. Its immortality, therefore, is contingent upon the creative power and act of its Maker and Sustainer.

That the idea of the soul's immortality as a disembodied state beyond death is not popular amongst Christian theologians or among Christian philosophers today has already been acknowledged. It still has some attractive features, however. In particular, it avoids the difficulty, perhaps the impossibility, of supposing that a person's deceased and decomposed or cremated remains are somehow reassembled by a divine act of resurrection. Increased scientific knowledge of the nature and fate of organisms like the human body has undermined the credibility of that old view of resurrection. And, if it is urged that resurrection does not mean the reassembly of particles, but rather the raising and transforming of the deceased body, that view, too, seems increasingly difficult not only to believe but also to understand, the more we know about the actual constitution of organisms. A dualist belief in the immortality of the soul can ignore these difficulties.

On the other hand, there are also grave difficulties in making sense of the future life as a community of disembodied spirits. How could such finite, immaterial, souls be identified? How could they experience anything? How could they communicate? A widely discussed attempt to answer these questions and to provide a coherent sketch of what a world of disembodied spirits might be like was made by the philosopher H. H. Price. According to Price, this would consist of subjects of purely mental images existing in something like a dream world — not a private world, however, but rather a public world of shared images, in which many minds could communicate and interact telepathically. Price's own account was somewhat ambiguous between the notion of private image worlds formed from prior life experiences and life choices, and a common image world that at least the like-minded would be able to share. The former notion did provide some intimation of how a person could fashion their own private hell, but the latter is what is required if the future life is to possess anything like the character of a common world. On this view, much more needs to be said about the exercise of God's omnipotence in coordinating the images that make up the fUture mental environment envisaged. Paul Badham, in developing Price's view in this direction, points out that such a divinely coordinated image world would be very much akin to what the idealist/ phenomenalist philosopher, George Berkeley, held our present world to be.20

More will be said in the next section about what might secure personal identity in such a shared image world. Clearly, for Price, the soul or subject is not inextricably linked to the physical body that it leaves behind. But it must retain memories and character traits, as well as imaginative powers, not only in the sense of the productive imagination, but also of the power to receive the divinely coordinated images of the world to come.

Those of a more Aristotelian temper regard the soul not as a substance in its own right but as the form of the body, that is to say, the kind of subjectivity and life enjoyed by organisms of a particular kind. Human beings, on this view, are psychosomatic unities, and the idea of humans continuing as disembodied spirits after death makes no sense. Thus Peter Geach, in an essay on 'Immortality', holds not only that personal identity depends on continuity of material conditions, but also that psychological concepts tend to collapse when their connections with non-psychological concepts are broken. To these points he adds a Wittgensteinian suspicion of purely private sensations and feelings, deprived of their bodily base. He allows, with Thomas Aquinas, the possibility of surviving mental remnants of thought and will, but asks whether their previous histories of separate embodied individuality would be enough to individuate them in their disembodied state. (Indeed, other cultures have held that liberated souls do lose their individuality when absorbed into the world soul.) Geach is not convinced that memory is enough for personal identity. How, without connection to bodily continuity, could genuine memories be distinguished from spurious ones?

The dualist is not necessarily refuted by these criticisms, as we shall see. But we can appreciate the force of Geach's conviction (which he shares with Thomas Aquinas22) that only at the General Resurrection will the individual person really live again.

We turn, then, to the idea of resurrection. A good starting point is Peter van Inwagen's short article 'Resurrection', in the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Van Inwagen's views, here and in a number of essays, are of particular interest, since he is one of relatively few Christian philosophers who explore the notion of resurrection on the basis of metaphysical materialism. He is perfectly aware that resurrection cannot be a matter of the reassembly of atoms, since the animal organism that constitutes a person consists of different atoms at different stages of its life. But he takes the criterion of material and causal continuity even more seriously than Geach does, since, for van Inwagen, material continuity is the only criterion of personal identity. He cites St Paul's simile of the grain sown in the earth becoming wheat. The person who dies and is dissolved in earth or fire becomes, through God's act of transformation, a citizen of heaven. This is not an easy notion to grasp. But some light is thrown on the notion of such a transformation by Dean Zimmermann in an article in Faith and Philosophy.25 Zimmermann suggests that resurrection can be thought of as a kind of fission brought about by God at an individual's death, whereby a life is continued in a new mode, notwithstanding the spatio-temporal gap of death and resurrection. All one needs is a theory of immanent causation that allows for causal continuity between life stages, irrespective of such gaps. The new stage certainly has to be causally related to the old stage. It is this dying organism that is the object of God's act of fission, and it is my present, and past, life stages that determine the identity and character ofmy new one. But the old stuff of my body, prior to fission, is left behind.

This intriguing suggestion is premised on the very plausible view that my resurrection cannot simply be a matter of God's creating a replica of me in another mode. The replica theory of resurrection is best known in the writings of John Hick. For Hick, resurrection is to be thought of as the new creation of a 'replica' person in another spatio-temporal environment, endowed by God with just those memories and character traits that were associated with the previous earthly body. But, as van Inwagen and Zimmermann insist, a replica cannot seriously be regarded as the same person as the person who lived on earth before. And as Julius Lipner has rather nicely put the matter, in an article entitled 'Hick's Resurrection': 'While it is greatly to be desired that Professor Hick will be resurrected in due time, it seems clear that his rendering of the event cannot allow this. And we will not be satisfied with a resurrection Hickoid; we want the man himself.'

One problem for Hick's replica theory and for Zimmermann's fission theory is the problem dubbed the 'if not two, then not one argument'.28 For, on either view, it might seem logically possible for God to create two or more replicas or fission products, irrespective of causal continuity. No doubt God would not wish to do such a thing, but, it is suggested, the logical possibility of such multiplicity is enough to undermine any such notion ofsurvival. Zimmermann is well aware ofthe problem, but he has an answer, at least where causal continuity is an essential part ofthe story. Were multiple fission to occur, the individual in question would simply cease to be. Two or more new individuals (with shared memories up to that point) would come into existence. For continuity of the same individual to be preserved, God would have to ensure that one, and only one, prime causal chain links the old life and the new. In other words, for the fission theory, there is not even the logical possibility of the same individual continuing in two or more equally split modes. This answer clearly would not work, where Hick's replica theory is concerned. But there the problem is redundant. One replica would not be the same individual anyway.

Van Inwagen cites, in the brief bibliography to his encyclopaedia article, John Polkinghorne's book, The Faith of a Physicist,29 as containing a broadly materialist account of resurrection. The reason for this characterization of Polkinghorne's position is the latter's use of the software/hardware analogy (from computer science) for what resurrection might mean. However, to describe Polkinghorne as a materialist is hardly accurate. Certainly, he is not a dualist. He regards the human person as a psychosomatic unity, informed by a 'complex, dynamic, information-bearing pattern developing throughout. . .the course of <one's> life'.30 The person is in every respect mortal and death constitutes its end. But the 'software' pattern that identifies the particular person will be recreated by God so as to inform the new 'hardware' resurrection body in the new creation of God's future. Polkinghorne acknowledges that the software/hardware analogy is 'crude and inadequate'; but we have to press the question whether an information-bearing pattern, especially if dissolved and then 're-created', can really do justice to the facts of human subjectivity and identity, let alone preserve that identity and the continuity of the same person across the gap between death and new creation. Polkinghorne's view certainly avoids the problem of material causal continuity that makes the views of van Inwagen, Zimmermann and even Geach so hard to follow. One may well have to abandon that element in the more or less traditional views of resurrection. But it is not clear that Polkinghorne escapes the criticism levelled at Hick. His admittedly more sophisticated computer analogy, surely, still leaves us with no more than a (theoretically multipliable) replica person in the new creation.

A defence of the more traditional view, premised on acceptance of soul— body dualism, whereby a period of temporary disembodiment is followed by reanimation of the transformed body at the general resurrection, is to be found in Stephen Davis's book, Risen Indeed.31 For Davis, it is the disembodied soul that carries a person's identity from this life to the next, but the new body which it receives is 'materially related' to the old body. The difficulty with this view of resurrection is twofold. Can we make sense of the notion of the transformation of material substance that it involves? And is such material continuity necessary, if it is the soul that sustains identity? Polkinghorne is far from being alone in thinking that modern science requires us to abandon the notion of material resurrection.

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