Immortality And Survival

Part at least of the meaning traditionally discerned in the phrase 'resurrection of the body' is that you or I survive as recognizably distinct individuals into the Life Everlasting. I am still me, linked by some common thread to the life I have lived on earth. Some views of resurrection have taken this excessively literally, and have then been confronted by such difficulties as what happens when a body has been totally destroyed, or even eaten by someone else. How can it be reconstituted? Even to raise such questions is to fall into error. Whatever resurrection means it surely cannot involve the reconstitution of the original matter of the body in conditions mirroring our previous life. St Thomas Aquinas, following Aristotle, found difficulties in reconciling a view of the person as essentially embodied with the idea of immortality. Some hesitations about the propriety of cremation can be traced back to this kind of difficulty. Yet once it is accepted that, if there is a life after death, we must inevitably be transformed and glorified in ways we cannot here envisage, the idea of resurrection becomes less easy to distinguish from an idea of immortality of the soul. Problems about personal identity may still loom large. We must, however, recognize that our present concept of what it is to be a person is formed in the conditions of this life and by definition cannot apply to circumstances that will be very different. This may mean that much of what we say about any life to come will lapse into unintelligibility. Unless, however, we are verificationists we must recognize that there are limits on our understanding. Not everything that is real may be comprehensible to us here and now. The idea, though, that we are essentially material beings, cannot in the end incorporate a vision of the life to come. The denial of dualism and an assertion of some form of materialism or naturalism must entail that we are dependent for our identity on the continued existence of our bodies in this spatio-temporal world. Once it is accepted, as it must be, that our bodies can be utterly destroyed, it will then seem as if we have no future at all as continuing individuals beyond death.

Does this matter? The answer must be that for Christianity, at least, it always has seemed to. St Paul is often quoted in this context when he claims in 1 Corinthians 15 that if Christ were not raised, our faith is in vain. If Christ was not raised, neither could we be. St Paul says: 'If it is for this life only that Christ has given us hope, we of all people are most to be pitied.' Resurrection lies at the heart of the Christian Gospel, not just as something which once occurred for Christ, but as a hope held out to each and every individual. There is room for discussion in Christian theology about how far Christ's resurrection appearances can serve as a model for human resurrection. As they occurred within this world of space and time, and a life to come will not, they may not be able to serve as a model. The point though is not what form the life to come will take. The assertion that there is one has normally appeared to be a corner-stone of the Christian faith.

The idea of personal survival is seen as giving value and purpose to the life of each individual which can then be set against the backdrop of eternity. Once vision is narrowed to this life, it is suggested that we are all too likely in the end to be afflicted by despair and the feeling that nothing really matters. Indeed, the nihilism that is often explicitly embraced in the modern and 'postmodern' world is often linked to a materialism that restricts its focus to physical events in a physical world. There is in fact a certain instability about such a position in that while nihilism demands the repudiation of all claims to truth, and to insights into the nature of reality, materialism is itself making highly specific claims about what is real. Theological anthropology, on the other hand, often begins with what must be the simple insight that we are each loved by God and should matter to each other because of that. The fatherhood of God seems to entail that we are all related to each other as a family and should care for each other accordingly. Yet if he loves us, the argument goes, could he accept the fact of our inevitable extinction? Without an eternal destiny, people may seem to cease to matter. The promise of life after death, it is held, does not so much distract us from the concerns of this life and from our duty to care for others but gives all that a point and a purpose which otherwise it would not have.

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