Life After Death: a call to research

There are few topics in theology that so readily act as a prism to refract one’s worldview and reveal various strands of one’s theological commitments as the topic of life after death. When discussing what happens at death one very quickly reveals one’s hand on a variety of issues. Three that spring to mind are the following: the value and purpose of human life, the ontological nature of the human person and the efficacy of Christ’s death on the cross.

What strikes me as odd, however, is that such a revealing topic is so little discussed relative to theological ‘hot topics’ like, for example, the doctrine of God. But all of that seems to be changing. One reason may be the following. As the NHS gets even better at keeping people alive and the babies of the baby boom are now reaching their senior years we’re faced with a growing population of people approaching their deaths. The question of what happens when we die looms large. This is typified by the slew of current academic literature being published on the topic and large sums of money being pumped into interdisciplinary research on the topic of ‘Immortality’[1]. This will ultimately require Christian researchers to put their noses to the grindstone again over the topic of life after death. It will require us to hone our answers to the questions that our culture will throw at us. The three areas that I mentioned above are, I think, the three areas that we need to get clear on. I will briefly mention two here and outline some points for further research.

First, the value and purpose of human life. It’s no surprise that your view of the future will affect the way you live now. For those who are students, for example, one’s current work schedule is dictated by one’s future grades. One works harder if they believe that they will fail. Likewise, one’s view of what’s to come after one’s death can radically affect one’s current thought and action. To take an extreme example, existential Nihilists often view the current life as meaningless in light of the fact that at death all that awaits us is decay. But we shouldn’t be so naïve as to think that this problem of value, purpose and death is only for our Nihilist friends. What the Christian thinks will happen to the current created order might also deeply affect her theology of the Christian life. Current evangelicalism seems divided on this issue. Divided between those who believe that this world will be destroyed but human persons saved and those who believe that this world will, in some sense, continue to exist and be redeemed along with human persons. This can and has affect/ed what Christians think they should be doing with their time. Should the Christian pour all her time and resources into sharing the good news alone, or sharing the good news and working to redeem[2]/restore God’s creation?[3] I have an opinion on this matter but I leave the question open.

Second, the ontological nature of human persons. This is my particular area of research. What happens to the human person at death is of deep interest to our culture. Particularly since, it seems, that death ends in my termination and it’s very hard to see how I could ever come into existence again (aka “The irreversibility of death”). But these aren’t mere philosophical conundrums. The woman on her deathbed – like the thief on the cross (Luke 23:32-43) and the persecuted church (Matt. 10:26-31) – wants to know where she will go when she dies and how she will traverse the gap between death and new life. If the pastor cannot comfort her with the truth of her continued existence in the world to come then, in some sense, the sting of death may still remain.

There is, of course, an obvious (it’s intuitive), orthodox (it’s in, for example, the Westminster Confession of Faith) and biblical (see the above passages among others) solution to this problem. Namely, when a person dies she continues to exist as her immaterial soul in an intermediate state and awaits the resurrection of her body. But this is, supposedly, being challenged by neuroscience[4] and, in recent years, biblical studies[5]. Some of the research produced in the last twenty (or so) years on this topic has been very fruitful. We now, for example, have a better understanding of the distinction between a Platonic conception of the soul and that given by the New Testament. But many questions still remain.

These two topics are fraught with difficulties but also, I hope I have shown, significant. It will be the job of some Christian researchers to better clarify and better articulate the hope of the resurrection of the death and the life of the world to come.

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[1] See, for example, the latest John Templeton funded ‘Immortality Project’

[2] If that word can be correctly applied to non-human objects, events and spaces, etc.

[3] I use the words might and can (above) purposefully. There is argument that even if you take the annihilationist view concerning creation (all will be burnt up) one should still be doing all things for God’s glory and, as such, with all the fever and attention of the one who believes that this created order will continue.

[4] It’s not at all clear what the challenge to this doctrine from neuroscience is exactly. I think the best challenge so far has been what’s known as “the pairing-problem.” This is not, however, a distinctly ‘neuroscientific’ challenge, more a naturalistic challenge.

[5] See Joel Green’s Body, Soul and Human Life

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