After We Die
Theology, Philosophy, and the Question of Life after Death
There is no denying: Death is all around us. Be it with our family, our friends, the stranger on the street, we ourselves–soon every human being alive now will be dead. Although we know a lot about the process of dying from a scientific point of view, we know nothing about death that could silence the worry that death might be the end of our individual life. This lack of knowledge is because claims about the afterlife are beyond empirical verification or falsification (2-3). As author Stephen T. Davis rightly points out: “Nobody has ever died, experienced the afterlife, and come back to give us reliable information about it” (1-2). The best we can do to tackle the question of whether death is the end of our individual life, therefore, is to engage in philosophical theology, and to evaluate the plausibility of worldviews specifying the afterlife.
Davis’s After We Die. Theology, Philosophy, and the Question of Life after Death is such an exercise in philosophical theology. It aims to show the overall coherence of the notion of bodily resurrection as a plausible model of the afterlife, as provided by Christian worldviews (5). Chapter 1 offers a brief analysis of different models of life after death in which he argues that reincarnation, immortality, and resurrection all provide prima facie consistent models, Davis reflects on Karma and Grace as different methods to achieve salvation. In chapter 2, Davis argues that from the philosophical point of view that human beings seem unable to obtain salvation through incarnation, but need the grace of God to be saved. After these preliminaries, he concentrates on traditional Christian topics. In chapter 3, he specifies a model of resurrection on which “our bodies will disintegrate [after death], but at some future point God will miraculously raise them from the ground and reconstitute us as persons” (49). Until the general resurrection “I exist in the presence of God as a disembodied soul” (56). “In the resurrection, the old body will be transformed into a ‘glorified body’ that maintains continuity with the old body but has certain quite new properties” (122). That is, “this new body is a physical body … and materially related to the old body, at least in the sense of being derived from it … it is an entity that has spatiotemporal location and is capable of being empirically measured, tested, or observed in some sense” (123). Based on this concept of resurrection, Davis justifies the soteriological and eschatological importance of the Ascension and the Second Coming of Christ in chapter 4. According to Davis, “the ascension had great theological importance for the early church, especially as a marker. Initially, it marked the end of the forty-day period during which the risen Jesus appeared to the disciples; next, the ascension marked the point just after which the Holy Spirit would be poured out in power on the church; then it marked the beginning of Jesus’s session at the right hand of God” (74). Concerning the delay of the Parousia, Davis distinguishes between the Kingdom of God and the Second Coming by asserting that “the Kingdom of God did indeed arrive with Jesus and his crucifixion and resurrection … the Parousia, however, has not occurred; it awaits the end of the world” (87). Chapter 5 deals with the concept of hell, where Davis argues that “it is a place of separation from God [and that people] are in hell because they choose to be there … allowing them to live forever in hell is simply God’s continuing to grant them the freedom that they experienced in this life to say yes or not to God” (95). Although he believes that hell exists, Davies argues in chapter 6 that the existence of the purgatory “is not supported by Scripture … [although] all Christians–Catholics and Protestants alike–recognize that not all Christians die in a state in which they are ready for the presence of God in heaven” (113). Finally, in chapter 7, Davis argues that life in heaven will be “a transformed but nevertheless bodily existence” (119), and that heaven is the place where the redeemed can see the beauty of God. The redeemed will live on a new earth under a new heaven, which Davis interprets as “heaven and earth will not be replaced but rather restored” (119). Eventually, “in heaven, there will be no more violence, war, jealousy, or death. All evil will be overcome” (134).
Davis’s After We Die is extremely well written, up-to-date, and full of interesting arguments, dealt with in a systematic way. It provides a well-supported argument for the coherence of some of the most important features of Christian eschatological thinking and I can recommend it wholeheartedly to anyone interested in seeing how the methods of analytic theology can be used to establish a thought-provoking defence of classic Christian thinking. However, I also have two perennial caveats: one concerns the concept of the glorified body, and the other, the spatiality of heaven and hell.
Regarding the glorified body: either it is a physical body or it is not. In the first case, the glorified body will be a body that is subject to the laws of nature, and therefore will be subject to decay and destruction. The concept of a physical body is nothing over and above the concept of a body that is subject to the physical laws of nature. Irrespective of whether it will have some new properties, the very existence and identity of the glorified body—as a physical body—therefore entails that it must be situated in, and sustained by, a universe precisely like the one we are living in. This, however, entails that the glorified body cannot live up to the expectations of Davis’s resurrection theory, as it would be a body of flesh and blood, like our body is now. In the second case, the glorified body is not a physical body. Here, the body is not subject to the laws of nature and therefore could be “imperishable, immortal, and sown in strength and honor” (123). This, however, seems hard to reconcile with Davis’s resurrection theory as well in that it is difficult to see how such a non-physical body could derive from a physical body in a way that secures personal identity: it simply would be an entirely new kind of body in an entirely new environment.
Regarding the spatiality of heaven and hell: according to Davis, heaven is the physical location where the redeemed will live whilst hell is the place where those who rejected the grace of God will live. Since existence in the afterlife is embodied life, it follows that both heaven and hell are physical locations. Although Davis says that it is difficult to believe “that heaven and hell… are separated by a ‘great chasm’ which cannot be crossed but across which oral communication is possible” (94), his theory of the afterlife entails this very possibility. In keeping with Davis’s theory, heaven and hell are spatially related and, in principle, travel between heaven and hell is possible. Now, I find it difficult to believe that the afterlife is a place where heaven and hell are related like two planets or two continents here on earth.
Benedikt Paul Göcke is on the faculty of theology and religion at the Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion at the University of Oxford.
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