Soul Survivor

“A normal human being does not want the Kingdom of Heaven,” George Orwell once observed, “he wants life on earth to continue.” Orwell may have had a point. As it happens, there is next to nothing in the Bible about people dying and going to heaven. The biblical prophecies are all about a resurrection of the dead and life on earth continuing forever. Originally, this was supposed to happen within the lifetimes of those who were left behind after Jesus himself rose from the dead. When there was no immediate Second Coming, they began casting about for some alternative path to immortality. Their solution was to adopt as their own a belief in the immortality of the soul – an idea borrowed from the Greeks.

Many people are surprised to learn there is no mention of the soul’s immortality anywhere in the Bible; indeed, the word “immortal” appears only once (at least in the King James translation), and then only in reference to Jesus Christ. The idea was utterly foreign to Jewish thinking. It took church fathers (all Gentiles) another century or more to warm up to the concept. They were strongly influenced by Greek philosophers such as Plato, who first discussed the immortality of the soul in his Phaedo. Specifically, Plato argued that the soul exists independently of the body and lives on after its death. "The soul whose inseparable attitude is life will never admit of life's opposite, death,” he wrote. “Thus the soul is shown to be immortal, and since immortal, indestructible.”

Archeological evidence suggests people have long harbored the notion that life goes on in some form after we have been laid to rest. Prehistoric gravesites dating back more than 100,000 years contain artifacts that arguably were intended to equip the deceased for postmortem journeys to the spirit realm. In the absence of written records, one can only speculate about their particular beliefs in an afterlife. What is clear, however, is that Neolithic and Paleolithic tribal cultures had developed the intellectual capacity to engage imaginatively with the unseen.

The Sumerians in Mesopotamia – the earliest civilization to leave behind written records – believed the departed lived on in a hellish underworld where they crawled around on their bellies and ate dust before eventually fading into oblivion. Ancient Egyptians envisioned a happier outcome -- although initially only for their pharaohs, who were regarded as gods and therefore entitled to hobnob with their fellow deities in paradise. The souls of commoners were relegated to a dark abode not unlike the Sumerian netherworld. Later epochs brought a more developed sense of individual identity and a corresponding belief in a heavenly afterlife that was accessible to everyone. This accounted for elaborate Egyptian burial rituals designed to ensure that the soul arrived safely at its final destination.

Some scholars believe that a developing concept of self was directly connected to a more highly structured understanding of an afterlife. What is an immortal soul, after all, if not a disembodied self? The enlarged prefrontal cortex of early hominids enabled them to imagine things that were not present in their immediate experience. This made it possible not only to conjure up spirit worlds but also to image themselves existing independently of their bodies. Neuroscientists will happily tell you that many attributes we ascribe to the self, such as free will, are illusory. Some think we operate essentially as zombies, albeit with an inflated self-image. Buddhists and mystics in other traditions believe the notion of a permanent self is essentially an illusion. It should come as no surprise then that this illusory self simply imagines itself existing forever. The issue is not just whether some ghostly presence lives on in the next world but also whether it lives on in this one.

Dr. Michael Sudduth, “Preliminary Observations on the Afterlife”

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