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The Afterlife

June 7, 2010
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This is part one of two. At least, I think one of two. It will probably end up being one of five, as these things tend to expand on me, but I’m starting with one of two.

Initially I began by sketching out what will be essay two, a discussion of early Hebrew ideas of the afterlife. As I did so, though, I realized that there’s a lot of questions about afterlives that aren’t normally asked. In fact, I began that essay draft by citing a common lay atheist assertion, that religion was invented to provide us with a nice place to go when we die if we’re good, thereby dealing with our fear of death and our desire for justice at the same time. This is inconsistent with the bulk of Old Testament ideas about afterlife, a point I wished to drive home. But as I did so I realized that the whole idea of afterlife has been shaped by this sort of idea in which we believe that “the afterlife” inevitably conforms to one of a small range of models, within which this assertion works. But this is an assumption, not reality. What are the alternatives that we see? What are the questions we should ask? How does the specifically Christian answer interact or respond to these alternatives? How, when we look at the early Hebrew ideas, do the later Christian modifications alter that idea, and in what categories?

The first question is filtering. I will not pretend to have read much on this issue, and freely admit that I am making up terms. But we need terms to have this discussion, and so here’s the first one. Is the afterlife filtered? In other words does everyone get in? We normally assume afterlives are filtered, and filtered morally. This is an incorrect assumption. In Book 11 of the Odyssey Odysseus travels to Hades. While other ideas of Hades do include moral filtering Odysseus seems to see everyone he wants there. It appears that everyone goes to Hades upon death in the Homeric tradition. Meanwhile, the Viking concept of afterlife includes Valhalla, which is filtered not morally but by the circumstances of one’s death. One can easily have an afterlife that is inhabited by the good and bad alike, or one that is filtered on anything one’s culture decides to call a virtue.

Filtering can also occur in one of two ways: exclusion or re-routing. The ancient Egyptian afterlife (in one variant – “ancient” is a long time in Egypt) appears to be morally filtered through exclusion. The dead are judged on a scale, their hearts weighed against a feather, and those who fail are simply fed to Ammut, and cease to exist. In this case there is but one afterworld, which some get into, and some do not. The more familiar case is that of re-routing, in which there are two or more afterworlds, and the destination of the dead is determined by some filtering criteria, normally moral.

In any system involving multiple afterworlds there is also the question of stages. For instance, the concept of Purgatory assumes moral filtering by re-routing, but also assumes that those who end up in purgatory will eventually transition out of it. Purgatory is, therefore, a staged afterworld. It is inevitably stage one, and not the final destination of anyone.

Getting away from the concept of filtering there is yet another question, that of permeability. Obviously, the living can die and enter the afterlife. But can the dead come back? The dead could come back in a number of ways. They could be resurrected, restored to full bodily life again. They could be zombies, bodily present, but absent of the person to whom the body once belonged. They could return as ghosts, dead, but still able to interact with the living. Or they could stay dead, in their afterworld(s) and continue to affect the living, as any belief that the dead can communicate with the living, or vice versa, suggests. The method of permeability is also a question. In the twelfth tablet of the Epic of Gilgamesh Enkidu returns from the dead when the afterworld is literally broken into. But this is, itself, a workaround for Enkidu’s failure to heed the semi-magical pattern of dos and don’ts that would have allowed him to return anyway. In the case of ghosts it is normally thought that the manner of death or burial influences whether the afterlife is permeable to the dead person. In other cases humans considered to have special abilities are supposed to be able to break through to the dead. In other cases this sort of ability is restricted to divine beings.

There is also a question as to the nature of the afterlife. In an attempt to preserve categories we can discuss the nature of the afterlife along two axes. The first is the good-bad axis, the second the earthlike-other axis. Obviously, the afterworld can be a pleasant place or an unpleasant place. Given Achilles’ complaint to Odysseus we can infer that Hades, at least that idea of Hades, was an unpleasant place. Hell is an unpleasant place. The Egyptian afterworld, meanwhile, appears to have been considered quite pleasant, as do all concepts of heaven. The second axis presents more trouble. Cultures that bury their dead with belongings obviously expect an earthlike afterworld, in which there will be eating, drinking, games, tools, perhaps even weapons. This last one is of note, as it suggests that in some afterworlds there will be combat, and perhaps a death from inside the afterworld. Less earthlike but still on that end of the scale are Islamic ideas of heaven, at least the ones that include seventy virgins. Obviously, there’s at least one pleasure from the earthly world that is thought to continue into the next one. Buddhist and Hindu ideas, on the other hand, are indescribably other. It’s somewhat unclear that they are definable to the extent that one could really call Nirvana (for instance) good or bad. It’s simply radically, radically other.

And, finally, there’s the question of what someone in the afterlife is like. In the afterlife according to newspaper comic strips everyone in heaven turns into angels. The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints explicitly endorses this view, along with the idea that the dead eventually transition into full godhood. Meanwhile, in Homer’s Hades of quiet desperation the dead are but shades, given something more only by the blood they drain from the sacrifice offered to them. To Homer ghosts are exactly what the dead are. To some extent this depends on the earthlike-other axis discussed previously. If the dead are eating, growing crops, and making pottery they are presumably quite human, if not exactly that. If the dead exist in some indescribable realm they are probably also indescribably not human. A lot of Hindu thought (and Hindu thought is quite diverse) seems to posit some sort of union with the ultimate (and therefore essentially indescribable) thing that is everything. Whatever you are post-transformation it would not seem to be human.

So why do we care? Well, we care first because we want to have an intelligent conversation. Talking about the afterlife under the normal Western assumptions that it must be morally filtered through re-routing, barely permeable, at best, and composed of at least one very good afterworld, in which people are either themselves or much better, is restrictive. When discussing certain ideas these may be useful restrictions. In other instances (such as disputing the claim that religion exists to establish a morally-filtered afterlife) the presence of these assumptions is crippling.

But there are at least two additional reasons to discuss these categories. The first is that not all of them are fully resolved within the span of Christian thought. Permeability remains a major issue in the Church. Two of the great branches of the faith believe that the saintly dead watch us, listen to us, and influence us and our fortunes. Protestants tend not to believe this, and often condemn it quite strongly. Since there are positions on this issue it seems worth pointing out that this is an issue, and a real question that can be asked. There is a popular misconception that the dead become angels, which has no Biblical support. There are also questions about stages, and questions about how earthlike heaven will be. Is heaven the end point, or will there be a general Resurrection of the Dead in a new heaven and new earth? What kind of bodies might we resurrect into?

And, secondly, the answers to these questions have real implications. For Homer the real person appears to have been their body, hence their wispy state in the afterlife. In Gnostic thought the body was a prison, to be escaped. What will we leave behind, and what will we retain? What is real about us? The answer seems to matter. If there are no bodies, and no earth, it does not seem to matter much whether we learn to dwell in either well. The place of the dead matters, too. If the dead are, in some sense, here then they are part of the communion of faith. It is easier to retain a sense of the past, of the sweep of God’s work, in this environment. It is easier, in some ways, to deal with death. The ease of such things should not dictate what we believe is right, but it seems worth pointing out which tasks we might be making harder or easier.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. June 7, 2010 9:06 am

    Looking forward to reading more on this topic. I’ve been thinking a lot about what I think about the after life lately, but I’m really not even sure what I think at this point!

    I should also mention, I totally learned about that Egyptian heart weighed against a feather thing from a Sesame Street special.

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