Chapter 2: The Loss of Belief in the ‘After-life’

After Death: Life in God
by Norman Pittenger

Chapter 2: The Loss of Belief in the ‘After-life’

If refusal to face squarely the fact of death is found so widely in these days, so also is loss of belief in a continuation of human existence, beyond death, in what used to be called the ‘after-life’ It is indeed true that among conventionally-minded church-people and many others there is a vague feeling that when the body dies the ‘soul’ goes on. But that feeling is very vague, or so I have come to think when I have considered the attitude of many of my friends and acquaintances. The strong conviction which seems to have been found in an older generation, especially among those who would have styled themselves ‘believers’, is nowadays very infrequent. Once death has occurred, that is taken to be in truth the end.

Now we have here a rather contradictory state of affairs. In the first place, thought about death is avoided so far as possible. The reality of it, the sheer fact of it, does not figure prominently in most people’s minds. But in the second place, once the inevitable has taken place, there is nothing more to be said. Death, however much its coming has been forgotten or minimized, has now occurred. And since it has occurred, there is nothing further to be thought. For what my own opinion is worth, I should say that even among those who are regular church-going people and who would be classified as Christian men and women, there is no very certain conviction about life ‘after death’. Such people may accept, with the top of their minds, what they have been led to think is Christian teaching on the subject, but this teaching is not deeply rooted nor profoundly felt. Rather, it cuts little if any ice, as one might put it.

I am not denying for a moment the presence, especially in older people, of some genuine belief in the ‘after-life’. I am only saying that for many, if not most, of them it is not a deep conviction which makes a genuine difference in their basic attitude towards existence. I should also say that with younger people, more particularly those who have been reasonably well educated, the belief itself appears to have faded away. Why is this so? What has happened to produce such a different view from the one that is an earlier age was prevalent -- certainly with church-people and often enough, although in an attenuated sense, with those who seemed to have no settled religious beliefs?

There are probably many reasons, to be sure. I do not myself agree with the notion found in some circles that it is all part of what is regarded as the God-less materialism of our age. In fact, of course, there is such materialism around us, if by this we mean an emphasis on the things of here-and-now, as well as a striving for the comforts and convenience of life without too much, if any, concern for what used to be called ‘spiritual values’. There can be little doubt that in civilized societies at the present time the stress is put on living as well as one can in the present moment or for a fairly short future. But the loss of a clearly defined belief in an ‘after-life’ is not adequately explained by this patent fact. There are other factors, some of which should now be mentioned.

For one thing, the old notion of a life after death which will provide some compensation for evils endured in this present existence does not make much sense. This kind of thought, which at its worst was found in the parody popularized decades ago that ‘there’ll be pie in the sky, when you die’ as a compensation for injustice today, is hardly attractive to men and women who insist that justice is to be done now. Even in its more sophisticated guise, such as the argument of Immanuel Kant that life in heaven is to be a due adjustment of affairs after the obvious evil known and experienced in mundane life, there is for many people little meaning. And with this has gone also the old idea that what might be called ‘the rewards and punishment syndrome’ demands that there should be a post-mortem existence for these rewards and punishments to take place. ‘The fear of hell’ does not play any significant part in the thinking of most of our contemporaries; neither does contemplation of the ‘joy of heaven’.

One reason here, I believe, is that the somewhat crude way in which the rewards and punishment motif was presented seems nothing short of ridiculous -- and in any event, not very appealing, even when ‘heaven’ is talked about. Hell-fires and eternal (or unending) suffering was at one time regarded as a deterrent from wrong-doing. But the fires of hell seem to have been quenched; or at least they do not figure very largely in contemporary thinking, nor, for that matter, in contemporary preaching and teaching. On the other hand, the picture of heaven as a kind of featureless bliss or (worse) a graphic but somewhat physically represented state of existence whose dominant characteristic is ‘doing nothing’ hardly arouses much enthusiasm. The usual stress upon ‘rest eternal’ is hardly likely to make much appeal to men and women who have been convinced that life, as they know and value it, entails activity and ‘doing things’. This kind of picture seems to contradict all that such people feel to be worthwhile. Maybe some sort of ‘rest’ would be welcomed for a short time, after the incessant ‘busy-ness’ of our mortal days; but in the long run, it would be tedious and unattractive.

Another factor which has tended to make talk about the ‘afterlife’ less than appealing may be found in the feeling that much of that talk about it is highly self-centered -- a matter of ‘glory for me’. Nobody could argue that we are living in an age when there is a universal awareness of societal relationships as constitutive of human existence. Certainly the fact of our social belonging cannot be denied. The truth that ‘no man is an island unto itself’ is patent enough. But very many people seem to want to live as if it were not such a truth. Yet on the other hand, men and women nowadays are uncomfortable with any position which would be so totally individualistic that the place of such social belonging is utterly neglected. They feel that they ought to consider their fellows; and when they are thinking seriously about life they know that ‘rugged individualism’ is both wicked and self-defeating. If they are at all sensitive, the presentation of the Christian gospel as a purely individual ‘salvation’ appears to be outrageous. I say this because no matter how successful, in an obvious way, such preaching may be, its principal value is that ‘the old-time religion’ (thus conceived and proclaimed) provides for insecure and uncertain men and women an authority to which they may bow and thus be delivered, as they think, from too much victimization by the ‘changes and chances of this mortal life’. I doubt if such a presentation of the Christian gospel is other than a palliative for those who are insecure, as well as offering a sort of reassurance to people who have been induced (often by quite dubious techniques) to feel enormously guilty about themselves. For the thoughtful person the idea of ‘glory for me’, or a strictly individualistic salvation, is not highly attractive. Such a person recognizes, albeit not too clearly, that whatever salvation is possible and whatever ‘glory’ is worth having, it must be inclusive of and attentive to the rest of the human race.

If something like this is the case, then a highly individualistic and self-centered interest in and desire for life beyond death will not make much sense. It would be unfair as well as unkind to say that a good deal of the older yearning for that post-mortem existence, usually expressed in talk about immortality, was nothing but selfishness. Often enough it was a consequence of the profound importance of the love which had dignified and enriched life here and now. It would have been unthinkable that such love, shared between men and women as the best thing in their experience, was to be utterly extinguished. Shared love at its best seems to have a certain eternal quality; nothing can destroy it. And one way in which this experienced reality can be guaranteed for what it is would be by affirming that when this life is ended the loving relationships will somehow be continued and given fuller and finer expression. The question is whether the usual talk of immortality is a possible or even desirable way of assuring the validity of such a conviction about love and its meaning. Here many people hesitate, for they can make little sense of the conventional pictures, such as are found in much hymnody and in many of the devotions which we have inherited from our Christian past. If the assurance is real, there must be a better way of interpreting it -- or so they would feel.

As I shall urge in the sequel, the assurance is indeed genuine enough; love is stronger than death. We need desperately to find a way of saying this which will be able to stand up to criticism, above all a way which will be congruous with the basic Christian affirmation that God is both central in the universe and is best described as ‘the Love that will not let us -- or anyone or anything -- go. . .’ It is God who alone can give enduring value and worth to the things that we, in our tiny way and with our limited finite understanding, also find of worth and value. Or, to put it otherwise and in a manner which must be developed as we proceed in our discussion, it is God who matters supremely. The Jewish-Christian tradition at its best and when most true to its deepest insight is incurably and unfailingly theocentric: ‘God-centered’.

I have said that the charge of excessive secularistic materialism, frequently made against modern people, is not accurate. What is correct, however, is the concern which they show for what goes on ‘in the body’. They are not prepared to agree with the medieval hymn-writer who said that ‘the times are very evil’ -- if by those words it is being said that the world itself, the things of this world, the experiences known in this world, are in and of themselves bad. Of course if that writer intended something else, as he may well have done, namely that the ‘times’, in the sense of the particular segment of history in which he lived, were indeed ‘evil’ and were marked by wickedness, with a collapse of standards and the denial of all that is of abiding significance; if he intended that, there may well have been much truth in his statement. If, however, his line of thought reflected the Manichean rejection of this world as such, of things made of matter and of all that is thus materially embodied, no responsible Catholic or Protestant Christian thinker could agree. In this respect, contemporary ‘materialism’ (if that is the right word here) is much more in accordance with the biblical presentation, in which God does not deny or negate the creation but affirms it, identifies himself with it, and acts within it. So far as specifically Christian faith is in the picture, the traditional doctrine of the ‘incarnation of God’ in this world would be a further and decisive statement of the essential goodness of the material creation, including the human body and its workings -- since for that faith God was ‘enfleshed’ in a human body, made up as it is of the stuff of the material world. We may not be happy with the particular fashion in which this conviction was expressed in the several classical formulations; we may seek for and hope to find a way of stating this conviction which does not depend upon the philosophy of ancient Greek thinkers. Yet the conviction itself stands firm, if we intend to be responsible Christians whose faith is in continuity with that of the so-called ‘ages of faith’.

In those days, not least in the thinking of men like St. Thomas Aquinas, the material world was regarded as a good thing, although wrongdoing of various sorts had distorted and perverted it in the forms in which actually we experience it. Grace, or the divine good will and the divine activity, did not ‘destroy nature but perfected it’. So the Angelic Doctor vigorously affirmed. And when he was thinking about human existence itself, he was intent upon saying that a whole human person was compounded of body as well as of soul; in the end, he said, the two would be reunited after the separation which death had brought about. Here, of course, he was thinking in terms of the typical philosophical understanding of his day: soul and body were taken to be distinct but also mutually involved in human existence. He was accepting the immortality of the soul; but he was also urging that a mere soul, without a body of some kind, did not constitute the genuine and complete human person. The soul was for him the form of the body; the body the matter of the soul. The two belonged together in what Aristotelian thought styled the hylo-morphic nature of ‘manhood’. Although his way of working this out may not appeal to us, with our quite different scientific knowledge, and our own philosophical idiom, the point here is that Aquinas, like the other theologians of the great Christian tradition, was no ‘spiritualist’, denying or minimizing the material world and the physical body and their ways of working. In this sense that tradition was getting at what in our own day we should call the ‘psychosomatic’ constitution of human being. Alas, many of those who would style themselves devout Christians are in fact believers in the Manichean rejection of the world as not only temporal and in the obvious sense ephemeral but also as evil and without spiritual worth. St Thomas fought that position with all his intellectual and religious power. Such people need to be taught the truth which a modern poet stated:

How can we love thee, holy hidden Being,

If we love not the world which thou hast made. . .

There is still another point to be stressed. One element in our contemporary thinking, which has helped to make talk of the ‘afterlife’ appear meaningless, is the increasing recognition that there is no such thing as a ‘substantial self’. Even those who are not informed about contemporary psychological analysis of human experience may very well feel that it is not adequate to describe that experience as if we were speaking about some persistent ‘I’, to which things happened; a self which did things that were, so to say, merely adjectival to the substantival ‘I’. Those who feel this way believe that none of us is like a clothes-line upon which the Monday washing is hung. In that picture, the clothes-line is the real self, the genuine identity of the I’, and the various articles hung on the line for drying are the particular moments or occasions of human experience. It would be perfectly possible, in that case, to remove the articles of clothing, while the clothes-line would still remain intact. The men and women who today have somehow glimpsed what a good deal of psychological analysis confirms, believe that the line and the clothes are mutually related; so that on the one hand there is no sense in talking of the line without the clothes, while without the line -- that is, without some significant meaning in human selfhood or identical ‘I’-ness -- the experiences represented by the articles hung on the line would be a collection of happenings that have no claim to significance and are only chance moments without worth.

If something like this is the fact, it is then easy to see why a ‘self’, totally detached from its experiences, is hardly worth preservation. What am I, what are you, what is anybody, without the things we have said and done, the things that have been said to us and done with and for us? The answer would seem to be, ‘Nothing at all; or at least, nothing worth bothering about.’

The importance of these considerations will emerge in the next chapter, when we shall have to discuss human existence as a matter of both body and mind. My point at the moment is only to suggest that one of the reasons for the loss of belief in a life after death is precisely the growing acceptance of just such a portrayal of what each one of us really is. But the other factors to which I have referred are equally operative; and there may be still more about which we have not spoken. The truth is, however, that for whatever reasons, the strong conviction of post-mortem human existence in any subjective and self-conscious sense does not mark today the thinking of vast numbers of our fellow men and women.

In this respect, they are not too different from the Old Testament worthies to whom I have referred in another context. One of my former students, after a long and detailed study of the evidence found in the Hebrew Scriptures, has concluded that for the greater part of their history the Jewish people had no certain conviction about a post-mortem continuation of human beings. He has said that more and more he is impressed by the way in which their vivid and vital faith in God was maintained in spite of all sorts of difficulties, including their own suffering and defeats. Perhaps naively, they were sure that in this life there would be an overturning of evil, with God as the principal agent in that overturning. None the less, they did not ask nor did they assume that there would be some compensation after their death for that which they had experienced and undergone. My friend went on to say that it seemed to him that in a way this long Jewish theocentrism, without belief in ‘immortality’ as such, was a nobler and grander kind of faith than the much more man-centered position of later ages. Even today, he remarked, Jewish faith seems to be less focused on what is likely to happen to us than upon what God is doing in the world. Whatever one may think of this, certainly it cannot be doubted that it is possible for devout people, firm believers in the reality of God and in God’s care for those who are his children, to put little, if any, stress upon an ‘after-life’.

I do not wish to give the impression, however, that what used to be believed in respect to existence after death is in my view entirely without value. The ‘de-mythologizing’ of this belief is necessary; but it equally important for us to respect, as we must also come to recognize, the probability of some genuine insight which got itself stated in a set of ideas which nowadays seem to carry little weight for vast numbers of our human comrades. In other words, there are positive things which must be said, quite as much as there are negative things. It is obvious that at the very time when life beyond death is no longer a matter of vital importance, there is an increasing emphasis on the worth of human personality. Some may say that this emphasis lacks any substantial support, such as (to their mind) the older belief could provide. It is easy to dismiss the contemporary insistence on such personal worth as being without foundation, or as nothing more than a dim remembrance of the day when it might have been based on firm assurance about subjective immortality. But this, I believe, is both wrong-headed and short-sighted.

The real grounding for the emphasis on the worth of persons is of another sort. It rests upon an inchoate, frequently dimly understood, sense that life in itself is valuable, that human life is especially valuable, and that somehow the very grain of the universe is on its side. Schubert Ogden and others have written compellingly on the way in which, deep down in human experience, there is an assumption (however unconscious this may be, most of the time) that ‘no matter what the content of our choices may be, whether for this course of action or for that, we can make them at all only because of our invincible faith that they somehow make a difference which no turn of events has the power to annul’ (The Reality of God, SCM Press 1967, p. 36). Ogden goes on to speak of the way in which modern men and women are deeply convinced that ‘it is our own secular decisions and finite processes of creative becoming which are the very stuff of the "really real" and so themselves somehow of permanent significance’ (Ibid., p. 64).

Now such a position requires a doctrine of God which need not be formally defined and stated, but which deeper analysis can show to be implicitly present. The doctrine of God may be different in many respects from that which hitherto has been urged as the only possible Christian teaching. Nevertheless, it may be -- and I agree with Ogden that it is -- more than a theory; indeed, it may be, and I am convinced that it is, a much more defensible understanding than the traditionally accepted one. More must be said about this, although in the opening chapter I have already mentioned it. Let me end this chapter with a further quotation from Ogden’s important book:

‘At the beginning and end of all our ways is One in whose steadfast will and purpose there is indeed no shadow of turning and in whom all our confidences have their unshakable foundation... In his inmost actuality he is "pure unbounded love", pure personal relation to others, who has no other cause than the ever more abundant life of the creatures of his love. Far from being something to which even the greatest of our accomplishments is worth nothing at all, he is the One who makes even the least of things to be of infinite worth by giving it a share in his own infinite and all-encompassing life. He is, in fact, just that "enduring remembrance", except for which our perishing lives as creatures would indeed be vanity and a striving after wind. . . [Such a theism] enables us at last really to understand our confidence that the whole of our life is unconditionally worth while’ (ibid., p. 142).