Heaven and Hell Lent Course 2
By Professor Paul Crosssley
Big topics which can’t be discussed without thinking about the after-life as a whole. So in this talk I am going to leave the discussion on heaven and hell and tackle the question that comes before them:is there an afterlife at all? What do we mean by it? To that question the great Dr Johnson replied: ‘All argument is against it, and all belief for it’. Now, two hundred and fifty years after Johnson, the arguments against the existence of an after-life have multiplied. Modern scientific materialism is not the best climate for belief in life after death. There are, first of all, the scientific objections. The essence of the scientific method is impersonal: to establish general laws governing the particular behaviour of our physical world, laws which can be routinely applied to all particular instances, and can indeed predict them. The essence of religion - at least of Christianity, Islam and Judaism - is the opposite of this - it is profoundly personal: it proclaims a belief in a personal cosmos, ruled by a personal God for the ultimate benefit of our individual salvation. Nature, scientists tell us, has no such purposes; it is indifferent to human anxieties and desires. For science the heavens do not declare the glory of God nor the firmament showeth his handiwork. To suggest that we might be part of God’s cosmic plan is for the scientist a piece of monumental egotism. According to the laws of evolution - laws which recent Christian fundamentalism have failed to discredit - the world is the result of chance accumulations of millions of atoms whose arbitrary configurations have led, by a long process of trial and error, to the human primate. No divine pattern, no personal destiny, can (says the scientist) be deduced from this long history: just the chance encounters of genes. Other modern branches of secular materialism have joined the attack against the after life. Philosophy, in the form of logical positivists and philosophers of language, deny that we can even begin to talk about the after-life. For them, nothing exists which is not provable by empirical evidence. One the greatest philosophers of the 20th century, Ludwig Wittgenstein, believed that spiritual truths - even if they exist - are best left undiscussed. We must maintain a respectful silence in the face of the unknown: ‘whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent.’ Religion cherishes the spiritual element in the human make up, what we call ‘the soul’ or the ‘spirit’, what metaphysicians would call ‘the mind’ or ‘consciousness’. But 20th century behaviourists reject such an entity. For them we are all simply pieces of matter, and ‘mind’ and ‘consciousness’ are just the products of the particular physical constitution of the brain. They are not separate ‘things’ or ‘spirits’ lodged temporarily in our physical bodies.
These are some of the arguments deployed nowadays by militant atheists such as Richard Dawkins, who sternly tell religious believers like us that it is time we gave up our primitive faith, our wish-fulfilment dreams of heaven, and our naïve beliefs. We must face, he orders, the realities of science. But to deprive society of the comforting promise of an after-life is bound to influence the moral landscape of society as a whole. Intellectual and scientific rejections of any idea of life after has now percolated down to popular behaviour. Here the new secularism has been rampant, at worst dismissing God in language that is blasphemous (the Jerry Springer musical) at best diluting the truths of the great religions into a kind of self-indulgent, New Age Spirituality. For an increasing number of people in the western world science has brought all the comforts of modern life, and all the impoverishments of world without God. Secularist materialism promises us everything, including the terrifying fact that after death we will have nothing. Little wonder that hedonism is the only escape. ‘Forget death’, it says, ‘live now’. And living means consuming, for as materialists the things we most love are materials. Death has become the Last Taboo. We can talk openly about every form of sexual pleasure and perversion, entertain sadistic violence on TV and in the cinema, but pain, suffering, the elderly, the dying, are airbrushed out of modern life: squeamishly forgotten, segregated into the ghettos of geriatric wards and old people’s homes. Fewer and fewer, I suspect, are now brought into the mainstream life of their families, to share with the generations that come after them. Yet death, as the Jesuit bleakly reminded us 13-year olds in our first retreat at public school, was the one and only certainty in our future lives.
The Old Testament faces this inevitable oblivion unflinchingly. Job (14:1-10) paints a gloomy picture of our short and hopeless life: ‘Man that is born of a woman is of few days, and full of trouble. He cometh forth like a flower and is cut down. He fleeth also as a shadow and continueth not… for there is hope of a tree if it be cut down, that it will sprout again, and that the tender branch thereof will not cease… but Man dieth and wasteth away’. The Roman Stoics shared this gloomy dignity. For them, death was the end, but an end to be faced unflinchingly. Seneca, a Roman contemporary of Jesus, put it thus: ‘After death, nothing, and death itself is nothing’. The Stoics welcomed life as a gift and accepted death courageously, like a soldier in battle. Soldiers have, of course, a special insight into the grim reaper. But the great soldiers who wrote about war did not always write about death. The great First World War poets, Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, railed splendidly against the carnage, but avoided what that carnage might have meant, or even led to. To give a voice to the significance of death in the trenches was left to the lone, sensitive Edward Thomas, one of the greatest nature poets of the English language, who was himself killed in 1916. His meditations on his almost inevitable death, appear in many of his last poems, written in the trenches of north eastern France. One of them, called Lights Out, weaves death into a symbolic landscape of dark forests, blurred paths, sleep and silence. Its message is courageously Stoic, resigned to death almost as a final friend to be embraced.
The nobility, simplicity and dignity of this poem, like so much of Thomas’ limpid, truthful, verses, moves me every time I read it. But its agnostic stoicism is hardly a blue-print for our Christian belief.
What hints, what evidence, what histories in this world can persuade us of the existence of the after life? Is the world beyond death really so opaque or our understanding. Is death, in the famous words of Hamlet, ‘that undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns? The lovers of spiritualism and the paranormal would say quite the reverse: that the dead are still living, and willing to communicate with us. There are obvious dangers in this pathway to the paranormal. It is riddled with charlatans, because it is directed to the vulnerable and the bereaved. It trades on sensationalism (those Ghost programmes on TV where some Liverpudlian con-man pretends to be possessed with spirits) and pseudo-science (where video recorders purport to follow ‘white lights’ across their screens at the height of the hauntings. I am not saying that all such phenomena are con-tricks. Psychical research has unearthed too many oddities to deny that supernatural events or communications do take place. But even when they seem genuine, and a meeting of some kind is made between ‘us’ and ‘them’, the messages from these ‘spirits’ are invariably trite, sentimental and short. Sometimes even mischievous, like the kinetic pranks of poltergeist. I am told that we can sometimes catch, by means of low voltage currents shooting through a living person, an oval-shaped aura around them, a kind of astral body, which registers the emotional energies at play when the photo was taken. It is a way of fixing what we would call ‘good or bad vibes’ in our own experience of people. But none of these phantoms suggested the deceased person translated to the after life. They seem to be events as much as beings; they, are at best, the effects of the dead person: a manifestation of a kind of persistent personal energy, a force exercised after death in some way connected to the person but not identical with him, and offering no proof of permanent post-death existence. The Greek word skia refers to both ghosts and the living shadows we make in this life. Like these passing shadows, the ghosts we may experience on earth easily evaporate. They often disappear, as if they were the diminishing echoes of a living person, whose initial shouts had long since turned to silence.
If there is evidence for some kind of temporary spiritual incursion from the other side into our lives, what about the evidence for humans going the other way - crossing the boundaries from life to death, and then, in contradiction to Hamlet, returning to tell the tale? We have evidence of those who have had near -death experiences, where they have been pronounced clinically dead, but then brought back to life? Those who have undergone these experiences speak of being ‘out of their bodies’, of hovering over his own physical body on the bed or the operating table. Many also talk of moving along a long dark spiral tunnel, or a staircase or a lit airport runway, at the end of which was a ‘being of light’ that attracts and then envelopes the person. Many say they wished with all their heart to remain there, but are somehow ‘summoned back’ to their bodies and to earthly life. Here, I think, the evidence of some kind of after- life is much stronger than the phenomenon of ghosts. The materialist or behaviourhist will dismiss these experiences as manifestations of the bio-chemistry of the brain at moments of death or near death, and will consider it a matter not of spiritual experience but of medical and psychiatric interest, since the effects of this experience may well resemble the working of hallucinogenic drugs. But these episodes can be interpreted as something more than biological reaction, for what fascinates me about them is their consistency. Why does this biochemical action of the brain produce these particular images? Why not another image, such as L’Oreal Hair spray, or the Eiffel tower, or the Queen? Why does it always portray a journey or a floating of consciousness above the body?. And why do precisely these consistently similar experiences happen to people with no religious background, like children or non-believers, whose memory and life experiences would never have exposed them to such visions? More than ghosts, these visions suggest that our death is a portal and not a cul-de sac.
The experiences of ghosts and of near death introduce us to the notion of the split in all of us between our bodies and our minds. The idea that we are made up of two entities, a temporal carnal body and an eternal ‘mind’ (we would call it ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’), is deeply rooted in the human psyche, and it is one of the pointers to the sense we have of an after-life. I recently came across this mind-body dichotomy in its most poignant form when I heard on the radio the remarkable story of Jean de Bauby, a French Journalist. De Bauby was a successful editor of the fashion magazine Elle, living in Paris with his wife and children. But at the age of 44 he was struck down with a terrible stroke, which left him able only slightly to move his head and to wink one eye. He could think as clearly as ever, but he could not communicate anything; he was trapped in his body. Heroically, using what little movement he had, he set about doing what would seem to be impossible: writing a book. He invented a code of communications and was able painstakingly to dictate to his secretary his thoughts, feelings, frustrations, single letter by single letter. He died two days after his book was published in 1997. It was called the Butterfly and the Diving Bell- the Bell symbolizing the leaden weight of his body, the butterfly describing the delicacy and movement of his mental states, freeing themselves from the prison of their inert frame. This poignant story is not just a metaphor of the triumph of mind over body; it is a pointer to states of being beyond our earthly and physical restrictions.
The ancients built out of this dichotomy a whole cosmology. To Socrates and Plato and the Pythagorian mathematicians of the Ancient World, the Gods found shape in the stars at night, and in the harmonious music of the heavenly spheres which ruled our lives and the universe. Plato left us one of the most impressive classical arguments for the immortality of the soul. The human soul , he says in The Republic, is a spark of the divine fire, and sharing the immortal nature of the divinity it is therefore intrinsically immortal. Our immortal spirits belong to the perfect and inviolable world of the Gods. But the soul is wrapped in perishable bodies, like clothing, and that divine kinship can only be fully realized when we have shuffled off our mortal clothing and emerged, naked, as pure soul. Shakespeare celebrated this yearning of the soul to transgress the body in the Merchant of Venice, when, the two young lovers meet , ? and Jessica are gazing are the sky on a warm summer’s night:
With lovely irony, Shakespeare puts these profoundly spiritual meditations in the context of a lover’s tryst on a summer’s night, in an erotically enchanted wood. But the message of supernatural love is clear. We belong with the divine and our earthly life is a long pilgrimage to recover that original purity. It is a journey to our true home, where we will reclaim our voice among the music of the spheres. We don’t have to believe in a Platonic universe to sense this yearning dichotomy between our bodies and our souls, our intimation that we belong to this divine world, but cannot yet inhabit it, our need, sometimes, to escape from the flesh into the disembodied brilliance of the spirit. This Mind/Body contrast was also written into Western Philosophy by Descartes, who recognized that we were all living consciousnesses, ‘I’s - as opposed to the less distinct world out there. Our mental life - our thinking, our imagining, our dreaming - makes us different to, in some way separate from, our bodies. And this distinctiveness is borne out in our perceptions. When I go into Chartres cathedral is see the light of the stained glass windows. That act of perception consists of a series of physical events travelling from my optic nerve to my brain. But there is also - almost simultaneously - a mental event: I am aware of the sensation called coloured stained glass windows. Now a neurosurgeon equipped with the relevant instruments could see those physical events in the bits of the brain that deal with seeing - perhaps in the form of increased electrical activity. But he could never see the mental state which constitutes me seeing the glowing coloured light of the glass. It is the same with my memory. I recall the Taj Mahal that I saw a year before. The neurosurgeon might be able to look into the part of my brain that deals with remembering and note the excitement among the ganglia therein, but he could not see the domes and spires and reflections I saw; and now see again. Why? Because in both cases the mental event does not take place in space. It exists outside space, and, in the case of memory, outside time. It may find a structural, physical setting in my brain, but no one can say that the sensation or the memory is ‘there’. On the contrary, it presents itself to my whole consciousness. My mind exists therefore in another dimension, in which mental events (sensations, memories and other states of consciousness) have their own existence. No one can ‘see’ them but myself. They constitute the private world which I call ‘I’, or ‘spirit’, or ‘soul’.
In these random thoughts on mind, body and the afterlife we have said very little about God. Yet for Christians, and for me, the hope of an after-life is centrally connected to our belief in a loving and personal God who revealed himself to us through scripture and through his son Jesus Christ. That act of faith is the starting point for a belief in the after life, for nothing of what I have said so far is scientifically verifiable. Only ‘faith seeking understanding’ as St Anselm put it, will take us further.
. Scripture reassures us that our lives do not end in death. The Old Testament is curiously silent -as far as my limited knowledge goes - on the question of the after-life. It is only in the later books that we find the first clear hints of everlasting bliss or punishment. Daniel 12:2: ‘many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. But there is the beautiful Psalm 16:
Therefore my heart is glad
and my glory rejoiceth
My flesh also shall rest in hope
For though wilt not leave my soul in hell
Neither wilt thou suffer Thine
Holy One to see corruption
Thou wilt show Me the path of life
In They presence is fulness of joy
At thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore’.
By contrast, the New Testament is rich in references to the after- life, with Matthew’s description of the Last Judgement, with St Paul’s memorable metaphor of our future encounter with God: now we see him through a glass darkly, but then we will see Him face to face; and with Christ’s own promise to the good thief on the Cross: ‘today you will be with me in paradise’
But my hope in the afterlife lies not just in the evidence of scripture. but in what I - poorly and fleetingly - know of God. Scripture is deep truth, but truth wrapped in allegory and metaphor; it is not a literal account of events. There is much to suggest that the people of antiquity and the Middle Ages read the Bible far more allegorically and metaphorically than we do. They didn’t fall into the trap of taking its every word literally, as fundamentalists do in our scientific, technological and wholly un-metaphorical age. No, it is through my own nature, as a child of God, that I can deduce, however dimly, some aspects of the after life and of God’s purpose for me. And it is God as loving father and loving Creator which directs our notions of the afterlife. When primitive magic-based religions began to develop an intellectual dimension they split into two very broad families of belief: Pantheism and Monotheism. Pantheism, from the Greek pan : everything, defined reality as fundamentally of one ‘substance’ or character. God exists in everything. All things are, to a greater or lesser degree, God; the sunbeam was the sun, and all humans had within them the spark of divinity, and thus were divine. I will change and develop in one way or another after death (reincarnation) until at last I realize myself as one with the Eternal One. This is Plato’s position, and that of many eastern religions. If you asked a pantheist if he believed in the afterlife he would reply: ‘Yes, of course I do, for everything is God and I am part of this universal, immortal reality the totality of which is God. I submerge myself in it, rejoice at being a part of it, and try to enhance my awareness of the whole of which I am a part’. It is also the position of some of the great Romantic Nature poets, especially William Wordsworth who believed that our lives were intimations of an immortality we belonged to and had come from. Since we had been separated at birth from the Divine essence, we remember the divine more clearly in childhood, and babyhood, only for the distractions and cares of adulthood to cloud that primal experience of paradise like a tarnished memory. Wordsworth holds that we are all divine in our very natures, part of the stream of divinity. But as we grow older, we simply forget it, yet long to return to it:
‘Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy’.
By contrast, monotheism - the religion of Christians, Muslims and Jews - stresses the immense gulf between me, as a creature of God, and God who has created me. As a Christian I do not assume that I am born immortal, or part of the stream of divinity, or have any afterlife at all except for the overriding circumstance that I am created by a God who out of love for His creatures, and who has made them for a specific purpose. I am not part of a great Platonic chain of divine being, for whom immortality is a natural offshoot of my nature; I am a creature who attains immortality only through God’s grace. God has created me for his specific purpose. I am part of His divine plan. It is not my inherent nature, but the love of my creator, who allows me to participate in His immortality. If you asked the Christian does he believe in afterlife he would not reply ‘yes, because, like every other being, I am part of the universal immortal reality the totality of which is God’; I would say: ‘Yes, I must have an afterlife because God created me in order to fulfill His loving plan that I have discerned for me in this present life’. Pantheism sees the identity of God with all creation, Monotheism (including Christianity) insists on the Otherness of God, a being totally different from anyone else because he is the Creator and all else are his creatures. We as Christians differ from God in a radical way because we owe our existence to Him.
But if he created us, and continues to create us by sustaining our life, then he must love us, and we must be part of His plan. The first questions and answers of my Catholic school catechism put it beautifully: ‘Who made you’, ‘God made me’ . ‘Why did God make you?’ ‘God made me to love and serve him in this world and be happy with Him for ever in the next’. The calling is highly personal, just as God is personal.
But now, thus says Yahweh, who created you, Jacob, who formed you, Israel: do not be afraid, for I have redeemed you, I have called you by your name, you are mine. Should you pass through the sea, I will be with you; or through rivers, they will not swallow you up. Should you walk through fire, you will not be scorched and the flames will not burn you. For I am Yahweh, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your saviour….
But if God loves us, and has a plan for us, then he cannot allow us not to exist after our death. It is inconceivable that a loving God would bring us into being and then, after 70 or 80 years, discard his creation like a plaything, toss it into a grave or a furnace like a dead rat. A month ago my mother died, and in the last few weeks I have been sifting though her things, including all the hundreds of weekly letters we exchanged almost without interruption, from my 9th to my 16th year. Most of them I have had to throw away. Indeed, most of her clothes, her personal things, have found their way to black bin bags. But as I discard them I think of all that life, that love, that intensity of emotion which we identify with those we cherish, shrinking into a few keepsakes, while the rest ends on the scrap heap. If there was no life after death, that whole rich, loveable, complex being would also be a lifeless scrap. Such an outcome would be , for me, an obscenity, an outrage. For God to allow death to be final would be like a self-centred mother who brings a child into the world, sees her offspring through the hazards of infancy and the trials of adolescence and maturity, and then lets it die when she could have prevented it. If there is no life after death then it would be inconsistent with everything that we know of a loving personal God, who cherishes us with far greater care than any parent. ‘Jesus breathed loving courage into his disciples in Matthew 10: 29: ‘Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father. But the very hairs on your head are all numbered. Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows’ .
The Christian hope of an after-life is dependent not only on the idea of a loving and all powerful God, but also on the fact of Christ’s birth, death and Resurrection. God showed his love to us by creating us, and preparing a plan for our salvation; but also by sending Himself to suffer with us, to be a witness to His love. However we interpret the Resurrection, we recognize it as the basis for our hope of the everlasting life. As St Paul put it in I Corinthians, 15: 3-8: ‘If there is no resurrection of the dead, Christ himself cannot have been raised, and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is useless and your believing it is useless’. Christ’s suffering is our ransom. ‘The wage paid by sin is death’, says St Paul in Romans, ‘the gift given by God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord‘. The Resurrection is the final confirmation of that gift, the touchstone of our conviction that a loving God will not allow our oblivion after death.
Poetry is better than prose in these matters, for we are dealing with concepts that cannot be understood literally. Ideas like ‘immortality’ or ‘eternal life’ are hardly graspable except in figurative language. So let me end with one of the most powerful poems about Death and Resurrection, about the power of Christ’s Redemption to bring us to share in God’s immortality. It is by the mid-19th century Jesuit priest Gerard Manly Hopkins , a poet I talked about in an earlier Lent course. This poem I never managed to sqeeze into the programme, and I am glad, because it is far more relevant here and now. It is called That Nature is a Heraclitian Fire and of the comfort of the Resurrection.
Hopkins’ greatest religious verse is, as some of you may remember, built up according to a standard format: the first two thirds of the poem consists of the rapturous and ecstatic description of nature (the hawk, woods, landscapes etc), followed by a meditation on nature as the manifestation of God’s creative goodness. But this poem is not about Christian nature but Greek, not about Christ’s inhabiting and creating nature, but Heraclitus’ very different concept of the natural world. Heraclitus, a 6th century Greek philosopher, believed that all things were in state of flux (‘you never put your arm in the same river twice’), and that the single principle of this mobility was fire, which cased strife and differentiation. This is not a Christian view of divinely-ordered nature, but a darker, more tragic Greek sense of nature as an impersonal battle between the elements, air changing into fire, fire changing into water, water into earth, and then the process reversing, with all tings ultimately resolving into fire. The poem suggests these transmutations with Hopkins’s charcteristic power and startling eccentricity of expression - light scorching, winds levelling, heat transforming liquid to dust. And that dust is also of human remains, for the human body and soul are themselves cyclic manifestations of the various forms taken by the basic, rational and intelligent principle of fire. mankind is inevitably caught up in this maelstrom The poem suggests Hopkins’ familiarity not only with Heraclitus, but with other pre-Socratic Greek philosophers and their cosmologies: Empedocles, Parmenides, Thales and Anaximenes, all of them singling out other constituents of the cosmos, including earth, air and water. Why did Hopkins, the heir to the Romantic landscape poets of the previous generation, and the orthodox Catholic priest, turn from the safety of his Christian idea of a benevolent nature to face this classical explanation of the natural world, this turmoil of Godless powers? It was not just because he was a fine classical scholar with a first in Greats from Oxford. I suspect that it was borne out of the terrible loneliness and depression of that stage of his life. In 1888, when he wrote it, he was professor of Classics at University College Dublin, a place he hated. No company, no friends, unsympathetic students, too much paper work, and no prospect of lifting the ban the Jesuit order had imposed on the publication of his verse. He was alone and in exile. Indeed, he was to die, tragically young, a few months after the completion of this sonnet. I think he turned to the classics as a challenge, as a way of facing the worst cosmology he could thihnk of, and then pitting against it all the consoling forces of his Christianity and Catholicism. And this is what the poem does. It starts on familiar ground with a rapturous description of clouds, wind and sharp light which I always associate with March and April. It then moves into the darker world of disgust, mindless change, and human death. And then, as an act of Resurrection that is as much the poem’s as the poem’s subject, it ends on a triumphant note of glory in Christ’s Resurrection, as the guarentee of Hopkins’ own resurrection from suffering and death. More than any other religious poem it assures us that God’s love for us as persons, chosen and created by him, will - through this vale of tears - draw us to eternal life.