Disproving science when it comes to an afterlife

  • May 23, 2013

In his first letter to Christian converts living at Corinth, St. Paul told them that death was “the last enemy” but, take heart, a defeated enemy. For two millennia the Church has proclaimed and pondered this message — but what does it mean? What happens to us after death?

Since death is the only certainty in life, this is a crucial question, yet it is a question more frequently avoided than asked. In the chatter at cocktail parties, you may be sure that death is not the subject under discussion. People seem embarrassed to discuss death, much like a generation ago they would have been embarrassed by a frank discussion of sex.

Even the Church has largely fallen silent about death and the afterlife. If pressed at a funeral, a priest might respond with a platitude (“He’s with God now”) but what comes after death is a subject seldom explored even from the pulpit. Why is this?

Partly, perhaps, because the idea of an afterlife has come under scientific and philosophical attack.

Cosmologists tell us there is no place in the known universe for heaven or hell. Neuroscientists tell us there is no soul and that human beings are just neural bundles and circuits; when the brain stops, it’s all over. But perhaps the most important explanation is that today most Christians have become, in all practical and measurable ways, naturalists.

Naturalism is the view that nothing exists beyond what we can see or touch. The philosopher John Hick put it this way: “Naturalism has created the ‘consensus reality’ of our culture. It has become so ingrained that we no longer see it, but see everything through it.”

Into this naturalist vacuum steps Terence Nichols, professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn. His recent book Afterlife: A Theological Introduction addresses the ultimate questions about human destiny as he explains what the Church, for two millennia, has taught about death and what comes after. And he examines how the teachings of the Church stand up in light of contemporary science. The book makes some intellectual demands on the lay reader but it is well worth the effort.

Nichols expands three main themes.

First, far from disproving traditional Christian teaching on the afterlife some recent discoveries (e.g. near-death experiences and quantum physics) tend to confirm it. Moreover, the existence of the soul, bodily resurrection, heaven and hell — these are not matters susceptible of disproof by science. Matters of faith they are, but a faith not antithetical to reason.

The second theme is the need to prepare for death. One who wishes to die well (which Nichols simply but beautifully defines as “dying into God”) must prepare in advance. This means conversion, forgiveness, prayer and self discipline. “I tell my students,” Nichols writes, “that dying is like graduation. If you have prepared well it is the gateway into a brighter future. But if you have not prepared, or have prepared poorly, it can be a terrible failure.”

Nichols’ third theme is Christian hope. However successful one’s earthly life, no one escapes disappointments, failures, regrets, losses and estrangements. The Book of Ecclesiastes says of life: “All is vanity and a chasing after wind.” But the hope of the Christian for the next life is different. True, the Bible provides only sparse clues and tantalizing hints of what is yet to come, but the Bible states clearly that the next life involves communion with God in the company of the saints. That is heaven.

Of course every element of the Christian faith is dependent on one single event — the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Those Churches that have ceased to proclaim the Resurrection of Christ wither and die. The empty tomb is the beginning and the end of Christian hope. If Christ be not raised from the dead then our hope is in vain, as St. Paul affirmed.

One of the most valuable features of this book is Nichols’ careful exploration of the Gospel accounts of the Resurrection of Jesus and what this can teach us about the final Resurrection at the end of time.

Those who have never feared or wondered about their own death and what comes after, those who persist in an attitude of denial, will ignore this book. Those who take the time to read and ponder it will find it engrossing and informative.

(Hunter is Professor Emeritus in the Faculty of Law at Western University.)

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