Life, Death, and the Afterlife

Is physical death the annihilation of the human person, or is some kind of afterlife possible or desirable? In this chapter let us consider several related topics dealing with the nature of divine action. We begin with the possibility and value of an afterlife, and then, as most (but not all) beliefs in an afterlife involve divine action, the topic of miracles. Some philosophers have pursued the problem of evil into the next life, arguing against the existence of God on the grounds that it is evil for God to damn persons or condemn persons to hell, and this requires an exploration of the concepts of redemption and salvation. One possible theistic response to the problem of evil is to argue that God will bring about universal salvation for all and this raises questions about the relationship between religions, particularly whether different religions could be different but equally valid paths to the sacred or the divine.

Is Life After Death Possible?

One reason for thinking the answer must be “no” is that human persons are not just embodied beings (persons having bodies) but we are bodies. If our bodies are destroyed, we are destroyed. After all, if you are your body, then whatever happens to your body, happens to you. The most radical response to this position is to argue that in fact such a materialist position is mistaken. Let us therefore consider whether an alternative to materialism is credible, but before doing so, let us take seriously the idea that there might be an afterlife even if it turns out we are thoroughly material beings.

One of the more unusual developments in the contemporary philosophy of religion is the number of Christian philosophers who subscribe to some form of materialism and yet hold that there is an afterlife. Peter van Inwagen, Lynne Baker, Trenton Merricks, Bruce Reichenbach, and Kevin Corcoran all hold that while God is a nonphysical purposive being, we are exclusively physical. Traditionally, Christians have tended to believe in the soul as an immaterial center for personal identity, though there are notable exceptions (Terullian and Thomas Hobbes) and Thomas Aquinas  affirmed the unity of soul and body in this life. In any case, some contemporary Christian philosophers  believe that a materialist view of persons is better able to account for the Christian view that the death of persons is bad and the incarnation of God as an embodied being is good. Let us consider their positive case for an afterlife.

Christian materialists tend to adopt one of four models for an afterlife: resurrection, replication, re-creation, and re-constitution.

The resurrection model. On this model (which seems anchored in the New Testament), a person’s body may dissolve and, from our vantage point, become scattered through time and space. Parts of our bodies may even become parts of other bodies. It still remains possible, if there is an omnipotent God, that a core identity of our body might again be brought together at a later time (the resurrection) to constitute the person.

This does not seem impossible. The disassembly and reassembly of material objects seems straightforward. Trenton Merricks comments on this option with an example:

Consider…a watch that is disassembled, perhaps for cleaning. Suppose that, as a result, it ceases to exist. Suppose further that when its parts are reassembled, that watch comes back into existence. The watch thus traverses a temporal gap. Of course, the watch example is controversial. But the claim that the watch jumps through time via disassembly and reassembly—even if it makes questionable assumptions here and there—is at least coherent. It is not contradictory or obviously absurd. It is not, for example, like the claim that one has found a round square in one’s pocket, next to the number seven. (Merricks 2001, 184–5)

The resurrection model may be vexed by a question about just what parts of your body are essential to identity. God might use parts of you to “resurrect” what appears to be you, but what if God were to make three of you? Would there produce just one  “real you” and two replicas? If so, which two would be the replicas? These questions may not reveal insuperable difficulties, but they invite some alternative models.

The Replica Model: While some worry about the possibility of replication confusing personal identity, some philosophers seem to think replication is promising. John Hick introduces his speculative account of an afterlife by describing someone who disappears from a gathering in London and instantly appears at a similar gathering in New York:

The person who appears in New York is exactly similar, as to both bodily and mental characteristics, to the person who disappears in London. There is continuity of memory, complete similarity of bodily features, including fingerprints, hair and eye coloration and stomach contents, and also of beliefs, habits and mental propensities. In fact there is everything that would lead us to identify the one who appeared with the one who disappeared, except continuous occupancy of space. (Hick 1978, 280)

He then changes the thought experiment to involve the death of the person in London and the person’s reappearance in New York as a “replica” (Hick 1978, 284).

Hick may be right that under these conditions we would identify the person in New York as the same person who died, but there remains the problem that personal identity seems to involve more than replication. Brian Davies presents a forceful challenge by imagining that you have poisoned the person in London.

But, you say: ‘Don’t worry. I’ve arranged for a replica of you to appear. The replica will seem to have all your memories. He will be convinced that he is you. And he will look exactly like you. He will even have your fingerprints.’ Should I be relieved? Speaking for myself, I would not be in the slightest bit relieved. Knowing that a replica of myself will be enjoying himself somewhere is not to know that I shall be doing so. For the continued existence of a person, more is required than replication. (Davies 2004, 300)

Hick might reply that Davies is simply adopting at the outset the view that replication is not identity, whereas in many cases we are prepared to accept replication as a kind of identity. One can have multiple performances of the same poem or symphony or photograph, each of which may be said to be an authentic, identifiable example of the poem, symphony, or photograph. Perhaps being a person might be like being a computer program that could be “down loaded” into a body and, if it was your program, the resulting person would have all you memories, desired, beliefs, and so on. But, arguably, persons seem to be individual being rather than programs or a score that might be played by different musicians. Christian materialists can also consider two additional models.

The Re-creation model: Some Christian materialists believe God can and will recreate persons after they perish. On this view, your death truly involves your ceasing to be and yet at the appointed time, God brings you back into existence. Persons have a unique essence or individuality, so God re-creates you rather than a replica.

This is sometimes thought to involve “gap inclusive” continuity, according to which you can endure over time despite the fact that (for a short time) you ceased to exist. Merricks appeals to what might be called the uniqueness of divine creation. Imagine that God did create you. In doing so, God created you instead of some exact replica. If God created you at some time, can’t God recreate you at another? Merricks writes:

To do this, God didn’t need to make use of matter that had previously been mine, for none had. To do this, God didn’t need to secure my continuity, for [sic] any kind of continuity at all, with something I had previously been continuous with, because I hadn’t previously been. And if God could see to it that I—not just somebody or other—came into existence the first time around, what’s to preclude God from doing it again, years after my cremation. (Merricks 2001, 197)

          The idea that each individual person has an essence has some credibility. It seems plausible that each person has an essential core identity. Each of us appears to have what philosophers have called a quidity (a this-ness) that is inviolable. If so, perhaps Merriks is correct and we need not worry that the person recreated after  would be a mere replica.

There is at least one other option that does not need to be vexed by reassembly or recreation divine acts.

The Re-constitution model: Lynne Baker has adopted a constitutional model of personhood. According to Baker, human persons are constituted by their bodies without being identical with them. An analogy that is often used is that statues are constituted by pieces of marble, copper or bronze, but they are not identical with the substances that constitute them. Baker writes: “A person is not a separate thing from the constituting body, any more than a statue is a separate thing from the constituting block of marble” (Baker 2000, 91). Because constitution is not identity, Baker contends that one can maintain both that persons are physical currently (they are composed of an exclusively physical body) and that they may survive the perishing of this body. Her position may seem puzzling at first, but in a common sense context we can readily distinguish between constitution and identity. The marble making up Michelangelo’s statue David can be seen as a distinct object, for one could destroy the statue but still have the marble. Imagine you reconstruct the marble as Mickey Mouse and Michelangelo’s masterpiece would be replaced by a Walt Disney character. Arguably, you might also slowly, over time, replace all the marble making up David until all the original marble was gone and yet the statue remained. These types of alterations suggest to Baker that a person might survive the desolation of her body.

The constitution view can offer those who believe in immaterial souls…almost everything that they want—without the burden of making sense of how there can be immaterial souls in the natural world. For example, human persons can survive change of body; truths about persons are not exhausted by truths about bodies; persons have causal powers that their bodies would not have if they did not constitute persons; there is a fact of the matter about which, if any future person is I…. The constitution view allows that a person’s resurrection body may be nonidentical with her earthly body. According to the constitution view, it is logically possible that a person have different bodies at different times; whether anyone ever changes bodies or not, the logical possibility is built into the constitution view. (Baker 2005, 387)

Baker seems to offer the logical possibility of survival without abandoning a materialist stance that, prior to death, human persons are composed of their physical bodies.

If any of these alternatives turn out to be possible, and not known to be false, then observing a human person dying is not ipso facto to knowingly observe a person ceasing to be and there being no afterlife for that person. While these materialist views have the advantage of according well with contemporary philosophy of mind (which tends to be materialist), some non-materialist accounts of persons and consciousness still have a credible claim to be taken seriously. Let us consider a non-materialist perspective, and then explore the relevance of a belief in an afterlife for the problem of evil.

One of the problems facing materialism is that it seems (at least until now) not capable of overcoming the apparently unique, nonphysical character of consciousness and subjective experience. No observations or theories of the brain seem to reveal that consciousness is the very same thing as brain activity. We seem to be fully conscious, experiencing beings and yet it is not at all clear that consciousness and experience is identical with bodily states. We may have an exhaustive awareness of a person’s purely physical states and processes and yet (without their testimony or the reliance of the testimony of others to establish correlation) have no idea of the person’s consciousness or experiences. Clearly, a person’s consciousness and experience are causally bound up with bodily states. Injury to the brain causes a rupture or termination of consciousness, but causal dependence and the correlation of bodily states and consciousness are not necessarily cases of when there is an identity between consciousness and bodily states.

Consider the testimony of two materialists. They each do not accept a version of what is called dualism (there is a nonphysical soul), and they are each frustrated by materialism. Colin McGinn writes of the apparent disparity of consciousness and physical things and processes.

The property of consciousness itself (or specific conscious states) is not an observable or perceptible property of the brain. You can stare into a living conscious brain, your own or someone else’s, and see there a wise variety of instantiated properties—its shape, colour, texture, etc.—but you will not thereby see what the subject is experiencing, the conscious state itself. (McGinn 1990, 10–11)

Consider now Michael Lockwood’s observations about materialism:

Let me begin by nailing my colours to the mast. I count myself a materialist, in the sense that I take consciousness to be a species of brain activity. Having said that, however, it seems to me evident that no description of brain activity of the relevant kind, couched in the currently available languages of physics, physiology, or functional or computational roles, is remotely capable of capturing what is distinctive about consciousness. So glaring, indeed, are the shortcomings of all the reductive programmes currently on offer, that I cannot believe that anyone with a philosophical training, looking dispassionately at these programmes, would take any of them seriously for a moment, were it not for a deep-seated conviction that current physical science has essentially got reality taped, and accordingly, something along the lines of what the reductionists are offering must be correct. To that extent, the very existence of consciousness seems to me to be a standing demonstration of the explanatory limitations of contemporary physical science. (Lockwood, 2003, 446)

          Thomas Nagel and other philosophers might be cited about the difficulty of accounting for consciousness in a materialist framework. Materialism, then, is not without its problems. And some of the reasons for resisting a more expansive account of persons seems to be indecisive.

It used to be thought that if one believed persons or minds or souls or consciousness were nonphysical, then one could not account for the causal interaction of the mental and the physical. This objection seemed to have force so long as one assumed we have a stable model of physical causation, but increasingly it appears that contemporary physics allows for action at a distance and the positing of basic physical causal powers. If there can be basic (i.e., not further-explainable) causal powers on the physical level, why not in the nonphysical realm? Moreover, there is no reason to think that dualism violates any known principle in physics such as the conservation of energy. Although a materialist, David Rosenthal contends that materialism is not justified because dualism violates a conservation principle.

Although the character of physics underlies one major argument, a specific principle of physics is sometimes thought to show that dualism is wrong. That principle states that in a closed physical system (that is, closed to other physical systems) the total energy remains constant. But if mental events are nonphysical, then, when mental events cause bodily events, physical motion occurs uncaused by anything physical. And then, it seems, would result in an increase in the total energy in the relevant closed physical system. Mental causation of bodily events would conflict with the principle of the conservation of energy.

No such problem arises, even if dualism is true, when bodily events cause mental events. When bodily events cause mental events, presumably they cause other physical events as well, which enables energy to be conserved.…

          But [also,] the dualist need not adopt the unintuitive idea that mental events never cause bodily events. Conservation of energy dictates only that the energy in a closed physical system is constant, not also how that energy is distributed within the system. Since mental events could effect bodily changes by altering that distribution of energy, the conservation principle does not preclude minds’ having bodily effects. (Rosenthal 1998)

The entry “Materialism” in the prestigious The Oxford Companion to Philosophy captures the new, less-settled conviction that materialism is the simple philosophy of choice today:

Photons and neutrons have little or no mass, and neither do fields, while particles pop out of the void, destroy each other, and pop back in again. All this, however, has had remarkably little overt effect on the various philosophical views that can be dubbed ‘materialism’, though one might think it shows at least that materialism is not the simple no-nonsense, tough-minded alternative it might once have seemed to be. (Honderich 1995, 530)

          The current move to question the hegemony of materialism has led today to a partial revival of dualism. While I defined dualism above as the view that there is a nonphysical soul, much more needs to be said.

“Dualism” is most sympathetically defined as the thesis that there is more to persons than the physical. If consciousness or the person is more than a physical body, then some form of dualism is right. (As an aside, the way some define “dualism,” the term implies that the mind alone is valuable and the body is a mere appendage. None of this need be associated with the view that there is more to persons than bodies.) Those who go so far as to claim that the person is a substantial reality that can survive the destruction of the body are generally called substance dualists. While it may be natural to claim that these dualists hold that a person is a nonphysical soul, it is vital to appreciate that these dualists can affirm that in a healthy, embodied life the person is a functional unity; in other words, provided my body truly expresses my agency and is a suitable organ of sensory-perceptive awareness of myself and the world, to see my body is to see me. The soul need not be viewed as some spooky thing lurking behind or above the body. Only when the body and mind break down does there come about a division. If I were to lose all motor control and feeling except, say, to shake my head, my visibility or self-expression would shrink to only a partial embodiment.

Substance dualism provides a framework for a belief in an afterlife and has been largely the philosophy of choice by theists historically. It is also a view adopted by some nontheistic philosophers who believe in reincarnation. Let us consider one reason for embracing substance dualism that directly pertains to the afterlife. This is often called the Model Argument. There are four premises.

The first is a statement of what philosophers call the indiscernability of identicals.

  • If A is B, whatever is true of A is true of B.

This premise seems sensible. Take any number of identity statements: Mark Twain is Samuel Clemmons, the Evening Star is the Morning Star, and Water is H2O. If there is a genuine identity between the two, whatever is true of one is true of the other. So, to see Mark Twin is to see Samuel Clemmons, the Morning Star is the planet Venus and so is the Evening Star, and to drink water is to drink H2O.

The second premise applies the first premise to the person-body relationship.

  • If a person is his body, whatever is true of the person is true of his body.

This seems to be right, in my view. If I turn out to be my body (or my living body) then if my body weighs so many pounds or stones, then that is what I weigh.

The third premise involves an affirmation of a possible state of affairs.

  • It is possible that a person can exist without his body and it is possible that his body can exist without the person.

This premise does not advance the claim that persons ever actually survive their bodies or their bodies survive the annihilation of persons. Imagine there is no afterlife. Even so, is an afterlife conceivable after the demise of one’s body? It appears that we may imagine a person dying, the body perishing, and then surviving either in a disembodied state or in another body. (In this case we are imaging the afterlife on dualist terms, so to gain a new body would involve a person switching bodies rather than a person being replaced by a physical replica.) Novels like Charles William’s Ash Wednesday have narratives of such survival and people have actually reported having out-of-the-body experiences (OBEs). Let’s again imagine that all OBEs can be accounted for chemically and none of the novelistic portraits of an afterlife are true. They still seem to be coherent. If we have no positive reason for thinking these states of affairs are impossible and we seem to be able to conceive of or picture or describe them, isn’t it reasonable to believe they are possible?

Because of the importance and controversial nature of the 3rd premise, let us not move ahead too quickly. Substantial intuitive support for premise 3 can be generated by the way we tend to view death. At the time of death, we usually do not think of the deceased’s body as the person himself, but as a corpse or “remains.” If, however, the person is identical with the body itself, then it seems that the person is still there after death (unless the body is annihilated). One may seek to avoid this by claiming that being a person is a fully functioning human animal body, and once the functioning has ceased then the animal body has since ceased being a person. But this outlook seems puzzling, given the way we think of ourselves as subjects or selves. It appears (in ordinary experience) you and I are individual beings and not modes of some other reality like an animal body. This will be called into question when we look at Buddhism in the next chapter, but at this stage I suggest that as long as we see ourselves as concrete individual beings who endure over time, then we do not appear to be a function or activity of something else. An analogy may be useful. We may speak of events like dances as though they are things or individuals (e.g. I enjoyed the dance last night), but a dance is not so much a thing, but a way people move. If being a person is a way the body moves, thinks, feels…then being a person is not being an individual. And, arguably, that seems quite counter-intuitive. Our sense of ourselves as individual subjects is further vindicated by the fact that we understand ourselves as the same person over long periods of time despite the fact that our bodies change radically, with the loss and replacement of cells.

If the above premises are reasonable, we can move to:

  • There is something true of a person but not true of his body.

And the conclusion is:

  • A person is not identical with his body.

A version of this argument was developed by René Descartes (1596–1650) and it has defenders as well as opponents today.

Let us consider four objections and replies.

The argument begs the question: Don’t you have to already be a substance dualist to accept the third premise? After all, if you really believed the person is his body, why would you accept premise 3?

Reply: If you already know the person is his body, premise 3 and 4 will not be plausible, though many materialists concede that 3 seems coherent and seek to explain why they can explain the apparent contingency of the person-body relationship. Of special interest are those materialists who actually accept 1 through 4 and yet resist substance dualism. As noted earlier, Lynne Baker, for example, believes that persons are composed of their bodies, and persons are not (now) nonphysical but they can become nonphysical. Is her view plausible? There is some reason to doubt that her constitution view is able to secure persons switching from a physical to nonphysical constitution. After all, it seems implausible for some objects to persist through radical transformations.  Would we say that the statue David persists if substituted by some kind of nonphysical stuff (mental images or a hallucination)?  This seems doubtful and, similarly it has been objected that it is implausible to believe a physical person could survive with a substituted nonphysical “body” (Zimmerman 2003, 340).  Be that as it may, Baker’s case indicates why the argument does not necessarily beg the question because she accepts the premises but tries (unsuccessfully, in my view) to avoid the conclusion.

A further reply is that if one is not already committed to “person = body” identity, the thought experiment of imagining 3 can have as philosophically respectable a role as most philosophical analyses. In a typical argument in ethics, for example, a philosopher may advance the thesis that the property of goodness is the very same thing as the property being pleasurable. A typical counter-example is then produced when it appears that we can imagine a state of affairs in which there is pleasure and no goodness or there is goodness and no pleasure. Such lines of reasoning help bring to light our awareness of values. Similarly, the person-body separability thought experiment can elucidate our grasp of ourselves and bodies.

Objection: The argument is only about concepts! Rather than establish person-body distinctness, the argument can only show that our concept of a person differs from our concept of our body. This seems very modest indeed. My concept of the Morning Star may differ from my concept of the Evening Star and yet it turns out both concepts refer to the same thing.

Reply: This objection would, if successful, undermine much ordinary, fully respectable reasoning. I can conceive of myself existing without the Eiffel Tower. Surely, this is a reason to believe in the distinctness of myself and that global icon of France, and not merely a reason to think my concept of myself and the Eiffel Tower are distinct.

Objection to the first premise: In some cases it fails. For example, George W. Bush is the 43rd president of the United States, but not everything that is true of Bush is true of the 43rd president. For example, the 43rd president might have been Al Gore but this is not true of Bush.

Reply: This apparent counter-example only works if the term “43rd president of the United States” is treated as a general title for whoever happens to hold it. But if the term is not used as a general title but specifically to pick out the person who actually is the 43rd president, then whatever is true of Bush is true of the 43rd president. (Note, too, that reference to you as a person or to your body is not a reference using a general title.)

For a fourth objection, let us consider a religious reason to resist substance dualism, as this will naturally lead into a section on the value or significance of an afterlife. Christian materialists have argued that substance dualism is unable to account for the evil and horror of death. Trenton Merricks thinks materialists can more effectively see death as an enemy, rather than a release of a soul (Merricks 1999, 284-285)

Peter van Inwagen has a similar objection:  Materialism entails that death is dreadful. “When I think of the fact that I shall one day be composed of dead flesh, it is then that I appreciate the full power of the words of the medieval song: Timor mortis conturbat me (“The fear of death torments me”). (van Inwagen 1998, 63–4)

Reply: One can certainly be a substance dualist and a non-Christian (Peter Unger is a good contemporary example of a dualist who is an atheist) and so these objections need not detain all dualists. One might also be a substance dualist and hold that the person perishes along with the body. But addressing the objection more directly, one can be a substance dualist and hold that physical embodiment is a basic good. Arguably, having a life of integrated mental and physical processes is both itself good and the grounds for other great goods (e.g., making love, procreating, embracing…). One may also turn the objection around: dualism offers a philosophy in which death is not essentially a matter of a person coming to be “composed of dead flesh.” Death in Christian philosophical theology is indeed bad, but it has also been seen as a transition to further life that, while it could be bad, may be quite good indeed.

I conclude this section with the claim that there are some plausible accounts of the afterlife given materialism, and if a non-materialist view of persons is coherent and credible, it, too, can offer an account of a person’s survival of death.

What is the point of an afterlife?

Some atheists and theists believe that any conceivable afterlife is religiously and morally empty. Grace Jantzen writes:

One might argue that only if it (the afterlife) is, is God just: the sufferings of this present can only be justified by the compensation of eternal life. But this, in the first place, is shocking theodicy: it is like saying that I may beat my dog at will provided that I later give him a dish of his favorite liver chowder. What happens after death—no matter how welcome—does not make present evil good. (Jantzen 1984, 40)

To some extent, Jantzen seems right, especially about the afterlife functioning in terms of compensation or justification. But what about the concept of redemption, alluded to in the last chapter?

Imagine a case of radical wrong-doing like murder. If there is no afterlife, the dead are extinguished forever. There is no room for confession, restitution, forgiveness and mercy. It is because an afterlife may permit such goods that many see an afterlife as an essential condition for the fulfillment of the purposes of an all-good God. In “Jewish Faith and the Holocaust,” Dan Cohn-Sherbok writes:

Yet without this belief, it is simply impossible to make sense of the world as the creation of an all-good and all-powerful God. Without the eventual vindication of the righteous in Paradise, there is no way to sustain the belief in a providential God who watches over His chosen people. The essence of the Jewish understanding of God is that He loves His chosen people. If death means extinction, there is no way to make sense of the claim that He loves and cherishes all those who died in the concentration camps—suffering and death would ultimately triumph over each of those who perished. But if there is eternal life in a World to Come, then there is hope that the righteous will share in a divine life. (Cohn-Sherbok 1990, 292–293)

          One of the reasons why Jantzen does not see great value in an afterlife seems to stem from a narrow conception of what such a life might involve. She writes:

A paradise of sensuous delights would become boring, it would in the long run be pointless and utterly unfulfilling. We can perhaps imagine ways of making a very long feast meaningful; we do, after all, cope with lengthy terrestrial social occasions by choosing interesting conversational partners, and making the dinner occasions not merely for food and drink but also for stimulating discussion and for giving and receiving friendship the value of which extends beyond the termination of the dinner. But if the feasting literally never came to an end, if there were no progress possible from the sensuous enjoyment of paradise to anything more meaningful, then we might well wish, like Elina Macropolis to terminate the whole business and destroy the elixir of youth. (Jantzen 1984, 34–5)

Jantzen also resists the moral significance of an afterlife on the grounds that it may lead to reducing our central goal, which should be to seek fulfillment for ourselves and others in this life.

If we could go on pursuing an endless series of projects, it might not matter very much which ones we chose first: we could always do others later. Nor would it matter how vigorously we pursued them—for there would always be more time—nor how challenging they were or how well they developed us and brought out the best in us—for there would always be other opportunities. But if fulfillment is something which must be reached in this life if it is to be reached at all, we will be far less cavalier about the choices we make affecting our own fulfillment, and also, very importantly, in our relationships with others for whose fulfillment we are partly responsible. (Jantzen 1984, 36)

Several replies may be promising.

First, most religious adherents to belief in an afterlife hold that if we neglect or harm the fulfillment (or well-being) of others and ourselves in this life, the consequences in a next life may be hellish. They also hold that even if all will be saved in the end, and opportunities for atonement extend into the next life, any idea that this would make one more relaxed in terms of good and evil would be a profound perversion. Perhaps the point can be made clearer in light of the belief that heaven and hell begin in this life. The afterlife is a continuation and transformation of the present. In this framework, for someone to be cavalier about pursuing good would be the equivalent of someone who is cavalier about creating their own hell.

Second, while it may be that feasting and other good activities may lose their goodness if they extend beyond a certain temporal period, are all goods so exhausted? What about the good of being a person? The good of a person’s body may give out, but if a person is able to endure and delight in the goodness of endless variety (bonum variationis), it is not clear there would be any natural end point. I return to this point below.

Third, most religious metaphors for an afterlife (like feasting) are metaphors pointing to a good that goes beyond what we may conceive of now. Christians, for example, refer to the Beatific vision—an experiential awareness of God—as an overwhelming, great good. Marilyn Adams proposes that an intimate relationship with God (which may begin in this life and extend into the next) may be a good that is incommensurate (incomparable) with any created good.

The worst evils demand to be defeated by the best goods. Horrendous evils can be overcome only by the goodness of God. Relative to human nature, participation in horrendous evils and loving intimacy with God are alike disproportionate: for the former threatens to engulf the good in an individual human life with evil, while the latter guarantees the reverse engulfment of evil by good. Relative to one another, there is also disproportion, because the good that God is, and intimate relationship with Him, is incommensurate with created goods and evils alike. Because intimacy with God so outscales relations (good or bad) with any creatures, integration into the human person’s relationship with God confers significant meaning and positive value even on horrendous suffering. This result coheres with basic Christian intuition: that the powers of darkness are stronger than humans, but they are no match for God. (M. Adams, in R. and M. Adams [eds] 1990, 220)

This understanding of goods goes far beyond Jentzen’s survey of possible heavenly goods.

Apropos the problem of evil, the afterlife seems to provide a way of salvation beyond this world. But before we address such a possibility, let us consider the concept of the miraculous. Some concepts of the afterlife appear to involve special divine agency. Can it ever be plausible to believe in miracles?

At least two lines of reasoning came into play in thinking about good and evil and the afterlife. One may be referred to as the argument from love and the second the problem of restitution.

The Argument from Love: There may be different forms of love (familial, romantic, friendship, and so on) but uniting most of them seems to the fact that when we love χ (whatever it may be) we seem to approve or take pleasure in χ. In the case of persons, this may be most clear: if I love you, I must in some way approve and take pleasure in your welfare. Conversely, I must disapprove of, or sorrow in, your harm. Of course, we can imagine circumstances that may complicate this thesis. Perhaps your undergoing a harm is in some way good for you and so disapproval and sorrow are not called for. But setting aside such factors, consider this question: if we have reason to believe God loves persons, do we have reason to believe persons will have an afterlife? I suggest there is some reason to answer this positively. Earlier I suggested (contra Jantzen) that while the good or value of a physical body may be exhausted, it is less clear that the good or value of a person may be exhausted. Imagine a person you love is dying but you have the power to heal her and to provide for her an arena in which to enjoy love and an abundance of goods. Unless we import to this thought experiment some peculiar additional factors (e.g., healing the person will cause others to die), then I believe love would lead one to effect the transformation. If love would lead us to take such action, wouldn’t divine love (combined with omnipotent power) do that and more?

The Problem of Restitution: Another religious and moral rationale behind the value of an afterlife arises in the course of reconciliation. When one person harms another, there seems to be a series of steps that, ideally, contribute to reconciliation. The wrong-doer should confess the wrong and offer credible evidence of remorse along with a repudiation of any benefits received as a result of the wrong (e.g., return the money stolen). Presumably, too, the wrong-doer needs to develop new beliefs, desires, and intentions so as to provide evidence that the wrong-doer genuinely repents and seriously resolves not to do such an act again. Many other factors may have to come into play (perhaps punishment) and, ideally, the one wronged will need to accept the confession, among other things, but the crucial step that would need to take place in an ideal case is a restoration or full healing of the one harmed. Unfortunately, in human affairs this is nearly impossible. Even in the case of trivial matters (I give a boring lecture and waste the time of my students) I can never restore to them that time. They will never be that young again! In more grave matters, the case is more evident. Imagine someone murdered your partner or sibling or child. The murderer may confess, repent, and so on, but he will not be able to do that which might centrally reverse the harm done: bring back the partner, sibling, or child to a full life of flourishing.

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have addressed this universal human predicament with the teaching that what humans cannot do, God can. So each religion has fostered a model of human reconciliation with other creatures and God that involves repentance and an active plea that God will mercifully heal creation. For Jews and Muslims who adopt this theology, salvation comes through God’s restorative and omnipotent power, whereas Christians believe that this divine restorative omnipotent power is mediated and defended through the incarnation, Jesus Christ. Such restoration is not believed to justify the past wrong or to eliminate the fact that evil has occurred in creation. Divine restoration is rather best seen as a form of transforming (a combination of salvaging and healing) a damaged creation into a state of atonement (literally at one-ment) with the nature of God. Judaism and Islam have historically rejected the diea that this restoration involved an incarnation, whereas Christians see the incarnation as the highest event and vehicle of divine redemption.