What will life after death — assuming there will be an afterlife — be like? Historically, the concept of life after death has evolved. Very early in human history, people apparently had some sort of belief in life after death. Often, early human beings would place tools in the graves of their dead, apparently reflecting a belief that the tools would be useful to the dead person in the next life. In addition, Egyptian pharaohs were buried with many precious items and food; indeed, they were buried with every item that would supposedly be needed in an afterlife.
Traditional ancient Greek beliefs about death were bleak. The ancient Greeks believed there was a world — Hades — where the dead went to live, but it was a gloomy world. In The Odyssey, the Greek hero Odysseus went to Hades and found it a shadowy world where the dead disliked their existence. In Hades, Odysseus met Achilles, who told him that he would rather be the live slave of a poor farmer than a dead king in Hades.
However, the ancient Greek philosopher Plato (circa 429-347 B.C.E.) had a different conception of the afterlife. According to Plato, the soul is by nature immortal and so it will survive the death of our body. Plato seems to have believed in Eastern ideas; for example, he seems to have believed that the souls of most people would be reincarnated and only the soul of a philosopher would escape being imprisoned again in a body. Those who escape rebirth will live a happy existence in the next life.
In Judaism, the emphasis was on the living — as it is now — and only in the later books of the Bible do we see anything resembling a happy afterlife. Many early Jews did not believe in immortality, although some Jews believed in a gloomy afterlife in Sheol, which is similar to the ancient Greek Hades. However, in the Book of Daniel, we do see a hope of immortality: “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt” (Daniel 12:2).
With Plato and the Jews, we see two different ways of looking at human beings:
1) Plato: Humans are incarnated souls.
2) Judaism: Humans are animated bodies.
Because of Judaism’s emphasis on the body, which the Jews regard as a gift of God, St. Paul (died C.E. 64? or 67?) believed that our hope for immortality lies in God’s power to resurrect our body. Indeed, according to St. Paul in I Corinthians 15, the belief in immortality is central to the Christian faith: “… if Christ has not been raised from death, then we have nothing to preach and you have nothing to believe.”
According to St. Paul, Jesus was resurrected, and we will be resurrected. St. Paul does not engage in philosophical arguments that we will be immortal, but he does point out that evidence exists for Jesus’ resurrection: hundreds of eyewitnesses, including St. Paul himself.
When we are resurrected, we will have a body, but it will be a spiritual body, according to St. Paul: “It is sown a physical body; it is raised a spiritual body.”
Maurice Lamm, a rabbi, gives a contemporary account of Jewish beliefs regarding life after death in his book The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning(1969).
The Concept of Immortality
Lamm tells his readers, “The conception of an after-life is fundamental to the Jewish religion; it is an article of faith in the Jews’ creed.” However, as shown above, this seems to have not always been the case. Early in the Jewish Bible are few references to immortality. Only in the later books of the Old Testament, such as Daniel, do we have clear references to an afterlife.
Nevertheless, the great medieval Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides (1135-1204) believed in the resurrection of the dead. Other medieval Jews, including Hesdai Crescas, Ben Zamah Duran, and Joseph Albo, also held that resurrection was a belief central to Judaism.
However, although there is a belief in resurrection — apparently the resurrection of a spiritual body that for good people will be close to God — there is little knowledge about what heaven may be like. The Jews are very much concerned with life and are not preoccupied with death. According to Maimonides, it is impossible for Humankind to have a clear knowledge of what life after death will be like.
According to Judaism, we are immortal, but in this Earthly life the precise details of immortality are not worked out. We will learn about immortality when we are immortal.
Resurrection: A Symbolic Idea
In analyzing the concept of resurrection, Lamm writes, “Some contemporary thinkers have noted that the physical revival of the dead is symbolic of a cluster of Jewish ideas.” Lamm writes in particular about three of these ideas:
1) “First, man does not achieve the ultimate redemption by virtue of his own inherent nature.”
Plato (circa 429-347 B.C.E.) saw human beings as dualistic in nature: Humans have both a mortal body and an immortal soul. Nothing can destroy the soul, and so we are immortal because of the nature of the soul.
Judaism sees things differently. If we are immortal, it is because of the grace and the mercy of God. We are notimmortal by nature; if not for God, our dead body would rot, and that would be the end of us. Instead, God’s omnipotence and goodness result in our being able to live again after death.
2) “Second, resurrection is not only a private matter, a bonus for the righteous individual. It is a corporate reward.”
We will not be resurrected on a desert island. Humankind is a social animal and lives in a community. All the righteous of all the ages will live together in a community after death.
3) “Third, physical resurrection affirms unequivocally that man’s soul andhis body are the creations of a holy God.”
According to Judaism, each person has a soul or mind (which is not immortal by nature) and a body. Also according to Judaism, both the soul and the body are valuable. Neither ought to be scorned. No one should deprecate the body in an attempt to glorify the soul. After all, according to Judaism, both the soul and the body are gifts of God.
According to Lamm, “Resurrection affirms that the body is of value because it came from God, and it will be resurrected by God. Resurrection affirms that man’s empirical existence is valuable in God’s eyes.” After all, Humankind strives to do things on Earth, and worthy strivings are valuable. All worthy strivings will “be brought to fulfillment at the end of days.”
The Meaning of Death
Lamm addresses the question, “What does it mean to die?” According to Lamm, the meaning of death is very closely related to the meaning of life. What life means to you will determine what death means to you. Lamm examines five different ways of looking at life:
1) Suppose that life is an “inconsequential drama, a purposeless amusement.” We live, then we die, and that’s it. Being born is the first act, and dying is the last act. In that case, death is merely the end of existence, and as Lamm writes, “Death has no significance, because life itself had no lasting meaning.”
2) Suppose that life is “only the arithmetic of coincidence” and Humankind exists only because of the haphazard workings of the forces of Nature. Suppose life began as one-celled creatures in the ocean simply because the physical elements for life were present, and through a series of accidents evolved into Humankind. In that case, as Lamm writes, “death is meaningless, and the deceased need merely be disposed of unceremoniously, and as efficiently as possible.”
3) Suppose that life is “a great battlefield,” in which beast battles beast in a struggle for survival. Suppose that the view of Nature “red in tooth and claw” (Hobbes) is correct, and that only the fittest survive. In that case, death is “the end of a cruel match that pits man against beast and man against man.”
4) Suppose that death is “absurd, with man bound and chained by impersonal fate or ironbound circumstances.” If so, then Humankind has no freedom, but is completely determined. If that is true, then “death is the welcome release from the chains of despair.”
5) Finally, we have the religious view of life: Suppose that “life is the creation of a benevolent God, the infusion of the Divine breath.” Suppose further that Humankind is capable of a personal relationship with God. In that case, “death is a return to the Creator at the time of death set by the Creator, and life-after-death the only way of a just and merciful and ethical God.”
Because God is “just and merciful and ethical,” Lamm states, we will be immortal. Our soul will be with God, and in addition, our body will be replaced. If a person is truly religious, then both life and death are truly meaningful.
In conclusion, Lamm writes, “Death has meaning if life had meaning. If one is not able to live, will he be able to die?”
Note: The quotations by Maurice Lamm that appear in this essay are from hisThe Jewish Way in Death and Mourning (New York: Jonathan David Publishers, 1969).
Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved
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