NOTES on John Hick (1922-2012): Immortality and Resurrection

John Hick

John Hick is an important theologian who wrote about immortality and resurrection, as well as many other religious topics.

I. The Immortality of the Soul

Plato (circa 429-347 B.C.E.) was an ancient Greek philosopher who believed that the soul is immortal. He had two main arguments for immortality:

1) The soul belongs to the part of reality that is unchanging and eternal. Plato believed that the sensible world — the world that we perceive with our five senses (sight, hearing, smell, touch, and taste) is not the real world. Instead, there is another, higher level of reality — one that we perceive with our mind. Plato believed that our soul is immortal by its own nature and belongs to this unchanging, eternal reality. In fact, Plato believed in reincarnation and thought that when we learn something we are in fact only recollecting something that we had learned in our other lives.

2) The soul is not composed of parts, so therefore it can’t disintegrate. Our physical body is composed of many different parts — we use the atoms of the food we eat to nourish our bodies and to build bones, teeth, skin and muscle. When our physical body dies, it decomposes and its components break up and return back to the clay from which we came. But since our soul is not composed of parts, according to Plato, it does not decompose.

However, although Plato was a giant of philosophy and some people think that philosophy consists of a series of footnotes to Plato, another giant of philosophy — Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) — disagrees with him. Kant’s reply to Plato’s theory is that even though the soul, if it is a simple part, cannot disintegrate, nevertheless consciousness may cease because its intensity diminishes to zero.

In addition, the type of dualism (the view that Humankind is composed of two things: mind and body) espoused by Plato and by René Descartes (1596-1650) has come under attack by such philosophers as Gilbert Ryle (1900-1976), author of The Concept of Mind(1949), who believes that the soul in the human body is like a “ghost in the machine.” Ryle deliberately mocks the concept of a human soul.

Because of this, more philosophers are paying attention to St. Paul’s (died C.E. 64? or 67?) idea of resurrection as a re-creation of the psychophysical person.

II. The Re-Creation of the Psychophysical Person

In a re-creation of the psychophysical person, God recreates the human being (the psychophysical person) that existed previously. This human being will be a soma pneumatikon, which Hick defines as “a ‘spiritual body,’ inhabiting a spiritual world as the physical body inhabits our physical world.”

However, will the re-created psychophysical person still be myself? This brings up the problem of personal identity. If I am re-created in a spiritual body, can I still be the person who was associated with a physical body on the Earth? As Hick writes, “A major problem confronting any such doctrine is that of providing criteria of personal identity to link the earthly life and the resurrection life.”

To help answer this problem, Hick performs three thought experiments:

1) Suppose that John Smith disappears in the U.S. and reappears in India; he has the same memories and habits as the John Smith who disappeared. Would we consider the present John Smith the same person as the John Smith who disappeared in the U.S.? Hick believes that yes, we would. Personal identity — as Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) suggested — largely consists of memories and habits.

2) John Smith dies in the U.S. and reappears in India; he has the same memories and habits as the John Smith who died. Once again, Hick says that we would have to consider the new John Smith the same person as the John Smith who died — even though we see John Smith’s corpse. Once again, memories and habits are very important in establishing personal identity.

3) John Smith dies in the U.S. and reappears in a whole new world; he has the same memories and habits as the John Smith who died. Once again, Hick says that we would have to consider the new John Smith the same person as the John Smith who died. Once again, memories and habits are very important in establishing personal identity. Of course, this thought experiment is analogous to a person dying, then waking up in the Kingdom of God: Heaven.

The point of these thought experiments is to show that resurrection would be of the same person that we are now; even though there may be some differences (for example, having a spiritual body rather than a physical body), these differences would not be enough to make us into a completely different person. Even in Heaven, we will have a sense of personal identity and be able to remember some of the things we did on this Earth. And apparently, we will have some of the same habits we have now (so let’s be sure to make them good habits!). Hick even says that possibly our spiritual body may bear a distinct resemblance to our physical body.

III. Does Parapsychology Help?

Does the Spiritualist Movement provide any evidence for immortality? Certainly the Spiritualist Movement claims to have some people — called mediums — who can speak with the dead. However, even if these experiences are genuine, they would not prove endless survival — which is what Christians mean by immortality — but only that the personality survives for some time after death.

Many philosophers, however, have been interested in parapsychology, simply because they want to know if there is any empirical evidence for survival after death — even survival for only a short time. However, parapsychology investigates two different kinds of phenomena:

1) Phenomena that involve no reference to a life after death; for example, ESP and telepathy. Hick defines telepathy in this way: “Telepathy is a name for the mysterious fact that sometimes a thought in the mind of one person apparently causes a similar thought to occur to someone else when there are no normal means of communication between them, and under circumstances such that mere circumstance seems to be excluded.”

2) Phenomena that involve reference to life after death; for example, mediums contacting the dead, and ghosts. Still, in the case of mediums apparently contacting the dead, we have two explanations of these phenomena.

First, the medium really could be in contact with the dead. However, this does not seem to be the case. Hick gives two examples of mediums contacting the “dead,” only the mediums were not contacting the dead at all. In the first case, two women filled their heads with information regarding a fictional character from an unpublished novel one of the women had written, then they went to see a medium. The medium “proceeded to describe accurately their imaginary friend as a visitant from beyond the grave and to deliver appropriate messages from him.”

In the second example, a medium was in contact with the “spirit” of a Gordon Davis. The medium spoke in Davis’ voice, showed quite a lot of knowledge about him, and even remembered Davis’ death. However, Davis — a real estate agent — was still alive at the time, and was showing a house nearby!

Because of this, Hick gives a second explanation of what the mediums are doing when they produce a spirit. Instead of contacting the dead, they may instead be telepathically reading the minds of living people. In Hick’s words: “Such cases suggest that genuine mediums are simply persons of exceptional telepathic sensitiveness who unconsciously derive the ‘spirits’ from their clients’ minds.”

So what about ghosts? Once again, ghosts do not provide good evidence for survival after death. Think of this example: A woman sees a man throwing himself into the lake by which she is sitting. A few days later, a man does throw himself into the lake. Once again, telepathy may be involved. The woman may have read the thoughts and emotions of the man. In this case, there is a “phantom of the living” which is “created by previously experienced thoughts and emotions of the person whom they represent.” Similarly, Hick writes, it is possible that “phantoms of the dead are caused by thoughts and emotions experienced by the person represented when he was alive.”

Hick concludes that perhaps parapsychology will not answer our questions about immortality. However, it is still early and we should not entirely rule out the possibility that parapsychology will “open a window onto another world.”

Note: The quotations by John Hick that appear in this essay are from his Philosophy of Religion(2nd edition, copyright 1973).

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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