by Robert Brow
THE QUESTION OF LIFE AFTER DEATH inevitably depends on the question of life before life. Man's beginning gives the clue to his end. We have set out the options concerning the nature of God, and now we turn to the origin and destiny of man.
The first option is that man is nothing more than a complex arrangement of molecules. A chance conjunction of DNA codes happened to create the self-sustaining, self-conscious computers which we call men. They can originate other computers, but their components are subject to mortal damage. When this occurs, the organizing principle of the computer dies, and it disintegrates into its various chemical substances. Obviously if this is the nature of man, then death is the end of self-conscious life. Man may continue in the other `computers' he has originated, or in the world society of computers, but in no sense can he have continuing significance as a person. Death is annihilation.
The second choice is the ancient Hindu view of the World Soul. Man is like a drop of water separated from the sea. For a time he considers himself distinct from the World Soul, but his destiny and peace is back in the sea. The drop may have many lives falling on the land and rising in the clouds, but these are tiresome disturbances and the quicker he can return to the sea the better. Yoga is the accepted discipline for reuniting oneself with the World Soul. In Absolute Monism, or Illusionism, which we noted in chapter 9, the feeling of distinctness or individual personality is only a dream, so that salvation consists in realizing the dream nature of one's illusion. 'If I really get to the bottom of myself, I find I am the World Soul, and there is no real distinction.'
Similar to the Hindu World Soul is the Buddhist Nirvana. It also is an escape from the life and reincarnations of this world. The root meaning of the word is 'extinction', in the sense of a fire being extinguished. When the cravings and passions of men have been put out, there is peace. It is basically the peace of non-existence, though later Buddhist teachers have sometimes revolted against this and tried to introduce some individual consciousness into Nirvana's emptiness.
Though the ultimate end for Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism is final escape, without the danger of return to this futile life, man has innumerable chances to attain this. The Aryans who came to India and their Indo-European cousins in Persia and Europe did not believe in reincarnation, nor was this a Semitic way of thinking. The Aryans must have adopted the doctrine from the Indus Valley people, whom they conquered - say, about 1200 BC. Reincarnation as a doctrine first appears among the Greeks with Pythagoras (c. 530 BC), and then in Empedocles and Plato. From Plato it nearly gained access to the Christian church through the great Alexandrian thinker Origen (c. 185 - c. 254).
As a theory of the nature of man, reincarnation is connected with Animism. It has been found among the North American Indians, the Dayaks of Borneo, the Yorubas of Nigeria, and many other animistic tribes. Apart from a direct revelation from God, reincarnation is the most natural explanation of the phenomenon of death. The soul seems to leave the body temporarily whenever a person goes into a deep sleep. When bodily disintegration sets in, the soul has obviously departed from the body for ever. In its disembodied state it may be dangerous, in which case it should be propitiated by sacrifice, or it may need regular ceremonies as in ancestor worship. Eventually it is bound to return when it can find another suitable body. Similar types of thinking are found in Spiritualism and Theosophy.
In its animistic form reincarnation has no ethical content. Hinduism introduced this with the doctrine of Karma, which assumes that, whereas the body can be left behind, the good or evil it has done remains attached to the soul. In the crude explanation in terms of caste, a low-caste man may by a good life attain a rebirth into a higher social stratum. On the other hand a Brahmin may descend the scale and sink to being born a beast or vermin. It is, however, important to reiterate that in higher Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, man is not just interested in a better reincarnation. One life is bad enough, and the thought of an eternity of reincarnations is intolerable. The Jains offer an escape by good deeds to destroy the evil in the soul. Buddha preached that desires and passions held man in the vicious wheel of reincarnations. The Hindu Vedantists teach that release is found by union with the Absolute.
We have now looked at four options for the hereafter. In strict Materialism we have personal annihilation at death. Animism visualizes the release of the soul from the body to continue an unpredictable disembodied existence till it returns to occupy another body. Hindu reincarnation posits a return to a superior or inferior position depending on previous conduct. Vedanta Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism promise a way of escape from the dreary round of reincarnations by losing one's identity in the World Soul or resting peacefully in Nirvana.
Our fifth option is a view of man which makes him a created being with one life to live. Depending on his performance in this world there will be a day of judgment which will allot pleasures or punishment in the next. We have looked at the history of this theological position in chapter 6 on the unitarian Reformers. In chapter 10 we have shown how this view is philosophically different from the Christian Trinitarian understanding of God and man. Since man was neither created in the image of God, nor can he enter into the unity of the Godhead, man's destiny must be in a happy paradise separate from God. The paradise pictured in Muhammad's Quran provides sexual enjoyment with beautiful Huris and the cups of wine which are forbidden on earth.
Finally, we must distinguish the Christian hereafter which is centred on fellowship with God. The Bible uses a series of multi-stereoscopic pictures, which must be combined to give us our concept of heaven. First there is the city of God, which Abraham and all the Old Testament saints looked forward to. This gives us the impression of life, activity, interest, and a distinction of people, as opposed to the Hindu ideal of a sea into which the drop is merged. It is interesting that the glory and honour of the nations are to be brought into the city, which suggests that all that is best in every nation of this world is destined for a permanent place in the city of God.
The people of the city of God are also a family, into which those who accept the invitation are adopted as sons and daughters in the family of God. This indicates that the love which has always existed between the Persons of the Trinity is to be extended to all who are willing to be included in the family of God.
Other images are a garden, a wedding feast, the church as the bride of Christ, and a new nation. These images are all combined into a sense of unity in the oneness of God, which would be as unthinkable to Muslim thought as the picture of a city is to Hindu Vedanta.
So far we have spoken of heaven, since this is the destiny which God has planned for all men. We cannot avoid, however, the question of hell, since God neither forces men into his family nor prevents them from choosing hell if that is what they really prefer. For Materialism there is no beyond, so if hell means anything it refers to something we experience now. In higher Hinduism, hell is continuing in the cycle of rebirths, but there is the hope of escaping from it one day. For Islam hell is the opposite of the rewards of paradise. For some Christians hell is a figurative picture of annihilation. The Bible suggests that hell is as real and eternal as heaven, but we must beware of Dante and the many who have let their imagery confuse their Christian theology. What then are we to say about hell?
In this cosmos, good and evil, beauty and ugliness, justice and injustice, love and selfishness, music and noise, peace and anxiety, purity and degradation, joy and despair, are mixed. In space-time man learns to differentiate between them. He finds the opposites in himself and in the people around him, and so he chooses his own priorities. No man loves evil, ugliness, injustice, selfishness, noise, anxiety, degradation and despair all at once and together. He certainly disapproves of most of them in others. Obviously to be happy in heaven he would have to hate all these in himself, and love nothing but the good qualities. Christians are agreed that through Jesus Christ God has a way of so changing a man's heart that he will be happy in heaven. What then of the others?
In The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis suggests that those who `belong' to hell would find the grass of heaven cutting their feet, the music of heaven nauseating, and Jesus Christ intolerable to be near. Because of their basic selfishness they prefer the grey city, where men move further and further away from each other because they cannot tolerate the closeness of their neighbours. The point is that God has made man in his image, and that image includes the freedom to be utterly himself. If selfishness, self-centredness and self-importance are essential to him, he must be free to have them to the full. Only if he is willing to be made as unselfishly love as God is can he be with God in eternity. Inevitably God has to make a judgment to cut down to the very core of man's true motives, but the judgment is according to what man really is, so that no man will feel wronged. In this world there is possibility of changing from hell to heaven, but man is not expected to change himself, only to be changed by Jesus Christ.
1. Quran, suras 44, 55, 56.
2. Hebrews 11:10-16; Revelation 21:2-4; 22-27.
3. Revelation 21:24, 26.
4. John 1:12; Romans 8:14-17, 29.
5. John 17:20-26; 1 Corinthians 15:28.