After Life

afterlifeJannah is often compared to the Christian description of Heaven, although there are differences. Jannah is the Islamic idea of paradise, which might be interpreted as simply the 'Garden'. According to Islamic belief, after death, one will reside in the grave until the appointed resurrection, after which Muslims believe that an individual will be judged according to his or her deeds in the worldly life. In-line with Muslim belief, everything one longs for in this world will be there in Paradise, although there appears to be some level of 'segregation' in that the highest level of Paradise is where the prophets, the martyrs and the most truthful and pious people will dwell. In contrast to Jannah, the word Jahannam is often used to refer to the Christian idea of hell. Of course, on a more sceptical note, one might question whether the description of Heaven or Jannah has always served a more earthly purpose rooted in political and social control. For it would seem that you might more easily convince somebody to serve, and even die, for a common cause, if they profoundly believe in an afterlife, as described above. Clearly, such ideas were, and remain, a powerful motivation for many people. So the first question is:

Can we ever consider the implications of an afterlife in more logical terms?

Well, it would appear that we can take few things in life for granted, but it would seem that there is one important exception, i.e. we must all die at some point in the future. For while science may come to address a degree of longevity, immortality remains an unrealistic, and possibly undesirable, goal. Philosophically, most people come to accept this outcome as inevitable, but contrary to the scientific evidence, many people preferred to put their faith in some sort of theologically inspired description of a life after death. While accepting that this is not a cheery subject, it does seem to be one of some importance within our overall discussion of a worldview built upon the axioms of philosophy, theology and science. However, as in most discussions of this nature, there would appear to be no absolute guarantee that any single perspective can be certain of its facts. However, we might start based on what we do know, which relates to life before death. Medical science has acquired a lot of information about the human body and the functioning of the brain over the last couple of hundred years. As such, we might crudely describe the human body, for the purposes of this discussion, as a life support system for the brain in which our consciousness resides. For all evidence suggests that any damage to the brain can seriously affect our personality and that death of the brain is a terminal event. So, as a simplistic, although possibly unsettling  starting point:

What do you think happens to somebody in the afterlife, who has always been mentally disabled in this life?

Scientifically, this may be more of a rhetorical question, as science possibly has little more to say on the subject of an afterlife, which has to transcend the physical realm. However, philosophically and theologically, it is a question that raises the profound issue of our perception of any continued existence in the afterlife.

So what underpins the idea of an afterlife?

Clearly, many people have witnessed death and will accept that the physical body and brain simply decay after death, such that life based on our physical form, would appear to end when we physically die. Therefore, as suggested, the concept of an afterlife is essentially a matter of philosophical debate and theological conjecture that requires some aspect of life to transcend our physical existence, which is often referred to as the ‘spirit’ or ‘soul’ of a person.

What is the nature of the soul?

It is suspected that there are as many different descriptions concerning the nature of the soul as there are religions and schools of philosophy. However, it might be suggested that the idea of the life of a person continuing on into some form of spirit world has been around as long as humanity has grieved over the lost of a loved one and is an idea that appears across most cultures. As such, the idea of the soul may have originated as a natural response to an emotional need to alleviate grief through the idea that the life of a person, who has just died, continues on in another realm that is also thought to be ‘a better place’. In this context, the soul is not just a theological belief; it is a very basic human need, which later became a central theme of the myriad of philosophical and theological doctrines that not only sought to explain death, but the very essence of life as well. In this context, the logic of science may often appear cold and without compassion, unable to explain the purpose of life or death. However, the goal of science is only to reflect how the universe really is, not how we would like it to be.

So what, if anything, might we say about the existence of a soul?

Well, despite much searching, science has found no substantive evidence that supports the existence of a soul that survives death. So, despite the millions of claims people have made to having seen the ghost of a person, presumably in some sort of afterlife, all controlled attempts to verify such claims have either failed or proved to be inconclusive.

But surely science is not in a position to verify events that transcend the physical realm?

While possibly true, but this argument has to work both ways. If science cannot prove the non-existence of the soul, theology must be no more able to prove its existence or speak with any authority on such matters.

If we cannot prove the existence of the soul, one way or the other, can we still expand the discussion by speculating on the assumed nature of an afterlife?

It is clear that the idea of an afterlife has become a central belief of most religions. What is possibly more of an issue is how most religions feel able to speak with such apparent authority on the nature of heaven and the concept of eternal salvation given the apparent uncertainty that implicitly surrounds such concepts. See the insets on the right for some examples. In addition, this apparent authority does not mean that all religions share a common vision of the afterlife, far from it, for it would appear that virtually all religions have developed their own descriptions of the afterlife based on their own interpretation of ancient scriptures. However, history suggests that most theological ideas of an afterlife have also developed since the writing of these scriptures, which might also suggest the views currently espoused are essentially subjective extrapolations of the much older scriptures, which were written by essentially unknown historical figures who presumably had only a limited understanding of science and the functioning of the human brain. Therefore, it does not seem unreasonable that we should continue this discussion by considering some of the wider implications that come along with the idea of an eternal afterlife.

In what form will ‘you’ exist for all eternity?

The key word here is ‘you’ because it might be argued that the metamorphosis that must overtake us on the death and decay of our body, and more importantly our brain, must be a fairly traumatic experience, if we somehow survive it. However, despite the implications of such a radical change, it would seem that there is a common belief that some sense of our personal identity is retained by which we might recognise ourselves and other people after death.

Is it reasonable to assume that we continue to exist as essentially the same person after death or is the word ‘person’ even applicable?

Many people seem to envisage the afterlife as some continuation of their self-awareness, as an individual, because if this were lost, they would cease to be and therefore will have effectively died, even if some spiritual soul continues to exist. As such, it would seem that many people prefer to belief that the afterlife will preserve some aspect of their sense of self, which would appear to be rooted in the memories of their life before death:

So what makes you ‘you’ and not something else?

Clearly, our sense of self is based on an outward perception other people have of us and an inward perception of ourselves supported by all our memories that have helped define our lives. However, before pursuing this line of thought, let us consider this question from a slightly different perspective:

If you woke up in the afterlife, what are you expecting find?

For many people, the idea of an afterlife often holds the hope of being reunited with loved ones who died before them. However, there are also some negative implications associated with this idea that do not often get discussed, for fairly obvious reasons, but are none the less relevant to this discussion. Initially our thoughts may focus on a partner in life, e.g. husband or wife, or equally a child lost too early in life. By way of a sad example, in 1851, Charles Darwin lost his own beloved daughter, Annie, of whom he wrote:

"We have lost the joy of the household and the solace of our old age. Oh that she could now know how deeply, how tenderly we do still and shall ever love her dear joyous face."

It is known that the death of Annie affected both Darwin and his wife deeply, albeit in different ways due to their opposing beliefs. However, while it is pure speculation you cannot help wondering, after reading the words above, as to whether Darwin would have gladly been proved wrong in his own beliefs, so that on his death he might have been reunited with his daughter. For it would seem that logic cannot always override the emotional need to believe in an afterlife. However, this said, it does not really change the fact that we often wish for many things that in reality never come true.

Where does the list of the people associated with our lives end and are they all locked in time, waiting for us, as we remember them?

At one level, there is simply the ambiguity of a person’s age being constrained by our memory of them, and presumably they of us. However, there is also the more distressing idea of a mother’s sincere desire to be reunited with a baby lost in childbirth. It is distressing, not just because of the nature of the loss, but because it is so difficult to resolve the meaning of the continuance of an afterlife of a baby that did not have time to form any identity prior to death. Of course, if the baby’s soul does develop after death, would the mother still recognise her baby's soul and would the soul of the grown baby still want the love of an aged mother to which it had never had the chance to bond. So, with these sad thoughts in mind, let us return to our earlier question:

What makes you ‘you’?

Certainly, within the context of our physical life, our identity as a person appears to be linked to both our physical form and our mental abilities. However, with this said, we must also recognise that we undergo much change during our lives, to the extent that the person we were once, age 7, will bear little resemblance to the person we will become, age 70.

So is it possible to retain our sense of identity in the afterlife?

While some vague notion of an incorporeal existence might be suggested at this point, it hardly seems to address the wider implications of an eternal existence without form.  For it would seem that our identity is predicated on our human form and this form, for better or worse, has defined the scope of the physical senses through which we have experienced life and has helped underpin our memories, our likes and our prejudices.

So can we really even begin to imagine an existence without form lasting for eternity?

Without spelling out all the implications of an eternity spent with countless generations of family members who you may have never met, and possibly had no particular desire to meet, even in life, we come to what might seem to be a flippant question:

What are you going to do for the rest of eternity in the afterlife?

OK, if we skip over the mundane inference of this question, there is still the logical consequence of what we do within the eternity of an afterlife.  Of course, before we even attempt to answer such a question, we need to realise that according to many religions, the nature of the afterlife is not just about our wishes, as it would appear that God places some fairly specific requirements on who gains entry to heaven or hell. However, in practice, most religions seem divided on the actual terms and conditions imposed by their beliefs, although most appear to subliminally allude to the need to have lived a ‘good’ life as a prerequisite to entering heaven. However, there is often an escape clause for the sinner who genuinely repents and embraces the beliefs of a particular church, assuming that it really has the endorsement of the 'one and only' God. Therefore, on this point, we might wish to question how some theologians, schooled in the beliefs of a certain religion, have come to speak with such authority and certainty on such matters, as certainty does not appear to exist in the conflicting spread of their ideas. For example, many religions simply imply that those who do not believe in God must go to a place without God, which is either described as Hell or Purgatory. In contrast, others are slightly more benign in the suggestion that everyone will go to Heaven, eventually, no matter what they have done or believed on Earth, although they are often vague on the timeframe in some of these cases. While yet others simply contend that Hell corresponds to the ‘termination’ of the soul.

So if we were to reject an afterlife based on religious doctrine or, equally, one fraught with the problems of an eternity getting to know all our long lost dead relatives, what alternative might we wish for?

If we overlook the emotional anguish of losing somebody close to us, many people may not really be looking for immortality for themselves, but rather to fulfil a much simpler desire for answers and a resolution of injustices and wrongs committed by them or against them in life. In this context, most of us would like to think that there was some larger purpose to our own lives and the lives of those we have loved and lost. Of course, in this sense, the atheists must go to their grave knowing that there is little probability of this being the case. However, they possibly have the solace of knowing that they looked at the wonders of the world in a spirit of honest inquiry, while the theists may have the solace of their firm belief in life everlasting, irrespective of whether they really understand what that might imply. Of course, in the end, the probability of any sort of afterlife will itself depend on the probability of God’s existence, which is the next topic of discussion.