Can Christians believe in life after death? According to Episcopal priest George Clifford, the short answer is No. The long answer is slightly more complicated.
Fr. Clifford recently wrote a two-part essay at Episcopal Café (“Life After Death,” Part One and Two) in which he embraced a position of agnosticism regarding what happens to us after we die. In several places, he offers a sharp, lucid analysis of contemporary Christianity in North America. In other places, I find his analysis wildly wrong. In what follows, I’d like to point out a few of these errors and offer some brief rebuttals. My primary motivation for engaging Clifford, however, is not simply to point out errors in his thinking. Rather, I believe that his essay perfectly illustrates the ways in which “progressive” reinterpretations of core Christian doctrine are most often intellectually unsatisfying and pastorally emaciated.
The gist of Clifford’s position is that the traditional Christian belief in an afterlife can no longer be sustained in light of our contemporary scientific knowledge and, furthermore, that such a belief often has dangerous and harmful implications. He suggests that Christians should be content with uncertainty, learning to “hope and trust in God’s goodness and love,” even if it does not entail our continued existence on the other side of the grave. The argument he makes for this position, however, is riddled with problematic assumptions.
Error 1: Modern science disproves miraculous events contained in Scripture, including Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.
In his opening remarks, Clifford recites a frequent trope of anti-Christian apologists:
[H]istoric Christian understandings of what happens when a person dies, views that usually presume an empty tomb and Jesus’ bodily resurrection, are increasingly anachronistic in view of advances in astronomy, particle physics, and biology.
This tired objection needs to die — soon. I hope that someday in the near future we can give it a proper burial, never to be resurrected. What makes this objection so asinine is that it assumes the only reason ancient people were able to believe that Jesus rose from the dead is that they didn’t have an adequate understanding of molecular biology. Never mind that, as a universal principle, they understood perfectly well that dead people don’t come back to life. (See Tom Wright’s exhaustive vindication of this point in The Resurrection and the Son of God [Augsburg Fortress, 2003]).
Clifford suggests that, prior to the advances of modern science, Christ’s resurrection could be naïvely accepted as both a reality and as significant for our understanding of life after death. He writes, “[T]he image of an empty tomb may be a powerful metaphor but offers little substantive insight, given the advances in science, into the possibility or nature of life after death” (emphasis added).
If I were to release a heavy stone from my hand and it suddenly began rising upward into the sky instead of falling downward, of course we would all be shocked and dumbfounded. But it would be no less surprising to a person from antiquity simply because she couldn’t articulate the theory of gravity. This kind of assertion is simply a category mistake. It makes no sense to say that, since we can now explain ordinary, observable phenomena using scientifically precise language, we no longer need to believe in miracles. I seem to remember a theologian once saying that this assertion is rather like saying that since we now have the electric toaster, we no longer need Mozart.
One simple remedy to this erroneous way of thinking is to understand that the concept of a “miracle” falls within the order of knowing rather than the order of being. Thus, by definition, a miraculous event falls outside the scope of our comprehension. Miracles are not instances of God “invading” the physical order of things or “breaking” the laws of nature. Rather, they are instances of God working in ways that cannot be accounted for according to our current understanding of the universe. The question then becomes whether the event actually happened. We may be able to give reasons for why we believe or do not believe that the event happened, but those reasons will have nothing to do with current models of physics and biology.
Error 2: There is a consensus among scientists and philosophers that “mental” is reducible to “physical.”
Clifford is less explicit about this principle, but it’s the driving force behind his claim that it is incomprehensible for Christians to believe in a non-bodily “spiritual” existence after death. He asks, “[H]ow can humans, whose senses and cognitive processes are all physical, think, speak, or otherwise describe, much less interact with, the spiritual?” Such a question assumes that it has been definitively established that our mental activity is entirely reducible to physical processes. But anyone who has even casually kept an eye on the fields of cognitive science or philosophy of mind knows that this is far from settled. The relationship between mental events and physical events, let alone the very notion of consciousness, remains one the greatest unsolved problems in these disciplines. Even scholars who are committed to materialism recognize that the concept of mental causation remains highly mysterious.
For those who believe in something like a “soul,” or believe that human beings are not reducible to their material bodies, it is admittedly not easy to grasp just how our bodily existence is related to our spiritual existence. More precisely, it’s difficult to imagine how we might exist as “spiritual beings” after death, even if we believe that we will ultimately be united with resurrected bodies. Clifford is right to highlight this difficulty, and he’s certainly not the first to do so. Even Thomas Aquinas, being a good Aristotelian, wrestled with the question of how the human soul could possibly exist apart from the body. Yet Aquinas understood that this is ultimately a philosophical problem rather than a scientific one.
Clifford’s position, when followed to its logical conclusion, has even more radical implications than might appear at first glance. He believes that scientists and theologians have failed to provide a satisfactory account of how the physical realm — including human beings and their words and thoughts — can interact with the spiritual realm (although I’m puzzled by the notion that a scientist might even be able to offer a solution to this problem, given the confines of the discipline). And while Clifford acknowledges that this dilemma “is relevant to all forms of revelation, from mysticism to the inspiration of scripture,” he leaves out an even more fundamental aspect of the Christian life: prayer. Indeed, if Clifford is correct, it is difficult to imagine how the Christian faith could have anything at all to do with a reality beyond the physical, including God. For Clifford, however, this seems to be a foregone conclusion, since we must take for granted that the mental is reducible to the physical.
Error 3: As contemporary Christians, if we want to affirm “life after death” then we must completely redefine it.
One of the most unfortunate aspects of Clifford’s essay is that it fails to reflect the vast resources within the Christian tradition — both ancient and contemporary — for articulating a doctrine of the resurrection of the body. He hastily appeals to contemporary scientific findings, draws tenuous inferences from these findings, and then declares that traditional Christian conceptions of life after death are no longer sustainable. For example, he explains that, since particle physics and biology have shown us that the atoms composing the human body are in a constant state of flux with regard to the body’s surrounding environment, we must conclude that “life after death does not, and physically cannot, denote a literal continuation or resumption of a person’s bodily existence.”
But Clifford’s line of thought leads to an even greater conundrum concerning human existence — a conundrum that does not require one to delve into theology. That is, Clifford’s commitment to this version of materialism should lead him to deny not only the resurrection of the body but the very existence of the self. If it is impossible for the same “I” to exist after death for the reasons Clifford cites, then it is equally impossible to claim that I am the same “I” that existed ten years ago. I don’t want to place the entire burden of this philosophical problem on Clifford’s shoulders; I only hope to point out that the difficulties he raises are not just problematic for those who affirm life after death. Part of the confusion here stems from imprecision surrounding words like existence and body. Without going into further detail, I’ll simply suggest that Clifford’s analysis could benefit from a little less Karl Popper and a little more Ludwig Wittgenstein.
Despite Clifford’s dismissal of traditional conceptions of bodily resurrection, there are in fact numerous viable theological resources at our disposal. To appeal to Aquinas once again, his treatment of the resurrection, as well as his sophisticated account in the Summa Theologiae of the human passions in both our current and resurrected state, could serve as a framework for addressing virtually all of the difficulties raised in Part One of Clifford’s essay. The essay also ignores the work of contemporary theologians and philosophers, such as Peter van Inwagen, who have offered subtle arguments that attempt to reconcile the resurrection of the body with a materialist view of the human person. There are many, many resources one could consult in attempting to answer the difficulties Clifford raises, but there is no hint in his essay that any such resources exist. For example, he seems unaware that the precise philosophical and theological issue of material flux was worked through again and again from Origen’s time until at least the Reformation, with different cogent explanations (see Caroline Walker Bynum’s magisterial work, The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity, 200-1336 [Colombia University Press, 1995], among other works in her opus that deal with the same topic).
Instead, one is left with the impression that the only available options are naïve fundamentalism or complete reformulation of basic Christian teaching.
The conception of afterlife that Clifford finds most attractive, originally proposed by process theologian Marjorie Suchocki, seems far less promising than any traditional proposal. While I confess that I am unfamiliar with Suchocki’s work, I do not see how the view that “life after death consists of a person living forever as an idea in God’s mind” can gain any traction toward a satisfactory account of postmortem existence. It’s quite difficult to imagine how God’s “idea” of a person could directly constitute a “self” as we typically mean it. My dog Jack, our family pet from many years ago, lives on in my mind, but I don’t know if this is doing him much good. Clifford recognizes this as a “shortcoming” of Suchocki’s view, but in my judgment it is far more devastating. To Clifford’s credit, he is prepared to abandon this view or any firm commitment to an afterlife, if necessary. This brings me to my next and final point.
Error 4: A less confident approach to the doctrine of the resurrection will have a broader appeal to millennials and educated people living in the 21st century.
Clifford writes, “Platitudinous affirmations of physical resurrection and life after death endlessly repeated in Eastertide, at funerals, and on other occasions, partially explain why growing numbers of educated reject traditional Christianity.” Perhaps he and I run in different circles, but I find this statement hard to believe. Of course, one cannot appeal to much more than anecdotal evidence, yet my sense is that this claim does not quite have its finger on the pulse of contemporary culture.
When I think of the most frequently cited reasons 21st-century people reject Christianity, these include concerns about the Bible’s condoning of violence, claims to exclusivity, the doctrine of hell, rejection of evolution, negative views toward women, homophobia, hypocrisy of Christians, and so on. I’ve never had anyone tell me that the primary stumbling block to Christianity was the doctrine of resurrection. That’s not to deny that the resurrection is a difficult belief to embrace and often requires significant intellectual struggle. But I think that most people are ready to accept that if there is in fact a God, and if this God sent his Son to become incarnate and live and die as one of us, then it is not too far a stretch to believe that this God could raise someone from the dead.
If I were an unchurched millennial interested in Christianity, I would hope to find someone who could help me wrestle with the problem of the resurrection — Christianity’s central and most notable proclamation — rather than offering hand-wavy answers about the resurrection being a “powerful metaphor.” I’m not advocating for overly confident, Lee Strobel-style apologetics. I simply hope that we might treat with greater earnestness St. Paul’s claim that “if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain” (1 Cor. 15:14).
It saddens me to think that an ordained minister of the gospel, charged with proclaiming Christ’s resurrection, could declare in a public forum, “Perhaps death is the end.” While Clifford follows this statement with the halfhearted acknowledgment that “perhaps there is life after death,” it is a far cry from the opening proclamation of our Church’s funeral liturgy:
I am Resurrection and I am Life, says the Lord.
Whoever has faith in me shall have life,
even though he die.
And everyone who has life,
and has committed himself to me in faith,
shall not die for ever. (1979 BCP, p. 491).
And I could be wrong, but my suspicion is that 21st-century people are more likely to be turned off by clergy who shy away from Christianity’s most central claims than by a gospel proclamation that challenges them to live into a new reality. I commend Fr. Clifford’s exhortation that we “trust in God’s goodness and love” as we consider life after death, but I still contend that the greatest expression of that trust is to embrace the faith that has been delivered once for all to the saints.
Fr. Stewart Clem is assisting priest at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Mishawaka, Indiana, and a doctoral candidate in moral theology and Christian ethics at the University of Notre Dame. His other posts are here.