by Alan Race
from Signs of the Times No 52 - Jan 2014
When it was first coined, the Christian Aid slogan ‘We believe in life before death’ caught a mood.
It was symptomatic of a cultural drift in Christian focus away from preoccupation with ‘pie in the sky when you die’ to a faith motivated more by ethical demands in the present than by theological speculations about an after-life future. This same drift is echoed by Paul Badham’s first sentence in his Introduction to this accessible and far-reaching book: ‘For some Christians, belief in life after death has simply evaporated.’ Why this has happened is not easy to analyse, but Paul is clear that he does not agree with it.
But Badham is also very aware of the intellectual challenges facing someone who thinks a good case can still be made for retaining some semblance of belief in a doctrine of immortality. The odds stacked against him are basically three-fold: first, philosophies of many kinds are inclined to some view of radical interconnectedness or ultimate non-dualism in our account of reality (Christians who learn from Buddhism, for example, usually speak like this); second, mental life is so integrated with its physical basis that the former seems scarcely possible without the latter; and third, there is the sheer difficulty of trying to conceptualise something which, in the nature of the case, we can know nothing about.
He is undaunted by these trends and mounts a reasoned cumulative case for affirming belief in life after death as an essential component of Christian identity. Indeed, he finds Christianity hardly worth the candle without it. He is aware, however, that we cannot provide knock-down arguments either way, but insists that there really are good reasons for resisting the default assumption that this life is all there is.
The author proposes a number of reasons in support of his confidence. These are: the presence of self-consciousness in human experience, a reflective capacity which could be said to transcend even the physical embodiment necessary for it; the evidence provided by Near Death Experiences (NDE), which might act as a sort-of empirical back-up for some element of dualism in human personhood; and the report of the resurrection of Jesus who ‘appeared’ to his followers after his killing.
Each of these areas is contestable, of course, but each is construed positively within Paul’s cumulative case. So, consciousness studies has many defenders of it as being no longer a so-called epiphenomenon of brain activity but a reality which plays a much more determinative role than neuro-science has so far contemplated. (I write the day of press reports about the breakthrough in medical science whereby a prosthetic arm can now be directed mechanically by human thought). Then the facts of NDEs, in so far they are capable of many explanations, include the possibility of spiritual explanation also. With regard to the resurrection of Jesus, Paul holds to the view that without the resurrection (which he believes to be essentially an interior appearance of Jesus after his killing and not an inference from an empty tomb) as a trigger for Christian faith it could not have got going. I confess that for me more is at stake here, for placing reliance for Christian faith solely on the experience of resurrection ignores the role played by the whole impact of Jesus in his life, teaching and deeds, as the work of the Jesus Seminar is beginning to emphasise. And the theology of resurrection (which I take to be prior to the stories of an empty tomb or appearances) is primarily about renewed life on earth and God’s vindication of the justice-orientated life of Jesus rather than evidence for life after death. After all, resurrection goes along with the Second Coming as part and parcel of end-times thinking in the first century but do we still hold on to that?
Paul Badham has long been an advocate of the views expressed in this book but now so succinctly put. If there is a case for immortality then this is the book to place into people’s hands. It challenges lazy assumptions alive in our culture and is not put off by the recognition that the ‘shape’ which eternal life might take must by necessity involve a good deal of speculation.
The Christian Aid slogan corrects an imbalance in what a faithful Christian life entails but we need not be limited by that faithfulness to the present alone. His final paragraph deserves quoting:
‘A strong, living relationship with God includes trusting in the reality of that fellowship against the forces of death.’