On the Concept of “the Afterlife”

The phrase “the afterlife” can sound nebulous almost to the point of meaninglessness. There are a number of conflicting conceptions about what such an afterlife would be. Greek poets like Homer discuss fields where those who have died do live on in a diminished fashion. Among religions that continue to exert considerable contemporary influence, Christianity and Islam are two that assert that all human beings will receive a bodily resurrection at some point in the future. Since the body constitutes such an important dimension of human experience — consider eating, sexuality, competitive sports, and sleep — Christianity and Islam appear to be connecting with an important element of the nature of human hope: namely, that humans wish to one day live again not just as a disembodied consciousness (and consciousness does seem to be an incorporeal phenomenon), but as a unity of body and mind.

The Immortality of the Human Soul

Consciousness appears to be an immaterial phenomenon. Although it is undeniably true that many mental experiences are triggered by material interactions with the body — the bliss of sexual climax, the taste of a delectable chocolate, the vision of a picturesque sunset — conscious experience of these material engagements seems to represent a separate category altogether. If that is true, it would seem reasonable to imagine that the mind might exist independently of the body. This is in fact what human philosophical tradition has done. This concept, known as the “immortality of the soul”, is (obviously) not the same as the “resurrection of the body,” but it is a step in the direction of hope for a life after death. If the mind continues on, could the body also be reborn?

Reincarnation vs. Resurrection

In some communities, the concept of reincarnation is once again becoming popular. In reincarnation, a single mind outlasts the death of a body and returns in the form of a (seemingly) new human body. According to this view, Ryan Gosling might be the reincarnation of Spencer Tracy, and Abraham Lincoln (an abolitionist president) might be the reincarnation of Gregory of Nyssa (a very early abolitionist intellectual). Really, if reincarnation is possible, then it would seem reasonable to conclude that resurrection is also possible — at least in theory. The difference would be that resurrection would involve the reconstitution of one’s original body without the help of a “surrogate mother” (so to speak) who would be necessary in reincarnation. In any case, the human body as it exists today is mortal. In order to enjoy a new bodily existence, either reincarnation or resurrection is necessary. Catholic Christianity commits itself to belief in the resurrection of the body (Apostles’ Creed).

Human Nature as a “Marriage” of Body and Soul

St Augustine, a man of remarkable psychological insight, held that the union of body and soul in the human person may be likened to a marriage. As a husband and a wife join one another in marriage, so do the body and soul join together in each particular human being. According to this analogy, body and soul are not opposites any more than a wife and a husband are opposites. As a husband and a wife are both full participants in a marriage, so are body and soul full participants in humanity. Phrased differently, human nature fully participates in the phenomena of body and soul. Thinking of human nature in relationship to the ubiquitous social institution of marriage struck Augustine as a helpful means of approaching the relationship between body and mind.

The Goodness of the Body Affirmed by God’s Creation of It

Christians affirm (or ought to affirm) the goodness of the body because the body was created by God. The same goes for sexual intercourse. God said, “be fruitful and multiply.” This could not happen without sex. Therefore, the body — and indeed, bodily pleasure — are affirmed by God as being “good” simply by virtue of its creation by Him. Since God is good — the transcendent source of all goodness –whatever is authentically created by God is good. (Hence the importance of the metaphysical definition of evil as a privation of the good, rather than a positive metaphysical force in and of itself.)

Jesus as God’s “Yes” to Human Nature

Christianity insists that the Divine Nature in its entirety — its fullness — lived a human life in Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus Christ was “God over all” (Romans 9:5). “…he [Jesus] was in the form of God…” (Philippians 2:6). The Incarnation of God in Christ is an example of God’s “Yes” to human nature. God said in the creation account of Genesis that human beings as he made them are “very good”. In Christ, God offers humanity, in spite of our many failures, an offer of an everlasting divine “Yes”. God never says “no” to anyone who says “yes” to Christ. God “desires that all human beings be saved” (1 Timothy 2:4). God loves human beings, because he made human beings and even became a human being in the person of Jesus. In the resurrection of Jesus, God affirms humanity once more: he desires that humanity — a race of embodied souls — might live forever in communion with him.

Conclusion: The Human Body and Christian Hope

Catholic Christianity affirms that human nature is a unity (a marriage) of body and soul. Without a physical body, a human being is necessarily incomplete. This is why Christian hope is based not so much on the immortality of the soul as it is on the resurrection of the body. Although our souls are immortal (based on the unity of consciousness and the apparent distinction between the human mind and the human body), our souls depend upon our bodies for a complete human existence. The Christian hopes for the resurrection of the body, a reality made evident by Christ’s real resurrection from the dead in history and his subsequent appearances to the apostolic church as testified in the New Testament documents. In the resurrection of Jesus Christ, God affirms the human body. May we all live in the hope that comes from trusting in the event of Christ’s resurrection.