Who Has a Chance of Living Forever?
Jesus said ‘The kingdom of the [father] is like a certain woman who was carrying a [jar] full of meal. While she was walking [on the] road, the handle of the jar broke and the meal spilled out behind her [on] the road. She did not realize it: she had noticed no problem. When she reached her house, she set the jar down and found it empty.’
The above parable is found only in the Gospel of Thomas (97:1-4), a battered Coptic translation of which was among the Gnostic scriptures discovered in a cave near the town of Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945. Nevertheless, it very much sounds like something that Jesus might have actually said and certainly fits in with his warnings about many being called, but few chosen (Mat 8-12; 22:14). If so, it is a clear warning that outward appearances, no matter how attractively packaged, can be deceptive and that those who feel that their salvation is assured because of their birthright, tradition, or membership in this or that church or religious organization may be very much mistaken. Although the kingdom of heaven may have been outwardly announced to us by God’s prophets, ultimately survival beyond this life is a matter of desire and of what is within.
However, so far, we have only been talking about a possibility, and one that seems pretty far-fetched at that. Now we have to get down to the business of assessing the odds of such a thing ever happening, and frankly, they do not look all that good. No matter how strongly we may wish it, what we seek appears to be, strictly speaking, beyond the capacities of human nature taken all by itself, which no doubt accounts for the wide-spread skepticism that it is possible at all. However, if one takes even a quick look at some of the experiments that are being carried out in some laboratories, particularly in the field of genetic engineering, the old biblical estimate of the average life-span being “seventy years or perhaps eighty if we are strong” (Ps 90:10), may be soon out-of-date.
Yet, even if science can make possible the estimated full natural potential of possibly reaching 120 years of age or can change our genetic components so that we can start reaching the storied life span of Methuselah, we still face the apparent cosmological limits discussed in Chapter 2. So unless we were to take seriously the closed or even repeating universe scenarios that have been largely rejected by most scientists, the chances of actually living forever in the body we have been dealt by nature, even if it were to be re-engineered genetically, look astronomically slim.
This, in turn, brings up the topic of what constitutes a person or self. Suppose, for example, that the universe turned out to be closed after all, and that eons from now there was another big bang, followed by still another, and so on, so that sooner or later, all the genetic combinations were to reoccur that might produce an exact copy of ourselves, and that eventually even everything we have done in this life would be repeated in the next. This, in fact, was the scenario envisioned by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche in his theory of “Eternal Recurrence”. Nietzsche, famous for his proclamation that “God is dead”—as well as for having died in an insane asylum—did not believe in the existence of the immortal soul either.
So all this raises some serious questions about our identity as human beings. For one, if we really have not been given a soul, but instead have to make or evolve one for ourselves, then we have to ask an even more basic question: who or what is attempting to do all these things? Even if our self-consciousness seems to be the most fundamental fact of our existence, or as the philosopher Descartes famously wrote “I think, therefore I am”, could not this “I” be largely a clever illusion? Might we not really be “a bundle of sensations”, a conglomeration of neurons in the brain imagining we are a “person” or “self”? In 1994 Doubleday published a book by physicist Frank Tipler titled The Physics of Immortality. In it Tipler explained how he believed that the concept or law of convergence-complexity leading to consciousness, if shrewdly implemented, could prolong conscious life in the universe indefinitely. However, on close reading, it appears that Tipler’s hypothesis only works within the parameters of a closed universe, and depends on a definition of life and consciousness that would include computers and various devices controlled by them as living, conscious, beings. Or conversely, as the science fiction movie “Matrix” implied, we are already simply software programs trapped inside a machine!
However, returning to the realm of nature, in this case, biology, the phrase, “bundle of sensations”, is usually attributed to the 18th century Scottish philosopher, David Hume. But this denial of a soul or even a core “person” is hardly even that recent. It is essentially what Siddhartha Gautama (the original Buddha) seems to have taught in his preaching of anatta (“no-soul”) with its corresponding doctrine of “dependent origination”. Thus, according to most Buddhists, everything in the universe is connected. We are, in a very real sense, the continuation of our ancestors, and consequently, our descendents are continuations of ourselves. It is not so much (at least according to the Theravada branch of Buddhism or “The Way of the Elders”) that individual souls but rather life itself that is reincarnated (Puligandla, 1975, p. 64). The same is true as well for at least some teachers of the more wide-spread Mahayana variety.
Thus, it appears that the main difference between the Buddhism and the Bible is not in their views of human nature as such. It is rather in the nature of the ultimate goal of existence and the process leading to it. For the Buddhist, life, like all nature, is seen as a cycle, offering the chance to return to an original but indescribable state of nirvana—literally, a “blowing out”, as of a candle, yet generally understood as entry into a blissful union with a greater reality (Baird & Bloom, 1971, p. 287). This greater reality itself, however, is paradoxically expressed in negative terms in which sunyata or “emptiness” is experienced as an infinite fullness that embraces all reality (Matsuo Abe in Cobb & Ives, 1990). Kitagawa (1974, p. 183-188), in particular, distinguishes three versions of Nirvana corresponding to the three major schools of Buddhism which are Theravada, Mahayana, and Vairayana or Mantrayana—the latter school exemplified in Tibetan Buddhism and the Shingon school in Japan. Yet all of these varieties share a common view of this ultimate goal with its promise of freedom from the cycle of rebirth and release from all suffering.
On the other hand, for the believer in the Abrahamic tradition, which includes not only Jews, but Christians and Muslims as well, life is a pilgrimage, a one-way journey, begun in this world, but leading towards a mysterious but loving God. Among Muslim sufis, the most mystical branch of Islam, the individual self is seen as if it were a mere drop of water finding its way back into a vast ocean, a simile that also found in Hindu literature.
In either case, it appears that basic to both Buddhist, as well as to biblical spirituality, is a fundamental process of “letting go” or attitude of non-attachment to self so that a higher nature, the “Buddha-nature”, or as Christians see it, that the “Spirit of Jesus” or of the Christ, may take it’s place.
Although this may seem a bit self-depreciating, especially compared to ancient philosophical beliefs that we possess a naturally immortal soul, I believe that these views, whether based on the Buddhist understanding of human nature or on the original biblical outlook, are not only more compatible with science but with the theological understanding of the dynamics of divine assistance or “grace”.
For example, take the recasting of the ancient Hebrew bashar + ruach = nephesh understanding of human nature into the Greek language as we find it used by St. Paul in the New Testament (Fitzmyer, 1968, 79:120-121). According to this understanding, we consist of a body (soma) of flesh (sarx) possessing psychē or mind (nous), but which, having become conscious of self, has a drive or will or a “spirit” or pneuma (best written with a small “s” or “p”) to become immortal. Yet, according to Paul (Rom 8:11), this goal is impossible without the Pneuma—and here we’ll spell it with a capital “P”—that same spirit, the “Holy Spirit”, that raised Christ from the dead.
However, if this is true, then what really makes us think that there still might be something of our natural selves remaining after death that just might be capable of enjoying eternity? No doubt there is something of a paradox in all of this. Yet, rather than under-cutting the possibility of anyone living forever, I believe that it is this essentially illusionary nature of the self that is the key to understanding how the hope of somehow escaping death could ever be turned into a realistic probability of actually doing so.
I realize that what I’m saying may not be seen as welcome news in this age of intense preoccupation with the discovery, realization, and enhancement of the true, real, and even transcendental “Self” that Carl Gustave Jung liked to extol. Since then, psychology, with its endless supply of new therapies, has largely convinced us that there has to be, underneath the various layers of our social and even ideal selves, a “real self”, or an “inner child” of some sort, just waiting to be reborn. Perhaps there is, but perhaps it is not quite what we imagine it to be.
No doubt, there is a basic genetic blueprint in each of us which remains intact, but there can also be little doubt that the expression of this genetic makeup has been drastically altered, for good or for ill, by the circumstances of our upbringing. Largely in response to or even sometimes as a contrary reaction to these same circumstances, we have, in turn, formed an ideal self or goal that we became determined to achieve, sometimes accomplishing all our goals, but most often with only partial success, and this often at serious cost to what our life might have otherwise been. Not infrequently, major work remains to be done.
Still, recovery of an inner child or an imagined pristine self can be at most only a preliminary step. At most, it can only be a necessary step backward before we can prepare ourselves to take a much bigger step forward over the threshold of eternity. In this case, evolution, by definition a process of gradual change, becomes more like a total revolution. And the fact that evolution appears to be headed somewhere, or seeks immortality in some way, by no means guarantees that it will be found. After all, if the basic mechanism of evolution is a kind of drive that can be characterized as “survival of the fittest”, whether the fittest are individuals or whole species, it can be expected, just like the fear of death or avoidance instinct that safeguards this drive, that having this drive does not necessarily insure its fulfillment. That moths seek the moonlight only helps insure that there will be more moths, not that any of them will actually make it to the moon!
The same is undoubtedly true for us. Despite the success of our moon-shots, when it comes to this business of surviving death we remain mere creatures whose ambitions have evolved beyond our capacity to fulfill them. In this we find ourselves in a situation not unlike that told in the story of the would-be astronaut Icarus, whose home-made wings became unglued as soon as his flight exposed him to the heat of the sun.
So where does this lead us? Definitely, it seems, “back to square one”, to the problem of the origin and even more, to the destiny of all things. For a theologian, this would be just the place to get involved in a long discussion over the nature of ultimate reality, the “Ground of Being” or the source of all existence, or what so many believers all too causally refer to as “God”. But this may not be necessary. It is enough, I think, at this point, to recognize that even though some people may accomplish some things in life without reference to “A Higher Power”, becoming immortal probably will not be one of them.
The “Higher Power” that I speak of here does not necessarily have to be understood in theistic terms, that is, in terms of a personal God, one in whose “image and likeness” we have been presumably made, but which all too often has been refashioned in our own image. In fact, the term “Higher Power” is perhaps the most appropriate one when the topic is how this goal can be reached.
Buddhism, for example, is deeply divided over the question of whether or not one can reach the goal solely through one’s own efforts. The Theravada Buddhists, who claim to be the most faithful to Gautama’s original teachings, teach that this is exactly the case, that is, that each of us, in a sense, is our own savior. On the other hand, according to most forms of Mahayana—meaning the “greater vehicle”—and certainly the most popular form of Buddhism, an appeal to a higher power, often personified as the Buddha himself, is considered necessary (Kitigawa, 1974, p. 174-177).
Christians might recognize this debate as another version of the old argument over the sufficiency of “grace” and the necessity of “good works”. Since nearly two-thousand years of debate have not settled the question, perhaps the old adage is best kept in mind: “Work like everything depends on you and pray like everything depends on God!”—or at least on that “higher power” that is beyond the human ability to fully comprehend.
On the other hand, have I proved that there must be an eternal life? All I have proved, I think, is that if there is to be one, it can only come from a kind of cooperative effort, a keen determination, a fierce ambition or a self-conscious evolutionary drive, coupled to kind of “faith” or a stubborn belief that there has to be something more beyond death than mere oblivion. Yet maybe it cannot be too stubborn. For if the various “faiths” really have anything to teach us, it is that true spirituality demands that we must let go of our illusory self or selves—and that there are layers upon layers of them. And one of these selves is that one which incessantly demands that we know all the answers and refuses to let go of the security of the illusion that we are always right!
In this regard—here I’m speaking of the incessant human craving for security—it is important that we understand the crucial difference between faith and belief. As theologian Wilfred Cantwell Smith pointed in his 1979 book Faith and Belief, the word faith, especially in the sense that it is used in the gospels, is a loving trust in God. It should not be confused with the beliefs or opinions that we hold in our minds that serve the purpose of bolstering or attempting to justify that trust. In other words, faith is mostly a matter of the “heart”, while belief, or more exactly beliefs, are generally more a “head-trip” or a form of understanding.
Thus, when viewed in terms of Victor Frankl’s understanding of basic psychodynamics, the obsession with absolute certainty turns out to be the very antithesis of faith. Instead, when Frankl’s approach is applied to the various stages of faith described by theologian James W. Fowler, we can easily begin to see the common reasons that so many persons fail to advance in spirituality or in the life of faith. As I pointed out in my 1990 book on the subject, this business of being always right or absolutely certain is one of the biggest bug-a-boos of organized religions, especially when it comes to ideas regarding the afterlife.
Take, for example, the notion of hell or eternal punishment. Almost all religions, including Buddhism, at least those forms that have included the idea of personal reincarnation—in which case one form of punishment would be to be reborn into a lower form of life—have envisioned places or various states of punishment reserved for the wicked.
Nevertheless, theologically speaking, there have always been serious problems with concept of an eternal “hell” as a place or state of everlasting punishment. This is despite the assurances of those who tell us that God never sends people to hell and that they send themselves there. Instead, it seems hard to figure how an infinitely good God could exact unending—therefore infinite in its own way—punishment on limited or finite beings like ourselves, no matter how bad we may have been. There appears to be a gross disproportion. This probably explains why Origen, one of the first great Christian theologians, believed that in the end, even the Devil (Satan) would be saved. This would make Origen (185-254 CE), if not a Unitarian, at least the first “universalist” associated with the Christian tradition.
On the other hand, philosophically speaking, a rigorous defense of human free will would seem to require that we have the ability to totally reject God and remain confirmed in that decision. But need such a permanent rejection presuppose or guarantee the permanence of the person who made it? If one of our basic concepts of God is “Being in itself” or the “Ground of All Being”, then a total or final rejection of God would be a removal of ourselves from the realm of being or existence. Here we can easily get bogged down in some rather tricky metaphysics, as well as linguistics. However, if we accept Augustine’s definition of God as “Being as such” (ipsum esse) or Aquinas’ description of God’s primary attribute is to support his own act of being (ipse actus essendi subsistens), then theologian Paul Tillich’s understanding of God as “the Ground of Being” may not be as redundant as it first sounds. It would seem to follow, however, that there is real difference between being and existence.
In fact, the verb exist/s—which comes from two Latin roots, ex meaning “from” and sistere meaning to “place”, “cause” or “stand”—implies a relationship of dependence on or differentiation from something else. Understood this way, it may not really be correct to say that “God exists”: creatures exist, but God simply is. Tillich also agreed, although for slightly different reasons. However, following the logic of this language, to be totally separated from God would mean to no longer exist. Likewise, following this same logic, that rather than thinking of God sending souls to hell, that by severing all relationship to God, we would simply be annihilating ourselves!
However, psychologically speaking, it is easy to see why religion has tended to portray hell as a “place” of eternal punishment. Freud astutely observed that it is impossible for us to imagine ourselves as dead. We instead think of ourselves as if we were bystanders or onlookers at our own funeral. If one needs to be able to have an “intuition of being” to truly be a philosopher, as Jacques Maritain used to maintain, then perhaps one also has to be a philosopher to intuit the state of non-existence—if one can even think of it as a “state”.
Given this difficulty, the resulting need for concrete metaphors shows up quite well in the Bible, where the abode of the dead in Hebrew is called sheol or “the pit”, with obvious reference to the grave, or is referred to by the Aramaic word Gehenna, derived from the Hebrew words for the “Valley of Hinnom”, which was historically Jerusalem’s city dump. That such language, along with allusions to “worms” and “fire”, was ascribed to Jesus (Mk 9:48) who generally taught in parables, is natural enough, especially considering that the same language is found in the very last verse of the Book of Isaiah.
It is noteworthy, however, that
Nevertheless, on the other hand, as Teilhard pointed out in his spiritual testimony, The Divine Milieu (1960, 128-129), every well-ordered community needs a dump, in this case, as “a structural element of the universe”. Yet he declined to believe that any person has ever been consigned to it. Teilhard’s view on this matter becomes clearer in view of his claim in The Phenomenon of Man (1959, p.272) or even more explicit in his 1937 essay on “Human Energy” found in the volume bearing the same title (1969, p. 160-162). All this language suggests, I think, is the human need to graphically represent what we are unable to fully grasp, not just, as Freud suggested, our own death, but even to fully understand or intuit what means even to be or exist in the first place!
However, having just dealt with this difficult matter, I
think we must also deal with one other major point of contention, especially
among Christians, and that is the matter of just who can be “saved”. Those who
lean toward fundamentalism tend to misunderstand the passage
found in the Gospel according to John (5:3) that reads, “Unless you are born
again through water and the Holy Spirit you cannot enter the
Obviously, for Christians, the “water and the Holy Spirit”
part of the saying is seen to refer to baptism. This ritual
bath, symbolizing purification or rebirth, was already known to any number of
religions, and played a major role in the message of John the Baptist who may
have been very much influenced by the Essenes, the Jewish sect for whom such
bathing appears to have been a frequently repeated ritual. It also marked
the inauguration of the mission of Jesus and according to the Gospel of John (4:1), may have even been
played a role in his own subsequent ministry, although none of the other
gospels mention it. So the problem is not the ritual, but rather is what is
meant by “the
Many believers often seem to think that this phrase means heaven above,
forgetting that in much of the New Testament, and especially in Matthew’s
gospel—written expressly for Jews who had become Christians. In this case, the
phrase “the kingdom of heaven” is often used in place of the term “
Instead, if we look at the gospels as a whole, we should be able to see that what the mission of Jesus, and before him that of John the Baptist, was all about, was first to announce the arrival of God’s plan for humanity, which they referred to as a “kingdom” or “reign” and as something that is supposed to take place here on earth. Otherwise, the second petition in the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as in heaven” would seem to make no sense at all. Baptism, then, is first of all meant to be a sign of openly declaring oneself as member or follower of this movement to bring God’s plan to fruition here on earth.
Many may argue interminably about just what this means in practice, whether it means some kind of right-wing “dominionist” design for the political order vs. left-wing “liberation theology” of economic revolution, or simply the individual internal conversion involved in taking baptism seriously. Nevertheless, it is obvious that what is meant here by “the kingdom of heaven” or “the reign of God” means publicly aligning oneself with Jesus in what Christians call the “church”—a word meaning the assembly of those called together to accomplish God’s will. But church membership is not, in itself, a promise or guarantee of salvation, nor is salvation dependent on church membership as such.
Thus, according to the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), the possibility of salvation or the achievement of eternal life is open to all, beginning with those who are, in the Council’s “Constitution on the Church” or decree titled Lumen Gentium (Section 16), “are related in various ways to the people of God.”
These others include, first of all, Jews “to whom the testament and promise was given and from whom Christ was born …”, next Muslims, “who professing to hold the faith of Abraham, [and] along with us adore the one and merciful God…” as well as all those who “in shadows and in images seek the unknown God…” or those who “strive by their deeds to do his [God’s] will as it is known to them through the dictates of their conscience.”
Even more surprisingly, the Council added, “Nor does divine providence deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with his grace strive to live a good life”. In other words, as shocking as it may sound to pious church-goers, the Catholic Church seems to be saying that well-meaning and good living agnostics and even atheists also can be saved or reach eternal life! The rationale that is implied here is that pursuit of the good is, in effect, a search for God, even though the latter is not (yet) experienced as being a “person”.
No doubt, many sincere and convinced Christians, not unlike many Muslims who believe that all “infidels” are destined for hell, will not agree with the above statement. There seems to be something strangely satisfying to some minds in believing that only they or like-thinking people alone are destined to be saved. True, the Apostle Paul, repeating the words of the prophet Habakkuk (Hab 2:4) several times, reminded us that “The just man lives by faith” (Rom 1:17 & Gal 3:11-12). However, too often, as I have already said, we have confused “beliefs” or dogma—a Greek word that originally meant an “opinion” or a “decision” handed down by some authority—with faith.
Instead, a faith, especially in the gospel sense of a loving trust in God, that would pretend to have a sure and certain knowledge, thus undermining the contrast between faith and “sight” found in St. Paul (2 Cor 5:7), would hardly be faith at all. To the contrary, it becomes a worship of certitude, and idolatry of the infallible self. It is this sort of dogmatism that has given religion—and sometimes modern science as well—a bad name. Indeed, learning to live without a complete or final answer to these questions may be a major part of the process itself. Either way, whether it be through the self-giving inspired by faith, or through the process of doubt by which we lose our illusion of self-sufficiency, we must be liberated from our transient and limited self in order to find our true and lasting self as part of a greater, infinite whole.
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