Ever since humans emerged as self-conscious beings, our problem has been how to cope with death. Animals know, instinctively avoiding death, but humans, knowing that they know, are generally terrified by it. Generally speaking, this coping has taken two directions, depending largely on two very different views of the world.
VIEW #1. Despite various creation stories, most ancient peoples thought the world is eternal. While it might go through cycles of decline and rebirth (like the yearly seasons on a cosmic time-scale) basically it will last forever. The natural reaction to such a situation is, it seems, was to imagine that something in us — a "soul" or "spirit" — would pass on to inhabit other bodies, one after another (the concept of "reincarnation" or "transmigration of souls") until finally freed from this apparently endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth to finally enjoy, as pure spirits, a realm of heavenly "nirvana" or endless bliss.
VIEW #2. But, as always, there are exceptions, and most notably among them were the ancient Hebrews who not only thought that the universe was created at a definite point (the beginning of time) but even more important, is definitively destined to end at a definite point — the very end of time. Unlike the pagans for whom personal survival in an endless universe was an obsession (just think of the Egyptians with their mummies and massive monuments) for the ancient Jews it was not the survival of the individual but the survival of their names, their family and race, and most of all, the future of creation itself that held first place. In such a context, if there was to be any survival of self after death, it could only be through a new act of creation, "a new heavens and a new earth" within which our "self" would be re-created. (In fact, despite the mistranslation of most of our Bibles, the Hebrew language had no clear concept of anything like a "soul"). In a word, either we will be raised up (that is "resurrected") by God's life-giving Spirit as part of a whole people or we are forever doomed to eternal death.
Christianity, quite naturally, when it first spread to the mostly Greek-speaking world, tried to combine these two views by reshaping the pagan ideas of the soul to fit within the biblical view, but the effort has never been very satisfactory, resulting in doctrinal confusion (who needs a resurrected body if you already exist as a pure spirit?) and perhaps even worse, an individualistic ("me and Jesus") view of salvation that paradoxically has paved the way for the self- absorption of New Age "spirituality".
As it turns out, however, contemporary science, especially cosmology, shows the ancient Hebrews to have been basically correct: the universe had a definite beginning (the "Big Bang") and will eventually, even if less spectacularly, come to a definite end. Nor can modern science find any evidence for a "soul" as increasingly all the phenomena that philosophers once used to prove the existence of the soul are explained away by modern psychology and the neuroscience. It seems then that Christians and others who hope for a life beyond death need to turn back to these earliest Jewish ideas and perhaps refine them a bit here and there — perhaps with the aid of modern physics. (Is not all matter, including our bodies, but an "energy state"?)
But even more, we need to go back to the spirit of Jewish thought and not worry so much about our individual selves as the future of all creation. True, it could be that the universe (as some religions have taught) is just a game of the gods, a plaything of divinity, and that the best thing we can do is try to escape from it altogether. But truly biblical religion says otherwise. It tells us that God is deadly serious about creation — serious enough to have physically entered into the game and played it out for all his worth. We can, I think, do no better than to do likewise.
R.W.Kropf 6/30/2000 Afterlife.doc 00-06-30.htm