It almost goes without saying that most humans down through the ages, with few exceptions, have held some sort of belief in life after death. Even some of the remains of the Neanderthal unearthed by paleontologists seem to indicate that even these primitive people entertained some kind of hope in an afterlife.
Generally speaking, such beliefs seem to have taken one of two forms, or even some combination of the two. The first, and probably the most widespread, was belief in a "soul" or spirit of some forth that escaped from the body at death, possibly to be reborn in another body, whether it be a human body or the body of some bird or beast.
The second form of belief, less widespread, yet well-known from the biblical tradition, was in a "resurrection" or raising-up of the same body that was buried -- in other words, the same old shell, but hopefully renovated some and given, through God's saving power, new life.
Today, of course, such relatively primitive beliefs have fallen upon hard times. Belief in reincarnation or the "transmigration of souls" seems pretty absurd to anyone who thinks of our identity as individual persons is totally determined with our particular genetic makeup, sexual identity, and our specific location in time and space. And as the alternative picture of these same bodies rising up out of the grave seems even less plausible, for most Christians the belief in the "resurrection" has become more of a symbol of a vague hope than anything else. Indeed, except for those who have had some sort of personal experience of God, the life of faith, particularly when it comes to these matters, is more or less like whistling in the dark, even while the tunes increasingly make less and less sense.
Yet it seems that hope never completely dies. A century ago, the atheist, Friedrich Nietzsche -- famous for his proclamation that "God is dead" -- himself believed that given an eternity of time, every atom of the universe would sooner or later recombine with others in the exactly the same combinations that constitute our present existence to reproduce new copies of ourselves, even repetitions of our actions and our thoughts! And although most dismiss him as the mad philosopher whose ideal of the "superman" helped pave the way for Nazism, his dream of "The Eternal Return" lives on today in the speculation of some cosmologists who theorize about a "multiverse" that endlessly re-creates other universes -- though one hopes they do not believe that Nietzsche himself will return to haunt us once again!
Nevertheless, these speculations, I think, prove my point, that even scientists are loathe to admit that the long path of evolution, winding through billions of years of painful growth as well as loss, leads ultimately to a dead end, with nothing more or better in sight. In other words, while belief in individual survival after death may seem to be on shaky ground at times, especially today when science seems to have solved just about every mystery, still, some sort of belief, or at least a vague hope in the survival of the Spirit, whether individual or collective -- but how does one form a collective except through individuals? -- may be the only thing we have left.
R W Kropf 10/31/05AllSouls.doc 05-10-31.html