Issue 1 Spring 2013

Surviving Death

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Shortreads

Where Do We Go When We Die?

Gregg Ten Elshof


What the Christian tradition has to say about our eternal destiny

Just last night my 11-year-old son, Silas, asked me where we go when we die. He was not asking whether or not we survive death. He was asking the location question. Where exactly are all of these disembodied souls? I told him that we go to be with God and that the location didn’t matter much. It was a half-hour past his bedtime and I thought I’d give at least one attempt at a short, discussion-ending answer. The attempt failed. The discussion evolved into one about the relationship between the soul and the body. Where is my soul now? And how can we be so sure that my soul doesn’t die when my body dies? Good questions! And alarmingly more difficult to answer when asked by an 11-year-old than when asked by an adult skeptic against whom can be brought to bear all of the nuanced distinctions of contemporary academic discussion.

Christianity is, among other things, a wisdom tradition that stretches back thousands of years and which has had much to say about these and countless other questions of perennial human interest. Biola University’s new Center for Christian Thought exists to facilitate the best contemporary expression of that tradition in the form of cutting-edge Christian scholarship. Further, we aim to make available and accessible the riches of this Christian wisdom tradition to non-academic audiences. On our website is a rapidly growing collection of resources for thinking deeply, from a Christian perspective, about the questions that matter most. And this bulletin offers a glimpse of the work currently underway at CCT on questions having to do with our 2012-2013 theme, Neuroscience and the Soul.

I’m so delighted that this bulletin has made its way to you. We’re excited to offer a regular publication that is of lasting value. Its native digital format makes it accessible not only in print but also smartphones, tablets, and other electronic devices and we’ve loaded it up with original pieces on the topic “Surviving Death” from contemporary Christian thought leaders.

I was so grateful to have at my fingertips the fruit of this year’s work at CCT as my discussion with Silas unfolded. My hope is that you’ll continue to track with the ongoing work at CCT and that you too will find it helpful and relevant.

So what kinds of things did I say to Silas? Flip through this issue to find out…

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Shortreads

What Can Be Learned from Near-Death Experiences?

Gary Habermas


Should Christians trust the accounts of those who have been on the brink of death?

Do Near-Death Experiences (NDEs) potentially produce evidential reports that may indicate consciousness beyond near-death states? And do NDEs present conceptual problems for Christians?

Evidential Reports

Critics take the many NDE reports of dark tunnels, seeing angelic beings or deceased family members, and the presence of a beautiful, enveloping light, to be subjective experiences common to humans. However, some subjects of NDEs relate evidential claims that can frequently be verified. The closer the person is to dying and the more meticulous their reports, the more the critics may be answered.

In dozens of accounts the subject of the NDE claims that, specifically during their crisis, they witnessed items which were subsequently confirmed. Such observations may have occurred in the emergency room or elsewhere when the person was in no condition to be reporting such details. Occasionally, the information comes from a distance away from the scene, and may not have been observable by the individual, even had they been healthy.

More evidential are confirmed reports during times when there was no quantifiable heartbeat. When measurable upper brain activity was also absent, many researchers conclude that it is an even stronger case. If blind persons can also offer accurate descriptions during an NDE, this could provide still another angle. Actually, these phenomena (and/or others like them) have been reported, even in medical journals.

For instance, in a well-documented incident, a young girl had nearly drowned, not registering a pulse for 19 minutes. The emergency room physician observed that he “stood over Katie’s lifeless body in the intensive care unit.” A CT scan showed that she had massive brain swelling, and she was without a gag reflex, while being “profoundly comatose.” Dr. Melvin Morse reported, “When I first saw her, her pupils were fixed and dilated, meaning that irreversible brain damage had most likely occurred.” Her breathing was performed artificially and she was given very little chance to survive.

But only three days later, the girl surprisingly revived and made a full recovery. Katie began repeating an incredible wealth of specific facts regarding the emergency room, her resuscitation, and even physical descriptions of the two physicians. Morse confirmed that, “a child with Katie’s symptoms should have the absence of any brain function and therefore should comprehend nothing.”

Katie recalled these recent details for almost an hour. Further, during her comatose state, she said that an angel named Elizabeth allowed her to view her family at home. Katie correctly reported very specific details concerning the clothing and positions of each family member, identified a popular rock song that her sister listened to, observed her father, and then watched while her mother cooked dinner. She even correctly identified the food: roast chicken and rice. Later, she shocked her parents by relating details from just a few days before (see Melvin Morse and Paul Perry, Closer to the Light (N.Y.: Random House, 1990), 3-14 and Transformed by the Light (N.Y.: Random House, 1992), 22-23).

How do we explain these confirmed details from the emergency room and especially from a distance away, particularly with the probable absence of measurable heart and brain activity? Medical conditions like oxygen deprivation or temporal lobe seizures, or psychological origins such as hallucinations or faulty memory, have all been proposed. However, in addition to weaknesses in these proposals, each suggestion concerns a subjective internal state. As such, every proposal is confronted by an enormous issue: internal conditions cannot account for verified external observations. More specifically, subjective brain states cannot account for accurate descriptions, particularly highly detailed accounts, especially at a distance when the heart and/or brain are probably not operating. Accordingly, NDEs do potentially produce evidential reports that may represent personal consciousness beyond near-death states.

Conceptual Problems for Christians?

Several tough questions regarding NDEs have been raised from a Christian perspective. Examples include unbelievers often reporting positive experiences. Or rarely is a final judgment mentioned. Are NDEs occultic in nature?

First, we must recall our context here: NDEs do not concern irreversible bodily death, but near-death scenarios. They allow us to discuss the moments after a near-death state, not entry into eternal life. Further, as Michael Sabom reminds us, when near-death survivors describe what they believe to be experiences of heaven or hell, they are describing their personal interpretations, which often differs significantly from what actually happened (see Michael Sabom, Light and Death (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), 213-214; cf. 104-141).

The most serious problem is our requirement of citing only evidential accounts, which are almost always this-worldly, so these depictions of bliss fail to fulfill our criterion. Where’s the evidence that these subjects of NDEs were actually in heaven, without judgment? For the record, this critique would also apply to hell experiences—we simply don’t have any way to judge these private reports.

Could NDEs be occultic or satanic? Unquestionably, such aspects are sometimes described and we should definitely be very cautious. Yet there appears to be nothing necessarily or automatically occultic about the NDEs themselves. Further, aren’t these reports often within the range of biblical (supernatural though non-occultic) descriptions of an afterlife? Additionally, many subjects of NDEs are Christians or children without previous occultic association. Thus, as with life as a whole, some experiences are occultic and most others are not.

Don’t adherents of the other world religious also appreciate NDE research? NDEs do not determine which worldview is correct. Yet, if they provide evidence regarding a supernatural realm or an afterlife, that would seem to present serious challenges for naturalism. This may be the chief worldview contribution of NDE research.

Difficult questions do exist regarding NDEs; much research still must be done. There are also solid responses, as well. NDEs may even help answer some crucial issues in ongoing religious and philosophical discussions (for further details, see Gary R. Habermas and J.P. Moreland, Beyond Death (Wheaton: Crossway, 1998; Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2003), Chapters 7-9).

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Interviews

The Reality of the Soul

An Interview with J. P. Moreland


Why the existence of the soul matters to Christianity

Every Wednesday, the Center’s leadership and fellows gather for our weekly “Roundtable”—each of the fellows has an opportunity to present their research project to the group and receive feedback, commentary, and constructive criticism to the benefit of their work. These conversations, you might imagine, can get lively. But the discussion is always seasoned with grace and care—and of course humor! And Biola’s own J.P. Moreland is always good for a dose of thoughtful, critical examination balanced with hilarity and warmth.

CCT: In recent years, you’ve worked quite a bit on the philosophy of mind and the nature of human persons. Tell us about your CCT research project this semester—how does it fit with the current CCT theme, “Neuroscience and the Soul”?

JP: For some time it has become increasingly obvious to more and more philosophers that consciousness is not physical. Still, it is widely believed to be a set of emergent properties possessed or generated by the brain. I disagree. I take consciousness to be possessed by the soul (or self), and to be interactively dependent on the brain while embodied. My research is to develop a critique of emergentist strategies that seek to forego a soul, while retaining a non-physical view of consciousness.

CCT: Your craft is philosophy. How is philosophy, as a discipline, relevant to questions about neuroscientific research?

JP: Eben Alexander’s new book Proof of Heaven recounts his Near-Death Experience, which transformed him from an atheist/agnostic who believed consciousness was possessed or generated by the brain, to a theist who believes consciousness belongs to the soul but is in causal interaction with the brain. Now his transition did not require him to alter his view of any single, hard, neuroscientific datum about the brain. All that changed was his metaphysical view of the self. His before and after perspectives—emergent property dualism versus substance dualism—were empirically equivalent theories for which the neuroscientific data were simply irrelevant for evaluating. The real intellectual work resides in philosophy and theology, not neuroscience. My time at CCT has done nothing but reinforce this truth.

CCT: Why should Christians—particularly those non-specialists and non-academics—concern themselves with questions about the existence of the soul or neuroscientific research? What is at stake? What are your personal and scholarly goals for this project? How do you hope to see it influence the world?

JP: My hope is to get a broader hearing for substance dualism and to see that emergent property dualism is an unstable halfway house between strict physicalism and substance dualism. In the broader culture, I want to create doubt about scientism and materialism and to open people’s minds to the reality of the soul, God, and life after death.

CCT: Just for the fun of it, in 15 words or less, why do you think that the soul exists?

JP: I’m indivisible, possibly disembodied, a possessor of free will; my body/brain aren’t. 

For more from J.P. Moreland and more on the intersections of science and soul, check out these posts

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Shortreads

What Happens When We Die?

John W. Cooper


An overview of how Christians have historically thought about life after death

“What happens when we die?” is not a biological question. We know that our hearts and brains stop functioning. It is not an abstract academic question either. Billions of people have died, including some of our own loved ones. Each of us will die unless the Lord returns first. It is a personal, existential, and troubling question. So we anxiously want to probe beyond physical death—what happens to us?

Given only what we know from this life, the answer is a mystery. There are no decisive arguments or evidence, even from paranormal, mystical, and near-death experiences. Different religions and secular worldviews hold very different beliefs for widely divergent reasons—permanent extinction, reincarnation, union with the cosmic Life-force or Consciousness, Paradise with God, and various others. Who really knows?

Christians trust that God has revealed the answer in the Bible. We have the promise of eternal life through Jesus Christ. But not all Christians understand what Scripture teaches about eternal life and the transition to it in the same way. What follows is a summary of Christian beliefs about what happens when we die.

The Ecumenical Christian Answer

Most Christian churches—Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and historic Protestant churches—believe that Scripture teaches what theologian N. T. Wright calls a two-stage view of life after life. The first stage is between death and bodily resurrection, sometimes called the intermediate state. Our souls—egos, selves, spirits, persons—we are taken to be with Christ in heaven until his Second Coming, when our souls and bodies are reunited, all dead humans are raised, and all undergo Final Judgment. The second stage is final and unending. For God’s people, it is life and fellowship with Him, praising him as glorified bodily beings and reigning with Christ in his everlasting Kingdom—the New Heaven and Earth. For God’s enemies, it is everlasting separation and judgment. This vision is the ecumenical Christian answer.

This answer includes three dualities. The first is chronological: we exist for a period between death and resurrection and then for an everlasting future. The second is locational: we exist temporarily in heaven and then permanently in the New Heaven and Earth. The third is anthropological: we exist temporarily without our mortal bodies and then are reunited with them as they are made imperishable and glorious by God’s Spirit.

Different Christian Answers

Some doctrinal variations arise within the ecumenical understanding of Scripture. One example is the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory—that, between death and resurrection, some believers do penance for sins that were forgiven but not sufficiently resisted in life. Another is soul sleep, the belief of some Anabaptists that the souls of the dead with Christ between death and resurrection are not conscious.

Other differences result when Christians reject the dualities of the ecumenical consensus. Some embrace a one-stage view of the afterlife. They believe that we attain our final destiny immediately after death. Eliminating one duality affects the others as well—heaven and earth; body and soul.

Accordingly, some Christians—both fundamentalists and modernists in different ways—hold that at death our souls or spirits are immediately taken to Heaven with Christ and remain there for eternity. But then they do not affirm the resurrection of the body or the renewal of the earth. This is the position that is most like Plato’s.

Other modern Christians reject the traditional body-soul duality. They believe that it is incompatible with modern biology and it originates in Greek philosophy, not the Bible. Some who reject a body-soul duality affirm a one-stage doctrine of the afterlife: an immediate bodily resurrection. At the moment of death, God immediately resurrects us in his final Kingdom. They deny the existence of the soul without the body and heaven without earth. Other modern Christians who reject body-soul duality do continue to affirm a two-stage view. The first stage is a period between death and resurrection when souls—persons—do not exist at all, thus forming a gap in their existence. They exist again in a later second stage, when God resurrects them bodily at the return of Christ.

Conclusion

As a Christian in the Reformed tradition, I embrace the doctrine of the traditional ecumenical answer as the teaching of Scripture. I think that Christians should continue to discuss our differences in the light of Scripture and work to resolve them. Important personal and pastoral concerns are at stake, not to mention crucial issues of biblical interpretation and revelation and reason. For these reasons I greatly appreciate the work of Biola’s Center for Christian Thought this year on the topic of the Neuroscience and the Soul. But the differences among Christians ought not to undermine our common witness to the world:  That, apart from Jesus Christ, we humans have no real hope for the Life we all desire before or after we die.

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Blurbs

Love After Death

Kirk Winslow


Just as “life” means more than the possession of pulse and breath, so “life after death” is more than merely escaping the grave. For the Christian, the promise of life after death is really the promise of love after death, the assurance that our deepest selves will be welcomed into the triune Community forever. And this awareness—that we are loved beyond all bounds and measures—transforms us. We are not products of a nature red in tooth and claw. We are the children of love, called to embody love in every dimension of creation.  Nothing matters more than the tending of souls—of selves (mine and others). For these are the pearls for which God sacrificed all else.

Kirk is a passionate husband and pastor. For his bio, see here and here.

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Shortreads

Neuroscience, Biological Death and Life Thereafter

Jason Runyan


What the brain can tell us about life after death

What can or can’t neuroscience tell us about life after death? This question is becoming more pertinent as our technology allows us to uncover more about the workings of the brain. But why does this question even arise in the first place? It arises because many people have historically believed, and many still believe, that one will have a personal existence after one’s death. Other people don’t believe this is true. And the debate as to whether we do survive our deaths dates at least as far back as the debates between the Sadducees and Pharisees in first-century Judaea.

So, the debate about life after death precedes neuroscience. In this case, when considering what neuroscience can bring to the debate, a relevant question is:

What are the grounds for believing in life after death in the first place? I think the most solid grounds for thinking we do survive death come out of a certain way of living—one oriented by Biblical scripture and by being a part of a community that is shaped by faith in God—wherein one experiences what one firmly believes to be the work of a merciful loving God who:

(i) is the creator of the universe,

and

(ii) has definitively manifested Himself, and His promises to us, in the life, death and resurrection of Christ.

As a result of this way of living, many have experienced (and manifest) growth and development such that they come to live fuller, more flourishing lives. And this fact provides evidence of the work of a Creator who wants to have a personal loving relationship with us—even beyond biological death. And, given this, if God can create the universe, then He can figure out a way for people to survive death. So to sum it up: evidence for the existence of a Creator who personally loves people and will take care of them—namely, through His work through Christ and in His creatures’ lives—is good grounds for thinking there is life after death.

But couldn’t it still be the case that neuroscience provides evidence that rules out the possibility of life after death? Some think that, by showing that all mental occurrences (e.g., thoughts, sensations, perceptions) are dependent on brain occurrences, neuroscience provides good reasons for thinking that we are completely made up of physical elements. In this case, there is no immaterial entity—no “Cartesian soul”—that makes up that part of human beings with mental abilities. And evidence that we are not partly made up by an immaterial entity might be thought to provide evidence that undermines the idea that people survive death. The reason is: the idea that we survive biological death might be thought to depend upon the idea that we are partly made up by an immaterial entity.

Something close to what I have outlined above is I think the most plausible argument against life after death that can be provided on the basis of neuroscientific findings. There are, however, at least two issues with the suggestion that the dependency of mental occurrences upon brain occurrences provides evidence against the belief in life after death.

The first is that this dependency relationship does not rule out the idea that we could be at least partly be made up of something immaterial. We can imagine all kinds of entities that form very tight dependency relationships but nevertheless have some existence unto themselves. We even have a term for this interaction: symbiosis. I think it is the case that a story can be told about an immaterial entity (like a soul) that:

(a) possesses certain characteristics

but

(b) is naturally, though not exclusively, in some sort of “symbiotic-like” relationship with our physical bodies,

which is consistent with what we can learn about the dependency relationship between neural occurrences and brain occurrences through neuroscience. That said, why think something like a soul exists if we can also tell a story that perfectly and fully explains the kinds of lives we lead and all the abilities we have without appealing to the existence of an immaterial entity?

This question, however, leads us toward an even deeper question: Can we actually tell a plausible story about the kinds of lives we lead, and about all mental occurrences and abilities, without appealing to an immaterial entity, like a soul or mind? This question continues to be a matter of debate, and is a question that involves some difficult philosophical issues. But however one lands on this question, my point is this: whether we are at least partly made up of an immaterial entity is, in the end, a question that requires considerations outside the scope of neuroscience. Having said that, let me make one final point before moving on. If a plausible story of what neuroscience reveals can be told with or without reference to an immaterial entity, and it is somehow established that we can only have a personal existence after our deaths if we are partly made up of an immaterial entity, the believer’s initial grounds for believing that God will restore us after death simply becomes grounds for thinking we have an immaterial soul.

So that is the first issue.  For the second issue, putting aside the observations just made, let’s speculate that neuroscience can somehow provide evidence that we are not, even in part, made up of an immaterial soul. Even still, this would not be evidence against life after death. There is a tradition that finds its roots in statements found in the New Testament, and points back to the bodily resurrection of Christ, that maintains that personal existence after death is tied to a new bodily existence as part of a new creation—a “new heaven and a new earth” (Revelation 21:1). According to this tradition, individuals would have a personal existence after death even if they were purely physical beings. But, then, this question emerges: Is it conceivable that an individual, without a continuous immaterial soul, can be the same individual with a different body as part of a new creation? And, here, we have landed on a philosophical question, and thus, once again, on an issue involving considerations outside the scope of neuroscience. I should, further, mention that several philosophers have recently provided good reason to think it is conceivable (cf. Zimmerman 1999; O’Connor & Jacobs 2010).

The point I wish to make is this: good evidence for life after death comes out of a certain way of living, and neuroscience cannot, in and of itself, provide evidence that undermines this initial evidence. Rather, belief in life after death involves theological and philosophical considerations outside the purview of neuroscience, and is grounded in reasons for believing in a personal, loving God who creates and sustains the universe—reasons that come out of a certain way of life. Thus, neuroscience may help us delimit the means by which a person might survive death. However, it will never be able to undermine the initial grounds—rooted in a way of life and a set of life experiences—for believing in life after biological death.

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Interviews

Psycho-Somatic Unity and the Soul

An Interview with Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen


When systematic theologian Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen had the opportunity to work in Thailand years ago, he jumped at the opportunity. But he refused to do so without a command of the native language, Thai. He’d already had several other languages under his linguistic belt—including Finnish (his native tongue), English, and German (what trouble was one more?!). Without a language barrier, Veli-Matti had all the more opportunity to understand the Thai people at a theological level. The sentiment behind Veli-Matti’s language-learning carries over to his interactions during his CCT Research Fellowship in Fall 2012: he consistently exhibited a desire for mutual understanding and clarification, even when disagreements emerged; this attitude—which resonated among all the Fellows—removed communication barriers, helping to produce rich discussion.

 

CCT: You have described your view of biblical/theological anthropology as “multidimensional monism.” Could you explain a bit about your perspective on what we are?

VMK: Indeed, I name my own view “multidimensional monism,” although the term “dual-aspect monism” (which has been championed by the physicist-priest John Polkinghorne of the UK) is close to my own understanding as well. The dual-aspect monist thinks that the best way to conceive of human nature is to imagine it in terms of such a tight psycho-somatic unity that it is not really possible to separate body and soul (or body and mind). Rather, they belong together and it is a matter of the viewpoint from which you are approaching the question, or the experience of human nature of which you are thinking. My “multidimensional monism” adds that there might not only be two integrally related “aspects” of humanity, but many; and they can be referred to in various names: body, soul, spirit, personhood, etc.

CCT: In light of your theological anthropology, what is the image of God that we all bear?

VMK: While Christian theology has come up with number of different interpretations—and I see them all as complementary rather than exclusive of each other—ultimately, being the image of God means that not only each human person but humanity at large is put in relationship to God, the Creator. In other words, what makes us human, distinctive among other creatures, is that we are referred to by God. Hence, it is not a particular aspect of the human person—say, the soul or spirit—that is the locus of the image of God but all of the human being/humanity.

CCT: How does your multidimensional monism account for life after death?

VMK: Based on Christian hope for a life after death, in terms of resurrection of the body in the new creation, in communion with all God’s people and with Triune God, I believe that there must be both continuity and discontinuity between this life and the life to come. Discontinuity means that I really die at physical death. By nature, there is nothing immortal about finite human life (according to the biblical teaching only God is immortal). The principle of continuity, however, tells me that even when physically dead, I am not forgotten by my Creator. Rather, I am remembered by my God and when the time of resurrection comes, I will be given a renewed body fit for life eternal, as a gift from God. One appealing way of speaking of the “means” (or, the how) of continuity is to use Polkinghorne’s concept of “information.” This is somewhat similar to the Thomistic idea of the soul as the “form” of the body. On analogy to my coming into existence in the first place by virtue of genetic and other in-form-ation that makes me a human person (along with the slow social, intellectual, emotional, and other development resulting in a unique life narrative), the Almighty God picks up the information and creates me anew. I think this elusive idea is in keeping with the best of Christian tradition and resonates with current scientific understanding.

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Blurbs

Clothed with Immortality

Tim O'Connor


“The reason the general resurrection is held out to us as something to long forto hope foris that it’s not just a time when we’re restored to a bodily state. But we are “clothed with immortality,” as the apostle Paul says. Our bodies are sown into the ground: perishable bodies are raised imperishable.”

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Blurbs

The Life of the World to Come

William Hasker


Christians generally do not believe in life after death because of scientific evidence or philosophical arguments. We believe in the life of the world to come because Jesus rose from the dead, and because he promised that we should share in eternal life with him. However, we can’t help but wonder about this mysterious subject, and we often can’t help but be affected by the doubts and disbelief about life after death that are widespread in our society. Because of this, it is important for Christians to know that those who disbelieve don’t have all the good arguments! The contributors to this issue—Habermas, Cooper, Runyan, Moreland, and Kärkkäinen—do an outstanding job of presenting some of the best Christian thinking on these topics. They don’t agree on everything, as readers will quickly learn, but each is faithful, in his own way, to the Christian witness to eternal life, and together they demonstrate that Christian believers are fully capable of meeting the challenges to this crucial Christian belief.

Wondering where to go next? Check out this short read from Gary Habermas. 

John Choura, Jr.

Illustrator

John Choura, Jr. is a Designer, Developer, Maker, and Craft Coffee enthusiast in Long Beach, California.