10/14/2012 08:54 am ET Updated Dec 14, 2012

Christian Illogic: Life After Death

In his blog over at The Guardian, Andrew Brown wrote recently that a major component of the attractiveness of Christianity is its “idea of resurrection into eternity,” the belief that there is an “afterlife,” a view that Brown refers to as “incoherent nonsense.” Brown thinks such an idea “makes sense precisely because it’s nonsense in earthly terms.”

If I read Brown correctly, what he means by this is that the idea of some kind of life after death is only coherent according to heavenly logic, since it is basically loony by terrestrial standards. Certainly, he’s right about that. It is loony to assert hope in something that material reality seems utterly to contradict. Things die and that’s that. We see it all the time with no evidence to the contrary (the moving poetry of the annual spring awakening notwithstanding).

Even so, it is also true that Christianity, like most religions, invites us to believe things that, judging by non-religious standards, sometimes seem nonsensical. I’m not thinking here of creation in six days and the like—even as early as the fifth century, St. Augustine mocked Christians who attempted to read Genesis literally. No, I’m thinking of things that society at large really thinks are nuts, things like Jesus’ commands to turn the other cheek, to lift the have-nots to the level of the haves, to prepare for the first to be last and the last to be first, and to be unafraid since every life is equally precious to God, regardless of wealth or social status, right down to the most nameless and faceless of the hoi polloi. These radical, nonsensical, illogical notions, contradicted by daily experience then and now, are ideas that Christians take for granted while signally failing to live up to them. They are also the loony ideas that got Jesus crucified in the first place.

Brown goes on to write: “It’s easy enough to imagine heaven or hell as a continuation of experience—for shorthand, look at the end of the Narnia sequence. But that can’t be right. Experience so far as we can tell depends on a physical substrate. No brain, no experience.” Of course, Brown is correct here, as well. It is easy to imagine the afterlife as something one experiences. And experience does seem to require “a physical substrate.” Brown’s implication is that death comes and the body decays so experience is impossible. What Brown hasn’t allowed for is that pesky illogical Christian logic.

According to many versions of Christian thinking on life after death, the end of earthly existence means the release of a soul that goes into the timelessness of eternity, either to heaven or to hell (or, in some cases, to purgatory). The good dead become angels, sitting atop marshmallow clouds, producing ethereal chords on harps, sporting fantastic white robes and golden halos, while the bad dead enter the realm of eternal and unspeakable torment. This is the view that Brown denies. How can there be experience without a body?

Where I believe he is mistaken is where he thinks the trouble lies. Perhaps it is not with the notion of life after death but with the kind of life after death we’re talking about.

The Christian Scriptures do promise some kind of continuation beyond our current terrestrial journey. But they do not speak about a human “soul.” They do not imply the dead become angels or that time ceases upon our deaths or “the end of world.” The end of time would mean the end of movement or change, and so experience would be impossible on that account, as well.

Very little, in fact, is said about life after death in the Bible. What its overall view of the matter seems to be is that the dead remain dead until the “last day,” at which point there will be a resurrection of all the dead to stand for judgment before God. Jesus’ resurrection, it is claimed, was the first resurrection of this general resurrection to take place hereafter. That’s it. No souls. No floating up to heaven or sinking down to hell immediately upon dying. And bodies everywhere. Bodies galore. Exactly the thing that Brown asserts is required for experience to continue after death.

Bodily resurrection is precisely what the illogical, loony logic of the New Testament asks us to hope for. And this is just what the only depiction of life after death that Christians take as normative shows -- Jesus, raised from the dead, not as a resuscitated corpse, but as a transformed human being, interacting with the living but not as one of them, embodied but in a new kind of body.

The New Testament writers and early theologians knew this was bizarre and they struggled to find ways to express the oddity of it themselves. Some, like Paul, confessed they didn’t have the words to articulate what this bodily transformation in the next life would look like. All they knew was that the promises of God and Jesus’ own resurrection as the guarantee that God would fulfill those promises bound Jesus’ followers to hope for this life to come, in whatever form -- pretty much unimaginable now -- it would eventually take.

Over time, for various historical and cultural reasons, Christians lost the notion of bodily resurrection and substituted for it the concept of a soul that went on after death. As a result, Christian hope for life after death eventually became even more incredible, as people began to realize that bodies, in some form, are required for anything worthy of the name “life.”

This is exactly what Brown has intuited, too, even if he draws a different conclusion from it. His take is that we have to give up the idea of life after death as incompatible with disembodied existence. My take is that we have to recover hope in bodily resurrection as required for the (currently unimaginable) continuance of existence promised by the “loony illogic” of Christianity.