In 1904, less than six years before his death, William James made a revealing statement in response to a questionnaire circulated by his former student James Pratt. To the question, “Do you believe in personal immortality?” James answered, “Never keenly, but more strongly as I grow older.” “If so, why?” “Because I am just getting fit to live.”
Not a ringing endorsement perhaps, but James was sure of one thing: that the common arguments against immortality need not deter us. In his 1898 Ingersoll Lecture on Immortality, James set out with his usual relish to kick over the obstacles to belief. Chief among those obstacles was a general climate of learned doubt.
Our situation today is not so different. Although social surveys indicate that roughly 80 percent of Americans believe in life after death, it is a belief cherished against the grain of perceived official skepticism; and among academically trained religious thinkers, one finds a greater measure of skepticism than in the population at large. For many, immortality is not a matter for reasoned debate, but is simply ruled out of play, along with guardian angels and statues that weep. It is taken for granted, as if it were a premise accepted by all reasonable people, that no one seriously believes in Heaven, Hell, or Purgatory, in the life of the soul, the resurrection of the body, or the personality of God as the concrete realities they were once imagined to be.
One thinks especially of Rudolf Bultmann, who made it a cornerstone of his New Testament hermeneutics that the three-story structure of the cosmos (Heaven above, Earth in the middle, Hell below) is over, finished; it cannot be “repristinated.” Similarly, Jürgen Moltmann began his 1967 Ingersoll Lecture by observing that the old ways of thinking about the future life “have dried up like fish in a drained pond.”
More than any particular objections, this assumption that the traditional mythos can no longer speak to us weighs heavily against belief in immortality. The burden of proof shifts from the skeptic to the believer, and the believer finds that not only his reasons but also his motives are under suspicion. Belief in immortality begins to look shabby and self-serving, like something we fall back on in weak moments but rise above when we are at our best.
The specific objections to immortality are secondary, and can be briefly stated. Belief in immortality is criticized on moral grounds as self-aggrandizing, on psychological grounds as self-deceiving, and on philosophical grounds as dualistic. Concern for the soul is faulted for making us disregard the body, neglect our responsibilities to the Earth, and deny our kinship with other life forms. We share 90 percent of our genes with mice. Even the lowliest bacterium is our cousin. Why do we persist in imagining that there is some fifth essence in us that sets us apart?
To the first objection, we can say that there is no correlation between narcissism and belief in personal immortality. We feel the need for immortality most acutely when we are made sensible of the inexhaustible value of another person or the tragedy of a life cut short. None of the developed traditions about immortality fosters self-absorption. What are our images of eternal life if not ways of picturing a wider sphere of existence, a more generous personal life, less closed in upon ourselves, less fearful and grasping, more real in every respect? It is by contrast to the real person we hope to be in Heaven that we realize how self-absorbed we are most of the time here below.
As for dualism, much has been said of the violence it does to our unity as psycho-physical creatures, but this is questionable. Multiplicity and disunity are as strong a feature of our existence as psychosomatic unity. We are legion, as the demons say. It is a marvel that all our different parts work together. At best, we are a symphony; but the second violins have quarreled with the wind section, and as we age these quarrels increase. Why should it surprise us if at death the soul separates from the body? Separating is the order of our lives as we tend toward death. If a man’s jowls can sink down while his brow stays up, why can’t his soul rise up when his body sinks down? All of our flesh is being pulled downward by the gravity of the grave; every day our skin is sloughing off cell by cell; at each stage of life we slough off the skin of a previous stage; and at death we lose what was left of those skins. Perhaps that will be the chance to emerge as the person one was meant to be.
Against the charge that soul-talk is superfluous, there is the common witness of humanity that some language of this sort is necessary to capture the full range of human experience. Long after the human genome is completely mapped, and the neurophysiology of awareness and cognition thoroughly understood, we will still stand in awe before the mystery of consciousness and selfhood. We may be made in the image and likeness of a mouse, genetically speaking, but our kinship with the mouse is a kinship with life that is perishing. There remains an irreducible quality to our experience which tells us that we are not perishing with it, that we are also made in the image and likeness of Another, whose code is transcendent.
But if dualism troubles you—as it sometimes troubles me—there are non-dualistic ways of thinking about life after death. If you have studied classical Buddhist literature, you know that one need not be committed to a substantial soul in order to affirm the reality of persons, their identity over time, or their capacity for transcendence. Consciousness may be understood as an emergent phenomenon which, upon coming forth from its neural matrix, has the capacity to generate ever more complex structures of awareness, including an autobiographical sense of self. It can then be left to God to decide whether the self that emerges shall endure after its neural basis is destroyed. And once God is in the picture, the emergence of consciousness begins to look foreordained, as in the words to Jeremiah: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you” (Jeremiah 1:5).
The more serious challenge to belief in immortality is an internal one, coming from biblical theology, from the varieties of liberation theology that have captured the flag of eschatology for this-worldly aims, and from existentialist religious thought with its emphasis on human finitude.
The biblical case against immortality-language is plain enough. Like other Ancient Near Eastern cultures, ancient Israel bisects reality into two overarching realms—the heavens and the earth—and two kind of beings—mortals and immortals. As the Psalmist says, “The heavens are the Lord’s heavens, but the earth He has given to the sons of men. The dead do not praise the Lord, nor do any that go down into silence” (Psalm 115:16-17). To speak of human beings as immortal, to venerate them after death, or to conjure them by magic is to slide down the slippery slope toward the polytheism of Israel’s neighbors. God’s cult is the cult of the living, not of the dead.
Where intimations of eternal life do appear in the Hebrew Bible, they are driven by the same passion for monotheism and longing for communion with God that, at an earlier stage, had to exert itself against preoccupation (especially of a cultic sort) with the dead. Over time, though, it began to seem like an arbitrary limitation on God’s power to confine it to the realm of the living. Is it right that there should be any realm where God’s power is not felt? Is it not fitting that the martyrs who die in God’s cause should be raised from the dust and regain their youthful splendor? Is it not proper that wise observance of the law should confer an enduring relationship to the maker of that law? These are but implications of the promise that God’s righteousness will be vindicated, even in the face of suffering and death. They may not amount to a fully realized teaching on life after death, but they certainly can be viewed as preparation for such a teaching.
Step into the intertestamental period, however, and the picture begins to change dramatically. One encounters a stunning array of images of angelic metamorphosis, astral immortality, even apotheosis. What is impressive is not just the clear evidence of belief in a beatific afterlife for the just, but the giddy profusion of different ways to imagine that afterlife. Echoes of astral and angelomorphic immortality persist in the New Testament, rabbinic literature, early patristic writings, and Jewish mysticism, whence they enter the full stream of Jewish and Christian thought.
Some theologians have seen this rich array of images for eternal life as cause for alarm. In his 1955 Ingersoll Lecture, Oscar Cullman convinced his hearers, and a generation of theologians and pastors, that the language of immortality was unbiblical and sub-Christian. He sharpened the familiar distinction between immortality of the soul and resurrection of the dead by contrasting the serene death of Socrates to the anguished death of Jesus. In a didactic tour de force, Cullman set these two figures before us and said, “You must choose.” If you affirm immortality of the soul, you make Easter superfluous. If your hope is in the resurrection, you should abstain from all talk of immortality.
Cullman’s argument was electrifying. So striking was the contrast he drew that it was easy to miss his own efforts to qualify it. In fact he qualified it significantly, acknowledging that the post-Easter consciousness of the early Church gave all the appearance of a confident faith in immortality. This might be no more than a battle over semantics, were it not for one very real stumbling block: the interim period between the death of individuals and the general resurrection of the dead. Where are the dead? What are they doing? According to St. Paul, the dead are with Christ, and the Holy Spirit is their pledge of continued existence in God’s hands. To convey this sense of continuity, the New Testament and early Christian sources employ a rich array of images, all of Jewish origin: the dead sleep or wake; they are in Sheol or in a place of heavenly refreshment, light, and peace; they are gathered to the fathers or resting in the bosom of Abraham; they are sheltered under the altar or hidden under the throne of God awaiting the final redemption. Cullman, following Luther, would have us select from this rich array only the single image of sleep, a tidy way to dispose of the doctrine of purgatory and to downplay if not completely efface the cult of the saints.
Of course, Cullman’s lecture was just the tip of the iceberg. If there was any common agenda for the twentieth-century biblical theology movement it was to sort out Greek from Hebraic, individualistic from communal, dualistic from holistic, and otherworldly from this-worldly elements in biblical thought. Marked as it was by the compelling presence of Karl Barth, biblical theology could not ignore his insistence on the finality of death; it could not desert the theology of the cross for the allure of a theology of glory.
The revival of eschatology during the 1960s intensified the polemic. Eminent theologians like Jürgen Moltmann, Johan Baptist Metz, and Eberhard Jüngel, who envisioned eschatological hope as embodied in social and political praxis, were calling on Christians to close their ears to the siren song of immortality-language. Rejecting the medieval “four last things” model, which they judged to be individualistic, static, hierarchical, juridical, and hieratic, the eschatology movement emphasized the communal, dynamic, immanent, holistic, and future-oriented aspects of Christian hope. A similar impulse guided the implementation of the liturgical changes mandated for Catholics by Vatican II. Liturgical reformers sought to downplay individualistic, penitential, sacrificial, and otherworldly themes in favor of an ecclesiology of communion. Venerable ideas like the angelic presence at the liturgy and the Eucharist as medicine of immortality began to be an embarrassment. The lovely word anima, with all its bridal associations and evocations of mystical and ascetic life, was suppressed; and its vernacular counterpart (“soul”) largely disappeared from translations of the Roman rite.
As is often the case with intellectual revolutions, these movements were splendidly right in what they affirmed, but dangerously wrong in what they denied. The eschatology movement recovered the Christological basis for hope, indeed brilliantly so in the case of Moltmann. Yet that recovery was undermined by those who would reduce it to political hope, or would empty out its concrete meaning with evasions like “resurrection in death.” The liturgical reforms recovered the ideal of the whole Church as the body of Christ, but tended too often to reduce that ideal to a this-worldly model of egalitarian fellowship.
The result has been to flatten the symbolic cosmos in which the Christian imagination dwells, distancing modern believers from the great tradition of Christian literature, liturgy, and art. No longer can one read the Church fathers, the monastic tradition, the Anglican divines, indeed most of the spiritual classics of the Christian heritage without making mental reservations: “I must not allow myself to think along these lines; this is too Platonic, too dualistic.”
Even more serious, if consistently applied, the refusal of immortality-language cuts off the community of the living from the community of the dead. It shakes the foundation of funeral and mourning customs. It makes the practice of praying for one’s dead kin or praying to one’s favorite saints lose its rationale. It renders absurd the innocent resolve of St. Thérèse of Lisieux: “I want to spend my heaven doing good on earth.” This places theologians in the unenviable position of working to deny hope.
During the sixties and seventies, however, many eminent theologians were of the opinion that the ordinary folk in the pews no longer cared about life after death. We were finally done with such pie-in-the-sky considerations, they thought. Yet in 1975 Raymond Moody’s book Life After Life appeared, soared to the top of the best-seller lists, and spawned a succession of immensely popular books on near-death experience, all promising to offer evidence for the immortality of the soul. The public hunger for this material was seemingly inexhaustible, and it shows no sign of abating.
How should we view this discrepancy between learned religious opinion and popular enthusiasm? Should we chalk it up to the narcissism of our culture, or should we consider the possibility that something has been missing from contemporary theology, that a fundamental and legitimate need has been going unmet? People are not satisfied by an eschatology that focuses exclusively on social justice; they are not convinced that individualism is the root of all evil; they are starved for transcendence, hungry for miracles, and sure of only one thing: if life is to be truly meaningful, death must not be allowed to have the last word. Under these conditions, to suppress immortality-language is indeed to deny hope.
The good news is that recent scholarship has progressed beyond the campaign to de-Platonize eschatology, and a more nuanced interpretation has come into view. Without denying the advances made in the last few decades, we are now in a position to reclaim the language of immortality. It is a good moment to rethink what immortality might mean; and a little reflection reveals that it can mean many things. Suppose we arrange these meanings along a scale. Several distinct types will emerge.
One model of immortality—let’s call it Alpha—is immortality in its primary and obvious sense: physical invulnerability to death. It is an exceptional condition and not necessarily enviable: one thinks of the Mesopotamian flood hero Utnapishtim, the Taoist immortals, Dracula, the Wandering Jew. To be given everlasting longevity without being remade for eternal life is to live under a curse. It is Alpha immortality that Gilgamesh seeks in vain and Odysseus wisely rejects; and it is Alpha immortality that Paul Tillich condemns as another name for Hell.
Another type, Beta immortality, is immortality of the soul, understood as the soul’s intrinsic invulnerability to death, an idea we associate with Plato and with classical Hindu thought. Here the soul is immortal because it is essentially perfect, self-sufficient, impassible, simple, beginningless, and beyond time. Your true self is already immortal; you have only to realize it through philosophical self-scrutiny or yogic self-mastery. Among the classic arguments for immortality, Beta favors the argument from the inherent nature of the soul. It is Beta immortality that Cullman believes has been smuggled into Christianity from Greek philosophy.
Gamma immortality is a variant of Beta immortality, in which the attainment of immortality is a particularly strenuous project requiring heroic spiritual exertion, specialized knowledge, or magical skills. It is a path open only to initiates, who learn to outwit the cosmic powers, forge a new adamantine body, and storm the gates of heaven. The twentieth-century movement known as the Gurdjieff work offers a Gamma immortality path.
Delta immortality is a variant of Beta immortality that belongs to the Enlightenment religion of reason. What is eternal in us, according to Delta immortality, is our capacity for moral reasoning, which reveals to us the natural law common to all cultures. The elixir of immortality is a liberal education that awakens one’s powers of critical reason.
Delta immortality was the position taken early on by American Reform Judaism, as expressed in this official statement from the 1885 Pittsburgh platform: “We assert the doctrine of Judaism that the soul is immortal, founding this belief on the divine nature of the human spirit, which forever finds bliss in righteousness and misery in wickedness. We reject, as ideas not rooted in Judaism, the beliefs both in bodily resurrection and in Gehenna and Eden as abodes for everlasting punishments and rewards.”
In retrospect, it is easy to see why this softening of the demands of traditional eschatology was bound to fail. When the thorns are removed, a lot of the sap runs out with them. Immortality and resurrection, though distinct, have become so intertwined in Jewish and Christian thought as to be indecipherable apart from each other. When a Jew or Christian rejects belief in resurrection, what remains is an abstraction that resembles Beta immortality only superficially, for it is without mythos or askesis. It is reduced to a metaphor for the transcendent value of our animating ideals.
But Delta immortality still has its champions. Its chief appeal today is that it solves the problem of pluralism; its chief weakness, and a sign of its Enlightenment pedigree, is its disregard for the divergent claims of the historic religious traditions.
Epsilon immortality is yet another variant of Beta immortality, found in modern theosophy and spiritualism. It has many points in common with Delta immortality, but it is monistic rather than dualistic. Spirit is rarefied matter; energy, electricity, and magnetism are the key metaphors. The translation to eternity, or at least to the next world after this one, occurs by way of an emanated subtle body that carries with it in replica nearly everything to which we are attached: our personalities, our familiar appearance, our clothing, even our pets.
Zeta immortality, which combines features of Delta and Epsilon immortality, conceives of the future life as an archetypal or imaginal world, along the lines suggested by Carl Jung and Henry Corbin. At death each person experiences the ultimate mystery in the form he or she most deeply desires and expects. On an imaginalist reading, all otherworld visions are true. But are they true enough? For classical Hinduism as for classical Greece, for Buddhists and Taoists as for Muslims, Christians, and Jews, immortality means awakening from the world of shadows. If death is the doorway to a realm of dream palaces and docetic theophanies, then it hardly seems worth the trouble of dying.
Skipping over other variations that may occur to us, we arrive at Omega immortality, the central insight of Jewish and Christian eschatologies. It has two main premises: that human beings are creatures, composites of dust and God’s animating breath; and that they are created in the image and likeness of God, with a destiny—a royal dignity overtakes their finite status. They hope to see God, not because of their merit or strength, but because He has made them and stamped them with His image. To be immortal, then, is to be a mortal who has a share in God’s immortality (1 Timothy 6:16); conversely, to be estranged from God is death—or “second death,” which is either annihilation or a particularly wretched form of Alpha immortality.
The keynote of Omega immortality, for both Jews and Christians, is that it is a sheer gift. Adam and Eve may or may not have possessed immortality before their exile from the Garden, but if they did possess it, it was by grace and not by right. Hellenistic Jewish wisdom literature attributes immortality first to God and then only by participation to the wise man who observes God’s law. Similarly, when Christian theologians like Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory the Great, and Thomas Aquinas affirm the soul’s natural immortality, they do so from within the horizon of Omega immortality: our nature itself is a gift; it’s a gift all the way down.
The gift of Omega immortality is the perfecting of the divine image and likeness in man, known as theosis in the Christian East. This perfecting, coming as it does from a higher power, differs significantly from the Beta immortality ideal of self“mastery even though it bears some of the same marks of tranquility and freedom from passions. When Anthony the Great comes forth from his twenty“year seclusion, looking for all the world like a Cynic or Stoic sage, in perfect equilibrium and health, what radiates from him is the reflected light of Christ, not a brilliance of his own making; he is an Omega immortal.
Of the classic arguments for immortality, the one most suited to Omega immortality is the argument from desire. God has created human beings with spiritual and moral capacities, and therefore with good desires, that will be left unfulfilled if death is the end. Our reason and our piety are offended by such waste. Hence it seems only fitting that the God who uttered the spell of creation would reverse the spell that binds us to death.
Another kind of evidence for immortality can be found in the lives of the saints whose deification or sanctification by the Holy Spirit is the beginning of the great work that God will complete with the resurrection of the dead. In St. Paul’s words, the activity of the Holy Spirit in this life is the first installment of immortality. Omega immortality is the life of the world to come, already partially realized in the communion of saints both living and dead. Its effects are not confined to a circle of illuminati orbiting the divine throne, but spill over to all souls both living and dead who are—like William James—”just getting fit to live.”
Omega immortality is a universal vocation, but not a settled fact. It always has a dimension of longing and expectancy. The anthropology proper to Omega immortality is an ecstatic one. It is shaped like the Triune God, self-giving rather than self-contained. When monastic writers speak of the soul as a cloister or cell, what they describe is not an inner chamber enclosed upon itself, but a cloister that opens out to a cathedral, a cell that turns into a bridal chamber, a bridal chamber that will one day be a banquet hall. This was also Augustine’s great insight: my self exceeds itself, I become myself only when I give myself away. The best use I can make of myself is to offer myself as a sacrifice, in life and in death; at death I go up to the altar of God, and it is God who renews my youth.
Death is real for Omega immortality. At death, “we are like water spilt on the ground, which cannot be gathered again” (2 Samuel 14:14). Or rather, we are like water spilt on an altar stone, like a sacrificial libation poured into God’s hands. The pledge of survival of death resides not in the integrity of our personality or our memory, nor in any other ontological glue. Therefore, we need not feel threatened by reductionist accounts of the human person nor by the paradoxes of identity and memory that dog philosophical doctrines of immortality. Of course we will disintegrate at death, just as we have been disintegrating all our lives. At death we will descend into the land of the shades, but will discover that God is already there. He has kept our memories for us, and waits to restore them to us, now purified and made real. He holds the secret of our identity, which we misplaced around the age of three. How will I know it is the same me, if I have no subjective certainty of continuity, and no external guarantees? I will know it is the same me because I will see the same Him.
This point has been illustrated for me by a game my four-year-old is always playing with me. He pretends to be a baby animal; but he never remains the same baby animal for long. He always uses the same words to introduce this game: “You’re a person, and I’m your baby velociraptor.” A moment later, it’s “You’re a person and I’m your baby porcupine” or “You’re a person and I’m your baby mouse.” Andy can change identities at will, but I must always be the “Person,” the maternal polestar who remains fixed so that he can change.
For Christianity, that polestar is Christ, the archetypal person, the mirror in which the full extent of human possibility can be seen. Omega immortals do not possess their own immortality but are possessed by it, as it radiates from the risen Christ. They experience their beatitude on loan, so to speak, from the fullness of eternity that will be theirs only with the resurrection to glory. Their immortality is not timeless like Beta immortality, but comes stamped with a date, a certain Sabbath, Holy Saturday, when Christ invaded the realm of death and rescued Adam and Eve. The effects of Holy Saturday flow backward to beginning times and outward beyond the inner circle of the saints toward the larger company of mortal pilgrims and strangers.
The classical Christian view, expressed in countless catechisms and confessions, is that upon death the souls of the blessed enter immediately into the divine presence, where they enjoy the unmediated vision of God, join in the angelic liturgy, and attend to the needs of the living who turn to them for intercession. In restful industry and industrious rest, they await the return of Christ, the resurrection of the dead, and the renewal of all creation. Their bliss is perfect after its kind; but until the soul regains its body, and the whole body of Christ is complete in all its members, this perfection is, paradoxically, an unfinished work.
An analogy may be found in the Mahayana Buddhist bodhisattva ideal. If we take our cue from the Vimalakirti-nirdesa Sutra, the bodhisattva is a fully awakened being for whom it is an implication of his perfect enlightenment (rather than a postponement of it) that he remain in solidarity with all who are afflicted by illness and ignorance, birth and death. Similarly, the beatitude of the Christian saint entails the altruistic wish that all may be saved, death vanquished, hell emptied. For the locus of Omega immortality is not the individual soul per se, but the complete society created by God’s love, in which individuality is realized in fellowship.
In this respect, all fully developed teachings about immortality gravitate toward the Omega end of the scale. Plato locates beatitude in the polis rather than in a private interior realm, and in their mature form all religions tell us that ultimate fulfillment will be found not in self-sufficiency but in fellowship. From this perspective we can appreciate the idea common to so many religions that the dead may benefit from having the merit of others transferred to their own account: salvation is corporate.
The special genius of Omega immortality is that it never lets us forget that beatitude must be both individual and social, both theocentric and anthropocentric. We learn this from the famous scene in the Confessions, where Augustine and his mother anticipate the joys of the blessed in heaven. As they lean against a window overlooking a garden in Ostia, the conversation of mother and son becomes so exalted that they begin to ascend toward “that Wisdom by which all things are made”—and then, “for one instant attain to touch it.” This is no flight of the alone to the Alone; it has to be recounted in first person plural. Comrades in rapture, Monica and Augustine have experienced something like a foretaste of the beatific vision as enjoyed in the communion of saints.
How does one rehearse for such a vision? The best way is through liturgical adoration, which recapitulates the vision of God in the Temple and anticipates the vision of God on His Throne. The Psalms are full of hints about this. The presence of God in the sanctuary establishes a relationship against which death cannot prevail; hence it is logical that when notions of a beatific afterlife eventually begin to develop, they should take a liturgical shape.
The liturgy gives us our best and most complete picture of Heaven, portraying the life of the blessed as a choral and complex affair in which solitary and communal elements are fused. One joins in adoration with angels and saints, with the dental hygienist and the mailman, daring to borrow from the seraphim the chant Isaiah overheard: “Holy, Holy, Holy.” The divine liturgy on Earth mirrors the cosmic liturgy in Heaven, even as it recapitulates sacred history. If ever there was realized eschatology, it is here.
Therefore if we wish to decide whether Omega immortality is an intelligible idea, we have only to ask ourselves whether perpetual adoration is an intelligible ideal. Is our chief end to glorify God and enjoy Him forever, as the old catechisms say? Is G. K. Chesterton right when he says that “all human beings, without any exception whatever, were specially made, were shaped and pointed like shining arrows, for the end of hitting the mark of Beatitude”?
On this view, our inclination to adore God is constitutive; it is written into our whole being. It is not merely a subjective need, but rather a need so completely interwoven throughout our rational, moral, spiritual, and sensible nature that if it is illusory, then we are comprehensively false, we are creatures of mauvaise foi. One can imagine an “argument from adoration” for immortality. The object of adoration who made us to adore Him—can His will be utterly frustrated by death? Can His justice be thwarted by death? Can His love be defeated by death? Must we understand the details before we can believe that He will vanquish death?
Our ancestors were afraid of Hell; we are afraid of Heaven. We think it will be boring. But adoration cannot be boring, for one is gazing at the face of the beloved, and the face of the beloved is inexhaustible. We find it hard to imagine the kind of happiness that might flow from a condition of perfection. The very idea of perfection has become alien to us. We prefer to speak of “human flourishing,” an open-ended ideal that incorporates change and imposes no absolute standards. As an ideal, perfection produces anorexics and martinets, we think; only the “spirituality of imperfection” can promote human flourishing. But this is to confuse perfection with perfectionism; true perfection is evergreen and alive, including within itself everything that we value about change.
A further stumbling block is that adoration entails submission, both to the object of adoration and to the tradition that leads us to it. Submission is not a popular idea, especially where Christianity is concerned. I had a student tell me she had rejected her childhood Christian faith because of its emphasis on humility and self-abnegation; she then took up with a Buddhist group whose practice involved making hundreds of prostrations. The prostrations felt good! Perhaps this is a clue that adoration—when the object is truly worthy—puts our powers to proper use. It is a self-emptying posture, but also a stance filled with dignity and joy, the very opposite of groveling before a tyrant or an idée fixe.
If adoration is the chief end for which we were made, we would be well served by a tradition that helped us to picture that end, making it imaginatively plausible. Historically, both Judaism and Christianity have done just that, wisely tolerating a great variety of images for eternal life, and requiring only that the nonnegotiables, the essential insights, are preserved. Some of these images originate with Alpha or Beta versions of immortality; but if so, they are altered by their new context. The imagery of esoteric initiation, ritual purgation, the flight of the alone to the Alone, alchemical elixirs, spells for ascending to Heaven, and passwords for getting past the guardians of the planetary spheres”all take their turn to express the mystery of entry into eternal life.
Similarly, Omega immortality is hospitable to diverse images for the resurrection of the dead, from the seed imagery of St. Paul to the exhumation imagery of medieval piety. But this brings us to another aspect of Omega immortality that is, if not counterintuitive, then countercultural: its strangeness, in association with the bodily resurrection. Admittedly it is bizarre to think of martyrs’ bodies being regurgitated at the time of resurrection by the beasts that devoured them—but is it any more bizarre than birth, when compared to the more decorous view that finds babies under cabbage leaves? As George Santayana says, the fact of being born is a bad augury for immortality. But it makes anything else seem possible! This was the apologists’ main defense of the resurrection and it is still a good one—that with God, all things are possible.
The plurality of images and conceptions of eternal life is a normal function of the religious imagination. In fully realized religious cultures, however, the religious imagination is not capricious. It obediently serves and unfolds the central insights; it is handmaiden to what is received by a community as the truths of its faith. It is subject to correction, but wise masters of discernment know when such correction is necessary and are very cautious about exercising it.
We may prefer to view images of life after death as metaphors for the transcendent dimension of human existence. This is right, but it is not enough. Talk of the transcendent dimension is effective only as long as it continues to have a purchase on a concrete and living myth of the other world, a “true myth,” to use J. R .R. Tolkien’s expression. We can live by a vague creed only because our ancestors lived by a definite one; we can develop a second naiveté only if we still have access to the first one. We have been living off the capital of a concretely supernaturalist worldview. Once that capital is spent, however, our abstractions will seem like thin fare.
The iconoclasts among us would like to limit the ration of images we may use to anticipate what Jonathan Edwards calls God’s ineffable manifestations of love; yet there are times when even the most childish analogies can be of service. Take, for example, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps’ novel, The Gates Ajar (published in 1868 when she was only twenty-four), which portrays a Heaven of the most domestic and sentimental kind. In one scene, a little girl named Faith is describing her vision of Heaven to a friend: “P’r’aps I’ll have some strawberries too, and some ginger-snaps—I’m not going to have any old bread and butter up there—O, and some little gold apples, and a lot of playthings; nicer playthings—why, nicer than they have in the shops in Boston . . . ! God’s keeping ‘em up there a purpose.” A short while later, Faith’s mother explains why she encourages such fancies: “I treat Faith just as the Bible treats us, by dealing in pictures of truth that she can understand. . . . If I told her that her heavenly ginger-snaps would not be made of molasses and flour, [she] would have a cry, for fear that she was not going to have any ginger-snaps at all; so, until she is older, I give her unqualified ginger-snaps.”
I have been trying to suggest that qualified ginger-snaps may be a better diet for us than no ginger-snaps at all.
Carol Zaleski is Professor of Religion at Smith College. This essay is adapted from the Ingersoll Lecture on Immortality, given at Harvard Divinity School.