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Death be not Proud

The Problem of the Afterlife


Mark Corner

Might people one day live for ever? Would they want to? What sense can be made of ideas commonly referred to in terms of an ‘afterlife’? What about notions of Heaven and Hell, of Purgatory and reincarnation? And in what sort of state are human beings expected to be during this ‘afterlife’ – immortal souls or resurrected bodies (and does either notion make sense)? What about the fact that any ‘afterlife’ concerns not just the fate of individuals but of society (‘communion of saints’) and even the physical universe itself?
This book tries to survey some of the existing arguments about life ‘after’ death, with chapters on material from Christian tradition (particularly the New Testament and the Early Church) and from the philosophy of religion. It then attempts to reach its own conclusions, drawing on Kant and Barth in order to suggest that death is to be overcome rather than survived.


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Chapter Four Where There Is No Death I – Heaven 49


Chapter Four Where There is no Death I – Heaven In Christian tradition death is associated with a particular understanding of the famous story of Adam and Eve – ‘a particular understanding’ because most Christian interpretations of this part of the Hebrew Bible would be dif ferent from those of fered by Jewish scholars working with the same texts. In Christian tradition death is a consequence of sin, and is therefore not a natural part of the life that preceded the Fall. Hence while unavoidable and part of the furniture of the universe in ways that can’t be wished away (even if it is not easy to embrace the ‘sacrifice’ of death quite as Bowker portrays it), death is neither to be seen as ‘natural’ nor as a ‘useful teacher’. Sartre’s view of the absurdity of death captures its futility (Being and Nothingness was written in Paris during wartime occupation) and prevents any facile identification of mortality with ‘beneficial learning experiences’. Christian tradition is consistent with such a view. For all that might be learned from it, death is an evil and Christian expectation is that eventually, in the words of the poet John Donne, ‘Death, thou shalt die’. Furthermore, the life of the ‘world to come’ is supposed to be ‘eternal’ or ‘everlasting’. Though the two terms may be understood dif ferently – the ‘everlasting’ being more of the same and the ‘eternal’ something timeless or at least in ‘God’s time’ rather than ours (these ideas are explored later), the implication of...

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