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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 Twelve The Idea of Reincarnation 191


Chapter Twelve The Idea of Reincarnation In its consideration of the doctrine of ‘immortality of the soul’, the last chapter emphasised that many Christians who believed in Purgatory as an intermediate stage between death and resurrection did not see it as a place visited by disembodied souls. Instead the soul was united after death to another body which was neither that of its pre-mortem nor that of its post-resurrection bodily existence. This chapter will consider such a post- mortem state from the perspective of a form of belief in life after death which has a distinguished pedigree in Eastern thinking about religion, namely that of reincarnation. In the West it is easy to associate belief in reincarnation with minor traditions such as theosophy or spiritualism, the outlandish viewpoint of a Madame Blavatsky or Annie Besant rather than with ‘mainstream’ religion. When an England soccer coach expressed his support for one of the crucial ingredients of this belief, namely that apparent misfortune can be seen as the result of misdeeds in a previous life, he was forced to resign his post. Yet from a worldwide perspective it seems fair to say that the doctrine of reincarnation represents not the ideology of a sect but a key ingredient in the belief-systems of two of the major world religions, Hinduism and Buddhism ( Jainism and Taoism may also be included). Moreover, the doc- trine is hardly a recent one – it may certainly be traced back nearly three millennia, to the writing of the Upanishads...

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