Afterlife Beliefs

  • Michael Stoeber
Part of the Library of Philosophy and Religion book series


When one considers the problem of evil in relation to an all-loving and all-powerful God one must take seriously the significant role suffering plays in spiritual transformation, as well as the importance of other features of spirituality. In particular, as I developed in Chapter 3, the suffering, death, and Resurrection of Jesus illustrate for Christians both how God is open to human suffering and, more significantly, how people in their suffering might relate and connect to God in spiritually intimate ways that are healing and life-giving. These encounters of the spiritual presence of God constitute a ‘redemptive’ dynamic which brings deep consolation and healing to those suffering severe affliction. But these experiences also ground and model a hope for human life and the afterlife. They indicate the possibly transformative nature of some suffering, how it can stimulate spiritual growth towards a very beautiful and practical ideal of compassionate divine love in spiritual intimacy with God, other human beings, and all of creation.


Moral Evil Christian Theology Spiritual Growth Eternal Life Divine Love 
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  1. 1.
    I have chosen here, along with Marcus Borg, to translate the Greek ‘oiktirmon’ as ‘compassion’. Stephen Hawkes-Teeples informed me that this word is not the common Greek word for ‘mercy’ in the New Testament, being found only once in Luke and once in The Letter of James. Borg thinks that it was part of the Gospel of Q the verse being present in a redacted form (‘perfect’) in Matthew 5: 48. Also, Borg writes: ‘Quite often the Hebrew words for compassion and com-passionate are translated into English as mercy and merciful. But compassion is quite different from mercy, and being compassionate quite different from being merciful. In English mercy and merciful most commonly imply a superior in relationship to a subordinate, and also a situation of wrongdoing: one is merciful towards somebody to whom one has the right (or power) to act otherwise. Compassion suggests something else. To paraphrase William Blake, mercy wears a human face, and compassion a human heart.’ Marcus Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994), pp. 46–8, 62 note 1. Perhaps the traditional stress in Christian theodicy on retributive punishment has influenced somewhat this tendency in translation. Borg also notes how in Hebrew the singular form of compassion means ‘womb’. In reference to God, then, compassion carries with it powerful images of maternal carrying, birthing, holding, nourishing and protecting (pp. 48–9).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Dorothee Soelle, Suffering, trans. Everett R. Kalin (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975), p. 114.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    For a fascinating historical survey of this speculation see Alan E. Bernstein, The Formation of Hell: Death and Retribution in the Ancient and Early Christian Worlds (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993).Google Scholar
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  5. 4.
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  6. 5.
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    Other significant proponents of the doctrine of universal salvation include John Scotus Erigena, Giordano Bruno, Spinoza, and Schleiermacher. See Baron F. von Hügel, ‘What Do We Mean By Heaven? And What Do We Mean By Hell?’ in Essays and Addresses on the Philosophy of Religion, Vol. I (London: J. M. Dent, 1921), p. 220.Google Scholar
  10. Also, for a historical outline of the belief and a survey of current Roman Catholic responses to the issue, focusing especially on Hans Urs von Balthasar, see John R. Sachs, ‘Current Eschatology: Universal Salvation and the Problem of Evil,’ Theological Studies, Vol. 52 (1991), 227–54.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    The other themes of theodicy in Augustine’s writings are the privation of the good, the aesthetic, and the teleological. With regard to the teleological and the aesthetic, he writes: ‘When happiness is the lot of those who sin not, the world is perfect; and it is no less perfect when unhappiness is the lot of sinners. But because those souls are not lacking which become unhappy when they sin and happy when they do right, the world is always full and perfect with all natures. For sin and the punishment of sin are not properly natures, but conditions of nature: the former being voluntary, the latter is applied in expiation, so that nature is ordered where it may not be a disgrace, and made to conform to the glory of the universe, so that the penalty of sin corrects the disgrace of sin.’ Augustine, St Augustine on Free Will, trans. Carroll Mason Sparrow (Charlottesville: University of Virginia, 1947), III, ix, 26; p. 108.Google Scholar
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    The importance of this contrast between heaven and hell applies even for contemporary Roman Catholic theologians who distinguish the logical status of afterlife possibilities in terms of fact (salvation) and possibility (hell). See Peter Phan, ‘Contemporary Context and Issues in Eschatology’, Theological Studies, Vol. 55 (1994) 516, 531. In that essay Phan gives a critical overview of the document De quibusdam quaestionibus actualibus circa eschatologiam (1992) by the International Theological Commission. This document is translated as ‘Some Current Questions in Eschatology,’ Irish Theological Quarterly, Vol. 58 (1992), 209–43.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Peter Phan, ‘Contemporary Context,’ 531–2. Both Karl Rahner and Hans Urs von Balthasar stress in their theology this point of hope for universal salvation. See especially von Balthasar, Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved? (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988).Google Scholar
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    Karl Rahner writes: mysticism has ‘a paradigmatic character, an exemplary function, to make clear to the Christian what really happens and is meant when his faith tells him that God’s self-communication is given to him in grace and accepted in freedom whenever he believes, hopes and loves.’ Karl Rahner, The Practice of Faith: A Handbook of Contemporary Spirituality, ed. Karl Lehmann and Albert Raffelt (New York: Crossroad, 1984), p. 70.Google Scholar
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  21. 26.
    Irenaeus writes: ‘And to as many as continue in their love towards God, does He grant communion with Him. But communion with God is life and light, and the enjoyment of all the benefits which He has in store. But on as many as, according to their own choice, depart from God, He inflicts that separation from Himself which they have chosen of their own accord … God, however, does not punish them immediately of Himself, but that punishment falls upon them because they are destitute of all that is good. … It is in this matter just as occurs in the case of a flood of light: those who have blinded themselves, or have been blinded by others, are forever deprived of the enjoyment of light. It is not, [however], that the light has inflicted upon them the penalty of blindness, but it is that the blindness itself has brought calamity upon them.’ Irenaeus Against Heresies, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, I, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1979), V, 27, 2. My thanks to Bill Loewe, for bringing this reference to my attention. This portrayal of hell as the lack of the fulfilment of spiritual potential and the absence of beatific communion is also present in Augustine’s writings, but notice how he frames the question in terms of anger and fear, and does not mention agape: ‘If one were to experience [the anger of God], even the slightest aspect of it that can be imagined, taken by itself: to perish from the kingdom of God, to be an exile from the City of God, to be alienated from the life of God, to lack the immensity of God’s sweetness, which he reserved for those who fear him and perfected for those hoping in him, that fate, if it were eternal, would nonetheless be so great a punishment that no torment which we know here, were it to last for as many ages as we can conceive, may be compared with it.’ (Enchiridion 29.112.65–71). As quoted in Alan E. Bernstein, The Formation of Hell, pp. 330–1.Google Scholar
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    C. S. Lewis (ed.), George MacDonald: An Anthology (New York: Macmillan, 1948), p. 85.Google Scholar
  23. See also Keith E. Yandell, ‘The Doctrine of Hell and Moral Philosophy’, Religious Studies, Vol. 28 (1992), especially 79–80, 81, 85,CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. and George Grant, Philosophy in the Mass Age (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995), p. 36.Google Scholar
  25. For a contemporary Roman Catholic version of this view of hell, see Dermot A. Lane, Keeping Hope Alive: Stirrings in Christian Theology (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1996), pp. 140–2.Google Scholar
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    Jean Vanier, Becoming Human (Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 1998), pp. 9–10.Google Scholar
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    Simone Weil, ‘The Love of God and Affliction’, Simone Weil: Writings Selected With an Introduction, ed. Eric O. Springsted (Mayknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1998), p. 44.Google Scholar
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    Marilyn McCord Adams, ‘The Problem of Hell: A Problem of Evil for Christians’, in Reasoned Faith: Essays in Philosophical Theology in Honour of Norman Kretzmann, ed. Eleanore Stump (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993), p. 313.Google Scholar
  30. 34.
    Sayers summarizes this traditional view of purgatory: ‘What is left to be done in Purgatory is the purging of the reatus, so far as there may not have been time or opportunity to do this on earth, and, especially, the cleansing of the soul from the stain of sin. By this is meant the damage done to the soul by the habit of sinfulness — the coarsening of fibre, and the clouding of the mind and imagination … So long as there remains in the soul the least trace of consent to sin, this clouding and coarsening remain to fetter the will and judgement. Only when the clear sight and tender conscience are restored is the soul set free to stand before the unveiled light of the presence of God, which otherwise it could not endure.’ (p. 58) For an illuminating outline of the traditional Catholic view of purgatory, with special attention to the developments in St Thomas Aquinas and Dante, see the ‘Introduction’ by Dorothy L. Sayers to The Comedy of Dante Alighieri The Florentine, Cantica II: Purgatory (Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1955), especially pp. 54–61.Google Scholar
  31. 37.
    Dermot Lane, Keeping Hope Alive (New York: Paulist Press, 1996), pp. 147–8. Also in regards to the idea of spiritual transformation, Peter Phan calls for some expansion on the Roman Catholic version of purgatory that is espoused in De quibusdam quaestionibus actualibus circa eschatologiam by the International Theological Commission in 1992. He writes: ‘It lacks an anthropology to account for the necessity of “purification”. Its language is still impersonal and objectivistic. It speaks of “stains” resulting from sins that need to be removed. Missing is an understanding of the human person as a multileveled being whose innermost center requires a process of integration and transformation to be fully united with God, even though guilt has been forgiven.’ Peter Phan, ‘Contemporary Context and Issues in Eschatology’, p. 519. Both Phan and Lane are following in part the lead of Karl Rahner who writes that ‘because of the many levels of man, and consequently because of the unequal phases in the process of becoming in which he reaches fulfilment in all of his dimensions, it [the Catholic doctrine of purgatory] seems to teach that there is a process of maturation “after” death for the whole person. It is a process in which his basic decision permeates the whole length and breadth of his reality.’ Foundations of Christian Faith: An Introduction to the Idea of Christianity, trans. William V. Dych (New York, Seabury Press, 1978), pp. 441–2. To the concerns expressed by Phan and Lane, I would add the importance of the process of healing in contemporary conceptions of purgatory. For conjecture concerning the possibility of purgatory as a realm suitable for further transformation to the divine life, see Origen (185–254 AD), On First Principles, especially Book 4, Chapter 3, where he gives a fascinating speculative account in terms of detailed allegorical interpretation of scripture. He writes ‘just as the souls born on this earth of ours either come back from the lower world to higher places by their desire of better things and so take a human body or descend as far to us from better places, so also those places that are above in the firmament are inhabited by some souls that have progressed from our abode to better things, and also by other souls that have fallen from heavenly places as far as to the firmament but have not sinned so greatly as to be thrust down to the lower places that we inhabit … The firmament is a lower world by comparison with the higher heaven, and this earth that we inhabit is called a lower world by comparison with the firmament, and further, by comparison with the lower world that is under us, we are said to be heaven, so that what to some is the lower world is to others heaven.’ On First Principles, Book 4, Chapter 3, Section 10, from Origen, The Classics of Western Spirituality, trans. Rowan A. Greer (New York: Paulist Press, 1979), p. 198. Geddes MacGregor gives an interesting discussion of the controversies surrounding Origen in a chapter in Reincarnation in Christianity: A New Vision of the Role of Rebirth in Christian Thought (Wheaton, IL: Quest, 1978), pp. 48–62. It is also interesting to note Joseph Wilson Trigg’s evaluation of the effectiveness of Origen’s theology as theodicy: Origen’s theology ‘is a vision of extraordinary moral grandeur and perhaps as satisfactory a solution, from the perspective of faith, to the problem of theodicy as has ever been suggested’. Origen: The Bible and Philosophy in the Third-century Church (Atlanta: John Knox Press. 1983), p. 111. No doubt such a claim is considerably circumscribed by the fact that the Church eventually rejects Origen’s views concerning the nature of the resurrected body, universal salvation, and the pre-existence of souls, and that his Christology and methodologies come under criticism. Still, Origen’s influence on Christian theological developments is momentous (for example, in terms of the establishment of the scriptural canon, the methods of biblical exegesis, and the theology of spiritual ascent) and it is significant, as Trigg notes, that ‘[the] twentieth century has witnessed an extraordinary rebirth of interest in and appreciation of Origen among Catholic theologians, including Karl Rahner, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Jean Cardinal Daniélou, and Henri Cardinal de Lubac’ (pp. 256–7). Finally, I should also note the view of Keith Ward, who, though he does not speak of the condition as ‘purgatory’, suggests that: ‘It might be better to think of there being a continuum from the deepest Hell to the most blissful Paradise, with many worlds between, between which souls can progress in greater knowledge of their true nature and relation to God, still enduring conflict and frustration to varying degrees … They enter the dream-worlds of death, a whole continuum of worlds, from worlds of apparently endless suffering to worlds of apparently timeless bliss. They enter the world which best expresses their spiritual state at death, and they then progress through these worlds, or remain in them, in accordance with their own continuing spiritual development.’ Religion and Human Nature (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998) 275–6.Google Scholar
  32. The contemporary development of this theme originates in John Hick, Death and Eternal Life (Glasgow: William Collins, 1976).Google Scholar
  33. 39.
    See, for example, G. C. Nayak, Evil, Karma and Reincarnation (Santiniketan, West Bengal: Centre of Advanced Study in Philosophy, Visva-Bharati, 1973). Nayak argues that retributive rebirth provides the most effective theodicy.Google Scholar
  34. 40.
    For example, the Laws of Manu, an important book on Hindu dharma (duty, law) states, ‘Thus, in consequence of a remnant of the guilt are born idiots, dumb, blind, deaf and deformed men, despised by the virtuous.’ As quoted in Klaus K. Klostermaier, A Survey of Hinduism, 2nd edn (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1994), p. 178. My emphasis.Google Scholar
  35. 41.
    Rebirth is a belief common to the Kabbalah since at least the late twelfth century. Gershom Scholem provides a brief historical overview of the belief (what he calls gilgul — transmigration) in Kabbalah (New York: Meridian Books, 1978), pp. 344–8. Scholem writes: ‘gilgul provides an opportunity for restitution. While some emphasized more strongly the aspect of justice in transmigration, and some that of mercy, its singular purpose was always the purification of the soul and the opportunity, in a new trial, to improve its deeds.’ (p. 346)Google Scholar
  36. For a modern Hindu perspective of soul-making rebirth, see Sri Aurobindo Ghose, The Problem of Rebirth, in Sri Aurobindo Birth Centenary Library, Vol. 16 (Pondicherry, India: Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust, 1971).Google Scholar
  37. For modern Christian proposals, see: Anonymous, Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism, trans. Robert A. Powell (Warwick, NY: Amity House, 1985), especially pp. 92–4, 360–2;Google Scholar
  38. and books by Geddes MacGregor, Reincarnation in Christianity: A New Vision of the Role of Rebirth in Christian Thought (Wheaton, Illinois: Quest, 1978), and Reincarnation as a Christian Hope (Totowa, New Jersey: Barnes & Noble, 1982). Andrew Chignell draws on the theme of reincarnation in responding to the problem of infant suffering. See ‘The Problem of Infant Suffering,’ Religious Studies, Vol. 34 (1998) 205–17 and ‘Infant Suffering Revisited,’ Religious Studies, Vol. 37 (2001) 475–84.Google Scholar
  39. Also, for an interesting discussion of some of the conditions and issues surrounding the growing appeal of rebirth in the west, see David S. Toolan, ‘Reincarnation and Modern Gnosis’, Reincarnation or Resurrection?, Concilium, ed. Herman Häring and Johann-Baptist Metz (London: SCM Press, 1993), pp. 32–45. Both rebirth and purgatory are explored in a preliminary way in Michael Stoeber, Evil and the Mystics’ God, Chapter 10, and in ‘Personal Identity and Rebirth,’ Religious Studies, Vol. 26 (1990) 493–500. In those writings I suggested that certain versions of soul-making rebirth are more plausible and cogent than those of probationary or soul-making purgatory. My view has since changed in support of purgatory, in light especially of considerations on the nature and effects of destructive suffering. Even if soul-making rebirth is true, one can still imagine an intermediary realm were certain healing and learning might occur that cannot happen in this world. I think the possibility of soul-making purgatory does not necessarily discredit the appropriateness of this world as a soul-making environment, as I previously thought. Moreover, aside from some of the evidence surrounding paradeath phenomena that supports the possibility, there is great mystery surrounding birth and death which is perhaps also suggestive of the possibility of an intermediary realm or realms of existence.Google Scholar
  40. 44.
    The effectiveness of retributive rebirth as a theme of theodicy has been brought into question by various writers, including: Paul Edwards ‘The Case Against Reincarnation,’ Free Inquiry, Vol. 6, No. 4 (1986), pp. 24–43 and Vol. 7, Nos 1–3 (1987), pp. 38–48, 38–49, 46–53, and Reincarnation: A Critical Examination (New York: Prometheus Books, 1996);Google Scholar
  41. and Whitley R. P. Kaufman, ‘Karma, Rebirth, and the Problem of Evil,’ Philosophy East & West, Vol. 55 (2005), 15–32. Kaufman questions the effectiveness of rebirth in explaining ‘the presence in the world of human suffering and misery’ (19), even if it were true, given problems associated with the lack of past-life memories, the apparent disproportion of suffering for specific misdeeds, the question of the infinite regress of past karma, the problem of explaining death as evil, the problem of free will with respect to karma, and the fact that the theory is not publicly verifiable. The underlying issue which seriously hinders the effectiveness of Kaufman’s critique (and the concerns of Edwards as well) is that he fails to distinguish between retributive and soul-making versions of rebirth. Effective afterlife visions need to presume that all punishment (even apparently retributive) serves some reformative purpose. In such views of reformative rebirth not all suffering — and certainly not destructive suffering — is considered a retributive consequence of one’s specific misdeeds. Effective soul-making rebirth moves away from hardline and strict mechanistic pictures of karma, suggesting how devastating tragedy sometimes simply befalls a person, regardless of his or her previous attitudes and behaviour. It introduces elements of chance into the picture and insists that all just punishment needs to contain reformative elements. Indeed, such views of soul-making rebirth themselves do not really even attempt to ‘explain the presence in the world of human suffering and misery’ (19), though they fit within a framework of effective theodicy. Like probationary purgatory, they function rather as a compassionate vehicle or medium of human progression or regression, one that secures that the victims of incredible misfortune will be given opportunities to recover and continue their spiritual journeys in other life-contexts. This might include also elements of reform, for which past-life memories are not required in order for it to obtain. These qualifications of rebirth take the bite out of those criticisms of Kaufman that are most serious: the lack of past-life memories, the apparent disproportion of suffering for specific misdeeds, and the question of the infinite regress of past karma. See also the relevant discussions of purgatory and rebirth in endnote 47.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. 45.
    Karl Rahner raises the possibility of initiating dialogue between eastern traditions and Christianity on the question of rebirth through reflection on the possible nature of purgatory: ‘Let me just call attention to the question whether in the Catholic notion of an “interval”, which seems so obsolete at first, there could not be a starting point for coming to terms in a better and more positive way with the doctrine of the “transmutation of souls” or of “reincarnation”, which is so widespread in eastern cultures and is regarded there as something to be taken for granted. This is a possibility, at least on the presupposition that this reincarnation is not understood as a fate for man which will never end and will continue on forever in time.’ Foundations of Christian Faith: An Introduction to the Idea of Christianity, trans. William V. Dych (New York: Seabury Press, 1978), p. 442. Ovey Mohammed also explores briefly this possibility of relating soul-making rebirth to purgatory, suggesting that there are parallels when these views are conceived in terms of the dynamics of spiritual transformation: ‘Rebirth affirms that God’s love is so infinite that God gives us the opportunity to grow until we achieve perfection. If some Christians believe that nothing defiled shall see God and recognize that most of us need further purification at death, and if it is this recognition that has prompted the doctrine of purgatory, then the doctrine of rebirth as an opportunity for further purification, for working off our bad karma, has its parallel in the doctrine of purgatory. Through the doctrine of purgatory, it is possible for Christians to hope that, because God’s nature is one of love, no one finally fails to make the journey to God. From a universalist perspective, then, the law of karma and rebirth can be harmonized with the doctrine of purgatory without denying the possibility of hell (p. 670).’ ‘Jesus and Krishna’, Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Vol. 26 (1989), 664–80. However, the degree to which rebirth is possibly compatible with other central aspects of Christian doctrine is a complicated question. It seems clear to me that a traditional, strictly retributive view of rebirth is incompatible with essential Christian teachings. But contemporary views of soul-making rebirth seem to overcome some of the major theological problems raised for rebirth by Christian theologians, who tend to focus in their criticisms on versions of retributive rebirth or to understand it only in association with traditional Hindu or Buddhist views of spiritual liberation that differ radically from Christian conceptions of salvation. Although retributive rebirth in the traditional Hindu context tends to be associated with a cyclical view of creation which postulates a non-created soul and an individualistic, spiritual ideal of disembodied liberation from this world, contemporary views of rebirth as a vehicle of spiritual transformation seem possibly congruous with many Christian theological perspectives. For example, it seems compatible with Christian views of God, of a first creation of the soul, and of sin and grace. Also it can be drawn into various Christological perspectives, and related to Christian eschatological ideas of time, community, and history. In Keeping Hope Alive, Dermot A. Lane focuses on these themes in a brief criticism of retributive rebirth (pp. 167–73). However, rebirth considered as a medium of spiritual transformation seems possibly congenial with the following major Christian theological threads: a linear view of time which is conceived in terms of eschatological purposes that are grounded and embraced by eternity; a view of a God ‘who creates and sustains everything in existence’ and towards which humanity is oriented in the ‘hope for a personally transforming full communion’; and an anthropological orientation that involves a this-worldly ‘social and political responsibility for the world’, one which acknowledges the relevance of human history and the aspiration ‘to gather up the whole of human, historical and cosmic life into a New Creation’ (pp. 172–3). That is to say, soul-making rebirth seems compatible with an eschatological vision that supposes a historical people journeying in grace towards an embodied communion of all of humanity in loving intimacy with God and each other, where the final resurrection involves the spiritual transformation and divinization of embodied beings in union with God. This outline corresponds roughly with the anonymous Christian Hermeticist’s perspective given in Meditations on the Tarot. One significant point seems perhaps incongruous with traditional Christian views. The Catholic resurrection ideal proposes the singularity and uniqueness of each individual, while in rebirth the bodies of each soul-individuation would seem to be transcended by each particular new incarnation. ‘Soul’ in some views of rebirth means the essence of the person, the most fundamental characteristics of who one is. The general idea is that this essence is the transmigrating phenomena. In an incarnate person the body comes to be the expression of this essence through the soul-body integration, and the medium by which it interacts with other people and the created world. Although some views of rebirth might suppose the uniqueness and dignity of each embodied soul as well as a full ongoing body-mind integration within one’s condition of material embodiment, a sharply dualistic anthropology seems to be a necessary feature of this version of rebirth, a view which would appear to call into question traditional claims of the individuation of the soul according only to a single body. I am currently working on an essay that explores the possible nature and dynamics of a soul in rebirth, drawing especially on the thought of the anonymous Christian Hermeticist in Meditations on the Tarot. I expect that the Christian anthropology of Edith Stein will also helpful in clarifying an intelligible and plausible soul-body integration that might occur in rebirth. The view seems consistent with Christian views of the sacredness and significance of each individual life-embodiment. Life, understood as the transformative movement towards divinized communion, can be thought to sustain an imperative to draw constantly on all of one’s shared resources in the hope-filled journey towards the spiritual ideal. Christian resurrection ideals typically suggest the spiritual transformation of that same, singular body. Rebirth postulates a whole series of soul embodiments or individuations, so even in contemporary versions of rebirth which postulate an embodied ideal that involves a transfigured body, the resurrection body could not be a transformation of a singular earthly soul-body individuation. They must somehow integrate factors of multi-embodiments in its resurrection ideal. It would have to be made clear how the resurrection ideal might be related to the transfiguring features of every incarnated body. This issue also points towards related philosophical problems pertaining to personal identity continuity between embodiments, which I am also exploring in that essay. Clearly there are difficulties in framing rebirth in terms of traditional Christian anthropology. Also, like the doctrine of purgatory, there is the question of the lack of explicit scriptural references to the belief (though various sources have cited passages as possibly supportive: Job 33: 29; Psalms 105: 8; Ecclesiastes 1: 4, 12: 7; Isaiah 43: 5–7; Matthew 16: 13–15, 17: 9–13; Mark 8: 27–30; Luke 9: 7–9, 9: 18–21; John 1: 21). Nevertheless, it seems to me that some contemporary versions of soul-making rebirth could be more compatible with many central Christian teachings than some theologians might assume. See also a discussion of issues associated with this question of rebirth and Christianity in John J. Heaney, The Sacred and the Psychic: Parapsychology and Christian Theology (New York: Paulist Press, 1984), pp. 211–20, and in John Hick, Death and Eternal Life, especially pp. 363–96.Google Scholar
  43. 46.
    Near-death and pre-death experiences point to the possibility of a continued consciousness in other planes of existence. This evidence supports the possibility of purgatory, but it is controversial and highly ambiguous. For good overviews of the phenomena, as well as a helpful bibliographies, see: Heather Botting, ‘Medico-Scientific Assumptions Regarding Paradeath Phenomena: Explanation or Obfuscation?’, Critical Reflections on the Paranormal, ed. Michael Stoeber and Hugo Meynell (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1996), pp. 159–76;Google Scholar
  44. and Carol Zaleski, Otherworldy Journeys: Accounts of Near-Death Experience in Medieval and Modern Times (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987) and The Life of the World to Come: Near-Death Experience and Christian Hope (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996).Google Scholar
  45. In the case of rebirth the evidence is controversial and ambiguous as well, though it seems stronger. The evidence can, I think, be interpreted in such a way to support positively one’s belief in it. It is largely anecdotal, spontaneous, and unsubstantiated. But recent scientific research and formal investigation by Ian Stevenson, a professor of psychiatry and neurology at the University of Virginia, has provided much more credible evidence. He has collected since the early 1970s information concerning children, mainly but not exclusively from South Asia, who narrate imaged memories of past life happenings, and/or evince unusual behavioural patterns that correspond to previous personalities, and/or possess physical traces in the form of birthmarks or other disfigurements that correspond to injuries of the postulated previous personality. For an overview of his research, see Ian Stevenson, Children Who Remember Previous Lives: A Question of Reincarnation (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1987). Stevenson and his colleagues attempt to confirm or deny the memories of the children by investigating the lives of recently deceased candidates. In a significant number of cases, the correspondences have proven remarkable, where the child’s detailed knowledge about people, places, and/or events is confirmed, and/or where their behaviour and/or physical disfigurement corresponds remarkably with that of a deceased candidate. There is agreement even among some sceptics of rebirth that the phenomenon is significant enough to demand a reasonable explanation, though there is much controversy regarding claims in support of rebirth. I mentioned in the last endnote that I am currently working on an essay that explores the possible nature and dynamics of a soul in rebirth. In that essay I will also explore in more detail the debate concerning the merits of Stevenson’s work. Even if the evidence remains inconclusive, it appears that Stevenson’s research provides some non-subjective, corroborated evidence in support of afterlife claims that reasonable people might deem credible but not conclusive. Moreover, if some past-life memories are accessible, this ensures personal identity connections of a particular soul through various human incarnations. In my essay I plan to develop this line of argument in more detail and explore also the issues and possible conditions surrounding multiple soul-embodiments. At this point in time I can close this discussion with the following observations. Even if the various questions facing these postulations of rebirth and purgatory are answered satisfactorily, one cannot presently know with certainty if these afterlife possibilities are true. I doubt that the narrative of spiritual life that I put forward in this book requires one even to maintain these afterlife beliefs in order for it to unfold positively. Still, these afterlife views are intelligible and coherent, and they neatly reflect commonsense approaches to learning, personal development, and moral and spiritual growth. Most importantly, in terms of this book, they are postulations of hope for those suffering severe affliction, hope that there might be some future afterlife healing from their pain and further opportunities of spiritual growth and transformation. Despite his own scepticism towards rebirth, Keith Ward acknowledges the significance of the theory as a postulate of hope in the face of extremely destructive suffering: ‘the idea of rebirth does enshrine a hope for the possibility of spiritual progress and development, even for those whose earthly lives seem to make such a hope impossible. That is a hope that must be basic for any religion of devotion to a truly gracious and loving God, and there must be some way of providing for it in any religion of grace. Even if the hypothesis of rebirth is rejected, that hope is one of the things that Gaudiya Vaishnavism has to teach the Christian tradition.’ Religion and Human Nature, p. 75.Google Scholar
  46. 49.
    Ibid. See also Cynthia Crysdale, Embracing Travail: Retrieving the Cross Today (New York: Continuum, 1999). Her book sensitively explores various avenues of Christian redemption, with special attention to the perspective of the victims of sin.Google Scholar

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© Michael Stoeber 2005

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