Friday, February 17, 2012

Thoughts On Death and Afterlife

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

I am currently reading a fascinating book that is based on good scholarship and sound pastoral judgment, entitled Death and Afterlife. The author is Terence Nichols (PhD, Marquette University, and professor and chair of the department of theology at the University of St. Thomas). It is definitely one of the best theology books that I have read in the last couple of years. That does not mean that I agree with the entire contents of the book. For example, as a Roman Catholic, Nichols defends an understanding of purgatory that we, as Orthodox, find problematic at best. However, he did write this on the subject:

In the Roman Catholic Church, the accent was on purgatory as a place of expiation for the penalty due to sins for which no penance had been done in life. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, by contrast, the emphasis was on purgation as a state of holiness or growth. (p. 172)

One of the key strengths of the book, is how Nichols responds to the many challenges of the modern world, primarily those coming from the various sciences and a philosophical commitment to “metaphysical materialism.” This is defined by Nichols as follows:

This position holds that there are no souls, gods, spirits, or angels; only physical beings exist, and everything in the human person will eventually be explainable by purely physical processes. Even our highest states – reason, moral commitments, religious experiences, free choice (if it exists), and so on – will turn out in the end to be nothing but brain processes and the interaction of molecules in neural networks. (p. 118)

These challenges can be especially acute when discussing the existence of the soul or of bodily resurrection. Yet, Nichols writes elsewhere:

I will argue that while scientific and philosophical challenges force us to rethink our conceptions of the soul, resurrection, and heaven and hell, we can still make a credible case for life after death with God, for a soul that survives bodily death, for bodily resurrection, and for heaven and hell. One of my principle concerns will be to respond to scientific and naturalistic challenges to the soul, the resurrection, and to heaven and hell. (p. 13)

His responses are carefully articulated and obviously well-thought out, perhaps bearing witness to years of study and reflection. He presents his defense of basically traditional Christian positions on the existence of the soul and bodily resurrection in a manner that is coherent and convincing. This makes the book especially compelling. He even has a chapter on “Near Death Experiences” that made me rethink some of my own assumptions on this controversial topic. Two other themes in the book are the need to prepare for death; and the sense of an “ultimate hope” in an “afterlife with God” based on the redemptive Death and Resurrection of Christ. The contents of the book covers the following themes as broken down by chapter:

1. Underworld, Soul, and Resurrection in Ancient Judaism
2. Death and Afterlife in the New Testament
3. Death and Afterlife in the Christian Tradition
4. Scientific Challenges to Afterlife
5. Near Death Experiences
6. On the Soul
7. Resurrection
8. Justification and Judgment
9. Heaven, Purgatory and Hell
10. Dying Well

Since we are approaching the Sunday of the Last Judgment, as the third of our pre-lenten Sundays, I would like to share a passage that Nichols wrote on the theme of judgment. I believe his approach is very consistent with that of our own Orthodox theologians writing on the subject today. His over-all approach instills a sense of sobriety, ultimate responsibility for how we lead our lives, and a great sense of hope in the mercy of God:

The whole point of justification is to be found righteous or justified when we have to face God and Christ and render an account of our lives after our deaths. But these days we do not hear much about God’s coming judgment. The emphasis now is on self-esteem and feeling good about ourselves. But this is a cultural illusion, and a dangerous one. In the end, all of us will be held accountable by God for our lives, as the biblical texts cited above state. Belief in the judgment of God, however, has been severely distorted by the image of a God of wrath who hurls sinners into hell. Because of this misunderstanding, many people reject the notion of divine judgment. But judgment is not simply appearing before a wrathful God. It is seeing ourselves and our whole lives as we really are; it is coming into the truth and leaving behind our selfish denials and illusions. Put another way, it is seeing ourselves in the context of God’s love, which is also truth. For most of us, this will be both joyful and painful, liberating and surprising, because encountering God’s love, as expressed in Jesus, will reveal all those occasions in our lives when we fall short of love, as well as those occasions when we responded with love. (p. 161)

If we liberate ourselves from some of the cultural illusions mentioned in the passage above, then we can prepare ourselves for a “Christian ending to our lives,” so that we may, as we pray in all of our liturgical services, have “a good defense before the dread judgment seat of Christ.”

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