A Brief History of Eternity: Putting Life after Death in Context with Philip Almond
From the beginning of time, people have wondered about what happens to us after we die. As conscious beings, we find it hard to imagine a world without our presence, so, we look for redemption beyond the grave.
For our early ancestors, the afterlife was a physical place, filled with embodied entities. But, as time progressed, the body faded into the background and the soul became the primary resident of the afterlife… or, at least, that’s how most of us see it.
But, how exactly have our views of the afterlife changed over time? What about our perspectives on the existence of (and source of) the soul? And, where will science and technology take our understanding of life after death in the future?
These were a few of the thoughts that I had after I sat down with Philip Almond for a video interview regarding the history of the afterlife. Philip is a retired Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Queensland. He is also the author of several fascinating books including “Afterlife: A History of Life after Death,” “The Devil: a New Biography,” and “God: a New Biography.”
In today’s interview, Philip and I talk about how our view of the afterlife has shifted over time. We also discuss the concept of justice and its central importance to most religious traditions – Eastern and Western. And, this is just the beginning!
I hope that you find today’s video interview useful. If you do, please share it with a friend!
Life Continues After Death… But, in What Form?
According to Philip, many early Western religious and spiritual traditions thought of the afterlife as a fairly static place. Instead of being a complex world of justice, growth, learning and exploration, it was a shadowy realm.
As he says, “Looking back at the early Greek texts and the Biblical writings of the Old Testament, there is a belief there that life continues after death. And, it continues in a somewhat shady realm, where we’re there, but, somehow not there.”
He goes on to point out that, according to these traditions, regardless of people behaved on Earth, they could expect roughly the same experience in the afterlife. In other words, the afterlife wasn’t a place of punishment or reward; it was simply a place of continued existence.
But, over time, our views of the afterlife started to shift. Specifically, they became more nuanced and even made an attempt to connect what happens here on Earth to what happens in the afterlife.
As Philip says, “By the time the New Testament comes around, we’ve got something different going on; we’ve now got two places to where the dead go… The crucial thing here is why they go to one place or the other. Life has become ethical and people go to one place or the other as a consequence of their good or bad deeds.”
Further complicating the issue, at least from a Judeo-Christian perspective, is that the New Testament’s vision of the afterlife isn’t focused on the immediate period after we die; instead, it is, largely, focused on what happens at the end of the world. So, questions like “Do we have bodies in the afterlife?” “Do animals go to heaven?” and even “What is the afterlife like?” become more difficult to answer.
Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to dig into the history of the major Eastern religions, although I hope to do this in a future interview.
3 Possible Sources of the Soul
As our conversation progresses, Philip and I discuss the increasing importance of the soul in Western thought. Philip points out that, after about the year 200, the Greek notion of the soul starts to influence Christian belief.
He then turns to 3 possible sources of the soul, according to most Western religious traditions. First, there is the possibility that God creates the soul when he creates each individual body, at the point of conception. Second, there are those that argue that the soul is created as a part of the biological reproductive process… and that God has nothing to do with the creation of each individual soul. Finally, some people believe that God created all of the souls that will ever be in existence at when he created the universe.
The Need for Justice
For most religions, the role of justice in the afterlife has increased over time. While Philip did not go into this in much detail, my personal opinion is that disparities in power and wealth, driven by specialization, conquest and economics, contributed to this shift. In other words, the concept of justice became a comforting blanket for the weak and a versatile weapon for the powerful.
Here’s how Philip discussed the concept of justice in the development of our views about the afterlife, “The notion of reward and punishment in the afterlife is predominantly fueled by a sense of justice; that is to say, it is obvious to all of us, on this side of the grave, that bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people. So, in that sense, the ethical afterlife was created to alter that balance.”
The Future of Life After Death – Will Science Prove the Existence of the Afterlife?
After discussing the history of the afterlife, Philip and I turn our eyes to the future. Specifically, I ask Philip to talk about the many research studies that scientists are starting to perform related to spiritual matters.
While recognizing the trend towards scientists investigating spiritual questions, Philip is fairly skeptical about our chances of proving the existence of the afterlife through biology, physics, chemistry and astronomy.
He points out that scientists have been investigating spiritual phenomenon for over 130 years and have very little to show for it.
Personally, I am more optimistic about the ability of scientists to investigate spiritual phenomenon.
Historically, many questions have been considered “in the realm of religion” before being successfully investigated by science. A good example of this is how the brain works. Prior to the invention of brain-scanning technologies, the soul provided the best explanation of where our emotions and personalities came from. Now, psychologists have direct access to the brain.
I am hopeful that the same rigorous approach can be applied to the study of near-death experiences, past life memories and more. One can only begin to imagine what we will discover.
What are your thoughts about the history of the afterlife? Where do you think our understanding of life after death will go in the future? Let’s have a conversation!