by Stephen Ferguson | 14 September 2022 |
While I am no scientist or philosopher, just an interested amateur, recently I have been thinking and engaging with atheists about their views of the afterlife, and how Adventists might share a lot in common. Hang on, you say: Atheists don’t believe in an afterlife!
What does it mean to be alive?
Adventists and atheists are both materialists. That is, we do not believe in an immortal soul, so a person is not subjectively alive outside of a material, bodily form. Adventists would point to Ecclesiastes 9:5, which I suspect atheists would endorse:
“For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no further reward, and even their name is forgotten.”
Yet if pushed, I suspect both groups would struggle trying to define what it means exactly to be alive as the personal being called “you”.
First, we might be inclined to say we are alive because we have bodies. “You” are a body. Even consciousness is the product of having a brain, which is an organ of the body. Without a functioning body you are dead – simple.
The problem is your body is not a fixed thing but constantly changing over time. Although there is some debate about how quickly this occurs, every atom in your body is replaced every couple of years. As Steve Grand observes:
“[Think] of an experience from your childhood. Something you remember clearly, something you can see, feel, maybe even smell, as if you were really there. After all you really were there at the time, weren’t you? How else could you remember it? But here is the bombshell: you weren’t there. Not a single atom that is in your body today was there when that event took place. Every bit of you has been replaced many times over (which is why you eat, of course).”
To use the ancient example from the ship of Theseus, if you replaced a boat plank by plank over a period of time, would you still have the same vessel? Or do you have two separate ships?
Second, you might say then that being alive isn’t about having a body but memories. “You” are your memories. However, research has shown memories are also not fixed. Memories are malleable, so much so that what you recall as fact in many cases is a sort of personal reconstruction.
Moreover, if memories give us personal identity, would this mean you would be willing to trade your perishable body (say, at the cost of execution) for the chance of eternally uploading your memories into a robot? Or if I told you I was going to torture you next week, but I will do brain surgery first so you suffer amnesia, would you consider that as bringing pain to another person?
What does it mean to die?
If we can’t quite be sure what it means to be alive, trying to nail down dying isn’t straightforward either.
First, as our exploration of life has shown, you don’t need to fear death for a simple reason: you have been dead before. Numerous times. You just never noticed it because it happened piece-by-piece, like that ship. The person you were 10, 40, or 90 years ago has already lived and died many times over. Every atom in your body has swapped.
Second, when you finally succumb to what we commonly think of as death, the good news is you won’t experience it. In fact, it is impossible to experience death. As Tom Clark explains you won’t experience blackness, a void, an abyss, or any other such common idea. Because that would still be experiencing “something”, while death involves experiencing “nothing”.
Clarke says because we are not capable of experiencing nothing when we die, then we should expect to experience something. Nothingness cannot be the permanent condition of a being who experiences something. To be clear, these are not religious views but those of an irreligious naturalist.
Could life and death be about continuity of consciousness?
If bodies and memories are a bit of a problem, another way to approach this issue is to say life is about continuity of consciousness. That ship whose planks are replaced over time remains the same vehicle because there has been an unbroken continuity.
René Descartes suggested all we can only ever really know is we think and therefore know we exist. Likewise, you are a “you” not because your atoms or memories don’t change, because they do, but because you have maintained a continuity as a self-identifying “I”.
This concept is probably closer to some ultimate truth. There is still a challenge though. Consciousness might need continuity for you to remain “you” but that doesn’t mean there won’t be gaps, pauses, or breaks. Importantly, we need to distinguish objective from subjective continuity.
Sam Harris points to a fundamental fact we all know to be true: every night when we go to sleep, or have an operation under anesthetic, or blink, our consciousness ceases to exist before coming into existence again later. Despite the objective gap in time, whether nanoseconds or hours, subjectively no time passes for the person.
From your personal experience as “you”, there was never a time when you were not here and there will never be a time when you are not. Thus, the disruption of continuity to our bodies or memories by what we consider death is not necessarily the end of a self-identifying “I”. Death is just another, probably longer and more dramatic, gap in consciousness, just like sleep, anesthetic, or blinking.
What does it mean to resurrected?
If you are confused, that is quite alright. I think I am too!
In fact, that is the point. None of us really knows what it means to be alive, or dead, or to come alive again. Not even clever philosophers and scientists.
We can, however, have hope. A Seventh-day Adventist Christian, in particular, will recognise many of these head-spinning secular ideas in our own terms: we humans have limited perception of the divine; death is like sleep; we die every day; subjectively speaking, being dead and raised to life will be an imperceptible twinkle of the eye regardless of the objective interval in time; life and re-life are not just about one thing but about a combination of things together (body, heart, and soul, or we might say atoms, memories, and consciousness).
Observing these questions of life, death, and life-again is not closed, even to an atheist. In what sense could we expect a wholly material resurrection? I am aware of at least four possibilities within atheism for potential resurrection.
Recurrence, or Eternal Return:
Popularised by Nietzsche as a thought experiment, Recurrence or Eternal Return states that in an eternal universe you will inevitably return. If the universe is infinite (either infinite in space, time, and/or multiplicity), every atom that makes you “you”, and every event that gave rise to the creation of “your” memories, will reform. It may be in a galaxy far away, a very long time into the future, but you will live your life again.
Importantly, Recurrence is not reincarnation, where you get a second chance to try over. Quite the opposite, you very much return as resurrected “you” in body, memory, and mind.
From an Adventist-biblical perspective, we might see recurrence as having parallels to Solomon’s observations in Ecclesiastes 3:1-15:
“There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot… Whatever is has already been, and what will be has been before.”
Block Time, or Eternalism:
Block Time or Eternalism sees time as just another coordinate within space-time, meaning all points of time are equally “real”. Yesterday is as real as today, just as my writing this sentence from Australia is as real as your reading this in say, America, Africa, or Europe.
Thus, you will always exist. Sure, others may not be able to observe your temporal presence, just as they cannot spatially visit when you travel overseas.
To be clear, in Eternalism you remain a finite mortal being, but it does mean your living self is never out of reach to someone with the means to find you. Say, with a time machine (don’t worry: you can’t change the past or future).
Within an Adventist-biblical viewpoint, we see parallels in descriptions of God’s experiencing all points of time simultaneously, such as Hebrews 13:8. We might point to Ephesians 1:4, which describes God’s loving us before we even existed:
“For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.”
Subjective Generic Consciousness and Existential Passage:
Perhaps one of the weirdest ideas I have ever read about is the concept of Subjective Generic Consciousness by Tom Clarke, also known as Existential Passage by Wayne Stewart. To be fair, I am not sure I even fully understand this bizarre theory, so I also direct you to videos by both Sam Harris and Elijah Everett on the subject.
Drawing on some of the points mentioned above, death is not the end of conscious experience but rather the transference of conscious experience into another being. There might be a gap in consciousness, but as we explored, that is no barrier to continued existence. This other being might also have a different body and different memories, but we also explored that these things are not necessary barriers to making a person continue as “you”.
Again, to be clear, this idea is proposed in wholly naturalistic and scientific terms without religion or supernatural elements. However, from an Adventist-biblical perspective we might see parallels in 2 Cor. 5:17. That is, salvation is not the mere resurrection of a corpse, but the recreation of “you” as a new creature entirely:
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!”
Interestingly, the Bible likewise suggests this new created form involves both transformation into a new body (Phil. 3:20-21), as well as forgetting memories from this fallen world (Is. 65:17; Rev. 21:4).
Finally, and following from the previous idea, open individualism holds that there is in fact only one consciousness, just experienced through different individuals. As Elijah Everett explains, “I am you and everyone else too”.
While consciousness is deeply personal it is also generic. You are an “I”, but paradoxically, everyone else is an “I” too.
One day you might stop experiencing red as red, but it is almost certain that redness will still be experienced again. It is that experience of redness that matters, not seeing red through one set of eyes in one specific individual.
Within an Adventist-biblical viewpoint, we might see parallels to rather odd Bible passages such as John 11:26 or Galatians 2:20, about denying one’s personal existence by living within a divine other:
“I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.”
Do good atheists and Adventists both go to heaven?
The point of this article is not to convince you that atheists or Adventists have a better or worse chance of going to heaven. Or that there is even a heaven. However, this dialogue does help us Adventist-Christians give some deeper thoughts to the questions of life, death, and resurrection.
I hope this article might also illustrate that death is probably not the end. Even for someone who claims not to believe in anything other than the material world. In an increasingly secular world, a dialogue of rational hope provides a useful starting point for sharing the Good News (1 Cor. 2:9).
Stephen Ferguson is a lawyer from Perth, Western Australia, with expertise in planning, environment, immigration and administrative-government law. He is married to Amy and has two children, William and Eloise. Stephen is a member of the Livingston Adventist Church.