Ever wondered where the notion of an afterlife first emerged in the Bible?
No, it’s not in Genesis. Sure, Adam, Noah, Moses & Company may have reportedly lived hundreds of years (and Methuselah wins the contest at 969), but when these folks finally died they seemed to be genuinely kaput. Concepts such as a spirit or soul or any afterlife were apparently unknown to the ancient Biblical authors of the Pentateuch; in fact, there wasn’t even a term for “soul” in Hebrew. The idea of any afterlife is a decidedly late Jewish tradition; the Judeo-Christian notion of heaven today doesn’t find its beginnings until the Book of Daniel, written in the 2nd Century BC. Here’s the first mention of an afterlife in the Bible, found in Daniel, 12:2 -3:
“2And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. 3And they that be wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament; and they that turn many to righteousness as the stars for ever and ever.”
There you have it; an intriguingly bizarre and ambiguous reference first occurring nearly a THOUSAND pages into the narrative. And the Judeo-Christian concept of an afterlife was still very much a developing notion by the time of the writing of the books of the New Testament two centuries later, which is why Paul’s interpretation is not unlike the above, though both may strike the modern reader as a bit underwhelming:
“… the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command… the dead in Christ will rise first… in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.“ (First Thessalonians 4:15 – 17)
It might surprise you to learn that there is no obvious and unambiguous reference to “heaven” or “hell” found within either the Old or New Testaments… and for that matter, angels didn’t become “angels” until the New Testament, before which they were simply identified as “men,” e.g. the men who appeared to Abraham and Lot in Genesis. Make no mistake, there are certainly oblique references to be found of “heaven” and “the heavens” within the Old Testament, and similarly oblique references to a “kingdom of God” appearing within New Testament passages, viz.:
“Verily I say to you: Whoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, shall in no way enter into it.” (Mark, 10:15)
“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mark, 10:25)
But this “kingdom of God” stands as something of an ambiguity; if contemporary sources interpret this as an afterlife it is not at all clear that this was the meaning intended; after all, many early Christians believed the “kingdom of God” was meant to be a coming physical fiefdom on the earth. The notion that bad people will go to hell or that good people will go to heaven is a tradition that derives largely outside of the pages of the Bible. This is eye-opening and bears repeating: Our current concepts of heaven and hell emerged almost entirely outside of (and later than) the Biblical texts.
Other, more contemporary takes on the idea of an afterlife:
I would love to believe that when I die I will live again, that some thinking, feeling, remembering part of me will continue. But as much as I want to believe that, and despite the ancient and worldwide cultural traditions that assert an afterlife, I know of nothing to suggest that it is more than wishful thinking.
— Carl Sagan, The Demon Haunted World
We are each free to believe what we want, and it is my view that the simplest explanation is there is no God. No one created the universe, and no one directs our fate. This leads me to a profound realization: There is probably no heaven, and no afterlife either. We have this one life to appreciate the grand design of the universe. For that, I am extremely grateful.
— Stephen Hawking, Did God Create the Universe
The significance of our lives, and our fragile planet, is then determined only by our own wisdom and courage. We are the custodians of life’s meaning. We long for a Parent to care for us, to forgive us our errors, to save us from our childish mistakes. But knowledge is preferable to ignorance. Better by far to embrace the hard truth than a reassuring fable. If we crave some cosmic purpose, let us find ourselves a worthy goal.
— Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space
What happens after you die? Lot’s of things happen after you die — they just don’t involve you.
— Louis C.K.
Saving the Souls of Dog-Heads…
In the 9th Century a missionary by the name of Rimbert wrote to an elder with an earnest question: “What do I do when I encounter the dog-heads? Do I preach to them? Can I thereby save their souls? Or do I look at them as animals and therefore don’t preach to them?”
Ratamnus replied in his now famous and distinctly odd Letter on the Dog-headed Creatures that he believed them to be children of Adam; they clothed themselves (thereby showing modesty), and by his information had domesticated livestock. “I do not see how this could be so if they had an animal and not a rational soul,” he concluded methodically. Therefore, the matter was settled; Dog-Heads were creatures with souls, and worth preaching to.
I remember my days from college, during my many, many art history courses I was occasionally confronted with a medieval depiction of dog-headed people somewhere in the corner of the artwork; sure, I thought it was weird but didn’t give it much additional consideration. Well, as it turns out, not just for decades or centuries, but for millennia, people believed in the existence of dog-headed people. These Cynocephali clothed themselves in human fashion, lived in villages and farms and they always seemed to live just outside of the fringes of society and just over the horizon, wherever that society or horizon happened to be. The fact that no one had ever seen a Dog-Head never seemed to dissuade anyone from the belief that they existed. Even Saint Augustine wrote of the Cynocephali in the 5th Century (“What shall I say of the Cynocephali, whose dog-like head and barking proclaim them beasts rather than men?”), and he too concluded that their souls were worth saving. Saint Christopher, the patron saint of travelers, was believed to be a Dog-Head. If you Google Image search “Saint Christopher dog” you might think you’ve stumbled upon some bizarre medieval comic strip or a Purina print ad from the Middle Ages. “Saint Christopher,” in the words of Ratamnus, “is thought to have come from this race of people, and he fully committed both his life and martyrdom to radiant virtues.” And not just Christopher, Saint Andrew was also often depicted as and believed to be a Dog-Head. Dog-Heads were everywhere (while at the same time nowhere). It was not until the Age of Exploration and the 16th Century that the idea of the Dog-Head was exposed as a fallacy and finally began to fade away.
It appeared that the people of the East thought the Dog-Heads lived in the West. Wherever the travelers went, asking for them, they encountered people who said, ‘What? We thought they lived where you came from’…. It was becoming clear that the monsters lived just over the horizon. As the horizon was pushed back, so the myths receded. The long-standing puzzle of whether or not to preach to Dog-Heads or Monopods was solved by the absence of those creatures.
— Robert Bartlett, Inside the Medieval Mind, Ep. 1, BBC Four, 2008
The Dog-Head itself may be analogous to the concept of the soul… a collectively-embraced idea that similarly exists always “just over the next hill” or just out of sight, but whose existence has yet to demonstrate any objective evidence.
If for the entirety of the existence of the universe you and I didn’t exist, it could be argued that our default state is not existence… but non-existence. Not to damage anyone’s ego, but a party guest not invited to the party until 13.8 billion years along is not a guest of honor. If you are 25, 40 or even 75 years old that means that for some 99.999999% of the past you didn’t exist… and when the length of your life barely even alters the seventh position after the decimal, such a sudden and decidedly belated appearance in the universe better argues a feature of randomness inherent in the law of large numbers than any deliberate and conscious design. In the end our lives may be more akin to virtual particles in physics — sub-atomic particles in the quantum realm that are commonly and regularly popping in and out of existence — in essence, borrowing energy to exist for an instant.
Looking for some greater meaning in life might be like trying to find some greater meaning in why 2+2=4. It’s a consequence of circumstances — it needs no greater rationale than math. A lottery has staggering odds, but if enough people play it’s an inevitable consequence of the numbers that someone has to win. Consider this: You are alive to ponder your existence because you are a product of the one sperm that successfully fertilized the egg, and not the other 200 million that did not; the one egg that found itself in the right place at the right time while the other 400-500 that a woman was born with were not. These same remarkable odds were true for every parent, and every parent of every parent to have led to you. You can find some grand scheme in this remote chain of events that led to you or a simple consequence of circumstances, but really… which of these two conclusions better fits the universe we see around us?
- The oak tree sprouts from the one acorn the squirrels missed and not the other 99 they ran away with.
- A lightning strike seems to you or me a rare occurrence, but the reality is that there are roughly 100 strikes around the globe every second. You saw one, but missed the other 9 million(+/-) that take place in a given day.
- You caught a cold because one cell infected by a rhinovirus just happened to find the unlikeliest spot in your nasal cavity… not because that cell was special or was particularly loved by your body, but because it was one of countless billions produced and spread, leaving one to find success… an end result less miraculous and more a simple statistical outcome.
This is a universe not cheap with the numbers. Everything is produced, and everything is produced in staggering numbers. What we view as intentional or preordained may be nothing more than this law of large numbers continually playing out on an infinite scale — in a cosmos large enough, with numbers great enough and a timetable vast enough, the unusual become statistically common. Anything can happen because the odds demand it. We may not find this satisfying, but sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. A shoe store presenting you with a shoe in your very specific foot size and type could be perceived as a miracle… or a consequence of the walls of inventory behind you. How we interpret the data is subjective, and to be sure the natural response in both cases is gratitude — but in one instance we pay for the shoes, say thank you and move on, in the other a whole “shoe-based” religion suddenly becomes necessary (…complete with saving soles).
Simply, there is nothing in science (or any objective metric) to suggest the existence of a soul. Our bodies are biological machines and our minds creations of chemistry. Your thoughts are measurable chemical activity within your brain; and that is to say that thoughts are observable electrical impulses that may be demonstrably and physically detected, and the chemicals and neurons reacting within the brain make you happy or sad… which begs the question that if a soul exists… through what media would a soul think? How, exactly, would a thought carry or be conducted? How could a soul be moody? I guess it would never sleep, because, well, no eyelids… (okay, I’m being serious now) but if our brain is an electro-chemical network within mapped gray matter, without any such chemicals, conduits, media, platform or catalyst how would a mood or memory or thought generate?
Not to be crude or cynical, but a soul does quickly becomes a theoretical rabbit-hole; after all, if a soul exists how many souls would history account for now — two thousand years’ worth or two HUNDRED thousand years’ worth? Let’s lean in a bit into this theater of the absurd with a few questions:
- Did the soul originate with our species? Is it exclusive to our species?
- Did our cousins the Neanderthals have souls? Or our mutual ancestors Heidelbergensis? Homo erectus? Australopithecines? Chimps? How far back to we have to go?
- If the idea of a soul doesn’t appear in Judeo-Christian-Islamic literature before 2100 years ago — and our species alone predates that number by about 100 times — when might a soul have begun?
- Do dogs have souls (it seems that if Dog-Heads were presumed to have souls, so shouldn’t dogs have them too)?
- And if dogs have souls, certainly cats should have souls…. And if a cat has a soul, I like to think my parakeet Charlie, who drowned in a glass of Hawaiian Punch juice in 1977, would too.
- And if a bird has a soul, that suggests that dinosaurs (from which birds derived) would have had souls (…so, did the dinosaurs all go to hell or do they simply still haunt their skeleton replicas in museums?)
- I don’t like to think that ants and termites have souls, but I guess it’s a logical extension of the argument… with arachnid souls chasing after them (and do their souls still have eight appendages & do their prey still have six, or is it now a level playing field?).
- Do fish have souls, and would their souls still need to be underwater?
- Do only sentient beings have souls or is it all creatures with any type of brain? Is there a correlation between brains and souls? What about the fact that brains didn’t exist for life’s first 3.5 billion years?
- If all life on earth today is descended from one single-celled common ancestor that existed 4 billion years ago, did that single-celled ancestor have some sort of a soul? If that’s so it would certainly argue a case that not only every animal, but every plant, fungi and bacteria on earth today would have to possess one. I feel like Atticus Finch (the good Atticus Finch, not the racist one), pounding the table arguing a case for every soul (though I guess mold spores on the cheese in the refrigerator and plaque on your teeth might argue they’re already in heaven).
- So does every oak tree have an equally old soul and every flowering annual have an afterlife? If you pull a weed from your yard is its soul now consigned to wander the earth in restless torment like Marley’s Ghost?
- If every single living cell in your body has its own soul, say isn’t that some kind of conflict of interest? If skin cells die off every two weeks or so and you live to be 80 does that mean you’ll have 2080 complete pairs of skin waiting in the heavenly closet?
- If Dog-Heads never existed then what became of their souls?
- And at what point does all of this reduction become absolutely absurd? And have we ever established how many angels (or in the words of the Old Testament, “men”) can dance on the head of a pin?
If theologians and biblical scholars can spend millennia entertaining arguments and debates over even the most arcane minutiae of church theology, from the convoluted doctrines of the Trinity to the “Perpetual Virginity” of Mary… why in all that time has a soul never been equally clearly defined? A soul — a vague construct caught somewhere between medieval fairy tale and an abstraction in a child’s bedside prayer — is a lot like a Dog-Head… there’s absolutely no evidence to suggest that any such thing exists other than the idea that it sure would be cool.
Here’s Brian Cox in 2017, presenting an interesting and novel argument:
If we want some sort of pattern that carries information about our living cells to persist then we must specify precisely what medium carries that pattern and how it interacts with the matter particles out of which our bodies are made. We must, in other words, invent an extension to the Standard Model of Particle Physics that has escaped detection at the Large Hadron Collider. That’s almost inconceivable at the energy scales typical of the particle interactions in our bodies.
To this a surprised Neil DeGrasse Tyson responded: “If I understand what you just declared, you just asserted that CERN, the European Center for Nuclear Research, disproved the existence of ghosts.”
Cox (smiling): “Yes.”
An unconventional but intriguing proposition: Given that thoughts are detectable and measurable activity, it seems likely that the Large Hadron Collider — commonly detecting energies and particles in the universe that are thousands of trillionths’ the size of neurons — probably would have detected evidence of at least one soul by now.
Makes as much sense as anything else.