Apologist Joel Furches looks at the soul, near death experiences and the resurrection of Jesus, examining their veracity and relevance
The most Googled question when it comes to matters of religion and spirituality is the simple question: “What happens when you die?” Clearly the idea of the afterlife is something which haunts many people’s minds.
As he was facing execution, the Greek philosopher Socrates comforted his disciples and admirers by making an extensive argument for why souls go on living beyond death. The idea that one’s family members and friends are not lost forever when they pass away has significant power to comfort, as does the idea that you, yourself, will continue to live on.
What people believe
In the ambitious study titled ‘Humans “predisposed” to believe in gods and the afterlife’, researchers found that across a wide variety of cultures, people are not only instinctively prone to a belief in gods, but also in a dualistic nature – meaning humans are both physical and non-physical in nature.
The researchers point out: “The project was not setting out to prove the existence of god or otherwise, but sought to find out whether concepts, such as gods and an afterlife, appear to be entirely taught or basic expressions of human nature.”
The study found that, no matter the culture, human instincts tended to be the same when it came to concepts of God and the afterlife.
Looking back across time, it has been human instinct that there is some part of one’s identity which is not tied directly to one’s physical body and must therefore be able to exist without the body. This idea is partially included in most forms of religion, with early religions asserting that there is a life that follows death, and creating elaborate stories about the nature of this afterlife. Eastern religions held to a more migrational notion – not so much an afterlife as the recycling of souls into new bodies.
But, of course, this all relies on whether there exists anything akin to an immaterial self in the first place. If there is some part of the human person which is not tied directly to the functioning of the organs in their body, then it is not beyond reason to allow that perhaps this immaterial self survives the material self.
The ‘self’ is a remarkably difficult concept to nail down. There are two basic views of what ‘self’ is: the ‘reductavist’ view and the ‘antireductavist’ view. The latter says that a person is the sum of his or her parts. That the person is defined by his or her history, culture, biology, interests and so forth. Is a man’s ‘self’ some combination of his job, gender, ethnicity, bodily features, country, religion or otherwise? If a woman loses her arm in an accident, is she a different ‘self’ than before? Are you the same ‘self’ now that you were when you were born?
The antireductivist view – that a person is a complex series of overlapping fields of perception, behaviour, or roles – leads to all the difficulties just mentioned, and many more. Ultimately, this results in the conclusion that you are a different ‘self’ from moment to moment.
The ‘reductive’ definition of ‘self’ sees the ‘self’ as a simple and complete entity which cannot be considered as a sum of its parts, but rather a part unto itself. Under the reductionist view, all of the characteristics of the self (self-control, self-esteem, self-awareness etc) are emerging properties of a single entity rather than component parts of that entity. This view is the way people intuitively see themselves, and would require a constant and unchanging spiritual essence to ground it. But is there any evidence for this?
The conflict between body and soul
One simple evidence is by observing the conflict between bodily desires and ‘soulical’ desires. For instance, if sugary, salty, greasy snacks are available, one’s biological desire tends to be to consume them. But often one has a competing desire to avoid such food for the future benefits of health and good looks. What would account for this conflict except for two natures?
Self-control in other areas also speaks to this. For instance, the desire to be loyal to one’s partner when in competition with romantic attraction to another person.
Given the evidence that there is some division between body and soul, this would allow for an immaterial self which might have the potential to live on after bodily death.
Near death experiences
Everyone is familiar with the idea of the so-called ‘Near Death Experience’. A person’s heart stops beating, their body is technically dead, and after some time and effort medical staff revive them. Such people then report seeing a white light, or meeting their deceased friends and family, or – more alarmingly – briefly spending time in a frightening place of suffering.
These are widely discounted as the sort of hallucination or false memory one would be expected to have under such circumstances, and a number of scientists have made efforts to explain such experiences neurologically.
However, a well-regarded Christian scholar named Gary Habermas has taken a unique approach to studying such accounts. Rather than documenting the common sorts of stories mentioned above, he has spent his time looking for accounts wherein the person’s alleged exit from the body allows them to perceive things for which a mere hallucination could not account. For instance, observing and accurately recalling a conversation two hospital floors above them. Or spiritually exiting the hospital and observing a tennis shoe on the roof, which was then verified.
Habermas has documented thousands of such accounts, and has estimated that there are a recorded 8 million near death experiences which have come from America alone.
If the body in these cases was not alive, but the person was able to perceive things far away, this lends additional evidence to the idea that there is something of the ‘self’ which transcends physical death.
Resurrection of Jesus
When one discusses the ‘afterlife’, this is generally not thought of in reference to coming back to life again on Earth. Most people think of the afterlife as a spiritual world where the soul happily (or sometimes unhappily) dwells forever without a body. Perhaps surprisingly, this is not the primary thesis of scripture. Rather, the Bible’s best evidence of life-after-death is a coming back to life at some point in the future – or put differently – bodily resurrection.
The Apostle Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthians to address this very point. The letter itself is a response to some members of that church arguing that there would be no resurrection – and consequently, the book of 1 Corinthians is an argument about why the dead will, indeed, be raised to eternal immortality.
However, the strongest point with which Paul drives the argument home is that we know resurrection will occur because Jesus himself was raised from the dead. This, says Paul, is all the evidence we need that we will be raised.
But sitting about, as we are, in the 21st century, some several thousand years since Jesus allegedly rose from the dead, how can we know this improbable event is not simply a fairy story like the ancient legends of Heracles or the Monkey King? Space does not allow for the kind of extensive arguments which have been made in the past for the resurrection of Jesus, but allow me to sketch out a birds-eye view of the evidence for this event.
A case for the resurrection
We know from the Roman historian Tacitus [c 56-117 AD] that a religious leader named Jesus of Nazareth was crucified by the Romans in Judea under a ruler named Pontius Pilot. An early Jewish historian named Josephus [c 37-100 AD] wrote that, after his death, his followers said he had risen back to life, and that he was the Messiah.
Let us pause there for a moment. The options on the table are that:
a) The disciples lied about the resurrection
b) The disciples were deceived into believing Jesus had rose
c) Jesus actually rose from the dead
It is worthy to note that a crucified Messiah was a novel idea which went against everything Jews popularly believed about the Messiah. To the Jews, the Messiah was to come as a conqueror and warrior, taking up the mantle of the great King David and liberating the land.
Had Jesus died in battle or even of natural causes and rose again, this might almost be believable of a Messiah. But a death being beaten and hung naked by pagans in front of a crowd was a shaming unworthy of any Messiah.
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Jesus was not the first or only man to go about Judea claiming to be the Messiah and failing. Barabbas, the man who was liberated in Jesus’ place, was a failed Messiah. Another failed Messiah, Theudas by name, is mentioned in the book of Acts chapter 5. It was a fairly common thing. Yet not a single other failed Messiah has a worldwide following now, 2,000 years later. Something was different about Jesus which made his disciples zealous evangelists, willing to undergo persecution and death for their crucified leader. And a resurrection is a very good explanation.
This covers the external evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. Frequently, the Gospels are written off as unworthy of evidence. After all, they are religious writings, biassed in favour of Jesus, so why trust them?
Firstly, if the resurrection had occurred, one expects that some people would be convinced and write about it. One cannot discount every writing that said Jesus rose just because the author believes it to be so. Secondly, there is very good reason to believe that the Gospels originate from eyewitness accounts rather than overactive imaginations. Cold Case Police Detective J Warner Wallace documents dozens of ways in which the Gospels bear all the hallmarks of eyewitness accounts.
One such way is in the small and unimportant details the Gospels confirm from one another. For instance, Matthew records that when Jesus called his first disciples they were sitting around mending their fishing nets. But Luke tells the reader that immediately prior to Jesus calling them, they had broken their nets with an enormous haul of fish.
Matthew records that Herod the Tetrarch heard of the fame of this obscure wilderness teacher named Jesus. Luke records that the wife of Herod’s household manager was one of Jesus’ followers, explaining how Herod would have heard of him.
These small details in which the Gospels prove themselves to be eyewitness accounts number in the dozens. Also bringing into account their astounding historical, geographical and cultural accuracies, the Gospels seem to be reliable sources of information. The non-Biblical authors corroborate the testimony of the disciples, and the success of Jesus’ following after his death all give considerable evidence to his resurrection.
In the first half of this article, a case was made for an immaterial soul, which may survive the body after death. However, in the second half, the case was made that the body may be brought back to immortal life. Are these two ideas incompatible in terms of an afterlife?
This is evidently not so. Consider that if humans do indeed have an immortal soul within a mortal body, this isn’t particularly different than having an immortal soul within an immortal body. Nor would bodily resurrection make much sense if there was not some immaterial self which carried over unchanged to a new body. Otherwise, the new body would be a new person.
Some Christians will object to the case made above, due to a longstanding bias toward the idea of an everlasting spiritual existence in an immaterial heaven. No argument made within this article precludes this possibility, especially given that the risen Jesus is said to have bodily ascended into heaven. Whether on a new earth or a new heaven, the resurrection of Jesus serves as evidence that resurrection and eternal life are both possible and probable.
Joel Furches is an apologist, journalist and researcher on conversion and deconversion, based in the USA.
- Bible: New Testament
- Christian living
- life after death
- near death experience
- new body
- new life
- Religious Seasons