The afterlife — fact or fiction?

Municipal Johannesburg Morgue workers bury the coffin of an unidentified body

Municipal Johannesburg Morgue workers bury the coffin of an unidentified body on February 27, 2019.  humans resist the notion that physical death is final. That’s why they’ve invented an afterlife. 

Photo credit: AFP

In this second series on human mortality — or immortality — I reflect on concepts of the afterlife.

Humans have a very elevated sense of themselves, and of their place in the universe.

For example, humans normatively place themselves above all other living things. For that reason, they regard the earth, and even the universe, as their plaything. In other words, all that there is belongs to humans for their use and disposal.

In essence, humans generally see themselves as the masters of the universe, though below the rank of Providence. It seems that it’s because of this sense of self-importance that humans resist the notion that physical death is final. That’s why they’ve invented an afterlife. 

Here, I interrogate whether the belief in the afterlife is an exercise in human vanity, or whether there’s a there there. 

Empiricists like myself, the show-me types, always want a little evidence, not mere faith, or empty talk. Let’s dig deeper. 

The afterlife is generally agreed to be some form of life after the biological death of the physical body. Thus an individual’s identity or spirit, as some African peoples believe, continues to live after the terminal death of the physical body. 

Some religions, belief systems, or spiritualities hold that the soul, and even the physical body, may live or reincarnate after death. Others of course believe in total oblivion after death or the remainder of nothingness after death.

There are contrasting metaphysical models. In the Abrahamic faiths – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – theists believe that after death people go to a specific place based on their actions on earth as determined by God. 

In Asian concepts, such as in India, notions of reincarnation are prevalent based on one’s actions in the just-ended life. 

In Africa, one may be reborn and return as posterity in a family, or one repose as a spirit forever lurking to punish, or reward, the living. 

In the Abrahamic faiths, the concepts of heaven and hell supposedly cajole the minds of the living to do good works here on earth. Heaven, for example, is the place of utter bliss where only the purest go.

In contrast, in many religions, hell is a place of torment and torture never ending full of fire and suffering. 

In some Jewish beliefs, for example, the soul can be rendered totally extinct for a small class of the most malicious and evil people on earth, those whose conduct here manifested the most vicious and utmost evil. 

Total damnation 

These are the wickedest of all. But hell is understood to be a place of total damnation without the possibility of salvation.

Some Christian faiths, especially Catholic, have an intermediate place between hell and heaven. That place is called purgatory. Those who die in sin but have lived a generally upright life, go to purgatory to be purified or purged, of sin.

Purgatory is a state of limbo where some folks are given a second chance after the cleansing of their soul. This suggests the possibility of redemption, but it all goes back to your actions on earth. 

It’s important to note that not all these concepts are in black and white in the holy books. Some of these profound concepts are man-made by clerics and theologians through millennia. 

So, what’s divine and what’s not is very murky. Which begs the question, how do we know as mere mortals what to believe, or not? How can we be sure we are placing the right bet just in case there really is an afterlife? Should one go faith-shopping for the surest bet?

It seems so much of life, including the afterlife, is a function of chance and that indeterminate thing called fate, or luck. It really depends on where you were born in terms of culture, geography, and faith. And since we are simpletons, we simply accept like a pit latrine most of the cultural heritage of our forebears. 

It doesn’t get any more random than that. So, what’s the science in it if it’s all so chancy? What if we are not born with a superior brain that can separate the wheat from the chaff?

Do those of frail minds, known in the past in politically incorrect language as imbeciles, get a break? Methinks you know where I am headed.

This is the big question – is the notion of an afterlife fact, or fiction? If you use the sovereignty of reason to decide that it’s all hogwash, should God punish you?

What about those who remain religious as a bet just in case? Should those who do good works here on earth with a view to being rewarded later be treated as faithful penitents worthy of heaven? Or are they cynical hypocrites manipulating God?

Or shouldn’t all of this matter as long as religion — no matter its inner validity — cabins us to lead a less evil life because of the fear of damnation? 

The jury is out. 

Makau Mutua is SUNY Distinguished Professor and Margaret W. Wong Professor at Buffalo Law School, The State University of New York. @makaumutua.