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December 30, 2012


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I wonder how human beings can so easily maintain their sanity in a world where obsolescence is the norm. From the moment of birth we are destined for the same end—the grave. We know that to be so even though we don’t like to think about it or discuss it. In the face of our certain demise we nevertheless prepare for careers, strive to achieve and excel, marry and have children, save for the future, worry about our health, enjoy the theatre, literature, and music, etc., and all the time the grave looms inevitably before us.

     One thing enabling us to tolerate the idea of the grave is the human propensity to believe that death does not bring a final cessation to consciousness—or an annihilation of the soul or spirit, or some other undying part of the human constitution. Such a belief in individual continuity after death is not unique to any one religion, either today or in the past. Virtually all seem to reflect a belief in some sort of hereafter. But, of course, believing it to be does not make it so.

     Somehow in the clear cold light of day the mere possibility of some nebulous future beyond the grave does not console like it might in a Christmas Eve candlelight service featuring the great hymns of faith. In the religious community we can live comfortably in metaphor, myth, and symbol with few questions, but in the 24/7 material world of cold reasoning, we live uneasily somewhere between myth and stark reality. In that world questions about ultimate destiny abound!

     The uncertainty of the nature of continued consciousness in some form, if continuity there be, emphasizes the value of our present existence. In short, in the final analysis “our now” is all of which we can be certain.

     What aspects of life in this world, past and present, provide reassurance that life continues to be worth living even if consciousness should be snuffed out at death? Put bluntly: why shouldn’t the possible/probable/inevitable annihilation of consciousness drive us all to despair? Viewed from this perspective, our conscious life in the “now” becomes an astonishing gracious gift—something not sought or deserved, a precious conscious moment within a potential sea of unconsciousness. Therefore life is something to hold onto, and the sheer joy of being alive is something to revel in! I must suppose that our reveling should include even the difficult moments, our suffering and deep disappointments—even the aches and pains of old age are to be celebrated as part of our consciousness—we live, after all, in a world where obsolescence is the rule that governs everything.

Surrend’ring up

Thine individual being, shalt thou go

To mix forever with the elements,

To be a brother to th’ insensible rock

And to the sluggish clod. . . (lines 24-28)

So live, that when thy summons comes to join

The innumerable caravan, that moves

To the pale realms of shade, where each shall take

His chamber in the silent halls of death,

Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,

Scourged to his dungeon, but sustain’d and sooth’d

By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave,

Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch

About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams. (lines 74-82)

William Cullen Bryant, who wrote this poem (Thanatopsis) in 1814, was not offering religious assurances of life after death with the words “by an unfaltering trust,” but was reassuring the reader that loss of individual consciousness was the natural destiny of humanity.

Thou shalt lie down

With patriarchs of the infant world—with kings

The powerful of the earth—the wise, the good,

Fair forms, and hoary seers of ages past,

All in one mighty sepulchre—the hills

Rock-ribb’d and ancient as the sun. . . (lines 33-38)

     But as probable as personal obliteration may seem in the cold light of day, we cannot live without hope, and that likely accounts for the pervasive belief in an afterlife among world religions—even gloomy Ecclesiastes (9:3-6) in spite of his pessimistic outlook lived by hope. On the other hand, Paul was confident that something awaited him beyond the grave (2 Corinthians 5:1-5), but he was realist enough to know it was only a hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13)—a word he used rather frequently.

     Hope is not a “bird in the hand,” rather it is more like “two birds in the bush,” but no matter how tenuous, any “two in the bush” may be, if it enriches our living and endures our dying, it surely is worth celebrating.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Posted by Charles Hedrick at 6:38pm

Dr. Hedrick, these are the views of a non-theist. Most of my adult life I have recognized death as an essential part of life. To embrace life is to embrace death. One morning I will awake no more. My carbon will enrich new life. That is reason enough to celebrate! My questions don’t deal with death, but with my life. Can I look back on my life and say that I have made a positive difference in the lives of others? Can I look back and say that I have helped others? Has my life been “another futility and pursuit of the wind” or has it been meaningful? As I reach the age my father and his father died, my thoughts focus on life, not “the emperor of ice cream.” (Apologies to the author of Ecclesiastes and to Wallace Stevens.)

Dennis Dean Carpenter
Posted by Dennis Dean Carpenter on 1/7/2013 at 4:12pm

Forgive me if I am being impetuous about this. As always, I bow to your superior knowledge of these matters. However, I find it necessary to object to the notion that the Jews packed up and left Persia when Cyrus released them. To be sure, a "remnant" did just that but it appears that the majority remained behind. In fact, Ezra himself is visiting long after the original release of the captives…. a generation or more, isn't it? We have a Sunday Schoolish view of the exclusivity of the Judean temple but that has more to do with final editing of the Writings than history that shows that there were at least two rival temples in Africa and another in the Galilee. Editors make the Jerusalem Temple paramount but history might beg to differ. My sense is that both Persian and Roman religious interests cast a long shadow on the final redaction of the Hebrew Bible. But who am I to challenge your interpretation of these things. Please don't put my name on this because, we both know, I am little more than the Frumious Bandersnatch in this conversation.=
Posted by Roger Ray on 1/2/2013 at 7:03pm

Hi, Charlie,
How very Buddhist of you! :) But even the present moment is “unreal” in a sense that one can’t grab on to it; as soon as the moment is noticed, it is already gone. But I agree, it is a wonderful gift to be alive, conscious in a sea of unconsciousness, and to share that aliveness with others.

As far as an afterlife, generally I allow those type of questions to remain unanswered and my behavior is the same whether an afterlife exists or not. But I certainly understand the desire for an afterlife. Some family members and friends have died and I miss them so much that I hope for an afterlife just to see them again. This hope is not a belief or a claim; it is only an expression of love and loss.

Happy New Year!

Take care,
Posted by Jane Terry on 1/2/2013 at 2:53pm

Dating the presence and spread of Zoroastrian influence is anything but certain but it appears that it may have been a rival influence in Babylon before the Persians invaded. In any event, early or late in their captivity, it was when the Israelites were in "the east" (be it Babylon or Persia) that they inherited more formal after life views.

The story about the conversation with Saul's spirit, though it hails back to the early dynasty period, was most certainly not written down until the captivity when such ideas were being cooked up in Zoroastrian stew. Still, Sheol could hardly be viewed as a after life existence in any way comparable to what our modern Christian "hopes" are. Being "gathered unto his fathers" appeared to mean having ones bones put in the same graveyard as much as anything in ancient Israel.

But as to hope.... sure, have all the hope you want but when we talk about what is and what is not, it is more helpful to stick to what can be reasonably known with some assurance. Everything we have to say about an afterlife is pure speculation. There is no information to be had and so one person's speculation is as good as any other.

Roger Ray, D.Min.
pastor, Community Christian Church
Posted by Roger Ray on 1/1/2013 at 5:03pm

The Judahites were not “in the East” in the Persian period. After the fall of Babylon Cyrus (Isa 45:1) in 539 allowed the numerous peoples who had been deported during the Babylonian period to return to their own countries and rebuild their infrastructures (Ezra 1:1-4). In Judah (Yehud) this was the temple, Jerusalem, and the walls of the city. The best of these Persian rulers were followers of Zoroaster and their religion and government through Satraps influenced the Jews at this time and later. For example, the language of commerce and government in the Persian period was Aramaic, which, it turns out, is the language we think Jesus spoke, and you have already mentioned some of the influences of Persian religion on the people of Israel.

And you are correct that some of the references to “sleeping with one’s ancestors” denoted burial in the family tomb, but others may suggest a process of entering the afterlife. For example, Jacob “breathed his last and was gathered to his people” (Gen 49:50) some time before his body was buried in Israel (Gen 50:1-13). And some Psalms like 49:10-15 suggest that the wise will be ransomed by God from Sheol. My only point is that it is difficult to be dogmatic about what went on in an average Jew’s mind when we have so little data from the period, and nothing from common folk. So like I said from the first I am simply not as confident as you that ancient Israelites and Judahites did not believe in some form of afterlife, and am unwilling to blame the Zoroastrian religion of Persia for “corrupting” formally realistic Judahites with intimations of immortality.

People may read the evidence for themselves and make up their own minds by reading the late Alan Segal’s article “Afterlife” in The New Interpreters’ Dictionary of the Bible (2006) and an article by Mary Boyce “Zoroaster, Zoroastrianism” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary (1992). Both articles have bibliographies.

I completely agree with you that whatever we say about an afterlife is speculative. But a general “hope” is a this-worldly thing; we use it all the time in various venues. Hope is a strong desire for a happy outcome, or something of the sort. It is simply not the same thing as speculation—like confidently predicting the reality of a future life or suffering the grand delusion that the streets of New Jerusalem are covered with Gold—or because you believe something to be true it must be so.
Posted by Charles Hedrick on 1/1/2013 at 12:20pm

My favorite tale dealing with immortality is the tale of Gilgamesh, which has echoes in the Bible. The great flood, which turned humanity into clay but “resurrected” the world, left the world a forbidding place for humans, though it made Utnapishtim “like the gods.” Even Gilgamesh could not hold on to the plant of immortality stolen by the snake; not even the “resurrection” from the sleep was any help. What became important was life. Those who have no one to love during life are relegated to eating “the scraps of bread thrown into the gutter [what no dead dog will eat].” Powerful lessons. If I could only read it in Akkadian!

(As an aside, Dr. Hedrick, I noticed that Tablet 12, Column 1 has Gilgamesh telling Enkidu that, when he goes to the netherworld he isn’t to take a staff, he is to wear no sandals nor clean robe.... Seems like I heard something like that somewhere else!)

Happy New Year!
Dennis Dean Carpenter
Posted by Dennis Dean Carpenter on 12/31/2012 at 6:01pm

It has always been fascinating to me that the ancient Israelites emerged, in some manner and to some degree, from underneath the influence of Egypt where the focus on the afterlife dominated their architecture, economy and government. And yet, when they left Egypt, they said not another word about life after death in any manner for six hundred years. The possibility of life after death had not only been a part of their cultural inheritance, it was a part of the air that they breathed but they rejected it mightily, entirely, forcefully and any suggestion of even trying to speak to the spirits of the dead was considered to be inherently evil.

But after being exposed to the Persian religion of Zoroastrianism during their captivity in Babylon, images of an everlasting peaceable kingdom begin to suggest themselves in prophetic literature. By the time of Jesus, concepts of heaven and hell are are least symbolically formed in Jewish dialogue as a way of dismissing the hardships of their current existence. Of course, they also believed that demons lived in the dessert and the earth was flat and covered by a firmament that kept the waters above from falling on the earth. That is to say, they had no idea how the world really works.

And yet, in our modern age, people will talk about the "soul" as if they had seen one, knew how tall it was and what it might weigh. They speak of after life with certainty though no one has seen it, there is no testable reality, no information, just childish speculation. Sorry, Charlie, for me, faith is about the teachings of radical compassion, forgiveness, charity, love, justice but the magical thinking belongs to a long past era…… which was too primitive even for tent dwelling sheep herders in the Judean wilderness to buy 3000 years ago.=
Posted by Roger Ray on 12/30/2012 at 9:00pm

I am afraid you misread my “two birds in the bush” essay as a kind of “bird in the hand” sermon. If I am reading you correctly , you have given up any “hope” that your personal consciousness might survive the grave. That is a perfectly reasonable conclusion to reach, since there is zero convincing evidence that personal consciousness survives the grave, however much religious folk champion the idea. I am not as confident as you, however, that Hebrew/Israelite records do not show some kind of continued existence after death. Ancient Israelites and Judahites shared the general Mesopotamian gloomy idea of Sheol (a place of departed spirits characterized by the absence of “happy life” as we experience it this side of the grave). Hence there are intimations suggesting a belief in some kind of continued existence for the individual in the Hebrew Bible, even in the earliest period: the idea of the Patriarchs that they would be reunited with their fathers at death; burial practices in the Exodus-Settlement period suggesting some form of after life; Saul and the Witch of Endor story (1 Sam 28:8-19); Isaiah taunting the King of Babylon (1 Isaiah 14:4-17); David mourning his son (2 Sam 12:21-23); and Psalm 115:17-18, 88:4-6; Job 7:9-10 on the general idea of Sheol.

I think the usual idea of Israel being influenced by Zoroastrian religion is associated with the Persian period, not the Babylonian period. Persian religion and Babylonian religion are quite different. But I will defer to those more knowledgeable than I about this period, of which I know little.

A “hope” for some kind of continued existence beyond the grave in my mind is not the same thing as a confident faith or belief that our consciousness survives the grave, but rather a fragile hope, an unconfident wish if you will, in the face of everything to the contrary that God, if God there be, will not abandon us creatures to the unconscious pebbles and stardust from which we came. Is it such a bad thing to have such a hope? It seems to me that even modern crusading prophets might in their quiet moments share such a momentary longing without it affecting either their zeal or harming their activist spirits.

Posted by Charles Hedrick on 12/31/2012 at 11:46am