The Doctrine of the Last Things (part 7)

November 16, 2009     Time: 00:28:49

We want to turn now to the second half of this section on Doctrine of the Last Things. We’ve been looking at the return of Christ, and now we want to talk about the state of the soul after death.

Man has a deep inner longing for immortality. There is something within us that senses that we should live forever, that death is unnatural, and it’s wrong that self-conscious personal beings should come to extinction. E. J. Carnell in his classic book An Introduction to Christian Apologetics writes as follows:

Man appears to be literally suspended between heaven and earth, between the ideal and the real, between the desirable and the actual. He longs for a strong body, but the lethal germs cut short the hope. He prays for another day to live, but the scythe of death cuts him down. He trusts in marble monuments, only to have the earth beneath them buckle and crumble. Whatever man achieves, the universe seems determined that the weeds of time and indifference cover it over. Every cultural expression has the same verdict written over it: This is doomed to decay! What sense is there in such a universe? And who is responsible for this monstrous situation?

The failure to be able to unite the real and the ideal presses home to man a strange impelling sense of the futility and absurdity of life. There is no castle that man can build which will last forever, for regardless how deep the foundation, how thick the walls, how immense the superstructure, the same decree of decay is written over it as is written over everything which man undertakes.

The incongruity between man’s desire for life and the reality of physical death is the most maddening problem of all. Although he sees the handwriting on the wall, man yet refuses to think that death is his final destiny, that he will perish as the fish and the fowl, and that his place will be remembered no more. Man wills to live forever; the urge is written deep in his nature.[1]

I think that is very true. We have a deep instinctual longing for the transcendent and for immortality. This comes to expression in various ways in the world’s religions. For example, in the book Basic Christian Doctrines, J. G. S. S. Thomason writes as follows:

Belief in survival after death is not only universal but very ancient. The Egyptians held it; in Greece it was adopted by the Orphics, from whom Plato received it; the Hebrews accepted it; Jews in Christ’s day held it; Christianity has always believed it; and for primitive man, too, immortality was a certainty, not a conjecture. Survival after death was how man interpreted the ineradicable intuition rooted in the imperishable core of his being.[2]

So this longing for immortality is something that comes to expression in various ways in the world’s religions, whether reincarnation or life-after-death in a heaven or a hell or some such thing. There is this deep sense of longing to live forever.

There are certain pointers, I think, in the world that point us to immortality; they give us hope for immortality. Let me mention three of these.

(1) Man’s Personality. We sense that we are persons; that is to say, a self-conscious “I” – myself, me, the person that I know as a first-person. A soul. A self.[3] There is this self-consciousness that can never be objectified and turned into an “it.”

The philosopher Feuerbach gave this exercise to his students in order to illustrate this point. Think about the wall. Now think about him who thought about the wall. Now think about him who thought about him who thought about the wall. And you see, what the point of the exercise is, there is always this unobjectifiable self that is doing the thinking even when you think about yourself. You don’t fully objectify yourself. When I think about “me” there is this person that is thinking about me. This is what philosophers have called the transcendental ego – this self that cannot ever be objectified because it is always the thing that is doing the thinking about the object. So there is this person, this transcendental ego.

And this self seems to transcend mere physical organs. I have this sense that I am not identical with my body. My body changes. I can have a complete transformation of all of the molecules of my body, and yet I remain the same person. So this gives some suggestion that there is this immaterial self that is distinct from the body that could well outlive the body and be immortal. This is not a proof, but it is at least some sort of a pointer to immortality.

(2) Man’s Rationality. Our minds (that is, our conscious life) and our bodies are obviously interdependent. On the one hand, I can will to do things – like to lift my arm and my arm goes up, or I can will to take a step and I walk. There seems to be a control of my body through my mind. Yet on the other hand, the mind is obviously affected by the body. Someone who receives a severe injury to the head will be knocked unconscious or perhaps even suffer mental illness or derangement or personality disorder because of the brain injury that he sustains. So the body has an effect upon the brain as well.

There are three possibilities as to how the mind and the body interrelate. One would be that it is purely a one-way street from the body to the mind. The mind has no effect upon the body. The mind is just a sort of excrescence or a sort of floating, hovering phenomenon that is produced by the brain when it functions. As the brain functions chemically, the mind is just an offshoot of this. But the mind has no impact upon the brain itself. That would be one way. One of the other alternatives would be saying, no, the mind just influences the body. The mind controls the body and has complete reign over it. In that way, the body would have no effect upon the mind. That seems obviously false because we know that when things go wrong bodily our minds are affected. Drunkenness or drugs and things of that sort affect our thinking. The third alternative would be that the mind and the body mutually influence each other. That is to say, the mind and the body cooperate together in thought. I once heard the great Noble Prize winning neurologist Sir John Eccles lecture on the relationship between the mind and the brain. He said that the mind and the brain are like a pianist and his piano. In order to produce music the pianist must have a finely tuned piano, and then he can produce the music. But if the piano is out of tune, even though the musician knows how to play the piece correctly, the music will be discordant, and he will not be able to produce the beautiful music. Similarly, Eccles said, the mind and the brain work together to produce thought. If the brain is malfunctioning or injured or impaired then thought will be impaired; the soul will not be able to think properly. Its instrument will be impaired and so it cannot think correctly.[4]

Of these alternatives, only the first one would be incompatible with immortality. That would be just a physicalism – that we are just physical organisms so that when the brain dies, the soul dies (the mind dies) as well and disappears. But the other two would be quite compatible with immortality. In fact, I think problematic with the first one is that it makes it impossible to make sense of things like personal identity over time because when the mind is just this sort of phenomenon – this effervescence of the brain – then there really isn’t this enduring person who goes from one moment to another. You are not the same person who walked in here anymore than the flame that is on the candle is the same flame that was on the candle a moment ago when it was burning. The flame is continuous but it is constantly changing. This is, in fact, a Buddhist view of the self – not an enduring person. Yet surely we are the same persons that we were when we walked in.

Also, freedom of the will is impossible on this physicalist view. If the influence of the brain and the mind is a one-way street then the mind has no influence upon the brain. This leads to complete determinism. Everything you do is just the product of genetic makeup and sensory stimulation. So nothing you do has any rationality or any freedom to it. So even the decision to believe in determinism would become irrational. It would just be something you are determined to do, but it wouldn’t be a rational decision on your part to believe in determinism. It is therefore a self-defeating worldview. You cannot rationally adopt it because if you adopt it you have to think that your believing it was itself an arational, physically determined process.

And the whole idea of intentionality – of having thoughts about something. For example, I can think about President Bush right now. Or I can think about Dick Cheney. Or I can think about my trip later in the week. Physical objects don’t have intentionality. This podium, the book, the brain even, doesn’t have this aboutness. Physical objects don’t have intentionality about something. So, again, this would suggest this first view is really inadequate. There needs to be some sort of an immaterial self which we call the soul or the mind which is distinct from the body. This, again, would be a pointer to immortality because this would be compatible with the survival of the soul even if the body dies.

(3) Man’s Morality. Morality is radically undermined without immortality. If there is no immortality then ultimately our fate is unrelated to our behavior. Whether we live as a Mother Teresa or as a Stalin, we all wind up the same. So even if there are objective values and objective moral duties that we have, if there is no immortality then morality becomes a charade because it is ultimately unrelated to our final fate. It becomes empty and meaningless. It because futile. No matter what you do, you just wind up the same. So the great Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky said if there is no immortality then all things are permitted. That is to say, there is no moral accountability.

What do you say to someone who says that he is just going to live for pleasure out of pure self-interest? You could say to him, “Well, you should do these things.” And that would be right. Yes, morally he should do these things, but why should he adopt the moral point of view? The problem is that without immortality, prudential value and moral value can come apart. Morally, you should do something but prudentially it wouldn’t be in your best self-interest to do that. You should not adopt the moral point of view. It would be imprudent to do so because it might involve self-sacrifice or jeopardize your own life.[5] So on the view that there is no immortality, prudential value and moral value fall apart. This results in this discord, this sort of absurdity, that Carnell talked about where life is out of joint, so to speak, and our moral values tell us to do one thing but our prudential values tell us to do something else.

So without immortality, morality, I think, is radically undermined and vacated of ultimate significance. Of course, people cannot live that way. Even a nihilist like Friedrich Nietzsche in the end could not live beyond good and evil as he claimed the superman should do. He said the superman (the man who has realized that God is dead) will live beyond good and evil, beyond moral values. But even Nietzsche himself couldn't do that. Late in his life he broke relations with his mentor, the opera composer Richard Wagner, because of Wagner's strident German nationalism and antisemitism which Nietzsche disagreed with. Even Nietzsche couldn't live as though there were no objective moral values and duties.

So if there is morality, if morality is to be significant and meaningful, this again requires immortality. The philosopher Immanuel Kant saw this point clearly. Kant was an 18th century German philosopher who believed that moral reason requires the existence of God as a postulate. In order for moral reason to be successful, he said there must be God and immortality in order to proportion happiness to virtue because in this life virtue and happiness are not proportionate. As I said, they are out of joint – the wicked often prosper and the righteous suffer and die in this life. In order for virtue and happiness to be proportioned to each other, Kant said there must be these postulates of immortality of the soul and the existence of God who in the afterlife will apportion virtue to happiness.

So while these aren't proofs for immortality, I think that man's personality, rationality, and morality all give us pointers, as it were, or signposts of immortality that provide hope.


Question: What was Kant's basis for saying that there should be proportionality between happiness and virtue?

Answer: I am not sure how to answer that question. Probably – and I'm guessing here now – he would probably say that virtue ought to be rewarded; that the very nature of virtue is something that ought to have some sort of a recompense, whereas someone who has done wicked ought to be punished. That seems to me to be right. Virtue deserves reward; evil deserves punishment. And if there is no immortality, this fundamental ought goes unsatisfied. So I suspect that that would be the lines along which Kant would argue, though I couldn't point to a specific passage in his writings where he does argue that way.

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: I appreciate that, though I think that if you reflect on what I just said, isn't it correct though that, for example, evil deserves punishment? If there is objective morality in the world, the very nature of evil is that it deserves punishment. Justice isn't satisfied unless it is punished. And goodness deserves reward. So I think that there is this fundamental moral ought. We are assuming here that morality is objective; that morality really exists. If it really exists, it would seem to me that immortality would be required given that in this life justice isn't done.[6] So I don't think it is just wishful thinking. It would be more that morality, if it is to be satisfied, if there is to be this objective ought, and if that is to be fulfilled, then you need to have immortality as a precondition. Now, he didn't think this was a proof. He called it just a postulate. So maybe in that sense he would agree with you. It is not a proof, it is a postulate – a requirement of the meaningfulness of the moral life. I think that is right. That seems to me to be correct.

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: Let's understand what the question is. The question he asked is, “How would you respond to people who deny that there is any objective morality?” As I was saying earlier, what I am assuming here is that there is objective morality, and just saying that in order to be meaningful and significant, morality requires immortality. That is quite consistent with saying there is no objective morality. This is conditional. It is if there is objective morality then there needs to be immortality as well. Do you see that point? I am arguing this as conditional.

But now you are asking the deeper question, “Why think there is objective morality?” It is very interesting that students tend to be relativistic and think that their professors believe relativism. But if you were to do a survey (as has been done) of university professors, you would actually find that university professors believe more in the existence of objective moral values than students do. And of the professors, it is the philosophy professors who believe in objective morality more than their colleagues do. Now, why is that? I think it is because moral philosophers reflect upon our moral experience, and in our moral experience we sense certain moral obligations – this moral “oughtness” that I talked about. “I ought to do this; I ought not to do that.” We also sense that there are certain things that are objectively good and objectively evil. It really is wrong to torture a child for fun. That is an objective moral value. Any argument for moral relativism or nihilism will have premises in it that will be less certain than that moral experience itself. Therefore, they consider themselves to be justified in going with their moral experience. So that is the basic answer. Any argument for relativism will have in it somewhere a premise or premises which are less warranted than the warrant that we have for our moral values and duties that we apprehend in moral experience. That is why, for example, last week at my debate at the University of Massachusetts with the atheist philosopher Louise Antony[7], she held firmly to objective moral values and duties. She believes slavery is wrong and that torture is wrong. Why? Because she says any argument for relativism will be less certain than my own moral apprehension of these values and duties in moral experience.

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: That is correct. Take a look at somebody like Richard Dawkins, for example. In his book The God Delusion, he denounces God as a foundation for moral value, and he claims that there is no good and there is no evil. Yet, he turns around and denounces things like religious intolerance, indoctrination of children in the church, the Amish raising their children in these backward communities. He even proposes a Ten Commandments of his own that regulates society. So it is very clear that someone like Dawkins cannot live consistently with his moral nihilism. He gives lip service to it, but then when you look at the way he really lives and writes he affirms moral values left and right. He is an indelibly stained moral realist in fact.[8]

Question: What would you say to someone who says that moral values are just the result of socio-biological conditioning?

Answer: I would say that that is absolutely correct if there is no God. On atheism, that seems to me to be the correct account of moral values. They are just patterns of behavior ingrained into us through biological evolution and societal and parental conditioning. But if there is a God then he would be the objective foundation of moral values and duties, and no matter how influenced we were by our evolutionary background or our societal conditioning, nevertheless that would be just the way we come to discover moral values. It wouldn't be the basis for moral values. So the whole question really comes down to whether or not you believe there is a transcendent God to serve as the foundation for these moral values. But I would agree with him that if there is no God then he is right, that is all that moral values are. The point that I'm making here is that if there is objective morality (as most people think, including atheists) then immortality is a precondition of that morality's being significant and meaningful. Otherwise, it becomes futile.

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: That is a good point that you are making. The problem that Kant found himself in was that he didn't think that there were sound arguments for God's existence. Even this moral position that we've just described isn't an argument for God, as I said. God is simply postulated as a precondition for morality being significant. But, as you say, if you reject Kant's restriction of the categories of the mind to just sense experience – if you say that the mind can also grasp things beyond the five senses (and I think the mind obviously can) then there is no reason that the mind cannot provide arguments for God's existence. In fact, I think that this then becomes a good moral argument for the existence of God. Given our apprehension of objective moral values and duties, it would follow that God exists as the ground and foundation for those. So this is an argument I use all the time in my debates with atheists and agnostics. I think it does give good moral grounds. So you are right to point out that the weakness of Kant's position is a result of Kant's prior commitment to saying that there are no sound theoretical arguments for God.

Next time what we'll do is begin to look at the biblical data in the Old Testament concerning immortality of the soul.[9]

[1] Edward J. Carnell, An Introduction to Christian Apologetics: A Philosophic Defense of the Trinitarian-Theistic Faith (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2007), pp. 23-24.

[2] J. G. S. S. Thomason, “Death and the State of the Soul After Death” in Contemporary Evangelical Thought Vol. 3: Basic Christian Doctrines [ed. Carl F. H. Henry] (Dallas, TX: Digital Publications, The Electronic Bible Society, 2002), p. 270.

[3] 5:04

[4] 10:00

[5] 15:05

[6] 20:09

[7] For a video of this debate, see (accessed June 13, 2014).

[8] 25:13

[9] Total Running Time: 28:49 (Copyright © 2008 William Lane Craig)