Is belief in an afterlife wishful thinking?A number of viewpoints are advanced to assert that the concept of an afterlife is illogical. One such viewpoint is that belief in an afterlife is nothing more than wishful thinking. This stance is adequately summarized by A. N. Wilson in his paper 'Life after death: A fate worse than death'. In this he enquires: 'Like a greedy child, having stuffed its face with food, do you demand yet more?...Are you so obsessed with being you that you cannot accept the fact of your own non-existence?'.(1)
Many writers who dismiss the possibility of an afterlife make reference to belief in an afterlife having its roots in our inability to grasp the finality and injustice of death. Indeed, death rarely makes sense at any time. Death robs us of the elderly who, by virtue of their age, have so much wisdom and experience in life and therefore have so much to offer. There is the child who dies and is cheated of the opportunity of growing to adulthood, and the parent who dies leaving behind a grieving spouse and desolate children. The stark reality is that death is the most absurd feature of existence. Consequently, it is argued that belief in an afterlife is nothing more than a desperate compensatory mechanism to overcome this incongruity.
In many cases, belief in an afterlife is wholly related to anomalies in religious teachings. Having failed to substantiate their dogma by evidence in this life, we are told that everything will be neatly sorted out in the next. It is also useful for what is termed 'theodicy', that is, explaining why so much suffering prevails despite the fact that a loving all-powerful God exists. Professor John Hick is one such example of a Christian who needs an afterlife to defend the God in whom he believes: 'If there is any eventual resolution of the interplay between good and evil...it must lie beyond this world and beyond the enigma of death'.(2)
But Spiritualism's understanding of an afterlife is of a different genre altogether. Spiritualism presents imagery of an existence which stands in contrast to those beliefs which require an afterlife to resolve the many obvious paradoxes in their own teachings. I would therefore suggest that in its fundamental form Spiritualism does not arise from 'wishful thinking' and it is not, as Wilson suggests (as cited above), the inevitable result of an inability to confront the reality of non-existence.
The most obvious evidence for this is that unlike conventional Western religious beliefs, e.g. Christianity, Spiritualism rejects that the afterlife is a final, realized state. In Christianity, we are told 'after death - the judgement' (Hebrews 9:27); a person's state at the moment of death will decide and determine his eternal future (e.g. Luke 16:19-26). The Christian theologian Augustus Strong asserts that 'the final state, once entered upon, will be unchanging in kind and endless in duration'.(3)
Later writers confirm this saying that 'continued person-making through real moral situations which demand such choices' will end at death being 'followed by an eternal heaven and hell'.(4) It is clear that Christianity and other Western religions envisage there being no further choices, decision-making, progress (and mistakes) after death. In fact, the traditional Christian understanding of an afterlife, for the redeemed, is the 'Beatific Vision': this 'will be the joy of the redeemed in heaven; man's...ultimate fulfilment for which he was created'. Thus, eternity will be nothing more than staring at God - for evermore.(5)
In the upshot, the afterlife according to Christianity will be static and there will be no scope for improvement, enlightenment, regret, and suchlike and even if there were, nothing purposeful will emerge from this. Even the idea of purgatory involves events which lead to a predetermined goal: as noted, 'in traditional Catholic theology, purgatory does not provide a further opportunity for a fundamental turning to God; it is only for those who have already made their decision'.(6)
Therefore it is possible to detect 'wishful thinking' in many conventional Western religious beliefs concerning the afterlife: human beings really have very little to do in respect of their final goal with events and circumstances being primarily dictated by external forces. Moreover, everything connected with this is achieved with predetermined speed.(7)
Some readers will be familiar with those pictures included in the literature published by the Watchtower Society (i.e., Jehovah's Witnesses). The typical picture of the post-Armageddon world depicts a smiling witness contentedly painting his house, another gleefully picking fruit (all non-poisonous of course) from nearby trees while other witnesses merrily climb nearby snow-covered mountains with now-tame lions and tigers. This is paradise. Or is it?
The problem here is that this reflects the post-Armageddon world not for weeks, months or years, nor even decades, centuries or thousands of years, but for ever. Yes, for ever and ever. Consider that for a moment - the prospect of painting your home, collecting fruit or walking across snow-covered mountains (with friendly lion) for ever and ever and ever. As with conventional Christianity, the Watchtower Society depicts the life after death/judgment as being stationary. This of course conflicts so sharply with the human desire to develop. A human being who ceases to change and develop has ceased to be a human being.
And this is the all-significant difference between Spiritualism and other faiths which accept an afterlife: Spiritualism considers that the afterlife is not an instant miraculous solution to theological perplexities but a period, and particularly so in the early stages, of both work and solemn reflection; in sum, it will be an arduous experience. Therefore Spiritualism's image of the mode of existence after death is hardly a 'quick fix' or one which neatly resolves those difficulties which arise in belief. Nor does it signal the time when we 'enter into rest' but the very opposite. The initial post-mortem world could be compared to returning to a state of infancy and unfamiliarity which, as in this life, is one of humility and learning. This will involve making progress - and mistakes. Possibly, many of them.
This is hardly 'wishful thinking'. There will be no enthroned deity congratulating the deceased on his steadfast faith and welcoming him into eternal bliss, but a process of coming to grips with a disengagement from the material world. If we consider only a handful of the communications relayed through different mediums, it becomes obvious that for many, possibly the majority, and certainly so those who have lived in the Western world and its preoccupation with materialism, the post-mortem life will be one of toil and resolving internal conflicts. Price even suggests for some it might be 'a nightmare from which one could not wake up'.(8) When Allan Barham reviews Spiritualist belief he comments that it accepts 'that there may well be suffering after death, depending on the nature of the previous earthly life'.(9)
Unlike traditional religion which neatly divides the afterlife into two very distinct categories - everlasting pleasure for its own faithful members and eternal damnation for everybody else, Spiritualism recognises that no one will enjoy (or suffer) 'special treatment' due to beliefs that they may have had before death. Everyone will face much the same arduous route if they wish to develop: no one is exempt and this includes Spiritualists. Arthur Conan Doyle commented that communicators referred to their lives as a mode of existence which was 'of interest' but also involving 'occupation'.(10) This is a far cry from the comfortable vacation-type existence, said to be divine reward for accepting certain dogmas, advanced by traditional Western religion. Again, Spiritualism's understanding of the afterlife hardly appears to be that of 'wishful thinking'.
With regard to this accusation, Price refers to how many of those who reject the possibility of an afterlife are reflecting their own wishful thinking. He suggests that when such people die and realize that they have survived death, they will be 'dismayed or even horrified'. This is because they 'have "invested their theoretical capital" in a materialistic or naturalistic view of the world'.(11) And indeed the title of Wilson's article possibly betrays his reasons for rejecting the possibility: not because it is illogical or due to a paucity of evidence but an afterlife would be 'a fate worse than death': he comments that a life which continues indefinitely 'would be a hell'.
This is often the intrinsic reason for rejecting the possibility of a life after death: the common image of this is as Price comments, 'represented as an endless succession of religious exercises...Like being in church for ever and ever, singing hymns of praise out of an infinitely long version of Hymns, Ancient and Modern'. He then wisely adds that 'it did not seem to occur to religious teachers that a perpetual Sunday morning might become a little tedious after a while'.(12)
Price is certainly not intentionally presenting a doom-laden image of an afterlife, but he draws attention to the fact that it will be a mode of existence which is challenging, and 'it will not do to look only at the bright side of the picture, as if life after death (assuming there is one) were just a happy holiday for us all'.(13)
When the deceased F. W. H. Myers communicated through Geraldine Cummins he described how the materialistically-minded will suffer 'the doom of loneliness',(14) and the 'ignorant, trivially-minded human beings...loiter at the gates of death'.(15) For those who strive for maturity, Myers refers to 'the terrific struggle and effort' which will have to be endured before this is attained.(16) On another occasion he speaks of how the person will eventually find the initial stages of their afterlife as 'wearisome' and for progress to be made it will be necessary to make an effort to begin the required journey.(17)
The medium Linda Williamson relates many positive accounts given by communicators, but there are some which are not so cheerful: one communicator describes how he found himself in a place where 'the passing faces had in them no signs of friendliness' and was 'dingy [and] murky'.(18)
In Many Mansions, Lord Dowding includes accounts of soldiers who had been slaughtered in the 1914-18 War. One describes his life as 'grand', but says that it was initially 'a sort of torture' as he tried to accommodate himself to his new environment. Another was challenged by 'the Shining One' at his pleasure on reaching the Summerland and he felt obliged to return to the bloody battlefields and assist those who had just been killed. A soldier killed in Libya recalled that he had 'wandered about in a state of great loneliness' when he was killed.(19) Other examples of the afterlife representing a challenge and producing heartache could be given, e.g., the negative accounts of near-death experiencers.(20)
These examples are only a few of the many which could be offered to show that the information gleaned through mediumistic communications hardly accords with the accusation that Spiritualist belief arises from 'wishful thinking'. I appreciate that it is easier to ignore these factors and hope for an afterlife in which there is only pleasure and delight; however, if we do this, such an afterlife has little correlation to the one described by able communicators.
In the above, I have attempted to show that while the imputation of 'wishful thinking' may be appropriate in some cases, this has very little actuality in the case of Spiritualism. Moreover, as Price suggests, 'it might very well be that some of those who disbelieve in life after death are "wishful thinkers" too'.(21)
The argument that wishful thinking produces belief in an afterlife only finds support with conventional religion which portrays the afterlife as an instantaneous solution. Apart from this, the idea that it is 'like being in church for ever and ever, singing hymns of praise out of an infinitely long version of Hymns, Ancient and Modern' is sufficient to convince most people that the concept is meaningless. For this reason Spiritualists and Survivalists should seek to understand what has been said and described about the next world; having done this they will be able to expound an afterlife which is meaningful and progressive - and inevitable.
(1) A. N. Wilson, 'Life after death: A fate worse than death', in Beyond Death ed. by Dan Cohn-Sherbok and Christopher Lewis (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1995), pp.183-198 (p.197).
(2) John Hick, Evil and the God of Love, 2nd edn (London: Macmillan, 1977), p.375.
(3) Augustus Strong, Systematic Theology (London: Pickering and Inglis, 1907), p.1030.
(4) 'Life after death' in A New Dictionary of Christian Theology, ed. by A. Richardson and John Bowden (London: SCM, 1983), p.333.
(5) 'Beatific vision' in A New Dictionary of Christian Theology, p.63.
(6) 'Life after death' in A New Dictionary of Christian Theology, p.333.
(7) Current evangelical belief is inclined to look to Revelation which teaches that after Christ returns (19:11-16) the wicked will be slaughtered and the elect rewarded (19:17-21,20:1-6). After a thousand years, the final judgement will take place (20:7-15,21:14) and the eternal state for all will begin. Considering that humanity and its immediate ancestors have existed for about 100,000 years, this is obviously a remarkably short time to resolve all its defects and shortcomings.
(8) H. H. Price, Essays in the Philosophy of Religion (London: Oxford University Press, 1972), p.117.
(9) Allan Barham, Life Unlimited (Hythe: Volturna Press, 1982), p.67.
(10) Arthur Conan Doyle, The New Revelation, rep. (London: Psychic Book Club, 1938), p.42.
(11) Price, Op. Cit., p.82.
(12) Price, Op. Cit., p.84.
(13) Price, Op. Cit., p.117.
(14) Cit. Geraldine Cummins, Beyond Human Personality (London: Ivor Nicholson and Watson, 1935), p.163.
(15) Cit. Beyond Human Personality, p.210.
(16) Cit. Beyond Human Personality, p.113.
(17) Cit. Geraldine Cummins, The Road to Immortality (London: Nicholson, 1932), pp.38-39.
(18) Cit. Linda Williamson, Mediums and the Afterlife (London: Robert Hale, 1992), p.150.
(19) Cit. Lord Dowding, Many Mansions (London: Rider, c.1946), pp.31,34,35.
(20) E.g., Margot Grey, Return from Death (London: Arkana, 1985), pp.56-72.
(21) Price, Op. Cit., p.90.
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