DO YOU BELIEVE there is an afterlife? Do you believe that your consciousness continues to exist after your mortal body ceases to function? Most people do – about 73% of U.S. adults, according to an AARP survey. No one knows for certain, of course, which is why it’s a “belief” rather than a fact. Even the most compelling cases of near-death experience – in which a person claims to have actually seen the afterlife, then returned to his/her body – do not constitute proof.
Does an afterlife make sense? When did people become eligible for an afterlife? What do I mean by that? I’d like to take you on a little thought experiment to investigate this idea. In doing so, we’ll use some common assumptions (which may not be correct, but we have to do some assuming as jumping off points for the sake of the experiment) and see where it takes us.
ASSUMPTION #1: There is an afterlife.
Questions: Is this afterlife – whatever or wherever it is – for humans only? Do our pets get to go into the afterlife also? Many people would like this to be true. And, in fact, there have been many reports of ghosts of pets. So if our pets have an afterlife, it seems logical to say that it’s not just because they are pets that they have an afterlife... all dogs and cats must have an afterlife, whether they are pets or not.
Then, of course, we have to ask why dogs and cats should be so special. They are not the only kinds of pets. So do hamsters, snakes, horses, canaries, goldfish and pot-bellied pigs also have an afterlife? Do all animals have an afterlife? How far down on the chain of animal life do we take this? From blue whales to bacteria... do they all have an afterlife?
Is this an idea we are willing to accept? That all animal life has an afterlife? If not, where can we draw the line? All intelligent life? Then we have to define what “intelligent life” means. That would include dolphins and chimps. Certainly it could be argued that a highly organized colony of ants has a kind of intelligence.
The question comes down to: In addition to humans, do dogs, whales, chimps, ants and even bacteria have an afterlife?
I’m not sure most people would answer yes to that question. And it would be very difficult to draw a line that says: these animal forms have an afterlife and these don’t. So we’re almost forced, in this argument, to say, “Well, alright, only human beings have an afterlife.” (Which is how we got the idea that only human beings have a “soul” and other animal life forms do not.)
ASSUMPTION #2: Human beings evolved over millions of years from lower life forms.
Questions: If we evolved, at what point did we “earn” an afterlife? Unless human beings appeared fully formed on the Earth (which creationists believe), then we evolved on this planet from other hominid forms… primate… mammal… and so on down to the single-celled organism.
If that is true, we are led back to our earlier questions. Going back down our evolutionary path, if we were not always human beings – homo sapiens – then at what point were we granted an afterlife? When we became mammals? (Then do all mammals now have an afterlife?) When we became primates? (By extension, do all primates have an afterlife?) Or was it when as a species we became self-aware? When was that? And how did self-awareness grant us an afterlife? Who or what granted this blessing?
Here are the possible conclusions we can draw from all these questions:
- There is no afterlife.
- Every animal form has an afterlife.
- Only some animal forms have an afterlife, but we don’t know which ones or how it is decided.
- Only humans have an afterlife, but if humans evolved we don’t know when, how, or why they were given an afterlife.
- Humans did not evolve, but were created fully formed with the right to an afterlife.
- Humans evolved through intelligent direction (by God?) and granted an afterlife somewhere along the way.
Am I missing something? Are there other possibilities?
Those who favor the creation conclusion might see this thought experiment as an argument or even a proof that God created man, fully formed, just like the Bible says. The problem with that idea is that our DNA and the fossil record strongly indicate that life and man evolved here. To say that God created us just as we are seems like a cop-out answer, simplistic, illogical, and a default for not being able to admit that we just don’t know.
So what about evolution though intelligent direction? If so, what is that intelligence? God? A universal consciousness? (By the way, even if we did evolve through intelligent direction, that doesn’t mean there is an afterlife.)
So maybe there isn’t an afterlife. And the little “evidence” we have for it – near-death experiences and ghost phenomena – are illusions and projections from our own psyche. Maybe the idea of an afterlife is nothing more than a hope that keeps us going and makes death less frightening. But who wants to completely cease to exist? Not me.
So what is the truth about the afterlife? No one knows. And all the questions we’ve been asking here may be unanswerable with our current understanding of how the world works. It’s the end question to mankind’s most profound and eternal mystery: Who are we? Where did we come from? Why are we here? What happens to us when we die?