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The Quest for Immortality
By David Baggett | Bulletin Roundtable Part 1
In this September Roundtable, our writers have each chosen an existential reason to believe in God to explain and defend, drawing from the categories discussed by Clifford Williams in his excellent book, Existential Reasons for Belief in God: A Defense of Desires and Emotions for Faith (IVP Academic, 2011). As Paul Copan observes in his upcoming article, “Alongside rational arguments, these deep human longings or needs serve as complementary reasons for God’s existence.” David Baggett kicks off the discussion with an examination of the human quest for immortality.
Some years ago I had the pleasant experience of using for a textbook Clifford Williams’ fine book on existential reasons for belief in God, and found the volume to be tremendously insightful. It’s one among other books in recent years that have intentionally tried to stretch the apologetic quest beyond the confines of an overly narrow empiricism or epistemology. Such existential and experiential reasons should usually be thought of as supplemental sorts of confirmations that augment an evidential case, but sometimes the reasons arguably carry evidential support of their own. For example, I have used the example of the way our deeply felt existential moral needs for forgiveness, change, and ultimate perfection can be used in a performative variant of the moral argument, and there are plenty of other examples as well. My WB colleagues are talking about their own particular examples of existential reasons, and the one that I will consider is our longing for immortality.
Sometimes moral arguments try to show that God exists, but Immanuel Kant also gave a famous version of the moral argument that attempted to demonstrate the reality of immortality. It went something like this: since we can never achieve the “holy will” that God alone possesses, the best we can do is progressively approach it—asymptotically, to use a concept from mathematics—getting ever closer but never fully arriving. The process can never be completed, so if morality is to taken with full seriousness, we need to posit the existence of an unending afterlife.
As arguments go, it leaves something to be desired, although I suspect it does capture something of some importance. Even subsequent to the day of Christ Jesus, when the good work that’s been begun within us will be completed, likely involving an experience of the beatific vision and complete conformity to the image of Christ, there remains a dynamism to our heavenly state. Presumably even then, and forevermore, we can and will grow deeper into ever more loving relationships with God and others. This picture reveals some of what is wrong with thinking that the new heavens and earth might end up ever being monotonous or boring. To the contrary, it is a place of the most active and abundant life possible.
A picture of the heavenly state as one of irremediable ennui came at the culmination of the television show Good Place, which depicts (in hilarious fashion) something of a secular picture of an afterlife in which there is the prospect of an unending existence. The show’s secularity manifests in its commitment to what Charles Taylor calls the “immanent frame,” which inclines the modern mind to find fulfillment without recourse to any transcendent source. At best, love relationships between people are thought of as our highest good, and this is just what we find in the Good Place. In this way the show confirms cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker’s conclusion that the modern relationship is all that’s left for those who believe in the “death of God.” But such relationships (even between Eleanor and Chidi) fall short and fail to satisfy, unsurprising because, as Becker puts it, “No human relationship can bear the burden of godhood.”
The Christian vision is different, featuring a never-ending source of joy, an ultimate good big and transcendent enough to satisfy forever. Eternal joy is not an oxymoron, or contradiction in terms, because there’s an ultimate good, a perfect and perfectly loving and holy God it will take all of eternity to worship and adore properly—a process that will literally never be accomplished and over with. The problem with secular pictures is that their good is too small. This world alone is not enough.
Hearing of immortality, or eternal life, usually raises the specter of something of unending quantity, which is perfectly natural. Biblically, however—especially in places like the Gospel of John—eternal life is, additionally, associated with a qualitative aspect. This is why it actually makes good sense to say that in a real way eternal life has already begun in the lives of believers. There is obviously a glory to come that we have yet to enter fully into, but even now we can catch furtive glimpses and momentary glances, as the kingdom of God seeps and shines through and occasionally irrupts even in the most seemingly pedestrian of life’s events.
While recently rereading C. S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces, something stood out for the first time. When Orual (Maia) discovers Psyche alive, Psyche describes what had happened to her. At one point Psyche says, “When I saw West-wind I was neither glad nor afraid (at first). I felt ashamed.”
“But what of? Psyche, they hadn’t stripped you naked or anything?”
“No, no, Maia. Ashamed of looking like a mortal—ashamed of being a mortal.”
“But how could you help that?”
“Don’t you think the things people are most ashamed of are the things they can’t help?”
“I thought of my ugliness and said nothing.”
What stood out in this remarkable passage was our mortality as a source of shame, and the way the work of Christ takes away both our guilt and our shame—both deserved and undeserved.
I can’t help but wonder if there isn’t some biblical precedent to such a notion. I Cor. 15:53, for example, speaks of the perishable putting on the imperishable and mortality immortality. Before Adam’s fall introduced death, life might have gone on indefinitely, but there was still a susceptibility to sin that needed to be rectified.
As my colleague Chris Kugler wrote to me, “Of course, redemption from sin and corruption takes center stage in scripture itself and thus is, of course, central; but, there are also indications—and you pick up on some of those with immortality swallowing up mortality—that, even if Sin had never been a problem, God was going to have to do something to make mere creatures fit for eternal fellowship with the creator.”
Jesus fixed the sin problem by going to the cross, but he also fixed this vulnerability within us, making possible the removal of the shame of our mortality. This is why the beatified state will be even better than a restoration of Eden.
— David Baggett is Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Center for the Foundations of Ethics at Houston Baptist University. He is the author or editor of about fifteen books, most recently The Moral Argument: A History written with Jerry Walls.
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Person of Interest: Why Jesus Still Matters in a World that Rejects the Bible by J. Warner Wallace
God: Eight Enduring Questions by C. Stephen Layman
Sin by Gregory Mellema
Contemporary Arguments in Natural Theology: God and Rational Belief ed. by Colin Ruloff and Peter Horban
Freedom, Redemption and Communion: Studies in Christian Doctrine by Oliver Crisp