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Sunday, May 18, 2014

The mind of God and an afterlife

"O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out! For who hath known the mind of the Lord? or who hath been his counselor? Or who hath first given to him, and it shall be recompensed unto him again? For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory forever. A-men." (Romans 11:33-36, KJV)

I was reminded this past Sabbath that there are many Christians who believe that the Bible is, contains or is representative of the mind of God. Nevertheless, such a concept is refuted by the scripture quoted above.

Paul said that God's mind is beyond all of us. He said that God's mind encompasses every thing in the universe - including us. Indeed, he told the saints at Corinth that the only way that we (humans) can have any insight at all into the mind of God is through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit that has given us the mind of Christ. (I Corinthians 2:7-16) According to Paul, without that, we wouldn't even have a clue!

With the guidance of God's Holy Spirit, Scripture can provide us with insights into the mind of God. Even so, to claim that it encompasses or is somehow fully reflective of God's mind and thinking is absurd! Scripture contains a small piece of the mind of God. In fact, we can safely say that Scripture is encompassed by the mind of God!

How does this relate to the subject of an afterlife?

This weekend I also received a link to the transcript of a debate entitled "Death Is Not Final." The debate was hosted by Intelligence Squared U.S. and occurred on May 7 of this year. Author and neurosurgeon Eban Alexander (along with author, PhD and medical doctor Raymond Moody) argued in favor of the motion. Author and physicist Sean Carroll (along with commentator and neurologist Steven Novella) argued against the motion. The discussion was moderated by John Donvan, broadcast on NPR (National Public Radio) and was divided into three segments or "rounds" (opening statements, questions and closing arguments).

Dr. Alexander and Dr. Moody based their defense of the concept of an afterlife on the testimony of people who claim to have had near-death experiences (NDEs) and others who have been in the room with them and claimed to have shared in those experiences. In fact, Dr. Alexander was able to give an account of his own personal experience when faced with almost certain death as the consequence of bacterial meningitis.

While Dr. Carroll and Dr. Novella did not attempt to dismiss this evidence, they concluded that it was insufficient to overpower the weight of scientific evidence against the phenomenon. Instead, they offered alternative explanations as to why some people have had these NDEs (unexplained brain activity during or emerging from the episode).

Of course, when the standard is scientifically verifiable evidence that the phenomenon in question is real, the spiritual perspective is always going to come up on the short end of the stick. By definition, that which is supernatural is beyond the ability of our world/reality to observe, measure and quantify.

In considering this topic, I think it's interesting to note that some well-respected physicists and cosmologists have proposed that our reality may be a mathematical construct. In other words, our reality may be an illusion. They propose that things like time and space may be concepts that we use to navigate through this thing that we call life. What about that?

What if everything really does exist in the mind of the Creator? What if all of our reality is an equation or a thought in the mind of God? That would kind of upend this whole discussion wouldn't it?

For me, Robert Rosenkranz (founder of the foundation that sponsors these debates) had the most cogent observation on the topic before the debate began. He said: "Well, one of the things that kind of got me to think that this would be a very interesting debate is a sermon I heard in a Catholic church many, many years ago, in which the priest was challenging people to believe in an afterlife. And the argument he made was quasi scientific. He said, imagine a fetus in his mother's womb that's almost ready to be born, nine-month, full-term baby. And you're trying to convey to this baby what's about to happen, that it's going to have an incredibly painful experience going through the birth canal, that its ties to its mother through which it's getting all kinds of nutrients and all the oxygen is going to be severed. But not to worry, there's going to be a great life afterwards. There's going to be all kinds of experiences and sensory things and development and emotional growth and just an incredible world that you cannot imagine. And when you think about that, of course, you say, of course you could--there's no way you could communicate that. And there's no way that the baby could understand it. And yet we all know it's true. So it kind of invites you to think, is it possible that there's something that we can't--we can not imagine, that we don't understand, but nonetheless is true about life after death?"

Yes, most of us can imagine that kind of a scenario. In fact, I would go so far as to say that this analogy from a Catholic priest comes very close to explaining the "reality" of the situation.

Think about it. Those of us who are a part of this reality really can't even begin to imagine the concept of a "spiritual" afterlife. It is so far removed from what we can observe, evaluate, comprehend or verify as to be almost completely beyond our reach.

There are two basic beliefs within the realm of Christianity about the afterlife with an almost limitless number of variations on them. The majority of Christians believe that man is equipped with a soul that is separate and completely independent of this physical body that we currently inhabit or occupy. This soul is thought to be immortal and destined for eternal life in either heaven or hell. The other school of thought teaches that people literally cease to exist when they die, and that the dead will be resurrected at some point in the future. According to this school, some of the dead will be resurrected to enjoy eternal life while others are cast into the Lake of Fire (or Second death).

As with many other beliefs, some Christians seem to relish arguing over which view is correct. They seek to support their view and destroy the arguments of anyone who holds to the alternative view.

Nevertheless, if we step back from the arguments for just a second and ask ourselves a few questions about our beliefs, we may discover that we are closer together in our understanding of an afterlife than we originally imagined. What happens after a person closes their eyes for the last time and exhales that final breath? One side says that the person opens their eyes in heaven or hell in the next moment of consciousness. The other side says that the person opens their eyes and rises to join Christ in his Kingdom or to face the Great White Throne Judgment. They liken death to a dreamless sleep. In other words, their next moment of consciousness is in the Kingdom or the Judgment. Such a person is entirely unaware of the passage of time between his/her death and resurrection. Hence, from the perspective of the person who has died, don't both sides see death as an "immediate" transition to another kind of consciousness?

Moreover, don't both views fit with what the Catholic priest had to say about an afterlife? Even with God's Holy Spirit, it is virtually impossible to have more than a vague impression of what that kind of reality might entail. After all, none of us in this reality has ever fully experienced that one - even those who claim a NDE have made their way back to the land of those living within this reality.

Take just a moment to think about the time element relative to the two basic Christian views of an afterlife. If God really isn't subject to our laws of time and space, then couldn't "His" reality accommodate both views? Wouldn't the passage of time be meaningless in God's reality? In the final analysis, wouldn't consciousness be the only thing that really mattered?

To be sure, the minority view of a literal resurrection of the dead would better accommodate the scientific views of Dr. Carroll and Dr. Novella. If the minority view is correct, there would obviously not be any need for evidence of an afterlife; because the Christians of this persuasion would agree with them that all consciousness ceases at the moment of physical death. Their view anticipates a future return to life.

Nevertheless, if we (along with everything else in our "reality") only exist in the mind of God, doesn't that imply that we could only know about that other reality if God makes the connection in "His" mind? Strictly speaking, wouldn't this be something outside of the ability of science to test, verify or reach any kind of rational conclusion about? Isn't science only able to pass judgment on what we take in through our five senses? Isn't science confined to its observations about chemical interactions and the firing of neurons in different regions of the brain?

Although I am fuzzy on the details, I can imagine an afterlife in the mind of God - Can't you?

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