Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia are truly ugly realities. They can strip people of their relationships, their dignity, and even their identities. There are few things worse than having to watch a loved one deteriorate, ultimately forgetting who you even are.
Many of us know the physical effects of these types of diseases, but have you considered the relevance this has on the afterlife? Strange as it is, debilitating brain issues actually pose quite a problem to some of the most popular beliefs about the hereafter.
I recall a childhood friend I once had, and the horrific car accident his mother endured during his youth. My friend’s mother went from being an attractive, intelligent, charismatic person, to being a perpetual child in an instant. She lost her adult thinking capacities, and even her physical appearance drastically changed after the traumatic brain injury she received. First and foremost, this was truly tragic. Chances are, many of you reading this have seen something of the sort in your lifetimes.
But think about how strange this type of thing is. Someone sustains a serious brain injury, and their personality is forever changed (in this life, at least). In other words, a physical injury to the body results in a spiritual change in the person. The person has undergone nothing other than “soul damage.”
I don’t know about you, but that fact doesn’t make much sense to me. The most popular Christian (and others) belief about human existence is that we each have a soul that lives in union with a body. “We” are immaterial souls, and we live in physical bodies.
If that is true, why would a physical injury alter the immaterial soul? Why does a car wreck or a brain disease/injury completely change our personalities? Shouldn’t the soul be, well, immune to physical damage? You would surely think so. But on the popular view, it is not.
This is not the only problem, either. This brings up a major question about who we are in the afterlife as well. To further explain the problem, I have included a brief selection from The Death Myth.
“What, or who, exactly is it that is supposed to be going to heaven? It can’t be the body; our bodies will end up in either crematoriums or caskets. If it is not the earthly body that goes on, then it must be the soul.
While this may seem like a simple observation, it opens the door to some of the most difficult questions we could ever imagine. When a person has lived well into adulthood before passing away, his or her identity has been extensively developed prior to their departure from this world. But what if someone dies, Lord forbid, prematurely? The person—body, soul, identity, and all—someone is as a child is drastically different than the person they are as an adult.
You may already see the problem here. Who “we” are depends stringently upon how long we have lived and what has occurred during that time. I was different at five years old than I later was at ten years old, and different at seventeen than at thirty, and so forth. So were you. So is everyone. The unavoidable question, then, is this: what version of “us” goes on into the afterlife? Are some eternally destined to be perpetual, immature six-year-olds? Will those who tragically die before reaching adulthood remain as children forever? Will those who succumb late in their lives to devastating mental illnesses like Alzheimer’s disease or the various types of dementia carry that version of themselves into the next age?
Make no mistake about it: these questions present all of us with a number of very difficult considerations, and it would be an act of sheer hubris to suggest that I have all of the answers to these problems. But even the basic observation that the nature of the human soul—the component of our personal identities—is inextricably connected to the human body and our various substantive circumstances indicates something extremely important. Specifically, it reveals to us that any view that treats the human soul as the “real being” or the human body as something of secondary importance fails to adequately account for this connection.” (pp. 127-128)
In short, there are two major problems if we believe that the soul is the immaterial “us” that lives in a body. You know, the thing that will supposedly go live by itself after we die.
The first is that physical circumstances can radically change the soul. If someone gets hit hard enough in the head, their soul changes. Why should that be possible?
The second problem is that the person you are at the end of your life would also be the person that goes on to the afterlife. If I pass away with Alzheimer’s, and I am my soul, then I would carry that status after death. At the least, I would live like that during the “interim period”—the time between death and the resurrection.
To me, none of this adds up. The view most of us have been taught—that we are really souls who temporarily reside in bodies—just doesn’t seem to work. Is there any possible answer to this dilemma?
I believe there is. But that will have to wait until next time.
Thank you for reading! If you found this blog interesting, please see all the other posts on this site. You can purchase The Death Myth by clicking here.