Monday, January 08, 2018

Death, Immortality, and Resurrection (Edward Vick) -- A Review.

DEATH, IMMORTALITY,AND RESURRECTION. By Edward W. H. Vick. Gonzalez, FL: Energion Publications, 2017. X + 130 pages.

                There is something about the human spirit that hopes for something more than this life. Several books have been published recently that report experiencing what they consider death, and then returning to life. These testimonies are touted as support for the belief in the afterlife, but I think most of us have developed beliefs rooted elsewhere, most likely in the teachings of one’s faith community. Most religions have taught some form of life after death. Christianity, Judaism, and Islam tend to embrace resurrection, while Buddhism, Hinduism, and other eastern forms of religion embrace reincarnation. One question that rises perennially across the religious/philosophical spectrum is whether there is an immortal soul, one that is separate from the body and can break free of the body. While belief in an immortal soul has often been promulgated among Christians, there is some question as to its compatibility with the doctrine of resurrection.  

Among those who have explored these questions, and has raised questions about the compatibility issue is Edward Vick, who has taught religion and philosophy for many years, mostly in Seventh Day Adventist contexts, and holds the Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University. The book’s title covers significant ground, lifting up death, immortality, and resurrection, matters of ultimate concern for many, especially Christians. Standing at the core of the book is the question of the relationship between belief in an immortal soul and resurrection. The question is, might one continue to exist without a body, or is body and soul intrinsically related? More to the point, if the soul continues to exist postmortem, without any involvement of God, how can God be responsible for resurrection as Christianity has traditionally taught? That is, should we not consider whatever form of immortality that comes our way to be a concern of God?  In the eyes of Edward Vick, resurrection is an act of God, and therefore, immortality is not innate to human existence, but is a gift to us from God.

Vick doesn't put much stock in conversations that seek to draw on science—seeking proof of an afterlife. Instead, this is a question to be decided based on either philosophy or revelation. In other words, we don't have any way of studying scientifically what lies beyond the grave (and these testimonies about returning from the dead don’t offer any proof). Thus, the question is a concern of philosophers and theologians not scientists (and I tend to agree). 

The book is divided into two parts. Part One begins with a chapter on the question of death— what does it entail and whether it is permanent. He assumes that humans are mortal and therefore all will die, whether we find ways forestalling it or not. But what about the soul? Is it mortal? That question leads us to chapter two, which explores the New Testament teaching on death and resurrection. Among the topics here is whether there is an interim state. That is, when we die do we experience immediate resurrection or is there some kind of time lag (a time of sleep perhaps?). From there, what might bodily resurrection entail?  Chapter three explores the idea of immortality, including what might be called conditional immortality. Vick is strongly in favor of resurrection, and thus does not find reincarnation very attractive. My sense is that my Hindu and Buddhist friends do not find resurrection attractive. Finally, there is a chapter asking whether resurrection and immortality are compatible ideas. If one understands immortality to be innate—that “immortality is a defining feature of human beings,” then no, this is not compatible. However, one can affirm “conditional immortality,” which “means that it is not an essential feature of human nature.” That is, immortality is not necessary nor universal. He raises the issue of universal salvation, which I would treat separately. However, I do see the point that resurrection—eternal life—is a gift of God and not inherent in our being.

Part 2 of the book is, according to the author, a philosophical discussion. He starts with Plato, who defended the idea of the immortal soul. Then he moves to Aristotle, Plato's student, who took a more materialist view, and saw the soul in functional terms. From Aristotle he moves to Descartes, who offered a dualist vision that understood soul and body as separate, with the body understood mechanically, with the essence of the human person being the mind. Finally, he explores John Hick's replica theory of resurrection. I've read some of Hick before, but had not heard of this theory, which is intriguing. For Hick human beings are psycho-physical unity, and thus body and soul can't be separated, but perhaps they could be replicated (copied). Of the views explored, Vick is most interested in the latter, for the recreated person would essentially be like the original in every way, and thus is the same person.

Vick offers what might be considered a traditional Christian theological view of life after death, while helpfully disconnecting resurrection from the idea of an immortal soul (especially one that is disembodied). Whatever one’s views on the matter, this book helps clarify the various positions, and affirms the premise that our conversation must be rooted in philosophy and revelation, but not science. This is a matter of faith, not experiment.

I have only one real complaint about the book, and that is the complete absence of inclusive language for human beings. While the book is new, the grammar is old school. If you have difficulties with the older masculine forms of reference to human beings, this book might prove jarring. It did for me, as I'm not used to seeing much of this anymore. Nonetheless, the analysis is clear and insightful. As Bruce Epperly puts it on the back cover: "Regardless of your theological perspective, you will find this book to be an invaluable resource for imaging the afterlife." So, ignore the language and enjoy the insight.  

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