Alice C. Linsley
The question of immortality or "life after death" has drawn the attention of philosophers through the ages: Plato, Porphyrus, Augustine, Aquinas, Descartes, Spinoza, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and many more. However, these philosophers hardly agree on what it means to be immortal. Nietzsche's immortality is in his madness, of which Michel Foucault is the most profound observer.
Plato believed the soul to be indestructible even when it is separated from the body. He conceived of the soul as an indivisible whole and "the destruction of a thing consists in separating from each other its parts." (Ted Honderich, ed., The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, 2005, p. 423.) Plato's belief in the transmigration of the soul follows logically. The soul must continue to exist in some way or form. It is also likely that he was influenced by the shamanic belief in soul migration that pervaded ancient Eurasia.
The Tyrian philosopher Porphyrus (233-305) was a student of the Neo-Platonic philosopher Plotinus. According to Augustine, Porphyrus believed that "the soul, to be happy, must avoid all bodies." (Paul Edwards, ed. Immortality, Macmillan, 1992, p. 96)
Augustine recognized that among the ancient peoples only the Egyptians believed in bodily resurrection and that is why they took geat care in the preservation and burial of their rulers. (J. Davies, Death, Burial, and Rebirth in the Religions of Antiquity, Routledge, 1999, p. 27) By means of the skillful mummification of their rulers, the Egyptians hoped to avoid the "second death" which results when the soul and body become separated.
The only reference to the second death in the Bible is found in Revelation 2:11 where John encourages those who face persecution: "He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes will not be hurt by the second death." Is the context of John's statement Nilotic or Greek? It is possible that this emerges from both contexts as much of classical Greek thought hangs on Plato who studied for thirteen years in Egypt. If the second death concept is found in both contexts, we have evidence of an ancient consensus.
The Egyptians and Augustine believed as did St. Irenaeus that "the resurrection body will have the same shape as the physical body." This was critical to Irenaeus' opposition to Gnosticism.
St. Paul believed that the resurrection body is to the temporal body what the mature kernel of grain is to the wheat seed. In other words, there is a teleological feature that directs the transformation of the mortal into the immortal. Paul qualifies this by saying that this is true for those who are "in Christ" or for those who have died with Christ, a reference to Jesus' statement about his own death that "unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit." (John 12:24)
The Cartesian approach to the body-soul relationship supported the belief that the soul, being immaterial and extended, can live after death and is indestructible. Descartes wrote, "our soul is of a nature entirely independent of the body, and thus not liable to die with it..."
Arthur Schopenhauer believed that death of the body is not the end as long as the will survives. The will is sufficient to gain bodily objectification, as in reincarnation. Schopenhauer contended that belief in reincarnation was nearly universal among archaic populations, but anthropologists have found no evidence to support his view.
Rather, for ancient populations the hope of life after death was connected to what happened to their ruler in death. It was believed that should he rise from the grave, he would lead his people to immortality. The hope for immortality was not an individual prospect.
The conversation about immortality is further complicated by the fact that Western Philosophy and Eastern Philosophy approach the question from different worldviews. Generally, in the West the physical body has greater importance. This is sometimes taken to the extreme in movements said to guarantee biological immortality through technology and medicine. In recent news, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur Peter Thiel has advocated the possible advantages of blood from young persons to slow the aging process.
Immortality as Human Impulse
Given the wide range of thought on this question, it is necessary to begin by defining the term "immortality" as it will be used here.
Immortality pertains to personal existence, not as an old or young person, but as a whole person. Therein rests the true value of the immortal life.
Immortality pertains to a life beyond this temporal realm, but not a pie-in-the sky heavenly existence. There is no risk in immortality of being bored. There is no tedium in living as a whole person.
The immortal nature of angelic beings will not be addressed here. That takes us into idle speculation. (Colossians 2:18)
Since inanimate objects such as rocks never die, they do not enter into the conversation except to note that the Caingang of southern Brazil "at the end of the funeral of one of their people, rub their bodies with sand and stones because these things do not rot." They say "I am going to be like stones that never die." (Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Raw and the Cooked, p. 149).
Immortality does not pertain to an immortal soul separated from the body. This is a Gnostic conception which has more in common with Asian dualism than with the Judeo-Christian worldview.
Immortality, as the term is used here, does not include the Hindu and Buddhist conception of non-material escape from samsara. Unlike the religions that seek to escape the material world, the Judeo-Christian tradition values the body and holds that it should not to be destroyed beyond the processes that are natural to death. In Eastern philosophy, the hope of escaping the material requires a level of asceticism that most Asians do not attain, and explains why they hold the monks in such high esteem.
Immortality is a hope expressed by humans. As far as we know, no other living organisms aspire to immortality. It is for humans a yearning. Augustine believed that the yearning for immortality expresses itself in perseverance. He wrote, "It is good for us to persevere in longing until we receive what was promised [resurrection of the body], and when yearning is over; then praise alone will remain." (Discourse on the Psalms)
Paul likens the yearning to an ambition to win something of great value. He speaks of an impulse to run a race in the hope of winning the prize of the "the unsearchable riches of Christ." He wrote,
"Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have laid hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize of God’s heavenly calling in Christ Jesus. All of us who are mature should embrace this point of view." (Philippians 3:13-15)In this paper, immortality will be considered in the context of a human impulse that is far older than the world religions. This impulse is evident in the widespread practice of burial in red ocher, a symbol of blood.
Red ocher burial has been traced from as early as 100,000 years ago (Qafzeh Cave in Israel) to as recently as 500 years ago (Glacial Kame Culture). The practice is found primarily among Old World populations in Macro-haplogroup L (Mt DNA) and Haplogroup R (Y-DNA). L represents the most ancestral mitochondrial lineage of all modern humans, and R is a widely dispersed Afro-Asian group. There is a high density of R1b in Europe and central Africa.
Dispersion of Haplogroup R1b
Evidence of Immortality
Divergent views on immortality continue into recent times. Consider the philosophers Peter Geech (1916-2013), a devout Roman Catholic, and A.J. Ayer (1910-1989), an atheist and Logical Positivist.
"The traditional faith of Christianity... is not going to be shaken by inquiries about bodies burned to ashes or eaten by beasts; those who might well suffer just such death in martyrdom were those who were most confident of a glorious reward in the resurrection."In his 1988 article for The Sunday Telegraph, Ayer recounts his near death experience and reflects upon its possible implications. Ayer wrote:
"The admission that personal identity through time requires the identity of a body is a surprising feature of Christianity. I call it surprising because it seems to me that Christians are apt to forget that the resurrection of the body is an element of their creed."Ayer goes on to speculate how it might be possible for there to be "a reunion of the same atoms" and states that the fallacy of Christian belief in an afterlife is the assumption of the existence of a deity. From a strictly philosophical point of view, evidence of immortality does not prove the existence of God. God is one of various possible explanations.
Considering the wide range of thought on the question of immortality, it is obvious that we are dealing with opinion, speculation, and perhaps a good deal of wishful thinking.
There is no empirical evidence of life after death unless we credit as true the resurrection of Jesus who was called "son of God." According to the New Testament Jesus appeared over a period of forty days to more than five hundred people in his immortal resurrection body. Christian apologists have written volumes about this so I will not delve into the textual evidence of those witnesses.
In reference to the resurrection of Jesus, I wish to point out that the expectation of a divine son who would overcome death and rise on the third day is older than the New Testament and most of the Old Testament. It is found in ancient Nilotic writings such as the Pyramids Texts and the Coffin Texts. This does not prove that Jesus rose from the grave on the third day. It simply verifies that there was an expectation of an event such as described in the New Testament resurrection narratives.
The difficulty in proving immortality by any empirical approach is evident in the fact that Ian Ramsey never mentions the word in his book Religious Language: an empirical placing of theological language. One might consider this odd for an Anglican bishop, but Ian T. Ramsey (1915-1972) was very much the British empiricist.
Evidence of Belief in Life After Death
Though we cannot set forth evidence of immortality that meets the requirements of empirical investigation, employing "positivist tools" we are able to establish substantial evidence of belief in life after death. The evidence comes from archaeological and anthropological studies of human burial practices, and it involves understanding what blood represented to archaic populations.
For at least 100,000 years humans have been buried in red ocher, a naturally occurring ore composed mostly of iron oxide. This was ground to a powder and sprinkled, sometimes copiously, over the body after it had been placed in the grave. Archaeologists and anthropologists agree that the red ocher dust is a symbolic blood covering. However, they do not agree on whether the red ocher is the covering of placental blood or the blood covering of a sacrificial victim.
Placental blood speaks of rebirth from the earth. This is a logical interpretation for populations that believe that their ancestors came to the surface from the depths of the Earth. It is possible that cave burials involving red ocher symbolize a return to the womb, but this has not been proven.
I would be inclined to this view were red ocher burial typically found among populations that held an autochthomous view of human origins. Instead, the red ocher burial is most common among Old World populations and populations that arrived in the New World from Siberia (Clovis) and Northern Europe (Miqmac).
The oldest known burials in red ocher in the Americas date to only 12,000 years before the present (BP). The Red Ocher Complex in southern Wisconsin dates to only 5000 BP. New World populations do not have a long tradition of red ocher burial.
Lévi-Strauss found that the Bororo of central Brazil bury their dead twice, first in a pit in the village plaza where the family members lavishly wash the corpse to hasten the process of decomposition. Once washed of the decaying flesh, the bones are painted red and placed in a basket which is ceremoniously dropped to the bottom of a river. (The Raw and Cooked, p. 192) For the Bororo, however, the most significant symbol of life is water, not blood.
The Mayans practiced secondary burial also and painted the bones of the deceased red. However, the gathered bones were buried on land in ossuary vaults or ollas (funeral vessels), not in water. In arid regions the caves were sources of water and not to be polluted with corpses.
The autochthomous origin of humans also refers to humans being made of the soil (humus), as in the Genesis account of the Creator molding Adam from the adamah (soil). Both words have as their root DM (dammu in Akkadian), which refers to blood. The name Adam is derived from the Hebrew root אדם (A.D.M), which means "to be red or ruddy" (Strong’s #119). The biblical narrative makes a clear connection between red soil pigment and blood.
In Genesis 4:10, we read that the blood of Cain's murdered brother cries out from the ground and is heard by the Creator. The implication is that the ancients believed that the blood of the slain has a voice that calls to God, imploring justice. This may be the deeper meaning behind the biblical phrase: "For the life of a creature is in the blood..." (Leviticus 17:11)
Blood from a sacrificed animal was placed in the holes of Roman boundary stones, and the deity Terminus was called upon to hold the owners of adjacent fields accountable for honoring the boundaries. (Adkins, Dictionary of Roman Religion, p. 221)
Similarly, when chiefs of the ancient Near East met to negotiate land treaties, an animal was sacrificed and a boundary stone was erected. The sacrificed animal became part of the meal that the parties to the treaty ate together.
At ancient Emar in Syria there were three principal festivals involving sacrifice and standing stones. All three involved rubbing the stones with blood from the sacrificial victim and feasting on the sacrificed animal. (Patrick Maxime Michel, "Ritual in Emar" 2013)
Given the evidence, it is a justifiable supposition that red ocher burial among ancient and archaic populations symbolized sacrificial blood, not placental blood.
The relevance of blood to the human impulse to immortality becomes evident when we consider the ontology of the world religions. The soul in Hinduism is the divine Self (Atman). On the rare occasions when an animal is sacrificed it is to enhance the power of a ruler.
The soul in Buddhism is the product of conditions and causes and ultimately is not real. Buddhists do not offer blood sacrifice.
In Judaism, Christianity, and Islam the soul is the real core of the individual person and is perceived to be blemished or fatally diseased. The cure requires a contrite heart and a ritual involving water, as in baptism, and/or blood sacrifice. The writer of Hebrews makes the connection: "According to the Law, in fact, nearly everything must be purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness." (Hebrew 9:22)
In Christianity, historically there is an order to acting on the impulse to immortality. Baptism precedes reception of the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist. Ignatius of Antioch (35-108 A.D.) describes the consecrated Bread and Wine as "the medicine of immortality, and the antidote to prevent us from dying, rather that we should live forever in Jesus Christ." (Letter to the Ephesians, Chapter 20).
Blood and Immortality
The question remains as to why the buried body was not sprinkled with the blood of the sacrificed animal? Why use red ocher as a substitute? Among those who believed that humans came from the earth, or are constituted of earth dust, the use of an earth pigment makes sense.
The same conception is found among Christians who observe Ash Wednesday. When imposing the ashes, the priest reminds the recipient, "Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return."
Another explanation is the primitive anxiety about blood. Blood was viewed as both a polluting and a purifying agent. After combat warriors underwent a purification ritual overseen by the priests. This is likely the context of the story about Abraham receiving the ruler-priest Melchizedek after the battle of the kings (Genesis 14). Note that Melchizedek came to Abraham with bread and wine.
The connection between blood and purity is evident in the linguistic connections between the words for blood, pure, and holy in the Afro-Asiatic languages. Consider the relationship of these words: Hebrew thr - to be pure, Hausa/Hahm toro - clean; Tamil tiru - holy, Dravidian tor - blood, and ancient Egyptian tr - blood.
Blood anxiety has been observed by such prominent anthropologists as Lévi-Strauss and Colin Turnbull. Lévi-Strauss notes that the Timbira of Brazil have a taboo against eating roast meat with fingers stained with blood from the hunt. (The Raw and the Cooked, p. 151) The Bororo share this repulsion to blood, believing themselves to be polluted whenever they become stained with blood. (Ibid, p. 152) Turnbull notes that the Pygmies view blood as dreadful, but recognize it as pertaining to both death and life (The Forest People, p. 186).
Blood anxiety is expressed in many cultures in regard to menstrual blood. The woman or girl in menses is required to live apart from the community during her period. The same isolation is required with birthing. The woman giving birth is attended only by other females in a place apart.
Colin Turnbull writes about blood anxiety among the BaBira villagers of the central African plains.
“Blood of any kind is a terrible and powerful thing, associated with injury and sickness and death. Menstrual blood is even more terrible because of its mysterious and regular recurrence. Its first appearance is considered by the villagers as a calamity– an evil omen. The girl who is defiled by it for the first time is herself in danger, and even more important she has placed the whole family and clan in danger. She is promptly secluded, and only her mother (and, I suspect, one or two other close and senior female relatives) may see her and care for her. She has to be cleansed and purified, and the clan itself has to be protected, by ritual propitiation…” (The Forest People, p. 185)
However, among one of the oldest known human populations, the forest Pygmies, first menstrual blood represents life and the girl is secluded for a month with her friends in what might we considered an extended slumber party. Turnbull writes, "The girl enters seclusion, but not the seclusion of the village girl...In the house of the elima the girls celebrate the happy event together." (Ibid., p. 187)
Blood anxiety is a reason to avoid blood, especially in burial with the hope of life after death. In that context red ocher is a safe substitute and a sign to the invisible powers that the buried person is under a propitiatory blood covering.
From the data collected, this researcher concludes that the 100,000 year practice of red ocher burial speaks of a hope for immortality, and that the blood symbolism testifies to a propitiatory impulse among archaic and ancient populations, an impulse that is preserved most intact in the Messianic faith called “Christianity.”
Related: The Sting of Death; Plato's Image of Immortality; Sheol and the Second Death; The Question of Immortality; An Early Case of Color Symbolism: Ochre Use by Modern Humans in Qafzeh Cave (Harvard Library); Adam Was a Red Man; Why Women Were Never Priests