Personal immortality is best understood as the belief in the actual survival beyond physical death of the core element of our personality or con- sciousness—often called the soul—for an indefinite period. The primary assumption of this belief is that the core element of consciousness, or soul, is entirely distinct from our body, and so can be removed from it on the body’s death with no compromise in quality or essence. The consequences of belief in personal immortality on one’s view of time are profound and involve a comprehensive rejection of temporality. It is also considered of fundamental importance in the development of religion.
It seems apparent that some of our predecessors’ earliest speculations revolved around death and its consequences. The existence of burial sites among Neanderthals from 60,000 years ago and early Homo sapiens from about 35,000 years ago suggest that death was believed to be a transitional state. The practice in primal societies of killing off aging people was due, in part, to the supposition that their bodies, not being yet decrepit, would be useful to them in the afterlife. And the mutilation or eating of enemies was done with the same view in mind; the destruction of their bodies so as to cripple their ability to exact revenge from beyond the grave.
Similar views carried on in the early civilizations. The Egyptians, for instance, held high store on immortality, but their extraordinary efforts to preserve the physical body with processes like mummification suggest they could not conceive of immortality without a physical body. The coronation of the pharaoh was held to coincide with either the rising of the Nile in the early summer or receding of the waters in autumn when the fertilized fields were ready to be sown. As part of the coronation the pharaoh would reenact the deeds of Osiris, who represented the life-giving waters of the Nile. Beliefs about Osiris embodied the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth around which Egyptian life revolved. And from this cycle came the promise of immortality, which for many centuries was the preserve only of the pharaohs but eventually became available to anyone who could afford the expensive rites and observances.
Indian notions of immortality resonate to a different beat, bound up as they are with the idea of rebirth. It is one thing for the soul to survive death, but immortality is another thing altogether. The Vedas spoke simply of an afterlife presided over by the god Yama, but ideas of rebirth developed later. In what has become understood as the quintessential Hindu view, the soul will undergo an almost countless number of rebirths and, along the way, gradually rid itself of the life-clinging vices of greed, hate, and delusion. The final aim in Hinduism is Moksa, or liberation. Here and only here is true immortality achieved, but at the cost of having shed all traces of existence apart from the universal whole into which it has merged. Much the same is true of the Buddhist notion of nibbana, or in Sanskrit, nirvana.
In China, Confucianists and Taoists alike shared the Indians’ suspicion of the egotism thought to underlie a desire to live forever, but they had no thought of rebirth, thinking instead that we have but one life to live. One tradition of thought expressed this well by speaking of the “three establishments.” Instead of yearning for immortality in heaven, they advised we focus more on being remembered well here on earth, which could be done in any of these three ways: establish virtue to be remembered as an upright and honest person; establish achievement to be remembered by what one achieved in life; and establish words to be remembered by any written legacy one may have left. The Asian traditions, then, do not value personal immortality. In fact, their core insight is to rid oneself of the delusions that would presuppose such a goal to be worthwhile.
The Middle East and Judeo-Christian Traditions
As long as the physical body was bound up with the afterlife, as in Egypt, thinking on personal immortality could only go so far. It was the Persian sage Zoroaster who is credited as the first to associate personal immortality with the beliefs and actions of one’s life. As part of a rebellion against the polytheism of the Persia of his day, Zarathustra posited a universe characterized by a cosmic struggle between good and evil. The good was exemplified by Ohrmazd and the evil by Ahriman. While Ahriman owed his existence to God, he had of his own free will chosen the evil path. Zarathustra taught that human beings can also choose to follow the righteous or the evil path and that our immortal destiny depends on the decisions we make.
As is now widely recognized, Jewish, and later Christian, religious concepts owe a heavy debt to Zoroastrianism. Jewish eschatology was primarily concerned with the fate of the nation, but the collapse of the Jewish nation and the Jews’ exposure to Zoroastrian beliefs while in exile in Babylonia in the 6th century BCE introduced new ideas of personal immortality linked to the passionate belief in the justice of God. It is likely that the development of personal horoscopes in Babylonia in the 5th century BCE was due to the influence of Persian doctrines of personal immortality.
Until the exposure to Persian ideas on personal immortality, there was little discussion in the Jewish tradition of what happens after death beyond mention of a dim underworld called Sheol, to which all departed go, whether righteous or wicked. Sheol originally referred simply to the collective graves of the tribe. Sheol was a sad place where the soul wanders aimlessly, an enfeebled remnant of the living person. After the Persian ideas became available, some evidence exists that views developed to include the possibility of intervention from Sheol into worldly affairs. These ideas were resisted by the more learned sections of society, and more skeptical ideas became prevalent.
The other important influence on Jewish thought on immortality was Platonism. Before Plato, little attention had been given to a life after death. The funeral oration of Pericles, for example, makes no mention of an afterlife for those who had fallen in defense of Athens. Popular notions of Hades were much like Sheol: dark, gloomy, and unwelcoming. So when, in the Phaedo, Plato argued for personal immortality as experienced by an immortal soul, he was going against the grain of Greek thinking.
As a result of these different influences, it is hardly surprising that Jewish thinking on immortality was not consistent. On the one hand it was believed that at the end of time the soul would be reunited once again with the body and that the righteous and the wicked would receive rewards or punishments accordingly. But alongside this was the idea that the soul, being immortal, survived bodily demise and received its punishment or reward immediately upon death. And then there is the eloquently phrased skepticism of any sort of afterlife, as expressed in Ecclesiastes (9: 3-10).
For first century Judaism, then, the question of immortality was hotly contested, with the Sadducees arguing against it on the grounds that such an idea has little or no scriptural warrant. Against them stood the Pharisees, who were less traditional and more influenced by the Greeks in this respect, and their case won in the end. The influence of the later Greek thinkers, with their notions of an immortal soul for which the body was simply the vessel, can be seen in the thought of Philo of Alexandria (c. 20 BCE-c. 50 CE).
Christian teaching on immortality inherited some of the ambiguities of Judaism, but Saint. Paul’s strong commitment to personal immortality smothered them. Saint Paul was quite clear about the central role immortality had in his theology. “And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain. . . . If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most miserable.” (1 Cor 15:14, 19) His strong interpretation of immortality was followed up by Saint Augustine (354-430 CE), whose works were vastly influential in establishing Christian dogma for more than 1,000 years.
But even in Saint Paul there was a certain ambiguity. It is not certain, for instance, that eternal life can be understood straightforwardly as surviving beyond death. Elsewhere Paul speaks of our mortality being clothed with immortality, but once again this is as likely to refer to the eternal life of salvation with no suggestion of personal survival. This more sophisticated argument has not found favor among the vast majority of Christian believers, who continue to believe in their own personal immortality.
It is true, however, that there are two quite different conceptions of immortality in the early church, neither of which was clearly articulated. On the one hand, the belief that with the Second Coming of Christ all the dead will be resurrected requires that they lie dormant until then. But on the other hand, there is the belief that our souls depart from our bodies on death and immediately go to whichever point of repose is allocated to them. In the early years of the church, this distinction did not matter a great deal, because the return of Christ was believed to be imminent. But as time passed and Christ did not return as expected, the problem of this intermediate period between death and resurrection took on a greater urgency, particularly as the promise of immortality constituted its principal point of difference with other religions and with paganism.
Renaissance and Modernity
The importance of the idea to the Christian appeal notwithstanding, major areas of confusion remained for centuries to come. The individuality of the soul—an idea essential to the notion of personal immortality—only became established dogma at the fifth Lateran Council of 1513. But Pope Leo X’s effort to enshrine belief in immortality was indication that it was under attack. In the general spirit of inquiry that characterizes the Renaissance, belief in personal immortality was one of the first supernaturalist nostrums to be queried. Of particular interest here is Pietro Pomponazzi’s (1462-1525) On the Immortality of the Soul. Published only 3 years after Leo’s edict, Pomponazzi’s treatise looked at the discrepancies between Aristotle’s view of the soul and that of official Catholic teaching. In particular, it explored the difficulties in reconciling the status of the perished soul in the twilight zone between death and resurrection. It ended up saying that personal immortality could not be established by reason and could only be believed as an article of faith. His work was publicly burned and he narrowly escaped more serious persecution.
Over the next centuries, thinking on immortality diversified a great deal. Immanuel Kant (17241804) devoted much energy to placing immortality as a postulate of the moral law, but almost completely ignored any description of what immortality might be like. A landmark in thinking on personal immortality came from Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872), who was one of the first to articulate a contemporary understanding of immortality. In Thoughts on Death and Immortality (1830), Feuerbach argued that the ancient world conceived of immortality as achieved through identification with the state and the people, and it felt no consequent need to denigrate the limitations of a life lived in the here and now. But the specifically personal immortality before a personal transcendent God was a relatively recent development of Christianity, this not having been the main understanding of immortality during the Middle Ages. But, he argued, in the face of the “double nothing” of living people without essences and essences without meaning, the traditional dualism of Christian dogma was no longer viable. God, by this way of thinking, became an alien “other,” outside the framework of human love. Instead, the earlier notions of immortality as a social memory and as part of a larger community were now returning to their rightful position.
In the wake of Feuerbach, a variety of naturalistic accounts have been offered. Following on from the ancient Indians and Chinese, 19th and 20th century freethinkers were suspicious of the motives that underlie the popularity of the idea of personal immortality. Nowhere was this more forcefully put than by the American pragmatist thinker William James, who wrote, “The pivot round which the religious life, as we have traced it, revolves, is the interest of the individual in his private personal destiny. Religion, in short is a monumental chapter of human egotism.” Many freethinkers of the time thought the same. For example, George Anderson (1824-1915), an English businessman and philanthropist, wrote a poem called “Immortality,” which was published in the Agnostic Annual in 1897. Anderson understood well the attraction behind claims of personal immortality: “So man’s weak vanity was touched and flattered,/And thus he listened to the wondrous tale,/That all creation might be whelmed and shattered,/While He o’er death itself would prevail.”
Several attempts were made in the 19th century to reconcile belief in immortality with the naturalistic worldview, the most influential of which was the phenomenon of spiritualism, which attracted considerable support between the 1850s and the 1920s. Through seances run by mediums, it was widely believed that contact could be made with the deceased. The more devoted spiritualists were convinced that they had achieved a major scientific breakthrough. Personal immortality was no longer a matter of faith or dogma, but of testable fact. The last great wave of interest in spiritualism happened during the First World War, as grieving family members sought to establish contact with loved ones killed in the fighting. But spiritualism declined after the war, as greater scrutiny of the mediums’ practices revealed them to be tricks that magicians could reproduce or even simple fraud.
Other thinkers tried to avoid the question of whether personal immortality is actually true or not. For instance the pragmatist philosopher F. C. S. Schiller (1864-1937) acknowledged that dogmas about immortality were accepted because they were what people want to believe. But he specifically sidestepped the question of whether personal immortality was true and confined himself solely to the value of the belief on a person’s conduct and well-being. He went further when he insisted that the ethical argument for immortality remains independent from whatever science may discover. This style of thinking has remained influential among religious progressives.
The most thorough critique of personal immortality from the 20th century was The Illusion of Immortality (1935) by Corliss Lamont (1902-1995), an American philosopher who studied under John Dewey. This work went through three editions and remained in print for 40 years. Lamont was not unsympathetic to the motivation behind the wish for immortality, but it was clear to him that immortality was incompatible with a naturalistic account of things. This said, he did more than simply deny the traditional conception of immortality; he also broadened the range of ways we could think about immortality, which involved many more perspectives than simply personal immortality, which relied upon a heavy dualism. Lamont identified ideal immortality, or the eternal moment that Spinoza and Santayana spoke of; material immortality, where the material that makes us up is subsumed after death back into nature; historical immortality, or the simple fact of our existence in time; biological immortality, or our continued existence through our children; and social immortality, or survival through the memory of our achievements.
An interesting development over the past half century has been an increase in interest in the beliefs of the general citizen on matters such as this. For example, the World Values Survey, which polled people in 74 societies around the world between 1981 and 2001, found a general decrease in belief in personal immortality as societies become more prosperous, although with an interesting anomaly. In agrarian societies, belief was measured at 55%, in industrial societies at 44%, and in postindustrial societies at 49%. The slight rise of reported belief in personal immortality in postindustrial societies may be accounted for by the inclusion of the United States, where the figures are out of alignment with all other postindustrial nations, with its growth of various “new age” spiritualities. Interestingly, this was the only anomaly in an otherwise even decline in all recognized forms of religious belief and expression from agrarian to postindustrial societies.
More recently a wide range of Christian thinkers have reconciled themselves with the naturalistic account of the world and have abandoned the more supernaturalistic interpretations of personal immortality. Many have developed variations of Lamont’s ideal immortality to reposition the argument. These, along with the more naturalistic interpretations, mean that immortality has a wider range of interpretations now than at any time in history. In general, however, personal immortality has given way to variations of the nonpersonal immortalities Lamont and others have outlined. And in so doing, time has been handed back its absolute dominion.
See also Aquinas, Saint Thomas; Augustine of Hippo,
Saint; Christianity; Feuerbach, Ludwig; Judaism;
Kant, Immanuel; Plato; Egypt, Ancient
Anderson, G. (1897). Immortality. In C. A. Watts, (Ed.), The agnostic annual (pp. 47-48). London: Watts.
James, W. (1908). The varieties of religious experience. London: Longmans, Green.
Lamont, C. (1959). The illusion of immortality. New
York: Philosophical Library.
Norris, P., & Inglehart, R. (2004). Sacred and secular: Religion and politics worldwide. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Schiller, F. C. S. (1912). Humanism: Philosophical essays. London: Macmillan.
Whitrow, G. J. (1988). Time in history. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.