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What Happens After Death
June 16, 2006

A new book from a Calvin College philosophy professor looks at a central Christian concept: what happens to humans after death.

Kevin CorcoranKevin Corcoran's "Rethinking Human Nature: A Christian Materialist Alternative to the Soul" argues that humans are constituted by their bodies without being identical to the bodies that constitute them.

The idea, Corcoran says, is simple enough.

"Just as statues are material things that are not identical with the pieces of copper and bronze that constitute them, so human persons are material things that are not identical with the bodies that constitute them."

Corcoran says much of mainstream Christianity however believes that humans are immaterial souls.

"What we believe about ourselves matters," says Corcoran. "In a recent survey an astoundingly large number of evangelicals reported not believing in a literal, future resurrection of the body for human beings. That shows the extent to which Christians fail to take seriously our created nature as embodied, physical beings."

The book has been getting interesting reviews.

Gregory Ganssle of Yale University's Rivendell Institute says: "Rethinking Human Nature is an excellent exploration of the nature of human persons. Corcoran defends a Constitution View of persons in which we are wholly made up of our bodies, yet we are not identical to them. While I do not, in the end, agree, the position he defends and the arguments he employs are extremely important for anyone thinking about the nature of human persons. One particular strength of his book is that he connects his position to critical issues in traditional theology and contemporary ethics. Corcoran's book will spark a lively debate for years to come."

For Corcoran such a review is exactly what he was hoping for when he wrote the book.

"What we think about ourselves," he says, "whether we are material or immaterial things, informs the way we think about ethics, the after life, the very idea of what it means to live a flourishing human life, even what it means that we have been created in God's image."

The issues discussed in the book have a personal, real-life relevance Corcoran says.

"In 1968 I lost my father to cancer," he recalls. "I was four years old. I can still remember the funeral home. And I can remember that as I looked into the casket, my mother told me that my father was now with God in heaven. I remember feeling perplexed. And why not? My father was lying lifeless before me. How could he be with God in heaven? I came to understand that my mother believes what most Christians have believed down through the centuries: humans are immaterial souls capable of disembodied existence."

Corcoran no longer agrees with his mother's point of view.

"It's not that I don't understand the view," he says. "I do. What I deny is that human persons like you and me are immaterial."

For Christians, Corcoran says, it is important to recognize that the relevant catholic and Christian doctrine with respect to an afterlife is that of resurrection of the body.

"None of the Ecumenical creeds of the Church confesses belief in a doctrine of soul survival," he says. "No, the Christian doctrine regarding the afterlife is a doctrine of resurrection."

The resurrection of the body, says Corcoran, is a difficult notion to comprehend on any view of human persons.

"Both dualists and materialists have the problem of telling a coherent story about how a body that peters out and ceases to exist can somehow turn up in the New Jerusalem," he says.

Corcoran says his view of human nature has implications for both life in heaven and in the here and now.

"A materialist view of human nature," he says, "makes good sense of the urgency and importance of our call to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and pursue justice. Why? Because we are material beings; starvation, want and physical impoverishment are kingdom concerns. Contrary to the sacred hymn, this world is our home. It is broken, disfigured and diseased to be sure, but it matters to us. It matters to us because we are created for this world in all of its physicality."