The Death Myth by Brian Rossiter: A Review

Author

Brian Rossiter holds a Master’s degree in Theological Studies from Trevecca Nazarene University, and is an adjunct professor at Ohio Christian University, as well as a long-time high school teacher.

 

Thesis

Rossiter hopes to show that the traditional views of the afterlife are inaccurate in some substantial way, and to offer a more plausible view, by defining terms, showing that the traditional view is not a settled consensus, and demonstrate the plausibility of his view that a human person retains his identity between death and the resurrection through some sort of “identity information kept on file by God” that provides the continuity between this life and the next.

 

Synopsis

The Death Myth is arranged into five chapters. In chapter one, Rossiter lays out his biblical case for his rejection of the traditional view of the intermediate state of the dead, what he refers to as the Temporary Disembodiment Position. (TDP) In chapters two and three, he critiques the TDP interpretation of key passages. In chapter four, Rossiter completes his case against TDP and offers his alternative, “Identity Information” view. Chapter five closes with what he sees as the ramifications of the views.

 

Analysis: The good

First and foremost, whatever view you take (assuming it is one of the options discussed in the book) Rossiter clearly affirms essential Christian doctrine. If he is wrong, his views are heterodox, not heretical. Likewise, I think Rossiter would affirm the same of those whose view he critiques. There are no ad hominem cries of “heretic!” leveled here. Additionally, it is better to challenge traditional beliefs if you think there is a problem than to simply accept them merely because they are traditional. This is especially true when the popular understanding of the traditional view goes uncorrected. Rossiter rightly points to the incompleteness of the view that when we die we go to heaven/hell forever. He affirms the resurrection and the new heavens and new earth as our hope. Moreover, wherever you come down in this debate, Rossiter is to be commended for putting his views out there for public scrutiny and discussion. Finally, but not exhaustively, Rossiter does not affirm physicalist monism. Let me also add that this book has helped me sharpen my own thinking on this issue. I will have more to say on this in my next post.

 

The not so good

Throughout the book, there are several assertions Rossiter makes that I don’t think he adequately supports. The first is that the TDP view means that the soul is its own being. What kind of being are we talking about? For the substance dualist, a whole human being is a body soul unity. If the body dies, the human being does not cease to exist because a part of the human being persists: the soul. The soul is not a whole human being because a whole human being is a body/soul unity. Just as a whole human body has two arms and two legs, but does not cease to be a human body if one were to lose his arms and legs, so a whole human being is a body soul unity, but does not cease to be a human being upon the death of the body.

The second assertion he makes is the TDP view makes the soul somehow superior to the body, and the body unnecessary. Rossiter goes as far as to say that Paul’s primary argument in 1 Corinthians 15 is to refute this view. While Alan Johnson seems to support this in his commentary:

 

Such a Corinthian view would have involved a dualistic anthropology holding that there are two different classes of people, nonspiritual and spiritual. The spiritual person (inspired by the transcendental spirit) transcends all bodily matters. The body is nothing more than a house in which the immortal soul lives. The final separation of the spiritualized soul from the body occurs at death. Not only is a resurrection of the body impossible, it is unnecessary because immortality is reached by receiving the Spirit (Holleman 1996:37).[1](emphasis added)

 

The commentary says a dualistic anthropology. Not the dualistic anthropology, and not simply dualistic anthropology. Just because a particular form of dualism holds this view, it doesn’t mean dualism is identical with this view. Repeatedly Rossiter makes mention of the claims made by scholars that the body is unnecessary. But unnecessary for what? None of the scholars he cites would say that the body is unnecessary for the existence of a whole human being. All of them would affirm that the body is not necessary for the human being to continue to exist.

Next, Rossiter notes the use of “sleep” as the term Paul chose to describe death. Many commentators note that this was a common euphemism for sleep. That is the best explanation for why Paul would choose this term. I don’t think this point does much for Rossiter’s case. What is sleeping? Not the body, if actual sleep is happening.

From there, Rossiter goes on to challenge the understanding of passages that are often cited in support of TDP. The first such passage is the story/account/parable of the rich man and Lazarus. Rossiter calls it a parable, and it may very well be. Some who cite it in support of substance dualism do so insisting it is not a parable. I don’t think it has to be a story of real persons to support TDP. In support of the idea it is not a parable, in the other parables, Jesus prefaces them with “the kingdom of God is like…” No such preface opens this one. But what if it is a parable? What is a parable? When Jesus told parables, he used the familiar to communicate the unfamiliar. If the story of the rich man and Lazarus is a parable, it would seem the idea of a TDP state was familiar to his audience. If it is not a parable, then it is an account of actual persons. In either case, it still seems to support TDP.

I will join Rossiter in leaving the account of Samuel as having too much mystery to press into service on either side. One of the worst examples of Rossiter’s exegesis comes in his treatment of the criminal on the cross. When Jesus tells him, “Truly I tell you today you will be with me in paradise,” Rossiter argues that the comma, usually placed “…tell you, today…” could be placed after today to read, “…tell you today, …”  This has almost no support when you look at the 50 times Jesus says, “Truly I tell you…”in the gospels. Of these,  only twice is there any time marker that follows. One is the verse in question, and the other is when Jesus tells Peter, “Truly I tell you this very night…” In no other usage does Jesus say, “Truly I tell you today…”  Why think this passage on the cross would be any different? Rossiter then hedges by saying maybe this is a special case for the criminal, but if so, how does the criminal go to paradise?

Finally, if, as Rossiter argues, death means the complete absence of life of any kind, what did Jesus mean when he told the Sadducees, “’…I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.’ He is not the God of the dead, but of the living?”

 

The incoherent

Throughout the book, Rossiter rejects the idea that there is an immaterial aspect to the self in the soul. He argues that existence must be “substantive.” It is not at all clear how he differentiates the two. The traditional claim that the soul is immaterial is to say that it is not a substance that is subject to the laws of physics. Philosophically, the term “substance” means some essence that exists. Here an essence is the “whatness” of a thing, what makes it what it is and not something else. The essence of a human being would be humanness. This is not to say the essence actually exists apart from a particular thing. There is no “humanness” that exists apart from any particular human being. (Platonists would disagree, but that’s another debate.) Substance dualists would argue that there are two substances that make up the whole human being. Human flesh (material) and human soul (immaterial.) We would agree that the human soul is substance, but not material.

Rossiter calls his view “identity information.” He says his view is of property dualism. The problem is things have properties. Properties have properties, but properties don’t exist on their own. Moreover, information apart from a knower is always third person. Information about you can exist apart from your mind, but you can only exist with your mind. There can be no “information on file” that can accurately say, “I am Brian Rossiter.” For God to unite an “identity file” with a resurrection body would be nothing more than a superclone. It could say “I am Brian Rossiter,” but it wouldn’t be the one who wrote this book.

 

Recommendation

The Death Myth is worth reading. It will make you think, and it will sharpen your thinking. I commend Rossiter for writing it. I think he is mistaken in his conclusions, but it is good to reexamine what you believe. It is best read by people who have studied these issues. I am not sure a lay person who has not studied these issues will understand the strengths or weaknesses of this book.

 

[1] Alan Johnson, 1 Corinthians 15, in The IVP New Testament Commentary Series, ed. Grant Osborn (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2010, Bible Study App.

 

Author: apologeticsminion

Daniel has an MA in Christian Apologetics from Biola University. He is married and has four grown children. Professionally, Daniel is a sign language interpreter.

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