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.

 

Is It Possible That God Exists?

I was recently asked to “prove that it is even possible for God to exist.” In order to answer this challenge, we need to define some key terms. I will leave off “prove” for reasons that I think will become clear.

When I speak of God, I am referring to a being that is all knowing, all powerful, everywhere present, unchanging, good, rational, wise, and loving, and holds all these attributes perfectly and without limit. He is also self-existent, which means he is not in any way dependent on anything or anyone else for his existence, rather all else that exists is dependent on God.

With respect to time, I hold that he is timeless without creation, but temporal since creation. This is important to note in order to explain how it is more reasonable to think God is the one who brought the universe, all of matter, energy, space, and time, out of nothing. It is my view that time is simply the relation of before/after, duration and interval between events, where an event is a change in the state of affairs. On this view, there was a state of affairs where all that existed was God. God created the universe, and with it time. He has since sustained the universe for some length of time (it is beyond the scope of this post to argue for how long that has been.)

So how does this prove that God is possible? Now we have to define possible. Philosophers divide possibilities into three modalities: logical, metaphysical, and physical.

“…on the standard model of the relation between these kinds of modalities the logical possibilities are the most inclusive; they include any proposition that sheer logic leaves open, no matter how otherwise impossible it might be. The metaphysical possibilities are the logical possibilities that are also allowed by the natures of all of the things that could have existed. The physical possibilities are the logical and metaphysical possibilities that are also allowed by the physical laws of nature. [1]

So rather than “prove” it is possible that God exists, I need only show that his existence is consistent with at least one of the above modes of possibilities.

Is there any law of logic violated by God’s existence, or even the proposition “God exists?” It is not an identity statement, so there is no violation of the Law of Identity. There is no compound proposition from which an excluded middle could be suggested, so there is no violation of the Law of the Excluded Middle. And, since there is no claim that God exists and does not exist at the same time in the same sense, there is no violation of the Law of Noncontradiction. So in this case, asking for proof of logical possibility is really asking for proof of a negative, and really the burden should be on the one who thinks it is logically impossible since it would be so easy to meet it, but that’s just my opinion.

Is God’s existence metaphysically possible? Metaphysics is the study of things and what kind of things they are. In a sense it is the study of what is and what can be. It seems to me that a being with the attributes listed above is the kind of being that is among those things that could have existed. There is nothing about such a being that is incoherent. For this distinction, however, let me illustrate the difference between metaphysical and logical possibility. It is strictly logically possible that the Prime Minister is a prime number (there is no violation of the laws of logic.) However, since prime numbers are not the kind of things that by nature are Prime Ministers, it is not metaphysically possible. To say that God is the creator and sustainer of the universe is logically possible, and metaphysically possible since the kind of being God would be is the kind of being that could create and sustain the universe. Conversely, it is not metaphysically possible that God is the Flying Spaghetti Monster since the FSM is a material being and material beings are not the kind of things that can exist timelessly and unchanging.

With respect to physical possibility, there is nothing in the laws of nature that precludes the existence of God. This is a separate issue from whether it is possible to empirically detect God. How we can even in principle know God exists is a distinct issue from whether it is physically possible. It may even be fair to say that to ask the question of physical possibility is a category error since God is not a physical being. However, something is possible just in case there are no impossibilities against it.

So in all three modalities, it is possible that God exists. Ordinarily, I think whoever is making a claim bears the burden, and I have tried to support my claim that God’s existence is possible. However, it seems that taking a stance that it is impossible is to hold that the idea violates logic, or God cannot be the kind of thing that could have existed, or that there is a law of nature that precludes such existence. I would love to hear which of these is the case with respect to God.

[1] http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/modality-epistemology/#PriPos