Wednesday, January 6, 2016

The Origin of the Belief in Life After Death by W.O.E. Oesterley 1921


The Origin of the Belief in Life After Death by W.O.E. Oesterley D.D. 1921

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IN all that has been said the fact which stands out most prominently is the deep-seated belief in the continued life of men after death. In whatever different ways that life may have been conceived of, whether it was some counterpart of the body, or whether it was the soul as distinct from the body, or whether it was merely the shade, that continued to exist, the central point of the persistence of consciousness after death is of prime importance. This is taken for granted in such a way, and is believed to be demonstrated so obviously, that it stands on the same level with the recognition of the fact that men live in the ordinary way.

We may pause for a moment to consider how it came about that men should have believed that in some form or other they continued to live after death; for this belief is universal; as far as the available evidence permits us to judge, it has been held all the world over from all time since man became a thinking being. In considering in the briefest manner the reason for this universal belief our purpose is to observe the common ground, and then to note how from this common ground Semitic, and more especially Israelite, belief diverged and struck out on a line which in some
important respects became individual.

What was it, then, which first gave rise to the belief that men continued to live after they had finished their ordinary life on earth? Since this belief arose, in the first instance, among men in a primitive stage of culture, we must expect it to be based upon arguments of a naive character ; and the generally accepted theory of the leading authorities on the subject is well illustrated by the answer of a native of Australia to the question as to whether he believed that his "soul" (yambo) could leave his body; he replied: "It must be so; for, when I sleep, I go to
distant places, I see distant people, I even see and speak with those that are dead." That is to say, that, owing to dreams early man came to believe that there was a part of himself, different from and independent of his body since it could leave the body and go to "distant places" which could meet with and converse with people who were alive, as well as with those who were dead. To
primitive man what we call a dream proved that the dead were still alive. In writing on this subject Frazer says: "The savage . . . finds a very strong argument for immortality in the phenomena of dreams, which are strictly a part of his inner life, though in his ignorance he commonly fails to discriminate them from what we popularly call waking realities. Hence when the images of persons whom he knows to be dead appear to him in a dream, he naturally infers that these persons still exist somewhere and somehow apart from their bodies, of the decay and destruction of which he may have had ocular demonstration. How could he see dead people, he asks, if they did not exist? To argue that they have perished like their bodies is to contradict the plain evidence of his senses, for to the savage still more than to the civilized man seeing is believing; that he sees the dead only in dreams does not shake his belief, since he thinks the appearances of dreams just as real as the appearances of his waking hours." From the point of view of uncivilized man it is, therefore, not difficult to understand why he believed that those whom he knew to have died were, as a matter of fact, still alive. But this belief must, at a relatively early stage, have occasioned some very natural questionings on the part of uncivilized man. The sight of the dead body of a friend, together with the occasional appearance of the same friend in dreams, must sooner or later have resulted in the speculation vague, unformulated, inarticulate, though it may have been as to how these two were related; why should the body of the friend have fallen to corruption and have become less and less like his former self while every now and again he appeared as his normal self? The mystery must have been very baffling; but the explanation was found in the doctrine of the "external soul." We have had occasion to speak of this and to point out the references to it in the Old Testament, so that there is no reason to dwell upon it here. It may or may not have preceded belief in the continuation of life after death, for our present purpose it does not matter; but as, according to this doctrine, the soul could slip in and out of the body, it would have explained to the satisfaction of uncivilized man the relationship between the dead body of a friend and his appearance in his normal self in spite of death; i.e. it simply meant that the friend had quitted his body permanently. But another question had to be answered: how came it that the body-part of man succumbed to death? It was evident that something untoward must have happened which ought to be accounted for. The ordinary life of man was that which was natural and normal to him; since that had been disturbed, it meant that something unnatural and abnormal must have happened. This reasoning may appear absurd enough to modern ears, but that to uncivilized man it was one of great seriousness is proved by the large variety of reasons given why men die, and by the myths which are in existence to account for death and to explain how it came about. A mass of evidence on these points has been gathered by Frazer, who shows that many savages in different parts of the world believe that men die because of sorcery, otherwise they would go on living indefinitely;  others believe that death is brought about by evil spirits; it is exceptional when they attribute death to natural causes. Very interesting, again, are the many myths which are told concerning the origin of death; here, too, Frazer supplies us with details in profusion.

Death, then, was looked upon as something abnormal, which did not exist originally, and which ought not to have been the lot of man. This, so far as the evidence points, has been the general belief among practically all races. Of the earliest beliefs of the Semitic race on this subject we have no direct evidence; but one may justifiably infer that the early Semites did not differ in this fundamental belief from the rest of mankind; and this is raised to a practical certainty by the fact that the Old Testament contains indubitable remnants in regard to it.

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