A Level Religious Studies – exemplar answers to Edexcel examination questions for Paper 1 Philosophy of Religion topics 6.1 and 6.2 : Views about life after death across a range of religious traditions; points for discussion about life after death


Evaluate the claim that resurrection is more likely to be true than reincarnation.

Ideas about resurrection in Christianity tend to have been formed on the basis of the Biblical accounts about the resurrection appearances of Jesus, and St Paul’s description of the resurrected body in 1 Corinthians 15. More recently, the logical possibility of resurrection in the form of a replica body has been discussed by John Hick.

According to the various gospel accounts, Jesus appears to his disciples, eats a broiled fish in front of them and invites the disciple known as ‘doubting Thomas’ to place his fingers in the wounds he sustained on the cross. All of this indicates that Jesus had been physically restored to life. Additionally, after having confirmed that Jesus appeared to him personally (and to 500 others plus the disciples) St Paul writes about how we will acquire a ‘spiritual body’ that is ‘imperishable’ in the afterlife, and therefore an improvement on the one that we have now. In Islam too, the majority view is that we will be physically resurrected (though the famous philosopher Ibn Sina argued for disembodied existence).

How plausible are these views? Well, this all depends on the credibility that one accords to claims made in sacred scripture. Such claims are unlikely to satisfy someone like David Hume, who argued that miracle stories like those about the resurrected Jesus require a much higher standard of proof for them to be believable, and that, on balance, accounts of such miracles deserve to be treated sceptically, as those who report them tend to be credulous and ignorant. Meanwhile, the laws of nature remain consistent: dead people are generally not observed to come back to life.

However, the change in the behaviour of the disciples provides pause for thought. Having previously abandoned Jesus following his arrest, early and later Christian tradition testifies to the willingness of some of the disciples to be martyred for their belief that Jesus had been resurrected. If what Christian tradition claims has any basis in history, then this might provide tantalising supporting evidence for resurrection, though it cannot by itself be held to be convincing. Additionally, it undermines the view that the disciples somehow simulated the resurrection of Jesus or fabricated their stories, as it is unlikely that they would be willing to die for a lie.

A more wide-ranging view of resurrection is that advocated by John Hick. He argues for the logical possibility that an omnipotent God would be capable of creating what he refers to as an “exact, psycho-physical ‘replica’” of any deceased person in a resurrection world. Much of his writing consists of an attempt to convince the reader of the plausibility of this theory and its superiority to the alternatives on offer, such as disembodied existence and reincarnation.

However, Hick’s approach is open to some decisive objections. Firstly, there is a loss of spatio-temporal track in his theory. In the case of Jesus, there is continuity between the corpse that is placed in the tomb and the resurrection appearances, as the latter is presumably a transformed version of the former.

But in the case of the rest of us, that continuity is broken, as our bodies remain in this world to either be buried or cremated. As a result of this, there is a loss of the uniqueness that is part and parcel of the traditional approach to Christian identity. We are no longer each made in God’s ‘image’. For Brian Davies, a critic of Hick, this lessens the appeal of Hick’s theory and places it at variance with traditional Christian theology.

Additionally, an exact replica would presumably inherit the physical and psychological issues that might have blighted our existence on earth. There seems to be no allowance made for the fact that we would need to be replicated in an upgraded manner. At least St Paul acknowledges this when he writes about the fact that our spiritual body would be an improved, 2.0 ‘imperishable’ version of what we are now.

Although Hick’s theory can deal with the hard materialism of a sceptic like Dawkins, as it is a material form of afterlife existence that he is arguing for, I also doubt that any so-called ‘New Atheist’ would find it convincing.

Does the theory of reincarnation fare any better? The evidence for this tends to reside with accounts of alleged past life memories in children. The investigator Ian Stevenson has controversially argued that such cases – which have been noted all over the world – do amount to convincing evidence for the idea that we have a soul (an ‘atman’ in Hinduism) that moves on to a new body when we die. This is because Stevenson claims to have found evidence that the former incarnations that these children talk about when they are little did actually exist.

One such case (not one studied by Stevenson) can be viewed on YouTube in a documentary called ‘Many Happy Returns’. In it, a boy called Titu claims to have been a shop owner called Suresh Verma in a previous existence who was shot and killed. Titu talks convincingly about the expensive saris that Suresh used to but his wife Uma, and about his sons, so much so that Verma’s surviving relatives find him believable. Titu also has a birthmark corresponding to the entry wound of the bullet that killed Verma.

The case of Titu is also typical of the ones reported by Stevenson. However, there are issues. Firstly, Verma’s death was a killing that would have presumably been reported in the media, and possibly discussed by the adults around Titu, so the details of Verma’s life could have been obtained that way. Secondly, India is a culture where belief in reincarnation is widespread. So a boy fantasising about a time when they were ‘big’ might be taken more seriously. Thirdly, there might have been an economic incentive driving the attempt to convince the wealthier Verma’s that the family patriarch had been reincarnated. Finally, the location of the birth mark could just be coincidental.

In his critique of reincarnation, Hick too notes some of these concerns. The memories could therefore be pseudo-memories, the product of a vividly childish imagination that are subsequently confabulated and reinforced by adults (the same would apply to reports of past lives obtained through hypnotic regression, most famously in the Bloxham tapes). 

There is also the issue of why only some of us tend to retain these memories. Why aren’t we all born knowing who we were in a previous existence? Reincarnation also implies a period of disembodied existence in order to explain how we get from one incarnation to another. This seems implausible, and would entail overcoming the problem of interaction of something non-physical (the soul) with the physical (the body) that undermines dualistic thinking in general e.g. as proposed by Plato and Descartes.

In summary, neither theory seems to be more likely to be true than the other. Both come with baggage that undermines them. So perhaps the best conclusion to draw from this discussion is that death remains a mystery.

Evaluate the claim that the soul is distinct from the body.

This claim can be found in the writings of Plato, Aristotle and Descartes and is identified by the label ‘dualism’ (or ‘substance dualism’ in the case of Descartes). Essentially, dualism consists of the assertion that human beings are composed of two things: a non-physical soul and a physical body.

For Plato, the soul can also itself be subdivided. In the Phaedrus, he deploys the the image of a chariot to argue that our soul consists of reason (represented by the charioteer), will (characterized by a biddable white horse), and a more reckless black horse that epitomizes the impulses, drives and desires that can send our lives in the wrong direction. With the assistance of the compliant white horse acting in tandem with the charioteer, willpower and reason can guide us back to the mysterious world of the Forms, a world of pure ideation from whence we came and to which we will eventually return.

Disembodied existence is implied by this view, and Plato additionally argued that we reincarnate until we get things right and use reason as our standard bearer to guide us back to our origin.

In the Meno, Plato argues for this by noting the example of a slave boy with knowledge of mathematical proofs. For him this proved that knowledge was innate, and recovered through a process of recollection that the process of reincarnation had tended to obscure. Additionally, he claims that life consists of pairs of opposites, life and death being one such pair. So, as one inevitably entails and gives rise to the other, death must produce a new existence from itself.

Unfortunately, Plato’s arguments for the soul have attracted decisive criticism. First of all, there is no evidence that there actually is a world of the Forms. Secondly, the maths prodigy could simply be just that: a talented student. Thirdly, it is not inevitable that death should produce more life, or indeed that spirit and matter exist as opposite entities in the first place.

Perhap the best that can be said for Plato’s tripartite theory is that it anticipates and complement’s Freud’s division of the personality into id, ego and superego rather well, and possesses a modicum of explanatory power when it comes to accounting for why we often feel divided against ourselves as a personality.

Although Plato’s pupil Aristotle did not believe that Plato’s theory of the Forms was coherent (see his Third Man argument for more about that) he was a dualist who  also argued for the existence of the soul as an animating principle of the body, and additionally for the idea that souls vary in sophistication according to the species they are animating, with humans possessing an additional rational soul in addition to the nutritive, reproductive and sensitive souls possessed to a greater or lesser degree by plants and animals. Of course, all of these evolving functions can be explained neuroscientifically, rather than by positing the existence of a soul that is distinct from the body.

Much later, Descartes too argued for the idea of the soul as a thinking substance. His argument was based on radical doubt. He invites us to imagine that an evil demon might be in charge of the universe. Such a demon might maliciously cause us to think all the wrong thoughts. In which case, even mathematical truisms are not secure.

However, Descartes concluded that one idea remained immune to the influence of the demon, namely, the idea that even if all my thoughts are false, there must still be a thinker having them. Put simply, the fact that I can doubt everything, even my own existence, confirms my existing as a thinking substance, or as he famously put it, cogito ergo sum, ‘I think, therefore I am’.

Unfortunately, this argument is unconvincing too, for a number of reasons. Firstly, just because ‘I’ have a lot of thoughts about ‘me’, does not entail that I actually truly exist. Secondly, there is the problem of interaction (that is also an issue for Plato and Aristotle). If I am something non-physical, I should be unable to make my body move. The fact that I can entails that there must be some kind of mechanism that makes this interaction possible. However, Descartes suggestion, that the soul interacts with the body via the pineal gland, remains unsupported by evidence. Finally, even if we are a soul, an additional argument would be required to demonstrate that this soul exists eternally (a point made by Calvin Pinchin).

Overall then, the claim that we are a soul distinct from our bodies has been shown to be open to some powerful criticisms. To think dualistically is perhaps what Ryle called a ‘category error’. It is a ‘ghost in the machine’. To try to prove the existence of the soul is as futile as looking for a university as something distinct and separate from the colleges, quads and halls of residence that are its constituent parts.

Perhaps the fact that we feel dualistic is a product of evolutionary psychology. The invention of a self distinct from the body might – in terms of natural selection- give us a greater incentive to survive and reproduce, as there is now an ego to protect and nourish.

In closing, it is worth briefly considering the evidence for disembodied existence as a soul. This arises from accounts of NDE’s or Near Death Experiences in some survivors of cardiac arrest. Typically, these anecdotes refer to medical procedures or other events taking place at a time when the person having them was clinically dead, that are witnessed from a ‘bird’s eye’ view above the patient.

Unfortunately, aside from the obvious issue of how we can ‘see’ without eyes, and ‘hear’ without ears, Dr Sam Parnia’s famous research into this phenomenon has yielded no incontrovertible evidence substantiating this feature of an NDE, though it has demonstrated that some cardiac arrest survivors retain a memory of details of their resuscitation, a finding that has been replicated in other studies . A better explanation for such cases is that the brain activity or consciousness in those undergoing an NDE has not entirely ceased. Additionally, there are rare cases of patients retaining a residual awareness even under anaesthetic. Finally, Susan Blackmore suggests that NDE’s may occur either at the point when a patient initially goes into cardiac arrest or emerges from this state.

Overall then, from both a philosophical and evidential perspective, the assertion that we possess a soul that is distinct from our body remains implausible.