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The Epistemological Issue of The Justification of The Afterlife in Christianity and Buddhism

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“What happens to me in death?”, and other questions pertaining to the afterlife are common in the study of religion. There have been many versions of what the afterlife entails, but no singular conclusive concept of it. This lack of consensus calls into question our knowledge of what an afterlife could be, and the validity of arguments defending such knowledge.

This paper will investigate the epistemological issue of the justification or lack thereof of various arguments for the afterlife, namely in Christianity and Buddhism, as the two religions differ greatly in their beliefs, and therefore their understanding of the afterlife. While this paper will ultimately arrive at a conclusion, this conclusion is not representative of the epistemic justifiability of the religion itself, and is only the analysis of certain arguments pertaining exclusively to the comparison between the Buddhist and Christian conception of the afterlife.

In epistemology, knowledge is defined as a justified, true belief. This research question will focus on the “justification” aspect of knowledge pertaining to the arguments for each religions’ concept of the afterlife. The Christian and Buddhist concept of afterlife is shaped by their differing beliefs. Christianity supports permanence of self and the existence of an immaterial self in substance dualism, while Buddhism supports impermanence of self and reincarnation. As such, the main beliefs that this paper will examine is the belief in permanence and the different conceptions of the afterlife and how they are justified.

The Christian Concept of Afterlife

In Christianity, beliefs of the afterlife stem from Jesus Christ’s resurrection, representative of victory over death and sin. While the death of the physical body still occurs, eternal life awaits believers in Christ and those who live a life without sin. After death, humans will be judged by God for their acts in their lifetime. This is the traditional dualistic view of man, in which the self is composed of the material body and the immaterial self, and is strongly supported by the Bible, which is viewed as the main source of authority in Christianity for it is regarded as the word of God.

Dualism is also the idea that there is more to a person than their physical self, implying that if the consciousness or individual is indeed beyond the physical self, some mode of dualism is valid. A branch of dualism known as substance dualism or Cartesian dualism, named after Rene Descartes, claims that the person is a substantial reality, surviving beyond bodily death, and that if the body truly expresses the individual’s agency and is a suitable organ of sensory-perceptive awareness of self and the environment, to see the body is to see the individual, and a separation occurs only when the mind is severed from the body.

Dualism is contrasted by a more recent perspective known as materialism, the view that the self only consists of the material body. However, only dualism will be discussed in this paper as it is the more commonly affirmed belief in history, and due to word count limitations. As such, this paper will view the concept of the Christian afterlife from a dualistic standpoint.

Arguments Used as Justifications for the Specific Beliefs in the Christian Afterlife

There are several arguments advancing the Christian, dualistic afterlife. However, due to word count limitations, this paper will examine 2 arguments, namely the Modal Argument and the soul criterion of personal identity.

The Modal Argument and how it Justifies the Belief in Substance Dualism

The Modal Argument pertains to substance dualism, which was first formally formulated by Rene Descartes and was further supported by philosophers like Alvin Platinga. The following is a version of this argument.

There are 4 premises:

  1. “If A is B, whatever is true of A is true of B”. This is the concept of indiscernibility of identicals, which was derived from Gottfried Leibniz. “If a person is his body, whatever is true of the person is true of his body”. This applies the first premise to the human body’s relationship with the self.
  2. “It is possible that a person can exist without their body and it is possible that their body can exist without the person”. This premise is found in Descartes’ version, which begins with imaginability, conceivability, and then the possibility of a person existing without their physical body. This premise places importance on the possibility of the claim. It is also advanced by intuition that humans view themselves as individual beings and subjects.
  3. “There is something true of a person but not true of their body”. This premise is valid if the above premises are reasonable, and will lead to the conclusion that is,
  4. “A person is not identical with their body”.

The Modal Argument pushes for the possibility of there being an immaterial self apart from the physical body, and argues for substance dualism. It is grounded in foundationalism, which is a theory of justification in epistemology which asserts that there are basic beliefs which are self-evident. Premises 1 and 2 are foundational because they purport that the indiscernibility of identicals is a basic belief, and is used to support the superstructure of this argument.

The Soul Criterion in Personal Identity as a Justification for Permanence

The second argument pertains to the soul criterion for personal identity. Personal identity is a crucial matter for religions that postulate the idea of judgement such as in Christianity, in which God has to issue punishment or reward to the same doer of the deed. The immaterial soul or mind in this section is defined similarly as the immaterial self. The soul criterion argues that the retention of the soul is necessary for the persistence of personal identity over time.

A thought experiment known as the Hemisphere’s Argument by Richard Swinburne pushes for the soul criterion for personal identity. It has the following premises:

  • “In the case where one hemisphere of one’s brain is transplanted into one body, and the other hemisphere into another body, it is possible that the result is that one then has two new people, but it is also possible that one is identical with, say, the person associated with the left hemisphere.”
  • “If one’s mind is an immaterial substance, this is a possibility, since one’s immaterial mind could accompany the left hemisphere into the new body.”
  • “On the other hand, if one does not have an immaterial mind, then no facts about one’s two hemispheres could make it the case that one was identical with the person associated with the body containing the left hemisphere.”
  • “Accordingly, one must have an immaterial mind, since otherwise what is clearly a possibility would not be a possibility”

This argument expresses that the immaterial mind, or immaterial self, is necessary for personal identity, and argues for permanence. It is grounded in coherentism, which is a theory of justification in which a set of justifications cohere and make sense together. This means that the conclusion is only true if that belief is coherent with other beliefs in the argument. This will be further discussed in the comparison of the religions in section 5.

Introduction to the Buddhist Concept of Afterlife

In Buddhism, all life is in an endless cycle of rebirth (samsara). The Four Noble Truths tells us that all life involves suffering (dukkha), suffering originates from desire (samudaya), suffering can be overcomed (nirodha), and the way to overcoming suffering is through the Eightfold Path (magga).

The idea of impermanence (anicca) and the lack of a permanent self (anitta) is central to Buddhist teaching, and the Buddhist concept of life after death lies in the idea of reincarnation, with six realms of existence to be reborn into depending on one’s karma. The attainment of Nirvana, which will be defined here as a plane of existence, is the ultimate goal in Buddhism.

While there is conflict between the concept of rebirth and anitta, given that the logical understanding of rebirth necessitates the existence of an enduring self, this paper’s aim is to look at the individual concept of rebirth and its epistemic justification, and will not be actively critiquing it with anitta. This paper will avoid this issue by aligning with Buddhist tradition, defining the transmigration of being as that of the inexpressible (avacya) self in reconciling with its selfless and soulless (anatman) doctrine.

Arguments for the Buddhist Afterlife

There are several arguments advancing the idea of reincarnation in the Buddhist concept of afterlife. However, due to the limitations of word limit, this paper will examine 2 arguments, namely the concept of dependent arising from the Pratityasamutpada, and the argument from the 5 aggregates.

Dependent Arising (Pratityasamutpada) as a Justification for Reincarnation

The Pratityasamutpada, translated as dependent arising, is a key Buddhist doctrine claiming the existence of a complex causal network, and is beyond a set of causes, effects and conditions, which is viewed as an oversimplification, and that nothing exists as an isolated entity. This is exemplified through an example by Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, whereby for a table to exist, it would require wood, a carpenter, his skills, and other causes. Each of these causes would also require their own causes, such as how the tree for the wood would require sunlight, rain, etc. In this case, every cause has its own causes, and is the effect of its causes, resulting in a causal network.

This doctrine is supported by Buddhist philosophers such as Dharmakirti, who proposes that all events must be preceded by an antecedent casual condition of the same kind and are part of a larger causal nexus. It also argues that mental events causally condition physical events, and that the mind has to arise from a preceding cognitive event as it cannot arise from inert matter. Therefore, this need for causality and therefore continuity in dependent arising supports the concept of reincarnation.

Argument From the Five Aggregates (Khandasamyutta) as Justification for Impermanence

This argument uses the five aggregates, known as skandhas, and refers to the five aggregates of clinging, namely form, sensation, perception, mental formations, and consciousness. It is used in the Khandasamyutta to argue for the no-self doctrine.

An example of the common structure of argument has the following premises:

  • For example, the material form is impermanent.
  • What is impermanent is suffering.
  • What is impermanent, which is suffering, and subject to change, is not fit to be regarded as the self.
  • This process can be repeated to other aspects of Buddhism such as the six sensual organs, etc.

This argument specifically targets the idea of an impermanent self, which relates to personal identity through the five aggregates of clinging. The argument appears to adhere to foundationalism.

Comparing the Justification for the Arguments for Both Concepts of Afterlife

Christianity and Buddhism have differing beliefs regarding their concept of the afterlife. Christianity proposes that there is an immaterial and enduring self that has an eternal life after death in Heaven or Hell, as in substance dualism, while Buddhism rejects the notion of there being an enduring self in the same way that Christianity does, and that an inexpressible self is caught in a cycle of life and death, as in reincarnation.

While they have drastically different conceptions of the afterlife, their arguments share the same epistemic modes of justification. As seen from the previous sections, the arguments presented in this paper adhere to the foundationalist and coherentist theories of justification for the concept of an eternal afterlife or permanence of self. This section will look at the differences and similarities between the justifications of both religions.


This similarity in the use of foundationalism represents that both Christianity and Buddhism subscribe to the use of basic beliefs in constructing their structure of argumentation, and build upon these basic beliefs to achieve further beliefs through logical connections. This also represents that their arguments are epistemically similar in nature.

However, there is a difference between the two religions’ arguments as they subscribe to different modes of foundationalism, with the Christian Modal Argument utilising modest foundationalism while the Buddhist argument from the five aggregates utilises classical foundationalism.

Modest Foundationalism

The Modal Argument has been subjected to much criticism over its premises, and necessitates the view from modest foundationalism in order to have greater epistemic soundness. Modest foundationalism does not require the basic beliefs to be infallible, and only require these basic beliefs to not be derived from other beliefs.

This relaxes the epistemological requirement in order for the premises in the modal argument to be usable. It also allows for inductive reasoning as a form of deriving beliefs and supports the third premise in the modal argument as it utilises intuition as a source of justification for the premise.

However, modest foundationalism has its weaknesses. This is due to the following factors:

  1. The allowance for the fallibility of beliefs – this reduces the standards for what can be considered a foundational belief and does not require the link between perception and reality to be as strong.
  2. The allowance for inductive reasoning to provide transfer of justification from basic to non-basic beliefs – this can be viewed as too liberal a method of justification, and could affect the indubitability or incorrigibility of the beliefs.

Classical Foundationalism

The argument from the five aggregates is constructed by self-evident, basic beliefs of Buddhism that (1) the aggregates lead to suffering, (2) that suffering is impermanent, and that (3) what is impermanent is not fit to be regarded as the self, and subscribes to classical foundationalism, in which the conclusion necessitates for the premises to be valid and self-justified, and has to have a degree of infallibility to the premises for the conclusion to be justified. It also exclusively uses deductive reasoning.

However, this is problematic for justification, and may be weaker than modest foundationalism due to the following factors:

  1. Classical foundationalism sets unrealistically high standards for justification which can exclude other potential justified beliefs – this includes methods of a posteriori knowledge and inductive reasoning which can also provide justified beliefs.
  2. By limiting the construction of further beliefs to deductive reasoning, it is unrealistically restrictive as justified beliefs can be derived from other modes of reasoning such as inductive reasoning.


The similarity in the usage of coherentism represents that both religions make use of logical deduction to create a set of beliefs that cohere with one another in their method of argumentation. However, coherentism presents different issues in both arguments.

In the soul criterion in personal identity, the usage of coherentism here is prone to the issue of modal fallacy, in which there is an unwarranted degree of necessity placed in the conclusion. In the case of the hemisphere argument, the premises are true, and there is the possibility of an immaterial self. However, it presumes the necessity of there to be an immaterial self in its conclusion from its third premise, confusing what is logically possible to be logically necessary.

In the argument on interdependent arising, the usage of coherentism is prone to the issue of begging the question, which is a form of circular reasoning, whereby an argument’s premises assume the truth of the conclusion rather than supporting it. This is shown in how the idea of interdependent arising is justified by the mind having to arise from a preceding cognitive event because there is a complex nexus of causality which means there is an antecedent cause for all events. Arguments for causality such as this are also prone to the issue of infinite regress, which is when propositions require the justification of previous propositions, ad infinitum, and lead to an endless causal chain.


The various religious arguments justifying the concepts of afterlife in Christianity and Buddhism are relatively similar in their method of justification, with foundationalism and coherentism theories of justification used in both religions’ arguments.

However, there is a difference in the type of foundationalism utilised, with the Christian modest foundationalism having a stronger epistemic soundness in terms of justification than the Buddhist classical foundationalism.

The arguments of both religions also have differing vulnerabilities in coherentism, and while the Buddhist argument for dependent arising is flawed to a higher degree than the Christian argument for the soul criterion in personal identity, the difference in vulnerabilities in justification would be challenging for comparison. As such, the conclusion will be drawn mainly from the perspective of arguments utilising foundationalism.

On the surface, the Christian modest foundationalism appears more justified than the Buddhist classical foundationalism, but it worth noting that the modal argument in the former is also prone to the modal fallacy and would render it less epistemically justified than the latter. In the modal argument’s case, there is an unwarranted degree of necessity placed on its conclusion, making a leap from its previous premises on the possibility of the immaterial self in substance dualism to the necessary belief in there being an immaterial self.

As such, this Christian argument, while stronger in its type of foundationalism, is inherently flawed in its method of justification, and thus the Buddhist argument would be more epistemically justifiable.

Therefore, based on the analysis of the aforementioned arguments, the religious arguments justifying the Buddhist concept of life beyond death can be said to be more epistemically justified than that of Christianity’s.

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