Do human rights end at the grave?
This might seem like a strange question, but it raises the issue of how extensive human declarations about the quality and dignity of human life are.
Since the issuance in 1948 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), religious traditions have responded energetically to human rights issues as applied to human existence.
Most religions suggest that an afterlife of some kind is the telos (ultimate aim) of human existence.
Muslims teach that an angel of death transports the soul into a sleepful existence until the day of judgement. On that day, righteous believers may be admitted to a multi-leveled heaven.
Jewish teachings affirm the immortality of the soul, a resurrection of the dead and an idea of messianic redemption, without providing many details.
Hindus hold to a reincarnation of the human soul in other worlds (and possibly other bodies and life forms) in a continuing journey.
Unfortunately, religions in general provide little consensus about the ongoing dignity and character of human life because they defend specific myths about the afterlife and who will participate in it.
I’ll focus here on Christianity and its conception of the afterlife as it relates to human rights.
Based on their Scriptures, Christian thinkers believe that the best qualities of life as the Creator designed will be restored in an afterlife, situated either in another venue (“heaven”) or a restored firmament.
In the meantime, Christians believe that individuals are preserved in either an unconscious or conscious state of being, awaiting a final consummation of all things.
While most Christians hold to a conscious intermediate presence with Christ, others (including Tatian, William Tyndale, Martin Luther, John Milton and the Millerites) view this as a time of “soul sleep.”
Presumably, in the consummation all will be made right, justice will prevail, the equality of all persons, genders, races and kinds will be practiced, and a generously salubrious life will continue without end.
An ethic of love (agape) will prevail. This is the ultimate triumph of the aspiration of Christian human rights advocates.
This Christian eschatology presumes certain factors.
First, humanitas (by which is meant the fullness of being human) is an inherent quality of all humans, a gift of their Creator, that will ultimately be respected and fulfilled.
Second, the aspirations of human rights can be fulfilled only in part by humanity itself.
Third, in order to achieve maximum human dignity and worth, an external sovereignty (God) must exercise authority.
Fourth, those factors that seek to deny or destroy humanitas will be excluded. In Christian theology, there are three possibilities: complete regeneration or purification of that which is evil; total annihilation of evil; or creation of a permanent venue to limit the influence of evil (gehenna, hell, absolute darkness).
Fifth, there will be absolute and certain protection for the qualities of the eternal life of humanity.
As a speculative theologian and ethicist, several human rights questions emerge as relevant to the belief in an afterlife:
- Will religious liberty be realized? Or perhaps periodically adjudicated?
- Will religious harmony be established?
- Will afterlife ethics be deontological (based on a clear set of rules) or voluntary?
- Are human rights an interim ethic?
- Are human rights a foretaste of the Divine character and intention?
In a day when death is all around us, through disease, war and violence (all violations of human rights), we are bombarded with romanticized ideas about the afterlife.
These include the idea of the relative who is “looking down on us,” or that a departed relative is pleased with the outcome of events, or a person in some form returns to have an impact upon human affairs.
In these scenarios, we are, by implication, assigning the realization of human rights to the deceased.
Human rights language was unknown when biblical writing took place. But we are left with general principles that characterize human dignity and that may be useful to the question.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series this week calling attention to the United Nations’ Human Rights Day (Dec. 10).
The Persistent Widow and the United Nations | Wissam al-Saliby
Words Alone Won’t Secure Human Rights, Address Climate Crisis | David Wheeler
Humans Right Day: A Proclamation of Freedom for All | Jaziah Masters
Resolutions Are Only Revolutionary If Implemented | Helle Liht
How to Not Pour Gas on Climate Fire | Scott Stearman
Millard R. Cherry Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Christian Thought and Ethics, and Adjunct Professor in History and Classics at Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. He is also president of the Board of Interfaith Spirituality Network, a provincially based interreligious organization.