Christianity and ego death

Paul expressed in Galatians, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” It is a verse which might seem more at home in the Eastern mystical literature than the Christian scriptures, baring particular parallel with the notion of “ego death” in Buddhism. Or at least this is true for the first half of the verse. The second half takes things quite beyond the ego death of the East; it distinguishes the Christian experience of being “born again” or “born of the Spirit.” The Buddhist looks forward to the transformation of mind, the Christian to the transformation of mind, and then the body and universe as well. In both Christianity and Buddhism the transformation of mind can be found in this life, but the eschatology – the area concerned with the future and ultimate destiny of the universe – is quite different. Christianity involves a much further reaching eschatology: in Christianity the transformation of the self through ego death is one step in the process in transforming the physical universe.

Ego death in Christianity

Throughout history man has cowered at the demands of God. Fear results from the thought of punishment for failing to reach unobtainable standards. Fear has caused many to deny the very existence of a personal God who knows our minds and hearts, or even of a divine being at all. In Christianity emancipation has come when – suddenly or gradually – the ego, the small self, collapses unto God. Through the evaporation of resistance and rendering of all to God, through the total surrender of will, the former identity dies. For some this will happen intensely and rapidly, for others it is gradual, occurring in small steps over years or decades. On the other side of the death of the former self, on the other side of fear, in the place of new birth, there finally is found no fear at all but only the limitless goodness of God. Only infinite acceptance and embrace; astonishment, relief, and optimism, along with a new kind of experience which has not been felt before which is referred to as the infilling of the Spirit.

The gap left when the small self gives way is filled by the Spirit. The Spirit is the mind of Christ. This experience is sometimes referred to as “theoria” or “union,” to borrow terms from European monastic mysticism, but the same experience is reported through less systemised frameworks across world Christianity. Pentecostalism is probably the single religious denomination most grounded in experience of the divine. According to recent reports, Pentecostalism is not only the fastest growing religious movement, but the fastest growing of any global movement. The common adage that Eastern religion is more experiential than Western no longer holds true, and it is unlikely it ever did.

Christianity at its inception was driven by the Spirit both in its spread across the towns and cities of the Mediterranean and in the recluses who meditated in the desert. In the Middle Ages both the Catholic and Orthodox monastics produced systematisations of mysticism similar to those produced in India. Lay movements such as the Devotio Moderna flourished across Europe in the late Middle Ages and Early Modern period. The contemporary charismatic movement, which is thoroughly grounded in direct experiences of the Spirit, has its roots in the Protestant awakenings in America beginning in the 18th century, and flowered into Pentecostal Christianity across Africa, South America and South East Asia in the 20th century.

Thus the infilling of the Spirit has thus been pervasive across the history of Christianity. It is as far as we can go in this life and at this time in history. But there will be a further step: as well as the mind the physical body will be changed just as the body of Christ was changed at the resurrection. In this stage heaven and earth will be transformed and brought together, as finally Christ “reconciles to himself all things,” a process known as restitution (and related by some to the more controversial idea of apokatastasis).

Above: An early Greek manuscript of the letter to the Corinthians which contained Paul’s famous verse on ego death.

In the Old Testament the Spirit is both the divine force which brought the universe into being and the ongoing action of God in the world. In the New Testament, following the resurrection, the Spirit takes on a more personal form: it is now also the residue of Christ which remains with us; his personal touch on the lives of Christians in subsequent ages. Christ himself is the “image of the invisible God” according to Colossians, “the first-born over all creation”, “in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, things visible and invisible.” “The son is the radiance of God’s glory and exact representation of his being, sustaining all things”, says Hebrews, “through him he made the universe.” In John he is described as the Logos – the logic, the reason, the unfolding plan embedded into life itself. This had been foreshadowed in Proverbs through the notion of Wisdom which “laid the earth’s foundations”, “set the heavens in place”, divided the waters, and causes the cloud formations and the rain that falls each day. In the very beginning, he was there, hovering over the waters.

So Christ is the first emanation of the nameless, formless, unmanifest God. He is the guidance or “telos,” to use the Greek term, that governs the earth’s unfolding. He is the ultimate solution to the fallen ways of mankind. He is the “first fruits” of the new creation, the first to rise in the new body, the harbinger of the new universe, in which all will be returned to him. He is also the personal aspect of God, the God who literally became man, whose death broke the power of sin helping us to surrender the ways of the lower self, to die to those ways of sin, and who comes to each of us personally as the gentle light that can be with us when we pray, the “light of all mankind” as John’s preface says, the “light of life” that we all can have. “I will not leave you as orphans, I will come to you” says John 14, “on that day you will realise I am in my father, and you are in me, and I am in you.” And so it is.

Thus Paul can say “it is not me who lives but Christ who lives in me.” It is an experience which has been attested to throughout history. Go in any church today and you will find people who have been deeply convicted by the power of this experience. The God of the Bible has a dual nature: often experienced as a fearful enemy to those who resist, and a source of astonishing love to those who have surrendered.

Ego death in Buddhism

The Buddhist, driven by their own suffering and the contemplation of suffering, will let go of all pride, all ego, and even all personhood. The Christian, through a similar process, undergoes a similar death, but to a different end.

In classical Buddhism the end goal was simply annihilation of the self. In Abhidharma and Vipassana variants, the annihilation would consist in an apprehension of the “chain of dependent origination”: the realisation that all actions, all sensations, all perceptions and thoughts, were conditioned by those that preceded them such that there was really no freewill and therefore no person, no volitional agent, no ego (anatta, to use the Pali phrase.) In other versions the final state is characterised as “emptiness” – the emptiness of the sensation of self. Those who achieved this “enlightenment” would eventually exhaust their inner karmas, and have no cause of rebirth into the world, instead resting in nirvana.

In still later versions, the archetype of the Boddhisatva arose, the enlightened individual who having achieved emptiness of self would delay their own final rest in nirvana in order to spread the Buddhist message and assist others in their own liberation. But the world itself remained unchanged: the same maya, the same samsara, the same suffering, the same universe of entropic decay with no solution, ultimately winding down towards its own death. The universe remained an unsolved problem: a source of suffering to which the only solution was escape into nothingness.

There is a still later version of Buddhism which has come into being in the modern West, following global developments which have arguably led to a reduction in suffering. Samsara – the world of physical manifestation in which we all participate – was now more likely to be seen as something that could be enjoyed. Rather than escape the world, the modern Buddhist would use the techniques of Buddhism to aid enjoyment of life (often accompanied by a relaxation in the vegetarianism, celibacy, and abstinence from alcohol and similar substances which remains an essential part of traditional Buddhism.) This form of Buddhism began in the 1950s with authors like Jack Kerouac and gathered momentum in the late 1990s and 2000s, perhaps made more plausible by the golden era of world peace which had unfolded since the collapse of the Soviet Union. There was real optimism that history had finally resulted in progress. It remains to be seen whether this version of Buddhism will continue to be plausible with the subsequent collapse of friendly international relations. Western Buddhism is basically faith in the progress of science and human reason to make the world more tolerable, negating the need to obliterate the self and enter nothingness, and the place of Buddhist practices is to aid enjoyment of the world. It relies on a continued sense of progress in order to be persuasive.

This rehash has generally been criticised by traditional Buddhist groups. The other question that hangs over it is that the physical universe itself is clearly not progressing towards a positive end according to current science. It will face destruction in either a big crunch or a heat death. So regardless of whether the lot of humans in the world has constituted progress, the ultimate fate of the universe and all beings in it remains unsolved.

New heaven and earth

Christianity on the other hand promises an entirely new universe. The Christian dies to the prior self and is born again. The mind is flooded with the Spirit and consciousness is changed. The suffering self is replaced by a new mind, the mind of the saint. The image of self is replaced by the image of God. In finally giving way and saying “your will be done,” the God of fear is transformed into the God of love, and our minds and hearts into receptive vessels for the supernatural love which begins to flow down. But the crucial and differentiating point in Christianity is not any of this: the crucial point in Christianity is that it is not just the mind that is to be born again. It is the body and the universe itself.

The promise of the Gospels is that the body itself will be transformed at some future date. It will be resurrected in incorruptible and spiritual but still physical form. The promise of Revelation is that earth will rise to heaven and heaven descend to earth as the physical universe is reborn in a new and altered way. Claims such as these are perhaps too outlandish to ever be taken seriously, but for the fact that this transformation has demonstrably already begun in Jerusalem on the first Easter morning, and its “first fruits” been witnessed by individuals who were sufficiently convinced and thus motivated that they would give the remainder of their lives to spreading word of what they had seen across the Near East and the Mediterranean, and in the end chose to give themselves to death rather than retract claims of what they had witnessed, or even merely stop their efforts to spread the message.

The transformation of mind, felt first at Pentecost, felt by Paul on the Damascus road, and by millions across the globe to the present day is only a prelude to the transformation of the physical body and the physical world. The change in consciousness is not the end, it is a gateway to greater future things.

Above: A New Heaven and New Earth by Phillip Medhurst. Ego death and mystical transformation is only part of the story in Christianity: the resurrection of the body and transformation of the universe, which began on the first Easter morning, are themes without parallel in other religions.

The Christian born of the Spirit in today’s world takes on a dual nature, caught between the old universe and the new. They live at once, or perhaps alternately, in the glorified mind of the descending Spirit and the practical mind of a being whose transformation cannot yet be complete. The equal weighting which charismatic churches give to the transformation of the soul and the practical concerns of the world (often through the somewhat controversial framework of prosperity theology) is the natural weighting of priorities for beings living simultaneously in two worlds. Their prayers take on a dual character – exaltation and abiding in the mind of glory on the one hand and the need for the rent to be found on the other. This is an entirely natural condition for beings who stand with one foot in the old world and the other in the new.

The Buddhist stops at the reduction of ego. The Christian finds the Spirit waiting for them on the other side. The Buddhist transcends a broken universe of suffering ultimately hoping not to return to it. The Christian returns from the other side with the work of preparing the world for the final transformation and the complete entry of God as heaven and earth are united. The new universe of the Christian is all encompassing – a new universe not just of mind and consciousness, but one which shall be changed and renewed physically, as the old universe of entropic decay and death is defeated and replaced with one in which these things are no more.

The defining and individuating feature of Christianity has always been the resurrection of the physical body and the transformation of the physical world. The resurrection of one man already, the “first fruits” of Corinthians, is the demonstrable proof that the change which no other religion has even imagined is not only coming but already begun. This is something not found or expected in even the preceding Judaism. It is this teaching which cut down the Gospels to just four – resulting from the omission from the official canon of a number of later gospels which cast Christianity in a gnostic light concerned with an immaterial resting place beyond death – which would have collapsed it back to the same claims and status as the other religions of the world. The after-death state of Christianity, the classical notion of “heaven”, is a temporary abode prior to the rebirth of the resurrected body and the rebirth of the world in the unification of heaven and earth. These points are the core of what differentiates Christianity.

And this is why the Bible does not dwell on mysticism in the way the Eastern religions may. Mysticism is certainly there; indeed it is there in a similar way to the East – in the Light of Life in the Gospel of John that we are all invited to become. It flowered a tradition of lay, monastic, and ascetic mysticism similar to that of ancient India, and it is certainly exploding through Pentecostal Christianity and related branches – but it was never the only focus. Christianity will not just transform our consciousness in the present universe – it will transform the universe itself, and in so doing will change us, body as well as mind – into something beyond what even our mystics have seen.