We’ve finally come to the fourth Stage of Living, the Ending. Unfortunately, this will be very difficult to explain. You see, I’ve never been dead before.
In this situation, I’m no different than writers for the past several thousand years—and I’m including all the Biblical references to the afterlife. No one has gone to “the other side” to objectively describe true death. By “true death,” I mean really, bodily dead, not some dream or thoughts; not the temporary state of Near-Death-Experiences or Out-of-Body-Experience. It’s when the atoms and molecules break down and re-enter the eco-system.
Being dead is impossible to describe. How do you get inside the head of a dead person? Yet death is such a fascinating mystery to us that we’ve concocted many ways to describe it. We tend to want our life to go on, and so we’ve invented lots of thoughts about what existence is like after we “transition from this life to our next life.”
Since we can only imagine other states using our present faculties, we tend to describe scenarios using our understanding of life, not death. We wonder who we’ll talk to. Who will meet us at the gate? Will we be on cloud nine? Are the streets paved with gold? Can you see how “earthly” those descriptions are?
There is very little Biblical about Heaven. It is more a “hoped-for” state-of-being created by Pharisaic Jews roughly a century before Jesus lived. The concept of another life gave the common people a counterpoint to the rough life they were living under Roman rule. Then Jesus used Gehenna—the city dump which was always burning just outside Jerusalem—as a good metaphor for the ugly state of our lives when we don’t relate to God as we should. Later, Hell was substituted for Gehenna, and, just like that, heaven and hell came into existence.
Several centuries after Jesus, simple hopes about the possibilities of an afterlife were expanded into all kinds of fantastic tales about heaven, hell, purgatory, and so forth. These were based the three-tiered cosmology of heaven above, earth floating on water, and an underworld below. The Holy Roman Church was great at creating visions of what would happen to people who weren’t obedient to the Church and its priests.
When we die, our atoms become other organic forms. That’s our eternal life. Some people may feel this ending takes away hope for another life, a better life in heaven. That’s depressing for some. They might say, “Is this life all there is?” However, on the bright side, there is no fear of eternal punishment for one’s misdeeds.
Years ago, I stopped even thinking much about heaven or hell. If we focus on this life, we’ll realize how important it is to help not only ourselves, but for everyone else to be helped toward wholeness. We don’t need to worry about, nor wish for, some special dispensation in another life. We simply need to be creating wholeness now. Or, as Bishop Spong says so often, “Live fully, love wastefully, and be all that you can be.”
Plus, our present lives always leave a legacy—what we create or how others remember us. That’s why we should focus on how whole we are in this life and what we’ve done to make this living world a better place.
I generally don’t mind that some people want to literalize heaven, hell, St. Peter, and Satan. Where I get concerned is when those concepts are used in a manipulative or judgmental way. The Christian Church has used those concepts to control people and maintain its power for most of two millennia. If we look at our lives in light of modern cosmology, those carrot-and-stick consequences become meaningless.
I can’t guarantee there isn’t a spiritual after-life. I just can see no evidence of it. I see more evidence that it was created for the convenience of mankind—and later reinforced by the Church.
Resurrection, reincarnation, an after-life, all have elements of truth in them. I, personally, don’t treat them as concepts one must believe in. But I see where they give people hope—assurance that there’s more to life than our current condition—especially if you consider them metaphors for how we might be remembered.
For example, think about how we remember Jesus. To this day, he is constantly being resurrected in the books being written about his life and its meaning and in the hearts and minds of billions of people.
Carl Sagan said, “We are made of starstuff.” All atoms that make up our earth and its inhabitants were created in the heat of stars. Eventually, we’ll return to starstuff. So, if you’re thinking about what happened to your deceased loved ones, look to the stars. That’s where you and your loved ones are going.
This is the reality: if death closes one life, enjoying wholeness in this life becomes our “reward” instead of being chosen to participate in a “better after-life.” If we make the world a better place for others now, we give them hope. And that, in turn, gives us joy.
Of course, with death, there’s always grief, especially when someone is snatched from us too early in life. However, grief is one the clearest signs of life. It shows that people truly lived and there was love, although wholeness gets a hole poked in it. Maybe that hole can never really be filled, but the effort is what creates healing, legacies, and new definitions of wholeness.
I don’t have many clear narratives here. I do have a belief in evolution and a modern cosmology. I do look to Jesus, not as some hope for an afterlife, but as the model for living. That’s why Celebrations of Life are so much healthier than dreary funerals that focus on loss rather than living and legacy.
What do you think? Is it necessary to believe that death is not the end of an individual? Is that belief necessary for overcoming, or ignoring, the challenges of this life? Would it make any difference in your life? What effect would this have on Christianity?
________________________________ October 26, 2018
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Art Fabian is on a spiritual journey to enjoy more aliveness and to share the goal of wholeness with others. He’s not a religious scholar or theologian. However, he hopes you might also enjoy walking towards a richer life that benefits us, our neighbors, and all creation.