Rather sad (at least to me) Opinion piece in The New York Times this morning with the ironically hopeful title “Why We Never Die.” The author begins by observing that, as a child, he was terrified of death, often worrying about it as he fell asleep in the evenings. Today, his oldest child is afflicted with the same fear. Not much of a surprise there!
He ultimately finds comfort for his child, and presumably himself, by recognizing a kind of eternal life in the biological transmission of life to the next generations, the contributions one might make in the course of one’s earthly life, and the lasting imprint such efforts might make. “In living,” he concludes,” we trace a wake in the world.” No arguing with that.
I know other people who have had a similar terror of simply vanishing, being engulfed in the darkness and the void. I do not know exactly how that would feel. From my earliest childhood, I have seen death as an inevitable part of life.
From the wilting roses on the dining room table to the loss of a beloved pet to peering over the side of the coffin of my paternal grandfather, I have accepted the reality of death. I suppose I also never considered myself so indispensable or really all that important in the great scheme of things to see why it would make any difference, at least in the long run, if I was no longer around.
Then too — but, I think, actually secondary to the above — there was my family’s religious faith. The author of the Times’ article was never comforted by that, seeing religion and spirituality as fantasies dreamed up and perpetrated to stave off the horror of death. I acknowledge that as a possibility, but it has never actually seemed so to me.
First of all, the overwhelming majority of persons who have ever lived and live today — in whatever culture, of whatever religion — have believed in some form of eternal life. The beliefs differ, of course, from East to West, from the ancient wisdom of Hinduism and Buddhism (which, at least doctrinally, has the least interest in life after death) to the remarkably similar understandings of the Abrahamic faiths — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
I do not claim to know exactly what happens after we die. Anyone who claims to do so is likely guilty of a bit of overreach. But I am a Christian and have placed my hope in the promise eternal life held out by our “founder” Jesus of Nazareth and his successors down the ages. I have found the life and teachings of Jesus to be completely reliable in this life and so am prepared to trust that his insights for the next are likely to be trustworthy as well.
Christians vary somewhat in the specifics of what will happen after we die. But classical Christianity has used the pattern outlined in the New Testament for Jesus’ own life, death and resurrection to suggest what will happen to us as well. Jesus lived his short life of about thirty years. He was executed by the Roman government with at least the cooperation of the Temple authorities in Jerusalem, likely for sedition. There was in “intermediate state’ of some three days where Jesus is said to have “descended to the dead.” And then he was experienced as alive once more, transformed but recognizable to his closest followers.
So, the Christian hope is that, when we die, the essence of who we are (sometimes called, not quite correctly, the “soul”) will enter into the same kind of “intermediate state” as Jesus where we will continue our spiritual growth and journey, as it were, where we left off. If we have never paid much attention to the spiritual life, the growth may be experienced as rather tough sledding. Such persons will have a lot of “catching up to do” and there is likely to be some regret at all that was missed. For all of us, there will be a lot to learn!
We will be outside of time as we have understood it here, so the number of years or aeons which may pass before the final stage will have no meaning. But, at some point, according to Jewish, Christian, and Muslim teaching, the earth as we know it will be transformed, a final judgment of people and nations will be made in which the world will be set to rights again, once and for all. No more poverty, no more war, peace and harmony for everyone.
The earth will not vanish but will be transformed into the “Eden-like” existence so beautifully described in the opening chapter of the Book of Genesis (and other ancient writings). Christians believe in something called the “resurrection of the body” which is not the same as the resuscitation of a corpse, but the transformation of all that we truly are (and that includes our bodies) into something fitting for that new and transformed world. Paul calls it a “spiritual body” which is not terribly helpful but is an attempt to say that we will be something like what Jesus was after the resurrection.
Am I absolutely sure that this is what it will look like and how it will all turn out? Of course not. Remember, doubt is not the opposite of faith; certainty is the opposite of faith. I am certain of almost nothing…in this life or the next. But I do have hope.
And hope, Alexander Pope once wrote springs eternal!