What Really Happens after Death? (Conclusion of a two-part series)

Last week I raised the question of what really happens after death. My jumping off point was last Easter’s Time Magazine article by Jon Meacham called “Rethinking Heaven.” There the author contrasted what he called a “Blue Sky” approach to heaven (a kind of Disneyland up above) with a “God’s Space” understanding (bringing God’s Kingdom to earth). I remarked that the “God’s Space” approach seemed more believable and adult than the “Disneyland” heaven. However, the alternative to Disneyland didn’t really help us understand what happens after we breathe our last.

Tony Equale’s blog (http://tonyequale.wordpress.com/) does help. For Equale (a Roman Catholic ex-priest) heaven has little to do with the pearly gates. At the same time he explains more starkly what entering God’s space after death might really entail.

To begin with, Equale says, we must admit our ignorance. We have little idea about heaven or what happens after death. It’s all speculation. Even Jesus himself said precious little about the afterlife, much less about the specifics of a heaven. In any case, anything the Bible might have to say about the afterlife is expressed in religious language which is of necessity highly metaphorical.  It gestures towards something else.

What we do know about Jesus is that his own understanding of death was shaped by his belief in God’s universal love. He had absolute trust in God as a loving Father. Jesus believed that God’s unfailing trustworthiness took away the “sting” of death, so that dying became irrelevant; whatever was to happen could be trusted as the best outcome possible. As a result, death had no dominion over him.

Moreover the heroism of Jesus’ witness was to actually “prove” his claims about God by staking everything on them. Here we’re not talking about a rationalistic proof, but about something existential. In effect Jesus said, “Do you want me to prove I’m right? O.K. then, I will.” So he courted death by doing the things God’s love demands (siding with the poor and oppressed) – a choice that usually brings assassination to any prophet. That was his proof. “You see,” he insisted, “God can be trusted; death is irrelevant in the face of God’s love.” A way of putting that metaphorically is to say that Jesus rose from the dead.

According to Equale, belief in resurrection in those terms — in terms of real flesh and blood people choosing to risk their lives because they trust God’s love – mostly unraveled within a few generations of Jesus’ execution.  Its place was taken by a mixture of Roman and Egyptian ideas about disembodied souls in a “Blue Sky” heaven familiar to three year olds, to Dante, Raphael, and Michelangelo.

According to Equale, where does that leave us? With one choice only, he says – either to trust or not to trust the source of our existence, which Jesus claimed is absolutely loving.  However, even if we make the choice to trust, the reality of God’s love might not be as we want it to be. Tony writes:

“But what if the reality is …that at death we are dissolved back into the elements from which we were formed, to be reused over and over until the whole meets … another implosion to singularity and another big bang — a new universe. What if our little heads and our little hearts are not equal to the unfathomable magnanimity of a “Father” who, more like a “Mother,” wishes to share, and share, and share Herself (and us as part of Herself) endlessly, … we might even add, purposelessly … for the sheer joy of it … to share being-here with ever new things and new “people” with a generosity and self-donation beyond our capacity to imagine … or endure? . . . Do we want to go to that heaven? Are we really as convinced that “God is Love” if it would mean that much love? . . . Do we love our existential source and the universe it has made, as it is — or only as we want it to be?”

These words are reminiscent of the insights of Eckhart Tolle. Tolle says there is no doubt that life continues after death. One has only to enter an untended forest to see that live trees are surrounded by dead leaves, branches, and fallen and decaying trees.  However, closer examination of the dead matter reveals that in every case, the distinction between “dead” and “alive” is misleading. The fallen leaves, branches, and trees are teeming with life. In biblical terms, their lives have been changed not taken away. Of course, it will be the same with our bodies as they decay and molder in their graves. Life will continue in our bodies too. And who knows where that life will end up – in what communities or “people?” Death is always followed by rebirth – and perhaps by rebirth in the cosmic sense of passing again through an entire evolutionary process.

As for our consciousness . . .  That too will persist – insofar as it achieved unity with the source of the profound intelligence that pervades the universe. (The reference here is, for example, to the intelligence manifest in a single human cell. The information contained in that unit is enough to fill one hundred books of six hundred pages each.) That such Source Consciousness is present is evident from the fact of our own awareness. Ours comes from somewhere. As scholastic philosophers put it “nihil ex nilhilo fit” (nothing comes from nothing).  In as much as we have achieved unity with the Consciousness that pervades the universe, “our” consciousness will surely continue. All other consciousness passes away – most of it, experience shows, even before we die.

So the ultimate question about heaven is not whether it is up in the blue sky or in “God’s space” here on earth. It’s not even a question of our attitudes towards climate change, HIV/AIDS or world hunger.  Rather, it’s a question of death and surrender.

In confronting death, in explaining it to our children, are we willing to admit our absolute ignorance?  And if we claim Christian commitment, are we prepared to think of Jesus’ resurrection as a call to complete trust in God come what may? Are we disposed to surrender our very lives, as Jesus did despite threats from those who routinely kill prophets, because of our conviction that death is irrelevant in the face of God’s love and promise? And are we ready to do that even if God’s love is so great that we find it incomprehensible, purposeless, confusing, and even disappointing to the ideas of a three year old like Eva?

Finally, are we willing to make our own the prayer of the medieval mystic, Rabia al-Basri [a woman and Muslim (717-801)]?

“Lord, if I love you because I desire the joys of heaven,

Close its gates to me.

And if I love you, because I fear the pains of hell,

Bury me in its depths.

But if I love you for the sake of loving you,

Hide not your face from me.”

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 45 years. Three grown children. Six grandchildren.

5 thoughts on “What Really Happens after Death? (Conclusion of a two-part series)”

  1. This is a really good piece Dad. I read the first part as well and it really resonated too. As you rightly point out, if you have trust in God, dying is irrelevant. That’s exactly where I’d like to be. I think I’m close. ; )

    Love you!


    On Wed, Dec 12, 2012 at 1:09 AM, Mike Rivage-Seul’s Blog: . . .about things th


  2. Thanks Mike
    This is very enlightening and excellent stuff.
    My comments below relate to your last two blogs.
    They are essentially musings based on recent efforts to answer the eternal question – is this all there is.

    Some feel the Move from Babylon by Abraham and his followers into the desert and on to Egypt, and later Moses’ exit was not meant to be historical in the oral tradition of the Pentateuch, but allegorically referring to our spiritual return from separation from the creator(into Exile or Egypt) to reunion with the him. (to “Israel” or the Promised Land.) Or moving from This Life to the Afterlife – i,e, The Main Event.
    Currently, there seems to be no archaeological evidence of any migration of any number of people leaving Egypt in the period mentioned in the traditional Bible.
    Also currently, there is no recorded documentary or archaeological evidence that any Pharaoh of any period had to deal with those plagues mentioned.
    The Egyptians, as much as we know, were meticulous with recording events and material of any nature. So it is odd these events were never even mentioned, anywhere. But, it does not mean they did not occur – only yet remain undiscovered.

    It is presumed Abraham (or his wife), ‘pagan’ Babylonians, were the first to ask if there was more to life than what they saw around them. “Is this all there is?”
    From Abraham came this religious spark. The essence of which, (coincidentally identical to its close neighbor around the same time in the Indus Valley – Hindu, and much more subsequent religions like Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Islam etc) was the one universal law, put variously as “Don’t do to the fella in the next tent what you hate yourself”. All other laws are constituents of this. Even the law to love the creator.
    This is the basis of universal love and the direct opposite of loving only for one’s own benefit.
    Many say we are not yet capable of true (altruistic) love. I have actually run a test of this on myself and cant remember anything I ever did which was not thought at the time, or down the line, to be beneficial to me. This suggest to me that we may not yet know the true meaning of love as expressed by Paul, almost accidentally, as if he left the cat out of the bag in the last three lines of Corinthians 13….note the “For now….” line.
    When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
    And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

    This is “heaven” to where we return to after death, either directly or to the road that leads us there. For someone who believes in an afterlife this state infinitely transcends what we (or our grandchildren) may perceive to be heaven. Their instinct is right.
    We sure wandered off track some!

    If I could believe it – wouldn’t it be heaven.



    1. Thanks, Jim. Your comments always make me think — and rethink what I’ve written. When I referred to the Exodus and Exilic Traditions as being “grounded in history,” I was contrasting them with the Priestly Tradition which was not. My meaning was that the Exodus and Exilic traditions were grounded in “history” — meaning ‘events’ which their recorders located in time and space, even though such grounding might well have been imaginary — or ‘legendary’ — as you say. Norman Gottwald’s “The Tribes of Yahweh” has helped me a lot in coming to grips with the origins of Hebrew tradition that you reference. As for belief in the afterlife . . . . I’ve been persuaded that this was a very late-developing tradition among the Hebrews, Israelites, and Jews — perhaps as late as the 2nd century before the birth of Jesus. Before that, the tradition was about land, land ownership, and about “us” being God’s special people — the very things that tribal people believe wherever they are found. In kernel, this was found in locations like Joshua 24 and Deuteronomy 26: “Our father was a wandering Aramean. He went down into Egypt and became a great people. The Egyptians oppressed our ancestors. They cried out to Yahewh for help. Yahweh raised up a revolutionary leader, Moses. He led us out of Egypt, across the sea, through the desert to this land flowing with milk and honey. This land is ours — God’s gift to us. Thanks be to God.” For me, that’s what the ancient faith was about. The rest is commentary that gradually deepened to realize that other Peoples shared in the blessings of the same God. — Mike



  3. Hi, Mike:

    How many years has it been since my last visit to Berea? I’m so glad for the opportunity to say “hi” after so many years.

    I’ve always been interested in etymologies and symbolism so thought that I’d add my two cents. Some time ago, I came across the Hebrew (?) word, dalat, which I understand to be related to the Hebrew daleth and the Greek delta (Δ). It’s also related to our word, “death” and means “present elsewhere”. How poetic is that? I believe that this association explains why “heaven’s door” is shaped like delta, through which the “eye of heaven” peers on the reverse of our one-dollar bill.

    I strongly believe in the afterlife and am dying of curiosity! 🙂 How is it possible for consciousness to conceive the death of consciousness? It’s something to think about.



    1. Gretchen!! What fun to hear from you. The deathless Consciousness you reference is extremely important to understanding the afterlife that fascinates us all. The Great Mystics tell us that no advance in consciousness can ever be lost. Like you, I’m dying to find out.


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