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.”

What Happens after We Die? Rethinking Heaven

(Recently a friend asked me to post something on death and the afterlife. That’s a topic I think about very often. Here’s the first in a two-part blog on life-after-death.)

“We’re all going to die some day, Eva. Mommy will die. Daddy will die. Gaga and Baba will die too.”

“Baba’s going to die?”

“Yes, Baba will die too one day.”

“No, not Baba. Baba will never die. No!”

That touching conversation took place recently between my daughter, Maggie, and her daughter (our granddaughter) Eva. Eva was three then. She calls me “Baba.” She calls her grandma “Gaga.” And Eva was trying to come to grips with death – its inevitability, and the way it touches the ones we love. In that she’s like the rest of us. Death and what happens afterwards is and has always been a great mystery, something of a threat, and an object of denial. We don’t even want to think about it.

Earlier this year, Time Magazine’s Easter edition confronted all of that head-on. So did a friend of mine, Tony Equale, a former priest who blogs at http://tonyequale.wordpress.com/. Tony’s Easter blog was called “We Say That ‘God’ Is Love . . .” The Time article opened the question of heaven in a nicely popular way. However, it successfully avoided shedding light on the question of what really happens after we die. Tony Equale’s piece involved no such evasion. Its answer was clear, extremely thoughtful and challenging.  But it also left me undeniably uncomfortable. I’m not sure I liked the heaven Tony suggested awaits us.

The Time Magazine cover story was a piece by Jon Meacham called “Rethinking Heaven.” Basically, it compared two approaches to the afterlife. The one Meacham termed the “Blue Sky” approach would be familiar enough even to three-year-old Eva and to most Christians for that matter. After death, good people go up in the sky to “heaven,” where they live with God, Jesus, and all the people they love happily ever after.

The other approach favored by Meacham himself and attractive to what he sees as the “younger generation, teens, college aged who are motivated . . . to make a positive difference in the world” is a metaphor for “how you live your life.” “What if,” Meacham asks, “Christianity is not about enduring this sinful, fallen world in search of a reward of eternal rest? What if the authors of the New Testament were actually talking about a bodily resurrection in which God brings together the heavens and the earth in a wholly new, wholly redeemed creation?”  In the words of N.T. Wright, a New Testament scholar, and the former Anglican Bishop of Durham, England, “’heaven isn’t a place where people go when they die.’ In the Bible, heaven is God’s space, while earth (or if you like, ‘the cosmos’ or ‘creation’) is our space. And the Bible makes it clear that the two overlap and interlock.”

A person of faith, the Time Magazine author adds, must decide which “heaven” to believe in. The decision makes a difference. The “Blue Sky” approach makes life on earth and issues such as climate change and HIV/AIDS less important. The alternative makes stewardship imperative. The alternative makes it important to follow “Jesus’ commandment in Matthew 25 to feed the hungry, welcome the stranger and clothe the naked as though they had found Jesus himself hungry, homeless or bereft.”

Like Meacham, I find the “God’s space” approach to heaven on earth more believable and adult than the “Disneyland in the Sky” understanding. Just as I’m convinced that some people endure hell here on earth (the victims of Abu Ghraib come to mind), so also there are people in “heaven” (like Mother Theresa or the Dali Lama). But still, what about death? What happens afterwards? If it’s not Disneyland, what can we expect or hope for? That’s where my friend Tony Equale comes in.

(Next Wednesday: Our Fate after Death)