25 June 2004

Life after life

It occurred to me that, after my last post (in which I minimized the relative importance of the afterlife in Jesus' message) some among my throngs of constant readers might be wondering exactly what I think about life after death.

Well, hmm. As I said in the previous post, It's important to me to take the Bible seriously. So what does Scripture say? It's clear that in Old Testament times Hebrews believed in a shadowed, Hades-like half-afterlife called Sheol. In the New Testament (as I mentioned) little is said on the subject, when compared with other topics. What is said seems to present a variety of points of view, and interestingly much talk about the afterlife--particularly from Jesus--is in the context of parables, such as the story of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31). Certainly both Jesus and Paul--especially Paul--were steeped in the Jewish tradition of the Pharisees, and one of the distinguishing tenets of the Pharasaic worldview was belief in the resurrection of the dead. This became an important facet of early Christianity, and is enshrined in the Nicene Creed: "We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come."

So what does all this mean? Well, opinions differ. The authors of the Bible and the creeds weren't writing science, and certainly didn't consider themselves as doing anything of the sort. What they were doing, often in the language of story, was hinting at holy mysteries. The creed itself, in contrast to other statements it makes, uses somewhat mysterious language: we "look for" the resurrection of the dead; we haven't found it yet. Many people feel that they can discern from reading the Bible precisely what is meant by this resurrection of the dead, and exactly what will happen to each of us after we die. I think they're fooling themselves. I think it's a mystery, a holy mystery--one to tell stories, myths, and parables about. One of my favorite stories about the resurrection of the dead was told by Martin Smith, SSJE. Fr. Martin talked about how we and everything that we contribute to God's Creation will certainly live forever in the indestructible memory of God.

So life after death is a mystery? Tell stories about it, but don't hang your hat on any concrete beliefs about it? That's neither very original nor very satisfying. So is there anything that I could say about the afterlife that I really think is solid and "true", like I think gravity and the love of God are true?

For a goodly portion of the time when I was a practicing Buddhist, I believed quite sincerely in the scientific reality or reincarnation. Sentient beings die, and in a relatively short period of time, they're reborn in a new form. To be sure, I thought we were like a flame being passed from wick to wick, where only in the loosest sense could the 57th flame be said to be the same flame as the first. But I was basically an orthodox Buddhist on the subject of life after death. However, by the time I read Stephen Bachelor's Buddhism Without Beliefs (highly recommended), I had already come to the conclusion that the scientific reality of the doctrines of karma and reincarnation were peripheral to Buddhism, and I didn't really believe in them in any case.

Here's what I do believe, "scientifically." Physicists teach us that in this universe, matter and energy are never destroyed. I believe that goes for whatever the heck we really are. The memory of God does not fail. And as my wise wife told me, whether there's life after death or not, we certainly live forever--from our point of view. It's just a matter of whether "forever" extends beyond the moment of our death or not.

Which brings me back to the beginning. There are many ways to interpret the phrase "the life of the world to come," but like I said in the last post, when Jesus spoke of "Kingdom come," he was almost always talking about something that can come into this life: here, now, and for the rest of our lives, if we just let it. And if we choose to live in this Kingdom, we need not fear death, just as we need not fear life. Both hold many mysteries, but none more mysterious than the mystery of salvation: of the call of grace and the response of faith, and the promise of citizenship in the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth.

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