Is there life after death and if so what will it be? In a Woody Allen movie, a Jewish man (played by Allen) converts to Christianity. His mother screams and goes to her room. The father asks why he would want to do that. Allen’s character replies by asking his father, “Aren’t you worried about you know, … after?” The father says, “No, I don’t worry, I will be dead!”
Philosophers and religions discuss death and afterlife extensively. Some religions do not profess any concept of life after death; others such as Christianity have extensive belief systems and writings on subject. I tend to agree with the father in the movie – “I will be dead.” All I can really do anything about is here and now.
Currently I am intrigued by the concept put forth in the trilogy His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman. Note: The daemons in his trilogy are an externalized part of the human’s spirit embodied in an animal form. A daemon is capable of shifting species to reflect the emotional state of their human companion until puberty when the daemon’s identity become fixed.
Lyra, the heroine of the trilogy says, “When you go out of here, all the particles that make you up will loosen and float apart, just like your daemons did. If you’ve seen people dying, you know what that looks like. But your daemons aren’t just nothing now; they’re part of everything. All the atoms that were them, they’ve gone into the air and the wind and the trees and the earth and all the living things. They’ll never vanish. They’re just part of everything. And that’s exactly what’ll happen to you, I swear to you, I promise on my honor. You’ll drift apart, it’s true, but you’ll be out in the open, part of everything alive again.” (The Amber Spyglass, page 335)
“Even if it means oblivion… I’ll welcome it, because it won’t be nothing, we’ll be alive again in a thousand blades of grass and a million leaves, we’ll be falling in the raindrops and blowing in the fresh breeze, we’ll be glittering in the dew under the stars and the moon out there in the physical world which is our true home and always was.” (The Amber Spyglass, page 336)
“To know that after a spell in the dark we’ll come out again to a sweet land like this, to be free of the sky like the birds, well, that’s the greatest promise anyone could wish for.” (The Amber Spyglass, page 532)
Many funeral sermons talk of reunion with loved ones or life continuing in some improved version of what we know now. The Scriptures give a mixed message. The letters of Paul give some suggestions. Much of our imagery comes from Revelation with its metaphors of streets of gold and lakes of fire describing what awaits us. Some Christian denominations have a highly developed idea of afterlife and others leave it to the category of mystery. Some branches of Islam tell of living in gardens of pleasure. Most of Judaism does not have an afterlife theology. The most one can read in The Bible is that there will be some sort of ongoing life in God but even that is unclear. As I age and more and more friends die, it is comforting to imagine that I will be in an improved known life but I wonder. I think it more likely to be nothing like anything I know but I trust that it will be in the hands of God if it is anything at all.
What I do care about is life now, making the kingdom of God present in the world. As it says in the Lord’s Prayer, I pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as in heaven.” I care about leaving the world having contributed to making it a better place for all people. I hope that our children and grandchildren and their children will have a place to live on earth, that they will find meaningful lives, and contribute in their time.
Mary Oliver wrote in “When Death Comes”
…When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was a bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.
The people I look to are those who have not just visited with their time here on earth. They have delighted in their time here and brought joy as a primary gift to those around them. They have spent their days making space for others.
In the end I hope that death will be as Pullman describes it, “The first ghost to leave the world of the dead was Roger. He took a step forward, and turned to look back at Lyra, and laughed in surprise as he found himself turning into the night, the starlight, the air… and then he was gone, leaving behind such a vivid little burst of happiness that Will was reminded of the bubbles in a glass of champagne.” (The Amber Spyglass, page 382)