Recently, I’ve thought about being dead. Not that anyone I know has died lately, and I don’t have a terminal illness and I’m not thinking of shuffling off my mortal coil anytime soon. But it’s an interesting thing to think about nevertheless. After all, it’s something that we all have to do eventually, like it or not, so we may as well accept the inevitability of it. Because people are different, they have different attitudes to death, and most of these are determined by what they think will happen afterwards. Religions favour the idea that a good life will be rewarded and a bad one punished – although the concept of eternal punishment for a temporary sin is a weird one when you think about it, and more than a little unfair. But is it a given that anything at all will happen?
I mean, I know things will happen after my death. The world will keep turning, seasons will change, events will continue in their inexorable way. It’s just that I’m not going to be around to see them. So yes, there definitely is life after death. It’s just not a life I’ll be participating in. The universe seemed to function moderately well before I was born and I have the feeling it will continue to do so after I’m gone.
But of course, that’s not what most people worry about. They are more concerned about what happens to them. Which is understandable. But is an afterlife all it’s cracked up to be? Is it actually a ‘consummation devoutly to be wished’ as Shakespeare put it when Hamlet was considering not bearing any fardels (He actually uses the word fardels – check it out at Hamlet III, i).
There are many considered possibilities about what happens when we die, and I’ll address some of them. They aren’t all of the possibilities I’m sure, but they are the major ones people tend to consider as possible outcomes of this brief mortal span of ours. And bear in mind, this is just my opinion. People are free to believe other things if they wish.
All right, so let’s assume I’m dead. There are a myriad of possible causes of that. Extreme old age is about as attractive as I guess it gets, so let’s pretend I’ve just popped off after a good sojourn on this turgid little planet. So, what happens to me now?
1) I’ll go to heaven, or achieve some state of life after death where I am rewarded by an applicable deity.
I won’t suggest any particular version of heaven or specify any actual deity, as there are a lot of religions around. Some scholars put the number of different creeds at about 4,200. I don’t know which might be the “right one”. If we were honest, we’d have to admit no one does. Nor is there being a right one required for this topic. Seriously, most people are the same religion as their parents. Coincidence? Of course not. Children are indoctrinated into a particular religion depending on what faith their parents have. Some change later in life, of course, but mostly it’s a safe bet that a person was raised in the same church as the rest of their family. So it’s just an accident of birth that anyone is the religion they are.
Now, whatever the version of heaven being considered here, it’s probably not going to appeal to me. Think about it. No one is actually sure what’s going to happen even if you do go to heaven. Look at just one viewpoint, which asserts that Lazarus spent four days dead. This would be a great opportunity, one might think, to bring back some details about the place. But he didn’t. No one knows. Even those “psychics” who reckon they can channel the dead never ask what’s it like? All we get are vague things about forgiving those left behind and “I feel fine”. Details, please! And if the glory of heaven is too great for mere mortals to explain to other mere mortals, then it’s beyond our comprehension and therefore meaningless. Check out my novel Plato’s Cave for more information about that viewpoint.
Recently, a boy who wrote a book (with the aid of his father) about dying and going to heaven admitted he’d made it up. It was a bestseller because it satisfied people’s preconceived notions about heaven; it told them what they wanted to believe. But no one actually knows.
My point is, I don’t know if I’d like it. Imagine if everyone in heaven is so holy all they do is talk about God for eternity. If God arranged it that way, he’s been a bit selfish. If he is an eternal deity, he doesn’t need constant praise. That just makes him human.
Others say you get to be with your loved ones. Fair enough, I love my family, and it would be great to see my Dad again, but I don’t want to spend forever with them. Get together occasionally and have some fun, sure, but not forever. Let’s face it, that’s a long time.
If we believe some commentators, we’ll be “one with God”. What does that mean? Are we actually a part of him, like another limb or something? Are we spiritual part? If so, what does that mean? God has given me no peace in life, so I doubt I’ll be terribly comforted by being a part of him after death. If I’m to learn the love and truth of God only by dying and becoming a part of him after I’m dead, it’s a bit late.
Many religions, if not all, focus on the afterlife because life itself actually sucks for a great many people and it’s a comfort to them to think they have immortal and eternal souls beyond the ability of mere physical laws to detect or explain. It gives purpose to their lives, maybe. That’s good. But making the most of our time while alive is important too.
Whether we are talking Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, or any of the others, details of what happens in heaven are actually rather vague. They shouldn’t be.
So I think I’ll pass. I don’t want to spend eternity somewhere if I haven’t read the brochure.
2) I’ll go to hell.
Another tricky religion-dependent concept. Hell, of course, is an invention, because churches needed to frighten people into believing, because having faith is really hard and so a threat of eternal punishment would give them incentive. Even Pope Francis has stated that there is no Hell.
So, no. I’m not going to a place that doesn’t exist. Besides, it’s not fair to have an eternal punishment for a temporary sin. I steal a loaf of bread to feed my starving family and I get punished FOREVER? That’s not justice.
3) I’ll become a ghost or spirit or something paranormal.
This means people who fancy themselves as TV hosts will come along with torches and delicate recording equipment and attempt to find me or exorcise me or something. I don’t fancy hanging about the same place, presumably the place where I died, for eternity. I wouldn’t do it. If I had the ability to walk through walls and be invisible I’d put those abilities to some good use, not hang about twiddling my ethereal thumbs waiting for some idiot with a camera to spend their time looking for me.
Have you ever noticed on those TV shows where they look for ghosts or Bigfoot or the Sasquatch or whatever spooky critter has taken their fancy that they never actually find one? Ever? I wonder why. Are the hunters that unlucky, that incompetent, or is it that the things they are looking for don’t actually exist? Maybe a combination of all three.
Of course, believing in ghosts is easy, because you can’t be disproved. If I say ‘Ghosts aren’t real’, it’s easy to prove me wrong – just find a ghost. But if I declare ‘Ghosts are real’ it’s impossible to prove me wrong. When asked for evidence, all I have to say is ‘We haven’t found one yet.’ Science is falsifiable. Faith is not.
4) I’ll reincarnate.
If I’m supposed to improve as a person, at least let me remember what I did wrong the last time so I have some kind of chance. If I’m going to come back as an ant or a toad or something because of mistakes I’ve made (see my above thoughts on unfair punishment) then some idea of precisely what it was I did wrong might help. You take your chances.
Sure, religion give us an idea of how we should behave in real life, but that pesky Karma idea means I’ll be sent back again and again to have another go, like a kid who keeps failing his exams and is held back until the other kids laugh at him. Maybe I should study for my exams a bit harder, but this just makes it my fault, which doesn’t tie in with forgiveness and divine mercy. It’s just petty. I’m being told how to behave, and even if I do achieve relief from reincarnation the whole problem of what happens then is still there. The doubts and uncertainties and the fact that no one actually knows remain unresolved. It solves nothing in the end.
5) Nothing will happen.
You see, the problem with possibilities 1 to 3 above is that they depend on the idea that I will have some sort of consciousness after I’m dead. But there’s no evidence I will. Possibility 4, reincarnation, means I don’t have any conscious memory of my previous lives, and that’s unfair.
The most attractive possibility, therefore, is this one. Number 5. Nothing will happen. I won’t be sitting there going ‘Hmm, I’m not supposed to do what I did last time but I don’t know what that actually was.’ I won’t be praising some deity that made me flawed in the first place and gave me the choice whether to have a good time or not and I choose having a good time and then he gets mad because he didn’t want me to. I won’t be going to Hell, because it doesn’t exist. And being a ghost would be really, really boring and if I did have ‘other business’ I’d make sure I did it and got the next bus out of there.
So I’m looking forward to number 5. I will have moved on. It won’t bother me. I don’t have to be concerned about anything at all. The universe will go on without me very well.
If the history of the universe is a line from the Big Bang up to the moment you are reading this, like so:
and I was to pick a random point on that line that stretches for more than 13 billion years, the overwhelming possibility is that I wouldn’t exist. I am now 57 years old. So the chances of picking a year on that line that falls within my lifetime is 57 out of 13,000,000,000. Or, as Douglas Adams would have put it, ‘as near to nothing as makes no odds’. So really, I’m not very important at all. None of us are, in the cosmic scheme of things.
This is an idea that a lot of religious people have an issue with. They want to be important. They want to matter. That’s fair enough. Be important. Write a book. Save children from starving. Rescue animals. Do something that makes you important NOW, while you’re alive, not after you’re dead. It’s too late then.
So believe what you want. This is a personal reflection about me. Just make the here and now as useful as you can, because it’s your one shot at it.
Russell Proctor http://www.russellproctor.com