Most conceptions of the afterlife include some form of judgment about a person’s time and activities during the earthly life, followed by assignment to someplace suitable to that judgment, and residence there for an eternity.1
This is certainly the basis of afterlife in the Christian and Islamic belief systems. The Christian heaven is associated with spiritual comfort, music, and the contemplation of God—as befits the Christian church’s promotion of a godly life through worship and prayer. The Muslim paradise is a place of cool shade, good food, and beautiful, compliant women—as befits the experience of life in a hot dry climate with a male-dominated culture. In both traditions, heaven’s alternative depends on the outcome of that judgment. For those who never personally affirmed the core religion, the afterlife is a place of nothingness, limbo, or at worst a separation from God—it’s a dumpster waiting to be emptied, eventually. For those who heard the word, accepted it, and then broke the rules or later denied them, there is an eternity of torment, anguish, and despair, plus the separation from God.
Heaven is a place which people can anticipate with serenity, “a better life than this”—especially if they’ve met all the earthly requirements for admission. Its contemplation is a comfort to take the mind forward, in those final minutes at the point of death, into what is really the unknown. It is the unknown because, while we may have articles of faith, sanctioned stories, myths and legends, and spirit-transmitted messages about the experience of being dead, no one has actually come back with any kind of scientific proof. We do have the recollected experiences of people who went up to the point of death and claimed to see beyond—but none of them stayed “dead” for very long, certainly not to the point of dissolution and corporeal decay, and so the suspicion lingers that they weren’t really dead after all.
As to defining heaven—or hell, for that matter—with any kind of map, activity schedule, calendar of events, or detailed history2 … forget it. Heaven is somewhere above, possibly in the clouds, also possibly somewhat higher, full of light and coolness and that persistent music. Hell is somewhere below, possibly underground or further down, full of shadows and steam, screams and persistent noise. What you do in either place, whether glory or despair, you will do there for eternity. Music, houris, religiously sanctioned pleasures or torments, forever and ever.
Picking holes in this concept is just too easy, but sometimes my mind runs away with me.
One assumption about heaven is that you will be reunited with the people you’ve loved during your life on earth. People, especially family members, are important to us, right? I mean, what else is there? Eating ice cream and playing with that big, red Tonka fire truck you lusted after as a kid? Those are ephemeral activities. But associating with loved ones and cherishing them for eternity—that just doesn’t get old, does it?
But which people? Only the ones you actually loved and want to see again? From your perspective? Or all of your family, including the crazy aunts and selfish nephews? Or perhaps, instead, you want to meet famous people from the past. Here’s your chance to come face to face with Julius Caesar and Napoleon Bonaparte. You can ask them important questions and catch up on your history. And, by the way, whom did they come to heaven to see?
I imagine going up to my great-great-great-grandfather, whom I never knew. “Hi there, Granddad!”
“Who are you again, boy?”
“I’m your gr-gr-great-grandson.”
“What’s that supposed to be to me?”
“Well, I represent your future. Although, by now, I guess I’m part of the past, too.”
“Oh, yeah? Well, I represent only a thirty-second part of you, if we can believe all this genetics stuff. So why does that make you my problem? Why don’t you go pester one of those thirty-one other people? One of them might care.”
So much for reuniting with family. Maybe I’ll wander over and visit Caesar. He might like an addition to his audience. Or … where’s my fire truck?
Frankly, I can’t imagine any activity, whether a family reunion, eating ice cream, or playing with that fire truck, that I’d want to do for more than about three days. Then I would become bored and look for something else to do. Perhaps this is just the nature of the human mind, set in the hurly-burly of living, and when the soul passes through death and all the earthly details are stripped away,3 it won’t want the diversions of activity based on time passing or the sequence of cause and effect.4
The human mind is a product of samsara, which is a Sanskrit term used by the Buddhists to mean the cycle of births through reincarnation. But the word at its root means “continuous movement,” “continuous flowing,” or “the running around”—and that we certainly are. Our minds were designed by evolution to move continuously, from one experience to the next, from one antelope hunt to the next, from one berry bush to the next. We never stop learning, experiencing, questioning, demanding, making, building, doing, destroying, loving, hating, growing, and fading. Whether the motion is upward or downward, we never stop becoming something new and different. Place us in a sensory deprivation chamber, and our minds will spin webs of fantasy and vision to keep us occupied.
The tragedy of the human condition—and its triumph as well—is that we know all this from personal experience, and yet we also know from observation that there will come an end point, a stillness, when the body does not move, the eyes do not see, the breath does not flow. We observe this empty state in the old who have “gone beyond,” and we see it in the young who are taken by illness, accident, or predation. And since we identify those others as beings like ourselves, we know deep down that the stillness and silence are coming for us one day.
This is the human mind at work. A dog or a horse can never understand the correlation. The dog or horse might be responsive to contact with a human or another animal, but when that other dies and goes still, the dog or horse only pauses for a bit, wonders what happened to the playmate, and then goes on with whatever it was doing. It doesn’t have any awareness of self, and so no awareness of others like itself. The animal has no sense of the future, and certainly not of a future that might not include itself as an active player.
Confronted with the mystery of being oneself and contemplating a world outside that is not the self, humans have created imaginary dimensions that cannot be measured in the physical environment. We speak of infinity, to represent all the numbers beyond which we can conveniently count. We speak of eternity, to represent all the time beyond what we can personally experience or comfortably imagine. We value omnipotence as a representation of all the energy and presence beyond any that we can name. These are the attributes of God and His realm, which are beyond the human experience.5
Knowing that stillness that will come, we put it off mentally and emotionally. Yes, it’s there ahead of us, but instead of an end, it will be a transition to a more lasting state. And how long will we stay in heaven or hell? What comes beyond and after them? Why, nothing: these states are permanent.
Or we imagine that, after the body stops moving, the mysterious transition places the “real” part of our existence, the soul, into a new body, to begin the cycle over again. And how long does this cycle of birth and rebirth go on? Why, forever: life is eternal.
As near as I can tell, only the Buddhists believe in an end point. The eternal return of rebirth, the endless climb upward, from insentient animal to human to god, and the endless offering of choices that represent the possibility of error and backsliding, the swings of karma—all of this is too oppressive to contemplate. The Buddha’s solution was to stop the karmic pendulum through an act of will, unbind oneself from the cycle of birth and death, and extinguish one’s soul. Like a candle flame, the Buddha at his death did not go forward, to return someplace else. Instead, he went out.
To which my simple and obvious mind replies, isn’t that what we’ve been talking about all along? The body goes still, the eyes stop seeing, the breath ceases, and all that we have been carrying in terms of knowledge, skill, responsibility, love, hate, and all the rest … vanishes. We go out.
Is this a terrifying thought? Perhaps. All that we know and love—as well as whatever we hate and fear and despise—simply disappears. But I find equally terrifying the prospect of holding the same conversations, exploring the same memories, reliving the same triumphs and tragedies, with loved ones for eternity. Or eating ice cream—whole oceans, gaseous nebulae, spiral galaxies of ice cream—until you smother and drown and still can’t die. Or playing with that red fire truck until the wheels fall off, the paint blisters, and the steel crumbles away into rust, and yet the damned thing still moves and clangs and fascinates me. Those thoughts are truly oppressive.
It’s much more comforting to simply imagine going … out.
1. Of course, the Hindu tradition, and others that similarly posit reincarnation, do away with the place of eternal residence and instead recycle the person, or the soul stripped of current personal details, back into the hurly-burly of earthly life, usually with an upgrade or downgrade in status based on that end-of-life judgment. Since these traditions deny a final disposition—any kind of “heaven”—I’ll leave them for another meditation.
2. Except for that embarrassing account in Milton’s Paradise Lost about Lucifer, first among the angels, who became dissatisfied, started a war, split heaven asunder, and either started up or was cast down into his own place, called hell. But that story seems to have been more about the politics of God’s other intelligent creation, the angel folk, rather than the final resting place of mortal human spirits.
3. This opens a whole other meditation. What is a person other than the welter of activities, skills, knowledge, responsibilities, appointments, likes and dislikes, memories and fondnesses that we build up over a lifetime? Take away all those details and what is left? A spark? A beaker full of shimmering, translucent material called “ectoplasm”? Some kind of interchangeable life-force, like the 12-volt battery you put in a car? Take away one earthly detail—say, my preference for the color red—and you diminish me and my experience. Take away all of them, and there’s nothing left.
4. They say that when a person passes through the event horizon of a black hole and falls toward the central singularity, he accelerates to light speed as terminal velocity. Of course, according to Einstein, as you approach light speed your subjective time—from the viewpoint of a person in normal, unhurried space—slows to a stop. Your seconds stretch out to become minutes, hours, days, eons. You never reach the crushing singularity because, as you make the final acceleration to light speed, time stops for you. You are frozen in mid-thought, mid-speech, mid-scream, or mid-scratch and never experience the final obliteration. Perhaps the experience of death is something like this. You just slow dow …
5. And then science, by measuring events in the known universe, shows that the universe itself is not infinite in space nor eternal in time, and the power expended to create it, the Big Bang, while beyond our experience, was not actually any kind of omnipotence. And then, confronted with this dead stop at one extreme of history, the beginning, we start to imagine what might have come before the Big Bang. Infinity, eternity, and omnipotence keep creeping into the most rational discussions.