Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Afterlife

I've spent a week thinking about death. Some strange thoughts about it.

For instance, death sounds peaceful. Like falling asleep. An end to the endless sense of urgency this planet plans for every day of my life. Death sounds like "my turn is finished, now someone else can have a turn."

Death doesn't correlate with afterlife for me. Death is an ending. A finality. A moment in time from which to mark time and move forward. Afterlife is something else - a "heavenly" fiction (in the best sense of the word). Afterlife is open for debate, speculation, freaky near-death experiences, fantasy, imagination, spaces and places unknown, one-sided conversation with the ones who've "gone to the other side." Afterlife keeps a cushion around what death represents: final painful loss.

When I was little and heard about heaven, I didn't know what could possibly be a better place than this life - this little tract home in Canoga Park with two parents, a brother and a sister, a boxer named Casey and a jungle gym. One week in church, trying to picture my soul resting in heaven, the best I came up with was an image of a heart muscle wearing wings perched on the clouds. I decided I preferred the jungle gym.

By high school, I no longer believed in heaven. I remember distinctly trying to comfort a friend afraid of dying by saying rather glibly at the time: "Listen, when you're dead, you're dead. You won't know that you're dead so it won't be a big deal. Just live now and when you die, you won't even know it happened."

That didn't comfort her, but it sure made sense to me. I found it possible to live that way without any anxiety at all. I was, naturally, 17.

Within a couple years of that declaration, the Christians in my life came up with an entirely different description of the nature of death (there was not just physical, but spiritual death too) and the afterlife (heaven, hell - pick heaven, smart people do) and expected me to accept it. (I pretended to for about two years.) The truth is, I joined up with Jesus Christ not for life after death, but for life while living. But if they needed me to pretend that heaven existed, well, I could sing along.

Then Keith Green died.

Until someone as close to God as Keith somehow missed the Holy Spirit's insistent tapping on his back, "Hey Keith! Don't get in a seven seater plane with eleven people or you'll die!" I didn't think about death.

Suddenly I had to. I had to answer the question: Where was Keith now?

And on a dime: I believed. Heaven. It was the only thing that made sense.

That's when my daily practice of sharing my faith began. I could not bear the thought of anyone going to hell. Just. Like. That. So for a good long while, I believed in heaven and hell, even saving Muslim souls before it was in vogue to do so.

I tallied it this way: Eternity is a really, really, really long time. This life is nearly pointless next to that terrifying stretch of non-time. Better make sure no one goes to the bad place.

But one day I woke up (after years of theological wrangling and deconstruction) and didn't believe any of it any more. Belief in the afterlife evaporated as quickly as it had come. I didn't miss it.

So when Heath Ledger died last week, my only thoughts about him had to do with our collective loss, his family, his last moments. I don't wonder where he is. I do wonder why and how he died.

Theories about where he is now, though, are a big part of the grief process for his fans (maybe his family too). Some speculate that Heath is able to hear and receive all the love being expressed somewhere in the invisible universe where his soul is attentive and peaceful. Others talk about the grand reunion he will have with one of our forum friends who died the same week. There are theories related to numerology that suggest he "had to die" that day. Nothing he could have done about it. Someone else suggested writing Heath a letter, putting it inside a Bible and then asking an angel to take it to him.

The apartment where Heath died has been showered with flowers, posters, memorials, candles, letters, poetry, and flags. All directed to Heath, as though he is still near, hovering to catch the last glimpse of this life before he ascends over the city of New York like Neo in the Matrix. A final exit, not quite made yet.

As I read the heartfelt remembrances and the hopes that Heath is at peace, knows inexplicably that he was deeply admired and loved, as speculations about life after death smoothed the rough edges of loss, I found I could easily wish for all of it to be true, whether or not it is fact.

Perhaps heaven and hell are for us, the living, to help us cope with the losses that death brings. Perhaps thinking about afterlife helps us to live this life more peacefully.

I also know what any of us thinks about it doesn't matter really. No one knows what's on the other side. But the hope of heaven or spiritual life may comfort. And with the short supply of options available in grief, hoping for heaven isn't such a bad one.


Dave said...

Yesterday I went to hear John Dominic Crossan speak at Hope College (a liberal arts school affiliated with the Reformed Church in America) on his book "God and Empire." He took some Q&A at the end and there was this one guy who really got stuck on the "afterlife" questions that Crossan had pretty much relegated as secondary or even less relevant than that in his conception of what Christianity is about. The interrogator jumped out of his seat three times to try and pin Crossan down on this! It was so rude, really, since there was a limited time and a lot of people wanted to interact with Dom while they had the chance. But I felt more sad for this guy than offended because I could tell how obsessed he was with the question "where do we go after we die" and sees Christianity almost exclusively in those terms - a mechanism for securing our eternal destiny. Crossan finally had to just say "believe what you want, but I accept that this life is what I have and when it's done it's done. I enjoy being part of the body of Christ and the communion of saints and I think that this life is what Jesus was concerned with." (I'm paraphrasing a bit, but that's the gist of what he said.)

Crossan was mostly applauded by those in attendance but there were a few walkouts (could have been for any number of reasons) and I heard a few mutterings afterward ("that guy has no faith" and so on...) His focus on the here-and-now of the life we live, he said, is necessary because for the hundreds of years that Christians have been increasingly focused and fixated on the afterlife, the world we live in has become ever more subjugated to the violence and exploitation of empire. The church has, he argues, basically ignored the mission of Jesus - incarnating a non-violent and radical alternative to the imperial status quo. I found his talk very inspiring and I think it's important that we come to grips with the essentially speculative and distracting conundrums of the afterlife, rather than make them central to our purpose and this misconstrued concept of what "evangelism" is supposed to accomplish.

Dave said...

Those pictures really set off this post, Julie. Especially that mountain at the bottom (I assume that's Brokeback...)

Since I never had anything close to this emotional of a connection to Heath Ledger, I'm a bit surprised at the intensity of emotions you describe. It reminds me a bit of the John Lennon tributes, though I think we'd both agree that Lennon's death was more traumatic and globally felt. (not to get into comparisons though.)

Was it mainly BBM that generated this kind of loyalty or is there more to Heath Ledger as an actor and a person than I had really taken into account? (of course there is, I guess I'm just interested in finding out more.)

julieunplugged said...

I envy your chance to listen to Crossan. He is one of my favorites. It is intriguing that a belief related to the afterlife (not even Jesus' identity) can become the key to whether or not someone has a genuine faith! How far afield is Christianity when that is the question!!?

As far as Heath Ledger is concerned: The community of the BBM members of course fell in love with him through the film. His rendering of Ennis immortalized him for so many. One of the incredibly beautiful things to witness (that I've had the privilege to witness) over the last two years is the way Ennis (the character) acted as a cautionary tale in the real lives of people who loved the movie. Members have left jobs, left or started relationships, have owned up to homosexual identity, have moved across the country to be with someone they loved, have come out to or back to or into relationships with family that were formerly broken and so on.

Heath is all mixed up in that sense of transformation as happens with artists who lead us to nobler parts of ourselves.

For me, Heath was already a favorite when he took the role of BBM. It was his being cast that made me so excited about the film. He was a promising young actor (whose interpretation of the Joker in this summer's blockbuster Batman: The Dark Knight was supposed to be his big launch to the A-List) with a really lovable, sensitive, genuine personality for being a star.

One interesting little note that came up. At Christmas, when he went home to Perth for two weeks, a the end of it he wrote a thank you note to the newspapers there thanking them for their intentional or accidental gift of space while he was home. He went on to say how much he appreciated the time with his family and friends without assaults from the media or paparazzi. It struck me as amazingly self-aware and generous that an actor would *thank* his local media through a letter at the end of what must have been a busy time with family. Who does that?

Apparently Heath did.

Did you see Daniel Day-Lewis' tribute to him at the SAG award? Youtube has it if you're interested. Wonderful stuff.

Kansas Bob said...

Death really causes us to engage parts of us that nothing else does. When my first wife died I was confronted with unfamiliar emotions and thoughts.. to grieve I had to step into my pain in a way that was very uncomfortable and scary.

I think the challenge when confronted in this way is to not fall back on old mental paradigms but to be open to the new processes and engagings of the heart. Really, the brain is a poor help to us when we grieve.. grieving is a process of the heart.

For me the words of Jesus about the afterlife comfort me.. because of His words I have hope in my heart that I will see my first wife again.. because of His words my heart is not troubled.

julieunplugged said...

Yes, the last photo is Brokeback Mountain (or actually, it's the mountain in Canada where the "Second Night in the Tent" was filmed). ONe of the forum members went up to that place to lay tulips and the postcard there in memory of Heath/Ennis. I thought her photograph was stunning!

rmkton said...

enjoyed this post because I find the obsession of Christians getting their hindquarters into heaven really exhausting...the ancients were not so commercially consumed with this notion...rather they aligned themselves with what they understood christian faith to be and left the outcome to God. I wish we would adopt this approach...then the question doesn't really take on the signficance we have given it. Remember when it was the "lead in question" to witnessing? (i.e. if you died tonight where would you go?)

Dave, glad to hear that Hope College invites speakers like Crossan. My oldest (daughter) will be entering college in the fall and of all of her choices she picked Hope. I wish it was closer to home (Philly) and definitely in a warmer climate...but there you go.

R. Michael

Ampersand said...

Death sounds like "my turn is finished, now someone else can have a turn."

Yes, humanity goes on without me, each person taking their turn, and I find that so very right and comforting.

Ampersand said...

Also that is a really amazing photo. Just beautiful in both the image and meaning.

Barbara said...

Great topic - I think on this often and have to admit that even if I don't vocalize my thoughts all that often, I do go back and forth on the whole heaven/hell thing.

Note to your commenter, RMKTON: believe it or not, that line is still used in witnessing all the time - UGH!

Dave said...

R. Michael, that's quite a coincidence that your daughter chose Hope College! I think she made a fine choice. It's a good school, though I'm a bit partial to Calvin College (where I got my BA) - the two schools have a "big time" rivalry (at least here in West Michigan) in case you weren't aware... I have a hunch though that Calvin wouldn't have invited Crossan - it's more of an N.T. Wright kinda school (he's visited there a few times in recent years, actually.)

Assuming she heads out this way in the fall, I invite you to contact me when you're in the area - I'd enjoy the opportunity to meet you! If she moves in late August, you will definitely want to hit the Lake Michigan shoreline - it's great! (But boy are we getting blasted with the lake effect snow as I type this!)

Kansas Bob said...

I like this R Michael..

"they aligned themselves with what they understood christian faith to be and left the outcome to God"

..sad that the faith has become (for some anyway) all about doctrinal formulas around who gets into heaven.

Drew said...

Death is a void and voids are hard to deal with. We are social animals and when integral parts of our social networks are removed, those relational elements force us to reconfigure our identities, but around something that is no longer there, that *should* be there.

I listened to a series of lectures by Yale historian Carlos Eire called "A Brusque History of Eternity". One of the issues he raises is that Martin Luther created two realms - one of the living and one of the dead. For him prayers to the dead made no sense since that was God's territory for we we have no business. Before this time was one big continuum where we are only a moment on it and the soul remains eternal.

Death is painful because it causes you to redefine yourself unexpectedly and often radically. No one really likes these upheavals of self since they all hurt. Even as we coordinate and manage our relationships, our relationships continue to *have* us in a very real sense.

So is there an afterlife? Perhaps, at least virtually all religious traditions assert it to some degree and I am not one to say that it is all as made up as a Harry Potter book.

What is still more important is what we do here to relate to death and learn how to relate to the notion of void in our own lives. Somehow we in the West need to do a better job of embracing nothingness in order to re-situate our gratitude on firmer ground.

julieunplugged said...

Drew, your "death is a void" comment rings true. One of the problems I see in our culture is we so quickly fill the void that there is sometimes almost no pause to appreciate the hole left behind. I like that in some cultures you spend a month (are given a month) to publicly mourn. It seems appropriate that people would not just acknowledge the void, but embrace it for a period of time before allowing the waters of life to rush in a fill up the empty spaces.

Love your last sentence:

Somehow we in the West need to do a better job of embracing nothingness in order to re-situate our gratitude on firmer ground.

Robert said...

you will never lack for aiding in helping us stretch ourselves mentally.emotionally and spiritually julie. I think it really is a both/and in regards to seeking heaven after we die and making this life and all in it a much better place. I think dispensationalism and the *rapture* have created an *escapist mentality* which Jesus never advocated. The Apostle Paul though did say that if Jesus was not resurrected, and there is no heaven or afterlife then christians are to be pitied above all men. That makes the truth of the matter much more compelling to me than just a que sera sera casualness about it like you said julie eternity is quite a long time :)

iluka said...

Julie, I've always thought pretty much like you - this life is what we have. Now that I identify myself as Christian, I do hope that there is something that follows - more for my own comfort than anything. My reasoning is that Jesus believed in it and I pretty much agree with him about most things, so I'll trust him on this one. As to hell, I'm prepared to believe in eternal death and I'm prepared to believe in a cleansing fire of a metaphorical sort, of limited duration - personally I think that it would involve having to look at, without blinking, the consequences of all the selfish, stupid and evil things we've done and endure the pain we've caused others. However I have never been able to believe in eternal damnation. It's completely illogical and not even biblical - if you're so inclined. It would go against the nature of God. A loving God eternally punishing mortal specks for actions that took up less time than a blink of God's eye. Ridiculous!

iluka said...

I was thinking that when I really started to believe in an afterlife was when my daughter was very sick and suicidal. For a year we had one attempt after another. I was terrified that she would die and fall into an abyss on the other side - living in her current torment forever. I don't know where this came from - I wasn't a Christian at the time. I even thought that if she succeeded in killing herself I would have to think about killing myself, as I couldn't bear to think of her on "the other side" alone in the dark and cold. Not very rational or healthy I know - that's what trauma does to you. One of the most healing things about becoming a Christian was that it allowed me to believe that if my daughter died that God would lovingly and mercifully welcome her and that she would be at peace in a better place. Of course, I've no foundation for this belief except maybe Jesus' story of Lazarus. It certainly isn't very "reformed". THey'd have her burning for eternity. But it did allow me to imagine the possibility of going on without her.

John Trudell said...


Thank you.

I had to get away from the forum tonight for awhile, and I knew I would find something good to read here.

Since last Tuesday I've spent over 100 hours on the forum. During this time my main focus was to make sure the forum was up and running, that we didn't get trashed by spammers. I haven't really had time to process it all.

I also spent a lot of time reading every post in the memorial threads.
After awhile the pain and grief just gets to be too much. So here I am.

I haven't thought about the 'afterlife' in all of this. I've always figured it's something we can never know, so why bother.

There's a lot of stress on the forum right now, and a lot of it isn't out the open. Many members are all alone out there with nobody that understands what they are going through. While we're seeing new members joining this week, we're also seeing old members leaving because it's too painful to be there right now.

The administrators and moderators have been under a lot of stress in all of this too.

I know you've seen some of the negative news in the past couple of days and what trouble that is causing for a lot of people. I knew it would be coming.

One of our members posted this tonight: "This is a moment when I really wish I had religious faith. The glass is not half empty. It's broken."

I don't believe the Judeo-Christian concept of God or Heaven or Hell. I think it's a lot more complicated than that.

But even I was moved to post a Youtube video the oher night using 'The Lord Is My Shepherd' for the music. I knew it would help a lot of the members.

I hope you'll continue to visit the forum in the days and weeks ahead. Your presence there does help and does make a difference.


John Trudell said...

It so strange sometimes.

As I was composing that last comment, one of our members on the forum was writing this:

"It was 2 years ago Christmas Day that I lost my best friend unexpectedly (heart attack) and one of my biggest regrets was that she'd never get to see Brokeback. I honestly have been more devastated over Heath's death... maybe because he was barely getting started and Linda and I are on our last round up. But then, the other night, not being able to sleep, I was thinking about both of them being up in Heaven and she is probably yakking it up with him... she'll talk to anybody and apparently he will too... and it was oddly comforting."


Ed G. said...

it's interesting that on a post of death and the afterlife, we find so much chatter about college and sending kids to school.

i know my wife will be terribly upset when my oldest, now a sophomore in high school, goes off to college. (After all, she cried when he went to his 8th grade dance!)

But in some ways, that's how I see death. It's no more of an event than going off to college... another part of our lives. My dad died four years ago, and I often wish he were around so we could do something together. But I am comforted by the fact that he is experiencing new things right now, amazing things -- and in due time, we will be together again.

Deb said...

No one knows for certain - my mother was so full of life and energy that when she passed away I held more to the notion that energy is neither created or destroyed but transformed. This may have no connection whatsoever but I find it more difficult to believe that her essence died like someone unplugging a machine.

Davis said...

"And with the short supply of options available in grief, hoping for heaven isn't such a bad one."

I'll take what I can get.

A great post, Julie.

James F. McGrath said...

I've tagged you with a meme...I hope you don't mind...

clhsketch said...

Great post Julie. I too have struggled with thoughts of the afterlife and death. About 3 years ago now, I fell down a steep flight of stairs at my aunts house. I came out with only some bumps and bruises, no serious injuries. Since then, I have wondered why nothing worse happened. Just one move in the wrong direction and my neck could have been broke, my back could have been injured, I could have had any number of serious injuries and possibly even died.

The only explanation for why nothing worse happened is that nothing worse happened. There is no real explanation. We all know that death is possible at any moment. We all know that life is fleeting and fragile. Yet, as a testament to the power of human imagination and resilience, we go on. We are masters at putting the possibilities behind us and instead focusing on the here and now.

Except when someone we love dies. Then the possibilities and probabilities of our own death come flooding in. We cannot keep them at bay anymore. I think it is at this point, when faced with death - either our own or some else's - that we can imagine most vividly the possibilities after this life. We ask, what's next?

As for the answer, we (human beings) have come up with a vast variety of answers. There's nothing. There's something. There's everything. Etc. Etc. Etc.

And the systems that we set up in order to attain the afterlife - to be counted as worthy of it - are just as varied. Meditate, pray, go to church, go to Mosque, go to temple, all kinds of moral imperatives. Etc. Etc. Etc.

In the end though, we don't know.

I too feel that the messages and teachings of Jesus are about the here and now, not the afterlife. God is present with us now. Why do we insist on something higher than that?


Kansas Bob said...

I generally agree with CLH's sentiment:

"I too feel that the messages and teachings of Jesus are about the here and now, not the afterlife"

Even this verse..

""Do not let your heart be troubled; believe in God, believe also in Me. "In My Father's house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you. "If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself, that where I am, there you may be also. (John 14:1-3)

..seems to be more about comforting the living than speaking about the afterlife.. of course it does speak of the afterlife :)

Chuck said...

This is clearly a popular post and topic. I tend to agree with Deb's comment about hoping that the energy somehow gets transformed in a way that still provides "being". But it is just an individual, speculative hope. Lately I've pondered death a bit as "shared destiny". Both of my parents have been dead for several years. We had very good relationships. In a sense I'm seeing death as joining them and others in a shared destiny. Even if there is nothing, it makes nothing seem a bit less lonely...