The Afterlife: Heaven, Hell or other?

Our Modern Age seems to have a very vague sense of the afterlife: most of us definitely do not want to even think about it. When we do, it is when someone close to us dies, a friend dies, a child dies … and we hear vague statements about the deceased somehow in some way surviving in some kind of afterlife.

It doesn’t really matter that we see ourselves as atheists, but more probably, agnostics – God doesn’t come into it. We still have this “hope” that something of ourselves survives death: as a soul, as a bird, as a star, part of a rainbow, a something more than a memory, a sort of angel or fairy thingey.

Those intimations are indeed from the vast store of mankind’s beliefs since time began! Every race, religion, tribe, clan, kingdom, civilisation, believed in some kind of afterlife, even the caveman. One of the oldest remains of the most ancient grave sites of pre-historic man had grave goods as part of his and her burial – goods to accompany the dead on their journey to the afterlife.

There are common strands in mankind’s beliefs about the afterlife: a place of punishment and reward, a land of shadows, where there is some connexion between the living and the dead, some kind of journey takes place, and there is final destination determined by one’s actions while alive.

This place of the afterlife is called by many names: Hades to the Greeks and Romans, Sheol to the Jews, and the names of the various “heavens” and “hells” in Buddhism and Hinduism, “happy hunting grounds” of the North American Indians, the home of the ancestors in very many cultures, etc. In both China and Japan there is a very deep connexion between the ancestors and one’s family. Traditional beliefs entailed the idea that there remains some kind of real connexion between the living and the dead.

As an aside here: Buddhism has become an alternative belief for many non-religious Moderns – quiet meditation, a take-it-or-leave-it disciplined way of life, a set of non-threatening moral commands, and an end in eternal bliss. Yet how disturbing it is to see paintings in Thailand of the tortures in the Buddhist Hell – the absolute horrors of the damned – those who break the traditional natural laws common to mankind. And then to look back and examine the very real strictures of traditional Buddhism in contrast to the cafeteria Buddhism of Moderns.

Together with these common traditional beliefs about the afterlife, is the common need by the traditional bereaved to help the dead on their journey by prayers and grave gifts for sustenance for the trip. Traditional rituals also made the very necessary sacrifice of an animal or precious thing to mollify the spirits in charge of the departed.

It is natural to mankind to believe in an afterlife of some kind. Modern confusion comes from the decline of Christianity in the Western world, the separation of modern people from their traditional cultures which gave a secure understanding of death and the afterlife, and the growth of religious agnosticism, which has cast modern man adrift at the very time in his life when he confronts the “fact” of death.

What happens is that the death event calls up one’s own standing to one’s religious beliefs – guilt generally – a determined running away from anything resembling “superstition” (after all, we are progressive, scientific people), but then the need also to handle the huge impact death has on our lives.

After all, the fact of death is the most confronting, truly terrible event in our lives. There is no avoiding the fact. This fear of “nothingness” or the fear of the totally unknown experience or the fear of losing one’s body is truly a terrible event. Even to those who believe in an afterlife: death is the tearing of one’s body away from the person. “I, the me, the identity, may indeed survive, but there is no way that whatever comes next, will ever be the same, without my body, the physical expression of what makes me a human being!” Such grief there is in the prospect of one’s own death or that of a loved one. One will never be in that experienced relationship ever … ever again. What a loss!

“Heaven”?
And so, we mix up a whole vague set of ideas to make us comfortable. Some vague sense of Heaven is mentioned. We need to feel that our loved one is happy in some way, and so we talk about “heaven”. But what or where is “heaven”.

Traditional non-Christian heaven is totally unlike Christian heaven. The trouble is that modern man mixes up the bits of the Christian heaven with bits of the old heavens of the past. So, lets get things straightened out!

Yes, indeed, in the non-Christian traditional heaven,a good person who dies, an innocent child who dies, may indeed go to a place of happiness – a happiness of light and beauty, a gentle refreshment of “heart” and soul. The person is rewarded by the demands of justice riding through the universe that good shall be rewarded and evil punished. There is no escaping the demands of justice, otherwise life on earth is totally meaningless: anyone can do anything evil they like and get away with it at death! Those agnostics who thirst for justice in the modern progressive thrust of political debate, who are the first to speak out about the obvious injustices of this world, must then by logic demand that justice be done, otherwise their words are just pointless! And so, nature demands justice! it is part of our DNA. If not in this life then in the next, Justice will come: the good are rewarded and the evil are punished.

Justice demands punishment, the “law of Karma” or the Natural Law, or the “Tao” of the East, is written in our conscience, governs the universe, nature demands reward and punishment. Those who need punishment are sent further “down” the levels of a Hades or Sheol; those who are the just are sent further “up”.

Where does the idea of forgiveness, and softness regarding death?

We all fail by the demands of Justice. The traditional “heaven” looks to be filled only with the souls of the very young and the souls of the few “just” men and women.

And so, we mix in Christian belief in the forgiveness of sins (from out of thin air!), and the old traditional belief of heaven, leaving a vague sense of everything being all right after all – no need for sorrow except for the personal loss of relationship, and a vague hope that we will see or be with our loved one again in some way or another.

The Christian heaven is totally beyond such naturalistic traditional beliefs. The Christian belief is that we are called to be perfect, to be with God Himself, to become God-like, to share the vision of the intensity of the love of Almighty God, God about Whom it is said: “To see God is to die!” – a vision so beyond imagining. More frightening than Death itself! More frightening if not for Love itself. If we are not perfect and full of Love when we die, we, if willing, will be made lovingly perfect – a very, very painful but loving process for most of us. And finally, we will have our bodies back, glorified, “super-bodies” physically and joyfully, ecstatically, in touch with our loving families, and friends.

The Christian heaven is nothing like the traditional belief in some “heavenly” after-life. No place of relative peace and happiness, of those demeaning images of playing harps, but a thrusting into a full personal facing-up to and with God Himself. And the so-called “forgiveness of sins” that we so magically call up to comfort us at the thought of death, comes at a price! Justice dying at the hands of Injustice for Mercy’s sake: a price we are all called to pay.

So, us Moderns scramble around avoiding the confrontation which death brings concomitant with religious belief. We end up “celebrating” the life of the deceased, but not giving them what they may desperately need – prayers to help them on their way. To pray for them and to make sacrifices, would entail belief in some kind of invisible authority above us. Even many Christian funeral rituals have mainly succumbed to the modern need to celebrate a life rather than to mollify the guardians of the souls.

To avoid such religious complications, we mix in a little reincarnation here or a little New Age Spiritualism here: the deceased becomes a bird, a fairy, a sparkling thought, and maybe even a little angel. But real connexion? We avoid the very real connexion with the deceased soul, spirit, a real being – good or bad – who we may pray to (to talk entreatingly with), who may pray for us, may hear our prayers, and may silently be present in our daily lives. Traditional beliefs firm up these connexions.

But we Moderns honour them with a photo as a reminder to ourselves, but avoid their presence in our continuing lives just at the time when we most desperately need them, in case that entails the supposed “silliness” of ghosts, goblins, and “spirits”.

For all others, except us Moderns, the whole event of death and the process afterwards is accompanied with age-old ritual which encompasses the whole nature of man and the very general sensible beliefs about the afterlife and death. It is still of great comfort to the dead to visit the grave site and lay flowers, gifts of life, not just as a memory, but a real reaching out to the dead – “I am here, dear. I am with you. Pray for me.”

And so sad this all is – this Modernity, this creeping atheism, a world of nothingness, of nothing good nor evil. If the traditional belief in an afterlife is true – that there is some real justice in the Universe; that there is some final meaning somewhere – then many of us Moderns who die are drastically missing out on the prayers and the sacrifices which are needed to accompany us and to sustain us after death.

Thankfully there are many still who offer those prayers and sacrifices for us all, including the Moderns.

“The Game of Thrones” and the “Middle Ages”

Game of Thrones is just another of those seemingly endless entertainments appropriating a thoroughly twisted view of the Middle Ages: an interpretation of a period of our history distorted by 500 years of prejudice, an interpretation reinforced by repetitious tropes, to the point when it is almost useless to try to get people to understand any aspect of the Middle Ages.

And yet, the Middle Ages is the very foundation of our Modern World. One could then say then that the Child, our modern world, hates its mother, to the extent of Matricide!!

The very terms, “Middle Ages”, and “Medieval” were invented by 15th Century Renaissance scholars to describe the period between the “good”, noble, arty, literate Classical era of Ancient Rome, and their own proud age of the rediscovered beauty of the Classical era. Everything between, from the Fall of Rome to c.1450 was dross, written off as in the Middle. They longed for the return of ancient Roman civilisation and its culture, art, music, literature, and laws. They wrote off 1000 years of our history, the very history which formed the foundations of his – Renaissance man’s – own ability to stand outside of himself and analyse the past.

What a travesty of history! Somehow Renaissance man just miraculously was able to think and analyse the past, to evaluate art and beauty, to explore ancient texts, texts of course, which just sprang out of the blue. European scholarship just sprang out of 1000 years of barbarism and artistic misery? One mustn’t mention where those universities of Europe began from which these Renaissance scholars received their doctorates.

And then the “Middle Ages” received its double whammy – the Protestant Reformation. From 1500 onwards much of Northern Europe as it turned Protestant, denied the traditions borne out through 1500 years of Christianity. For some Protestants, Christianity became corrupted right after the Apostles died, for others during Constantine’s reign c. 320 when the Church became established as Roman. And so, the Middle Ages was seen as the reign of the “Whore of Babylon” – the Pope. “Superstition” prevailed, and the doctrines of Catholicism – the enemy – darkened the mind of mankind.

And then the intellectuals – a new breed of men – sprung out of the Wars of Religion: the “Enlightened” ones who invented the new philosophies of idealism and empiricism – the foundations of our modern ideologies. The Enlightenment intellectuals cast the Middle Ages as a period of intellectual torpitude devoid of reason. The Middle Ages received this “triple whammy” – an age dominated by religious dogmatism, and at the heart of this was the Catholic Church – the enemy.

So, in order to celebrate the victories of Renaissance Humanism, the Protestant Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the great Liberal Revolution, intellectuals have, over and over, and over and over, through 500 years now made the Middle Ages a monster to kill with every weapon. One could run through an enormous list of history and philosophy books, novels, plays, films, cultural motifs, etc., all of which have as their fundamental basis the willing distortion of the Middle Ages!

Let us examine this Monster.

This Monster founded the universities of Europe from c 1100 to 1300. There were reportedly 20,000 students at the University of Paris about the late 1100s – about the same number as now. Oxford and Cambridge, Bologna, Padua, et al., all rose about this time. The medieval medical school in Naples was famous in the known world.

As early as 800 AD (in the Dark Ages), Charlesmagne, insisted that every parish church in his vast empire have a school to teach all the children to read and write. He was so determined in this that much of his vast horde from his conquests was used to fund this project. Furthermore he had inspectors ensure that this dying wish of his was carried out. Parish schools and scholarships developed throughout Europe and grew through the next 500 years.

Representative parliaments all developed across Europe during this time of the 1100s: the rule in each kingdom was that a king may not issue a new tax without the consent of a meeting of nobles, clergy and commoners and this was not just in England! Cities, merchants and free-holders voted and became more powerful as the economy of Europe grew.

Welfare? Hospitals, aged care homes, orphanages, pensioner systems, homeless care, soup kitchens, were in place, mostly in the charge of large numbers of religious, but some funded by the nobility.

But, let us get to the heart. All very well assembling a list of wonderful Medieval inventions, discoveries, structures, cathedrals, etc. What were these Medieval people like? Where were their hearts?

Words and new connotations of words are invented in each age to express new thoughts and feelings which are demanded by new experiences.

And what new words and new connotations of words were invented in England in the Middle Ages to express these new experiences? Words such as pity, gentle, mercy, beauty, bounty, charity, delicate, devotion, grace, honour, humble, passion, patience, peace, purity, tender, loving-kindness, long-suffering. Many of these words were taken out of the religious context and placed in the relationship, not between God and men, but between everyday people, to express these new relationships. Other new words came about to express the loving relationship between men and women: dalliance, dainty, debonair, delight, pleasure, love-longlingly.

Here we have a new world of developing tenderness and solicitude between people and especially between men and women and children.

Even the word “lady”: a curt Germanic word meaning “load-kneader” in 400 AD had come to mean someone gracious and tender by 1200AD.

How can we then place a world of these new affectionate expressions beside the world of the Game of Thrones and the many other Medieval-based inventions of modern times?

What brought about a change in human relationships of such depth? About 1100 AD we have minstrels roaming the lands of Europe singing of untouchable ladies whose beauty enchants noble men, who are inspired to live a life of purity and gentleness; who are inspired to defend the down-trodden, the weak, the defenceless; and for some to sacrifice their noble warrior lives for the poor and sick. For instance, the cult of St Francis was the most popular in Europe for a hundred years – young men and women from noble families who give their lives up for humble poverty for the sake of a Crucified God who identifies with the poor and lowly.

Of course, I know the answer. It were the doctrines and traditions and “superstitions” of the Catholic Church – the enemy of the Modern world, which brought about the Middle Ages.

The Middle Ages started to come to an end by the mid 1300s: by then the Commercial and Population Explosions of the Middle Ages had ended. Kings started to become independent from their nobles and from the Church; and by 1600 – the Age of Absolute Monarchy. The Age of Ideologies took their place, and now the underlying Medieval culture of Europe in dying. Soon we will look back in sadness at those affectionate words of Medieval England and wonder what basis there should be for them? Just superficial sentiment?

Gabriel, the Archangel

To my Grandson, Gabriel.

Your patron saint is Gabriel, the Archangel. An angel.

Angels are spiritual beings created out of nothing at the beginning of all things. They exist outside of time and space: that is, they have no visible bodies (but they act on the material universe); and they do not conceive of time, but measure time by their actions.

An angel sees time like a unity of actions, liking striking a chord on a guitar: all the different actions of an angel play different notes from the six strings, so its actions are simultaneous but have different notes at different times for it, but one time for us.

How important are angels? Why were they made? To govern the whole universe! Every motion and action is under their authority. Every organised body of things – from the humble molecule to the greatest galaxy – comes under the direction of movement by an angel. The direction of animals, plants, weather, and our emotions – all are subject to movement. God, therefore, governs the whole visible and invisible universe through a hierarchy of beings, including mankind.

Each angel is totally distinct from any another angel. Each angel is its own thing – they are not a species. They are each like an individual star or gem, with its own individual character and unique power and authority.

Gabriel is an Archangel and is at the very top of this order of beings: he is, with the Seraphim and Cherubim, with Michael and Raphael. Gabriel has his own powers totally distinctly different. Gabriel is the strength of God. That means he brings to the universe – all of it! – the strength of God. In other words, he orders the lower angels, and his orders pass on to the even lower angels who in turn order the lowliest little angel.

Gabriel is your Patron. A Patron is an authority who oversees an area, or a body, or a person. Each body of matter, or each body of organisation has an angel patron. The earth has a Patron Angel, Australia has a Patron Angel, Sydney has a Patron Angel, your school has a Patron Angel, your family has a Patron Angel, you have a Patron Angel, called your guardian angel. But you are named Gabriel, so you have a special relationship with Gabriel himself as well as your assigned guardian angel.

When you ask Gabriel for help, you are calling on the special strength of God. Gabriel will ask Jesus, Our Lord, for special graces to help you. And after awhile you will take on the character of Gabriel himself, because as we enter into a loving relationship with someone we grow in likeness to them – we take on their character as well. So, praying for Gabriel’s help will help you grow in his likeness – strong in service to God.

Now, we call Gabriel, Michael and Raphael, Holy Archangels. Holy Gabriel or Saint Gabriel. Most of the angels are indeed holy, that is, full of God’s holiness, full of grace, of love, full of the Holy Spirit of God Himself. The word, “holy”, is related to wholeness, wholesomeness, being whole, integrated, at one with God. Perfectly aligned to God’s will. That is what a Saint is: perfectly aligned to God, full of God. So, when you pray for Saint Gabriel’s help you are also asking to become whole and to become perfectly aligned with God.

Heaven is full of all the Ones who are Holy: the Blessed Trinity of the Father, the Son – Jesus Christ – visibly complete in His body, and the Holy Spirit; and the Blessed Virgin Mary, visibly complete in her body; and the Holy Angels; and the Holy Souls of all the men and women who have died in the Love of God. Heaven is where we aim to be: and Holy Gabriel will help you get there.