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.