What Really Happens When We Die?

September 23, 2010

Last week, the Web site Patheos asked several writers from varying religious backgrounds, including me, to write 250 words on the question "What Really Happens When We Die?" This prompt was the first in a new Patheos series called "What Do I Really Believe?", which will feature a fresh question each week based on that topic. 

Here is the specific question writers grappled with this week:

"Your best friend is crushed when his 10-year-old son dies of cancer. He tells you that he is comforted, at least, that one day he'll get to see his child again in heaven. Later that day, you begin to wonder. Is there life after death? Are heaven and hell real places? Do our souls continue to exist in some form?"

And here is my answer . Keep in mind that the word limit was 250. Fortunately, the editors allowed me 292 words. I originally submitted an entry containing something like 372 words. That essay included a second paragraph that does not appear on the Patheos site (fear not: I approved of all edits). Here is that longer response, without edits: 

There are many different conceptions of the term "life after death." Adherents generally agree there is a permanent life force, like the soul, that survives bodily death; and that there exists another realm of being beyond what we see on Earth. Western religions tend to endorse a Heaven (eternal bliss) and a Hell (unending suffering). Reasons for such beliefs include: "it keeps people moral"; "it is reassuring to know that regardless what happens on Earth, good people will be rewarded, and bad people will be punished"; "it is comforting to know I will be reunited with my loved ones."

These reasons contain a speck of decency and respectability. For example, wanting immoral people who evade worldly punishment to eventually get their due is rooted in a desire for justice. Even so, I agree with Bertrand Russell, who wrote in Why I am Not a Christian, "I do not myself feel that any person who is really profoundly humane can believe in everlasting punishment." It is also understandable that people would like to see their departed loved ones once again.

But our desires, no matter how strong, are not good reasons for our beliefs. We should not believe something merely because it sounds advantageous. Our beliefs should be supported by good scientific evidence or philosophical rationale. For example, I love my family and friends, and sharing eternity in paradise with them sounds quite nice (though I think eternity with any company would eventually get boring). But I see little to no scientific or philosophical basis to believe this will happen (I find Eastern ideas about the afterlife equally unsupportable). To be sure, I do not know that I am correct. But I am reasonably comfortable with my position.

What are the implications of my belief that life truly ends with death? I plan to maximize, enjoy, and treasure the time I have on Earth, and when I reach the end, I will have two comforts. First, I will fear nothing, as I believe there is nothing to fear. And second, while I will miss my loved ones and this wonderful existence, I will feel sufficiently happy with the life that I have lived. That is the best I believe I can hope for.

If you read this blog, you likely recall Patheos. The Web site had a summerlong series of essays on the Future of Religion, and Ron Lindsay and I contributed to their collection on the Future of Humanism.