Are you ready? I know the truth about life after death. I know what really happens.
Just kidding. I don’t know. And you know what? If anyone pretends to know, they’re either lying or deceiving themselves.
It’s true that as Christians we all believe in the reality of life after death. The Bible tells us, unequivocally, that both heaven (and hell) are real.
But it’s hazy on the details. Here are a few of the scattered and vague hints we get about what happens after death.
“And the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.” –Ecclesiastes 12
“We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed.” – I Corinthians 15
“He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” -Revelation 21
It’s all vague, symbolic, and I think that it’s written that way by design. Because we are not supposed to know exactly what happens to our souls after death. It’s supposed to be a matter of faith.
And yet that’s hard. Really hard.
I think the scariest thing about death for most of us is the fear that our selves, our identities as we know them, might disappear entirely.
All our emotions, our memories, our relationships, everything that makes us individuals, could cease to exist. These are the products of our brains. And the brain eventually dies, like every organ in our bodies. This is one of the few things about death that we know for certain.
In our Western culture, we’re very attached to our selves and our identities. In fact, they are everything. We are entirely defined by them. Our unique personalities, experiences, likes and dislikes completely encompass all that matters in this world. Without them, there is nothing else. And that makes the idea of death sickening and terrifying in its intensity.
In some ways, I think the Eastern religions have a saner approach to death than us Westerners do. Buddhism, Taoism, any of those Eastern religions and philosophies teach you to transcend the self, to let go of it, to release our attachments and memories so as to prepare our spirits for something much greater. But Western culture doesn’t really know how to do that. The individual self is our god, and the demise of that individual self is the ultimate tragedy.
But is that what the Bible really teaches us?
In regards to life after death, it seems to me that Christianity is much closer to Buddhism and Taoism than we want to admit.
The Bible teaches that God is love. It teaches us that our spirits come from God and then return to Him. It teaches that all memory of our past tears will be wiped away.
That means all our fears, all our regrets, all our pain will disappear, along with our dying brains which produced them. And I don’t know about you, but I find the thought of such a blessed release as delicious as the moment when you lie down in bed at the end of a long day.
Back in February 2018, my children’s father passed away unexpectedly. His love for his children, his passion, his joy was larger than life, and his sudden loss left a huge void. Most of all, when we lose someone like that, the biggest hole left behind is where love used to be. Where does that love go? That is the most painful question surrounding death.
I drove my son to a basketball game out-of-state a couple weeks after his father’s death. On the way home, I stopped to fill up my tank. I remember feeling sad because Bill had often filled my tank for me when he happened to see me pulled up to a gas tank. I went in to pay for the gas ahead of time. I asked for $20 worth. The attendant told me that there was already exactly $20 worth of gas, bought and paid for, on the tank where I was parked.
Was there a reasonable, logical explanation? Of course. There had been a mistake. The person who used the tank before me had overpaid, or perhaps purposefully paid for an extra $20 in a kind “pay it forward” type of gesture.
Naturally, it wasn’t that the spirit of an undead Bill rose from the grave, showed up at the gas pump, and bought $20 worth of gas for me.
But God used that mistake or that gesture to send me a message that day. He was letting me know that the love we feel when we’re alive never really goes away. The love Bill felt for his children was still there. It hadn’t died. Once Bill’s body became too frail to contain this love, it expanded to fill the universe, offering its kindly and paternal care and protection.
Often, when we talk about life after death, we put it in simplistic terms to suit our frail human understanding. It soothes us to imagine our deceased loved ones watching over us from above. We find comfort in images of people running to meet Jesus in the clouds, looking exactly the way they did when they were alive. But these images are colored by our limited human understanding and experience. The reality of life after death is so vast that we cannot possibly comprehend it.
We will all be changed. Our tears will be wiped away. Our precious identities, memories, experiences, everything that we imagine makes us who we are will be gone forever.
And this shouldn’t be cause for terror. It is cause for peace. What a relief to let go of the burden of the self, to embrace the eternal, to reach a place where our individuality no longer weighs heavily upon us.
It’s love that remains. God is love. That is one thing we all can agree on. And it’s a love too vast, too incomprehensible, to be contained within our frail bodies, our fragile and brief lifespan. It is so great that it bursts the bonds of individual experience to encompass everything.
Was it arrogance for me to think that God cared enough about my sadness in that particular moment in time to reach out in a special way that only I could understand?
Yes. But that’s exactly what we believe about God.
He is vast enough to exist outside of the confines of human life, and yet personal enough to care about our intimate struggles.
These struggles will be wiped away. Our cherished self, our individuality, will disappear to be absorbed by God, by the vast and eternal love of the divine.
Confined by our frail selves, we cannot possibly explain or understand the reality of life after death. Even the words “life after death” are meaningless, because life as we know it and death as we know it will someday no longer exist. Only love will.
And what a blessed and joyous release that will be.