What happens to us after we die?

M. Jose writes:

Dear Lawrence:

Since I heard of your health condition, something has been concerning me.

What do you think about what will happen to you when you die? Do you believe that you are going to heaven and on what do you base that belief?

I am an Evangelical Christian (specifically a Baptist), so I have fairly easy answers for myself (I trust in Jesus’ death to pay the price for my sins). I recognize that other sects tend to have a more complicated answer as to how to appropriate Jesus’ saving work (i.e. as opposed to believing and being saved once and done), but that in and of itself I don’t think is unsaving, as long as they are trusting in Jesus’ work to save them.

Whether or not you see simply belief as enough to get saved (as I understand it, many believe that they must constantly appropriate Jesus’ work), do you believe that Jesus’ death paid the debt for your sins in full?

If you don’t want to talk about this I understand, but I have known you for about nine years, and I would hate to let you leave this world without asking.

LA replies:

In order to answer you I have to rush in where angels fear to tread. While I recognize that this is going to be unsatisfactory to Christians of various orthodox persuasions, I don’t have a definitive belief as to this question. I believe that all beliefs concerning the afterlife are human approximations of a reality that is beyond our understanding in our present, living state. A key problem, as I see it, is that all these beliefs involve a kind of naive assumption that in the other life we are simply there just as we are here, that John continues as John, with his own personality and consciousness and identity intact, except that it’s just in a different, much nicer, happier place. I don’t think that’s true. If there is a conscious entity that is to survive death, it obviously must be somewhat different from the entity we were in life, for example, purified of many of the things we were in life. But is such a purified entity really the same as what we were in life, consciously continuous with that entity? Or is it only the “godly” part of us that continues?

Another point: I’ve always believed that we exist somewhere before this life, and exist somewhere after this life. That’s always been evident to me. A human self at birth comes from somewhere, because he is born with definite tendencies, personality, talents, character, he is not a blank slate; those tendencies come from someplace; for example, Mozart clearly came from somewhere. And at death we see that a person is in the middle of a “story”; his “career” as a soul is going someplace. For example, he has learned some things in life, he has developed in a certain direction, and that development is going to continue somewhere. The “better” a person is in life, the better the place he goes to after life.

But what that place is we don’t know. All the religious teachings concerning this subject are different from each other, so they can’t all be true, and none of them can be all true. Those beliefs are literalist human approximations and symbolizations of a non-material, spiritual reality that we cannot know while we are alive. So the dogmatically certain statements people from various denominational traditions make about what happens to us after we die strike me as human constructions to comfort ourselves. They may be true up to a point, and true enough to satisfy our spiritual needs. but they are not entirely true.

The truest Christian picture of the afterlife that I have seen are the sleeping statues of the dead on the sarcophagi from twelfth century France in the crypt in the Cloisters in New York City. These men and women are depicted not as dead, but as asleep, with an expression of joyous anticipation on their faces as they await their resurrection. They were devout followers of Christ in life, and they are sure of their reward. Are these statues literally true? No. But they are an expression of the truth, a truth we cannot know directly.

Also, it seems to me that the Nicene Creed handles this question perfectly satisfactorily: “And I believe … in the life of the world to come. Amen.”

Short, simple, and sweet. It doesn’t go into dogmatic details of the life of the world to come.

* * *

Note: the reader asked me a good question, and I answered it the best I can at the moment. This is not the opening of a discussion. I am unable to host a discussion on such a complex topic.

- end of initial entry -

Brandon F. writes:

That was a great response you gave. I tried yesterday to find Socrates’ speech about the afterlife in the Phaedo that I could copy and send to you. I suspect you’ve read it. It is the best and most satisfying account I’ve read on the subject. You remind me of him in the way you are carrying yourself publicly in the face of certain death be it sooner or later. Only a true philosopher can die like one. As Plato says, to do philosophy is to prepare to die (paraphrased).

In appreciation.

LA replies:

I don’t know about being a true philosopher. As far as my present circmstances and my responses to it are concerned, I’m just a person dealing with the hand I’ve been dealt.

I don’t remember the Phaedo. Wikipedia has a concise summary of its arguments. I have to read it.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at February 19, 2013 07:17 AM | Send

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