Some Theories of Life After Death

October 1, 2007
There are many views of what happens after death. Here are just a few.

I began thinking of today’s blog entry two days ago when my cheerful, gentle 44-year-old nephew died from cancer. A devoted husband and father, he chose the best path through life that he knew how to make. Today, as I reflect on how he lived and how the decisions he made about his illness might have changed the course of his disease, I am reminded of how we all do the best we can. And every decision we make impacts the direction of our lives, and the lives of others.

Once we die, there are those, including my nephew, who believe our faith, as well as the choices we’ve made in life, will continue to affect us. His view of the after-life came from his Christian faith and he felt assured of eternal life. Because of my own spiritual experiences [see An Agnostic’s Encounter With God], I suspect there is some kind of “consciousness” or “life” after we die, but I certainly can’t guarantee that my views are correct.

It is comforting, of course, to believe that we’ll see our loved ones again. I would like to think that is possible. Since I don’t know for sure, I don’t get upset when others insist I see things the way they see them. Even if they believe in a heaven in which they’ll have as many virgins as they can possibly accommodate, their conviction doesn’t affect me, that is, unless they decide to blow themselves up, and me in the process, to get there more quickly.

The reality is that all ideas about what happens next, including oblivion, are “theories.” And our theories are not unlike what would happen if you asked an eight-month-old fetus to consider what the world into which he or she was about to be born would be like. The chances are highly unlikely a not-yet-born baby could accurately predict even one of the thousands of realities of life that we take for granted, like breathing oxygen, hiking in the mountains, watching the sunset, taking a college exam.

Nevertheless, despite the impossibility of accurately predicting life on the other side, any number of religious leaders, philosophers and ordinary people have written millions of words on the subject. One idea I read recently comes from Harry Freund’s book, I Never Saw Paris: A Novel of the Afterlife. It’s about five people who enter what might be called the entry hall of Paradise after an accident and spend a week reviewing their lives with one another. The purpose is to be clear about not only their positive contributions, but their weaknesses as well, even for the most religiously faithful among them. During the week while the characters wait for the judgment, they question the meaning of their lives, face their shortcomings, and look for some kind of redemption. The ending is a twist on the idea that we will all be judged individually. I’m not sure I would like that kind of experience when I die, but who knows, maybe that’s what I’ll get. There’s bound to be an upside and a downside to most scenarios.

But if you are interested in exploring other off-beat after-life theories, you may want to also read The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom. I rather like his take on the review-your-life process. Here you get to meet the people who have had an impact on your life, and those whose lives you have influenced, even if you didn’t know them, or know them well. Incidentally, it’s interesting that both authors have used five people to illustrate their point.

Since there is no guarantee that a better life awaits you when you die, I believe the best approach is to simply live as courageously and kindly as you can in this life. Follow the two golden rules: Do unto others what you would want them to do to you—and do not do to others what you wouldn’t want them to do to you. Then at the end of your life, if there is a judgment, you can say, “I’ve done my best according to what I knew how to do at the time.” I don’t believe a merciful God would ask more of us than that. And if that’s not good enough for the God you follow, I’m not interested in joining you in worshiping him.

People who have reported near-death experiences seem to almost always say that, if they do see a “being of light,” that there are only two questions asked of them. One is, “Did you love?” The other is, “Did you learn?” There isn’t any questionnaire to fill out about the money you earned or saved, the possessions you amassed or gave away, the power you gained or lost, the number of hours you worked or the places you went on vacation. What a sensible “judgment” to look forward to. Who hasn’t loved? Who hasn’t learned?

I believe that if my nephew is asked those questions, he will have no trouble getting into wherever he’s going. The lessons my nephew learned are many and he has shared what he’s learned with his children and members of his community. The love my nephew gave is great and will be felt for many years to come.

This view of the relationship between life and death is why I was glad to learn about Randy Pausch, a Carnegie Mellon University computer-science professor, who was recently asked to give a talk for “The Last Lecture” series. These are talks given on many campuses across the country in which top professors are asked to give a hypothetical “final talk” in which they speak about what matters most to them and what wisdom they would impart to the world if they knew it was their last chance to do so.

For Pausch, a 46-year old father of three who has pancreatic cancer, it really was his last lecture. And what a lecture it turned out to be. I was most impressed with his sense of humor, his acceptance of life, and the realization that what he’s done will live on after him.

For example, he is considered one of the nation’s foremost teachers of videogame and virtual-reality technology and helped develop “Alice,” a Carnegie Mellon software project that allows people to easily create 3-D animations. My 15-year-old grandson is learning how to design video games and may even now be using one of Pausch’s contributions to the world.

Incidentally, I particularly liked a quotation from the talk. When showing his rejection letters on the large screen at the front of the lecture hall and talking about setbacks in his career, he said, “Brick walls are there for a reason. They let us prove how badly we want things.”

If you read the Wall Street Journal article by Jeff Zaslow on “A Beloved Professor Delivers The Lecture of a Lifetime,” you can see a small clip of the talk. However, on the Carnegie Mellon Entertainment Technology Center website you can see the entire lecture in clearer pictures.

Last night I watched the Ken Burns final program on “The War” and was reminded again of how twisted versions of heaven can make hell on earth. Kamikaze pilots flew their planes into ships full of sailors trying to free the peoples of the Pacific from Japanese expansion and cruel treatment. Like today’s terrorists, they were convinced they would have a special place in the afterlife if they committed suicide and took others with them. How terribly sad that our versions of what we cannot see deprive us from being a better human to those we can see in this life.

Imagine that you are to give a talk on what your ideas on life after death. If speaking in front of an audience is not your cup of tea, just pretend that it’s easy to stand there and share your ideas comfortably. After all, the audience in only in your imagination.

What would you like others to remember about you?

What is one thing you would do differently if you could live your life over?

What is one thing you wouldn’t change if you could live your life over?

How have you best expressed your love?

What has been the most valuable lesson you have received?

Who would you like to thank and for what?

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