The dead and the living remain connected. Communities tell stories of the dead not only to remember those who have died, but to hold on to what love has created and what cannot be destroyed. The beloved dead return in dreams, visions, memories, and stories told to their descendants.
-Rebecca Ann Parker and Rita Nakashima Brock
The traditional belief about the Afterlife is that it is a place of reward or punishment. Not only that, but it is believed to be a place of eternal reward or punishment. Not only that, but we cannot know with certainty whether we will be sent down the road of reward or the road of punishment until we have already and irreversibly been sent. It is a horrifying dilemma that is at the heart of much of our anxiety in facing our mortality – and by association, our daily lives. These evolved beliefs about the afterlife also, in my opinion, represent a flawed, unrealistic, unbiblical, and illogical expectation of what happens to us at the end of our earthly days.
Our core fear about the afterlife, perhaps, is that we will be annihilated, even though there is ample evidence, both biblical and scientific, to the contrary. It seems that a more accurate descriptor for the afterlife might be the next phase of life or the next step in my journey toward union with God. Certainly, part of the self we typically recognize as us will be annihilated or reformed because it, like our body, is of the earth. The true essence that underlies and supports that shallow or illusory self will remain, however. Our essence, which holds everything good and holy within us, was never born and will never die. It lives in and with God through whatever side adventures it decides to take, including the side adventure of our days on earth.
It is interesting that the almost maniacal concern about what happens to us when we die is a relatively recent development in Christianity, at least in terms of its intensity and importance. Many believers claim that being saved, or being assured of our entry into heaven, is the most important thing for us to attain on earth. Obsessing over being saved or being born again are what is new in our Christian practice. The speculation and rules about what one must do to enter heaven — which words to say, prayers to pray, or actions to take – were not considered requirements for entry into the afterlife until the last few generations. Either we, as Christians, have gotten smarter or we have allowed our neuroses and insecurities to guide our speculations about the nature of our relationship with God. I suspect the latter is the reality. In our search for certainty we have fallen prey to false prophets that direct our attention away from the core spiritual issues of societal mercy and justice and onto the narrow issue of personal perpetuation, which I believe is a given, although not in the way we imagine.
One key shift in Christianity has been in the evolving meaning of eternity. Eternity is a term that has a significantly different meaning today than it did when the Bible was written. In biblical times it referred to a long period of time or to an age. Today it means forever or until the end of time. The original meaning could refer to a long time on the calendar or a relatively short time of very intense joy or suffering. In other words, it referred to a period of time that we today would hyperbolically say felt like an eternity. It is relatively easy to apply the traditional descriptors of heaven, as a place of eternal joy, and hell, as a place of eternal suffering, to our current lives when we adjust our understanding of eternity to a long time. This application also brings our beliefs more into line with the teachings of Jesus, as I have outlined elsewhere in this series. Our recovery from a major surgery may feel like forever, but it is not. It does, however, take a long time. We may think we will never recover from a broken heart or the loss of a loved one, but we do, although we are changed by the experience.
Our salvation requires our understanding that God has already saved us, regardless of any words we have said, prayers we have prayed, or actions we have taken. Once we understand this foundational fact, then we are free to live and respond to others in love. Jesus’ message, ultimately, is for us to live in such a way now that what we seek in an afterlife becomes our present reality. What we seek is love, and love is always present when we learn to awaken to it.
This is the 60th in the series of Life Notes titled, If I Should Die Before I Wake. I invite your thoughts, insights, and feedback via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or through my website, www.ContemplatingGrace.com. At the website, you can also sign up to have these reflections delivered to your Inbox every Thursday morning, if you are not receiving them in another manner.
 Rebecca Ann Parker and Rita Nakashima Brock, Saving Paradise. Beacon Press, Boston, 2008, p. 56.