What comes after?

I have heard that question from individuals facing imminent death. Now I am hearing it from individuals who have heard about my work in spiritual direction. Sometimes the tone is speculative; sometimes there is a trace of fear; and sometimes there is real dread.

What to say?

Over the years I have collected information about burial practices and conceptions of the afterlife from cultures ranging from Neanderthal burial sites to Tibetan Buddhist Bardos to Christian stories of heaven and hell to modern near-death experiences (NDE’s). Most recently the Netflix series, Lucifer and The Good Place (featuring the Joint Council of Afterlife Affairs), have provided yet another concept into what might be in store for us.

Given our assumption that humans are unique in our ability to know that we will die someday, it makes sense that we would speculate about dying and death. But how to account for all this lore about what comes after? Is it that we can’t really imagine that our lives will come to an end? Or, to put it more exactly, that I can’t imagine that my life will come to an end? Various civilizations and cultures have devoted enormous resources to their conceptualization of the afterlife. The pyramids of Egypt come to mind. The burial mounds on almost every continent (Tumulus – Wikipedia), 2000 years of Christian theology and monuments. You get the picture.

I have been trying without much success to arrange this series of blogs— almost too much material— when by chance I came across the book, Heaven and Hell, A History of the Afterlife, by Bart D.Ehrman PhD, a well-known authority on the New Testament and the history of Christianity. I need another book like I need more yarn but when I took it off the shelf it fell open to a page with this intriguing bit of information:

“Traditional Christian beliefs in the afterlife continue to be widely held in our society. A recent Pew research poll (2014) showed that 72% of all Americans agree that there is a literal heaven where people go when they die; 58% believe in an actual, literal hell.”

From the article:

Roughly seven-in-ten (72%) Americans say they believe in heaven — defined as a place “where people who have led good lives are eternally rewarded,” according to the Pew Research Center’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study.

But at the same time, 58% of U.S. adults also believe in hell — a place “where people who have led bad lives and die without being sorry are eternally punished.”

Important to note that in the survey only 65% identified as Christian.

You might say—What is that to me? I know better. I am not a fool. Those stories, fables, are designed to keep gullible people in line. To that I usually reply— yes, your modern adult mind rejects the basic premises of these stories. However, we have other regions of our brain/mind that may have absorbed these stories as children—whole and entire—long before we could discern fact from fiction. Often toward the end-of-life these stories come to conscious awareness with amazing force and resonance. Individuals can find themselves unsure, even worried to the point of panic.

What do I hope to accomplish in this series of blogs?

Having been a witness to how much acute distress there can be at the end when unexamined fears about the afterlife emerge, I hope that the reader will be encouraged to look back on the stories they were told and how that cultural programming might need some attention. I also invite the reader to become aware of how this is a human quest going back thousands and thousands of years. What comes after? How can it be that I could cease to be? You, perhaps, but not me!

We will be taking a quick look at the beliefs and practices from Neanderthals, Egypt, Greece, Ancient Israel, Christianity, Tibetan Buddhism, Emmanuel Swedenborg, NDE’s (Near Death Experiences), and Netflix. Stay tuned!