Life without Afterlife

Trigger warning: This post gets dark toward the end. 

I am a Christian. I am, in fact, an ordained minister of Word and Sacrament in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, so I suppose that makes me a professional Christian. And yet, I find that I have a lot of trouble with one of the most treasured beliefs to many Christians: I don’t know that I really believe in heaven (or hell, for that matter). I have a number of reasons for this.

First off, it’s really not that biblical. The common conception of “heaven” as this place of angels and harps and happiness doesn’t appear in the Bible, except perhaps sort of in an upside-down way in Revelation 7, and even there you have to remember how metaphorical and downright bizarre the book of Revelation is. I love that chapter, and I find hope in it, but if you’re taking anything in Revelation literally, you’re really missing the point of the entire book. So that’s not a very firm foundation for clues about the afterlife. In addition to that, even the very existence of an afterlife is not something that appears all that frequently in scripture. Yes, it’s there, but it doesn’t seem to be the focus. Christians who see the whole point of their faith as preparing for heaven really miss the entire point of a God who created the earth, repeatedly called it “good,” and gave humanity “dominion” or “stewardship” over the whole earth; and that’s just in the first chapter of the first book in the Bible. The focus throughout scripture is really on our lives here on earth, our relationship with God while we’re here, and our relationships with one another. (I have preached about the “cute” backronym for B.I.B.L.E.: “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth,” and explained how wrong-minded that is. I’d sooner see us think of the Bible as a “Big Inspired Book of Love for Everyone.”)

Okay, so that’s a reason not to focus on heaven, but it’s not a reason to disbelieve in it. Fair enough.

Second, the afterlife just doesn’t make sense to me. This is a personal thing. I’ve read a lot of “pop” cognitive science stuff (Hofstadter, Sacks, Dennett, that sort of thing), and I have really enjoyed delving into the mechanisms that bring consciousness about from a lump of intricately twisted grey matter in my skull. My own working theory (which is very probably a gross misunderstanding of the authors mentioned above) is that consciousness arises due to a particular sort and degree of complexity. It’s due in great part to the intricate twists themselves that we have this ability to think or reason or remember. (This is also why I usually think of fetuses and young children not quite as human beings, but as “human becomings.”) Anyway, I see consciousness as completely linked to our physical bodies. I don’t believe in a “soul” that enters a “body.” Nor, by the way, do any of the Biblical authors. That was a Greek thought that entered the church after the Bible was written. We are one being. That’s why the historical creeds of the chuch proclaim the resurrection of the body, not the eternal life of the soul. There is no separate soul.

But again, I struggle to believe in this resurrection at all. It just doesn’t make sense to me. It doesn’t resonate with me. Many, many things in Christianity do resonate with me. I have experienced a sense that God has created me. That shimmers and resounds within me. I have experienced a sense that Jesus Christ is Lord, that he has somehow shattered the bonds of reality to offer me salvation and forgiveness. I have experienced the wind and fire of the Holy Spirit blowing within and around me. While I can never prove any of this, it feels true, and that’s probably exactly what we can ask for from faith. But to me, the afterlife doesn’t feel true at all. Please know, I’m not proclaiming that it’s false — the resurrection has been a doctrine of the church since St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians. I’m saying that I can’t find meaning for my own life from it. To me, resurrection means an experience here on earth, a moment when life is found amid death. have experienced that. More than once.

Okay, let’s get to the point. Here’s the point, the whole reason I wanted to write this today: I think I know why I don’t find truth in the thought of the afterlife. It’s because I don’t like the idea of it. Here’s where this post turns dark. This is true: I don’t relish the idea of living forever. I don’t really like the thought of being alive beyond my own death. I don’t want to go to heaven. To me, at least right now, one of the greatest gifts of life is death itself. I am not happy at the thought of anyone close to me dying; but I am not scared or concerned about my own death. In the past year or so, as I have gotten to know my depression in new and intimate ways, I’ve found that it’s something I can live with; I am continuing to make peace with the nasty voices in my head. I have experienced moments of resurrection, and I believe that more will come. But I also know that there is no permanent way out from this. The voices will never leave for good. Or rather, there is only one permanent way out. And honestly, I like knowing that that is on the way. I like the idea that one day my inner turmoil will be snuffed out. That doesn’t mean I’m pining for it, or that I’m actively suicidal; I’m not. But it does mean that death feels to me like a welcome release, not a terrifying demon. I really don’t want to spend eternity with the troubles in my head.

I know what some might say: “God will heal you, and raise you up without your illness.” That’s a nice thought. That probably sounds very comforting, if your illness is physical. But to be honest, I have lived in here with these voices for forty-one years now. I know no other life, and I find it mind-boggling to think that a life without them would actually be me. So I’m not sure I want that, either. No, to me, the good news of the Gospel is that there is life amid struggles, there is hope amid darkness, there is purpose amid a chaotic world. And that’s all connected to this life, not to any future life. To me, living beyond my natural death does not sound like good news. I’m not sad about this. I’m not distraught. I’m glad to have this life to lead. I just kind of hope it’s the only one. I’m satisfied with that.

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