What happens to us when we die? Many of us have early memories as children of a family member or friend dying and being told that the person is now in heaven. Often the idea that the individual is somehow looking down upon us was presented to us as children, conveying the idea that the person was somehow still connected to our lives. Even with this comforting childhood picture in hand, the idea of letting go of someone who is dying remains difficult and prayers for healing and recovery seem to outnumber prayers for a peaceful death. Perhaps when others die we come face-to-face with our own mortality.
Why is it that death is so scary? John Wesley wrote of the existential fear of death as the “acid test” for Christians. When that existential fear is conquered, Wesley saw that faith reigns. Indeed, he challenged his own faith based upon an episode in his life during which he was afraid of death during a storm at sea and saw others, a group of Moravians, engaged in worship with no sign of fear! Do we really think that death is “the end”? Our culture certainly acts that way in many regards but not all cultures see death the same way. In some African primal and folk religions, for example, death is not seen as a one-way barrier that we can only pass through once, and then in just one direction. Death is envisioned more as a permeable membrane where passage back and forth is possible. In such belief systems death is not “the end”, it is being forgotten by the community that signals oblivion.
The notion of “going to heaven” brought us up against the limitations of language. We usually speak of “going” somewhere, and that “somewhere” is a geophysical location in the universe; somewhere that can be given a set of coordinates or an “address” if you prefer. Surely that isn’t what we mean we speak of “going to heaven”, is it? If we argue that “heaven” is somehow a reference to the presence of God, and if we accept that God is transcendent over creation (although also immanent within in) then the idea that “heaven” is a specific location to which we “go” starts to sound a little strange. Indeed, how we view what happens at death seems to be conditioned by our own anthropology, in other words how we understand the nature of the human person. To speak of a “body” being buried while a “soul” ascends to heaven suggests a dualist understanding of the human person and brings us up against the mind-body problem (in short, how does an immaterial soul interact with a material body?).
We touched upon the idea of a “general resurrection” and realized that this brings up a conflict with the observation that the very atoms that make up a body will re-enter the earth after death and burial, and thus eventually reappear as part of another living person. If a general resurrection involves people being resurrected with something approaching their “original” bodies, then we run into this problem of shared atoms!
We spoke of the famous example of Pascal’s wager as an antidote to skepticism and recognized that just because we can’t prove something doesn’t mean it isn’t true.
The idea of somehow entering into the presence of God seemed to many to be reasonable, although we lack good language to describe this. The issue of judgment and “heaven versus hell” was touched upon only briefly, perhaps because none of us wanted to consider the less-pleasant option!
The matter is truly a huge mystery and one that is hard to grasp. Perhaps there is only one way to find out about this and maybe Wesley was correct: with faith, the existential fear of death evaporates and with that evaporation comes the sure and certain knowledge that, whatever it might mean, heaven awaits.