Monday, January 19, 2009

What happens when I die?

The third existential question which a good theology must answer is what happens to me when I die?

The answer that you will go to heaven and be able to have sex with 72 virgins or do other wonderful things in heaven leads to suicide bombers who are willing to martyr their lives for the sake of a political cause. Same thing happened in the crusades when the Popes promised a free pass to heaven for people who died in the holy wars. After my kids were killed, my wife wanted to die so she could be with her children in heaven. She questioned me, "If heaven is so wonderful, why can't I die to be with Ryan and Brigid?" The answer is because murder is a mortal sin, even self murder and you will be in hell not in heaven with your children. Is this a good answer? Would this theology prevent suicide? Is it true?

Based on the laws of physics as far as I know with my limited understanding, our energy is released back into the cosmos. We become one with the all. Is there a personal consciousness after death? I don't see how there can be with no electricity to run the computer. So is this all there is?

Well there is our legacy: physical, psychological, and social for a while any way. And after 300 years or 3,000 years? Probably nothing.

If this life is all there is for a personal consciousness what does that mean for how I live my life? It means I should try to live the best life I can while I'm here and help others do the same. Should I sacrifice myself so I can win points in the hereafter? No probably not. Should I sacrifice myself because it gives meaning to my life here? Perhaps.

Should we teach our kids that they will go to heaven, and relatives go to heaven, and animals go to heaven? It is a comforting thought which takes the sting out of death.

Christians are told that Jesus' ressurection demonstrates a triumph over death. I never understood this. Buddhists are told that with enlightenment they are liberated from the wheel of samsara and don't have to be reincarnated to do life again hoping they will get it right next time.

A theology of death is very important for how we live, the decisions we make, the rationale that we develop for our experience of loss.

Our Universalist heritage teaches that we all are going to heaven, a merciful God would not condemn anybody, even a Hitler. We do believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person and the interdependent web of existence. This should teach us that every life is precious and that we each are a part of something bigger than ourselves.

The spiritual practice of grieving, and comforting the mourning, and providing solace to the abandoned and lonely is very important. The spiritual practice of anticipating our own good deaths, and providing comfort to others who are dying teaches us the preciousness of life and the dignity of the person. Contemplating death, paradoxically, can help us live life with gratitude, awareness, and a savor which would otherwise be missing.

How old will you be when you die? How will you die? What about the ones who are close to you? How does this influence the ways you do relationship? What will people feel, say, do when you are gone? Of this I am sure, you'll be OK. Don't worry. The goal is not to die with regret, and with peace. It can take a life time to achieve this if you are so lucky to die consciously in your own bed.
Those who have gone before me are all OK. I, too, will be OK. You, too, will be OK. This is our faith, believing in OKness even when we don't know for sure what, if anything, is next after this life.

This is article #3 in a series on David G. Markham's theology.


  1. I am not sure what, if anything, is next after this life but this "less than little" birdie tells me that the Creator made a "Sign in the Heavens" that symbolizes "rebirth" aka "resurrection" after "death". To the ancient Egyptians this bird was the solar falcon god Horus, to other cultures it is the phoenix.

  2. Oh, to be a fundamentalist! To believe in heaven without reservation! To view death not as an end but as a beautiful beginning!

    I must admit, my agnostic soul is a bit jealous of those who avoid thoughts of eternal nothingness by means of an unshakeable belief in the promise of eternal life. Lucky bastards.

    I just finished an excellent book on this very topic: "Nothing to be Frightened Of" by Julian Barnes. Barnes is an agnostic and grapples with many of the issues particular to so-called nonbelievers. He admits to thinking about death daily, and embarks on a wide-ranging meditation on mortality.

    Although he never achieves any degree of comfort with dying, Barnes does get some useful advice from a friend: The best defense against death is "the acquisition of worthwhile short-term worries." Kids work well as a short-term worry, as do jobs, home renovations, anything to keep you focused on life.

    It’s a terrific book (delightfully witty, too), guaranteed to get you thinking about what a "good death" -- and a good life -- means to you.

  3. Hi Robin and Kelly:

    Thanks for your comments.

    I admire your faith Robin and Kelly thanks for the reference to Julian Barnes. I ordered my copy yesterday.

    All the best,

    David Markham