By William Malcomson
This is the second part of the two part blog dealing with Is There Life After Death?
A lot of literature has appeared in the past few years about near death experiences. One of the most interesting of the recent books was PROOF OF HEAVEN. My concern about the recalling of near death experiences is that it seems to be fairly easy for persons who write about these experiences to jump to certain conclusions, such as proving that there is life after death or that such life is of a certain kind. My take on such experiences (I have never had a near death experience) is that there are explanations that do not lead to proving life after death. A near death experience can be similar to entering into a kind of dream state which often includes connecting with dead relatives, feeling warm, seeing a light, and so on. Our minds are capable of a lot of multidimensional experiences when allowed to wander. It could also be possible that when real death occurs that it takes longer for the mind to shut off than we thought. THE TIBETAN BOOK OF THE DEAD has interesting insights into this possible phenomenon. Indigenous people have stories about this occurrence. Another possibility, of course, is that we have no idea of what is proven or not proven by such an experience. We do know that many persons who have had these experiences come out of them with little or no fear of dying. I am all for that outcome.
The plain fact is that we humans agonize a great deal about our mortality. And with good reason. Premature deaths--the deaths of children, of young people, of anyone who dies before living a long life seems incredibly unfair and often tragic. It is agonizing to see persons slowly waste away with dementia or Parkinson's or ALS or any of a number of diseases which entail a "long goodby." It is often experienced as tragic when life ends too soon or when death does not come soon enough. I have had friends who have taken charge of their own mortality through suicide, or refusing to eat, or deciding to die "with dignity." For the most part, we do not take kindly to death. Throughout history death has often been called "the enemy." We want it to be done away with or overcome or for it to be a mere "transition," or for mortality to be "swallowed up" in immortality. Religious traditions have offered a myriad of ways to avoid death or overcome its effects or open up new possibilities for life of some kind after death. Belief systems, commitments to certain ways of living are put forth as ways to move beyond mortality. If you truly believe in Jesus Christ as Son of God and follow him in ways that are laid out for you, you will live eternally. Or if you move along the path to enlightenment, in this life or in a number of lives to come, you will enter Nirvana and mortality is overcome.
Let me be very honest. I do not think that we can overcome mortality. If there is a life after death, I do not believe that it is a repeat or a re-doing of this life. This life is an embodied one. And bodies die. As far as we know, minds die as minds are embodied. What we think of as "me" dies when death comes. At least it seems so to me. This is extremely hard to take if someone whom we love has died. It is very difficult to deal with what one of our blogees recently called his "hole in my heart" when his wife died. My faith tells me that when Jesus died on a cross he really died. Not only that, but when he died a real death, he identified with all of humankind. He knew what we know and he died as we die.
Finally, I think there are certain life after death options that are worth looking at.
We live after death in other people: In our descendants, in those whom we have influenced, in our contributions to institutions, causes, communities, those whom we have loved and who continue to remember us.
Is it possible that we could come back to this earth in another form? In other words, re-incarnation. My problem with this idea, shared by many and an important tenet of much of Eastern religion, is that the new form would not really be "me." It would be another life-form. Some holy persons have said that they remember their past lives and see a connection with previous lives. The assumption in this view is that there is hope in each incarnation that one will have the opportunity for an even better life. This is hard for me to affirm.
Here is where I am on this issue: I do believe that in this embodied life we can connect with what is more than the five senses. I believe that I and many others throughout history have felt that there is an "energy," a Spirit, a force that we cannot explain but which we have experienced that is operative in all of life--not only human life. We are not all that there is. We do not know everything. Many of us have felt that we are connected, in touch with, have been opened up to an energizing spirit that is particularly real in the experience of creativity, in our deep identification with animated life (in humans, animals, all life forms), in our moments when we feel at one with all that is and even what could be. We believe that somehow, in some mysterious and indescribable way, we are not alone. I have trouble calling this energy God, because that term carries too much baggage. I usually call it Spirit, but that does not always help. There is no name that names the fullness of this experience. Somehow, and this is where it gets tricky, this energizing spirit within and among us, seems not to be mortal as we are mortal.
The apostle Paul was trying to get at this, I think, in talking about a "spiritual body." His view of the resurrection of Jesus was not that Jesus died and walked around after his death in some bodily form, but that Jesus somehow lived in Paul. I think that what I call the energizing Spirit is like what Paul was experiencing. He used the terminology of his time. He used terms that made sense two thousand years ago. But we do not live in his time. But is it possible that when we die some kind of connection with this Spirit can and will go on? Maybe there are no separate identities after death, maybe there is nothing we could call a body, even a spiritual body, but maybe there is a possibility of something new, of something we cannot begin to comprehend. Maybe there is a communal life, maybe there is a "coming home" into nothing that you or I could conceive of as home now.
I believe that we know far less than we think we know. I believe that as we think of life after death, we have to be open to new possibilities, to so far undreamed of dreams. Perhaps, instead of knowing, we shall be known.
This blog includes thoughts from various contributors at Seattle First Baptist