The question of the ages – what happens when you die? It’s a big question, but let’s at least clarify some misconceptions. The popular ideas we’re all familiar with are: nothing, reincarnation, or heaven. One is correct. However, our understanding of the options and what they actually mean need clarification.
Nothing is the scientific view. We will simply rot away (our personality, soul, spirit – gone). This has some merit especially in the light of Occam’s razor. However, simple answers won’t do for us humans. We clearly have the ability to live in multiple realities (e.g., material or spiritual), in which case the equality that this theory requires is not there. While there also isn’t any scientific proof of an afterlife, we do understand the limitations of science in addressing this question.
The concepts surrounding reincarnation, or rebirth, I would argue, have more in common with an appropriate view of heaven and the afterlife. However, I’ll defer to a fantastic and easily digestible article written by my Buddhist friend, Lee Yue Heng.
And when we observe the world around us, we can see that nothing is annihilated and becomes “nothingness”. Everything changes. A paper that is burned doesn’t become annihilated. It becomes ashes and smoke which are dispersed. A leaf that dies doesn’t become annihilated, it falls onto the earth to fertilize the tree so that new leaves can be born again. When all the electricity from our cellphone is drained, it doesn’t become annihilated. It is merely transferred somewhere else.
Lee goes on to tell us how Buddha suggests that a personality falls into this concept of nothing is annihilated. It just changes. It’s reborn to something new. Personality is more of a continuum-stream.
As for heaven, and some of the Christian views out there, there are a few assumptions to clarify. The first is that a belief in Jesus Christ is the ticket to heaven. This “leap-of-faith” confusion stems from years of Christian teaching that misunderstands Jesus’ invitation into the kingdom of the heavens. Christians have taken the invitation and turned it into a rain check. But Jesus was inviting people to adopt a mind-set of God’s Empire right then and there. It was the breaking in of the Kingdom of God to be fully consummated in the future. It was the Good News, now.
Another assumption is that Christians will be made perfect in the afterlife. According to Dallas Willard, there is little basis for this. If one follows Jesus’ teachings, we are to be preparing ourselves now. We are to be maturing in grace, love, and compassion. The reason for this, Willard notes, is that our spirits (our personalities) do indeed live on, similar to the continuum-stream that my friend Lee suggests.
Heaven is not a static environment. Nor is God. God is spirit, and quite active. Thus heaven is not an “eternity of unchanging happiness,” where one stares at the glory of a deity. With centuries of art, literature, teaching, and imagery it can be difficult to get an accurate picture of what heaven actually is. We need to put all that aside.
Death is a continuation of the active involvement in the continuing and creative work of God’s empire (new heavens and new earth). Our roles will be assigned according to our abilities and trustworthiness. Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much.
What happens when you die is a question all societies must answer. That science supports that nothing is annihilated, it simply changes form, is wonderful. What we are to make of the new form, or if our bodies and personalities are included, is what we must discover.
Thanks for reading,
~ Ted Olson