Do you remember the line, the two things that you can be sure of in life are death and taxes?
Well, this is apparently a very secular view of death. There's no hint of anything else. It's a closed door. Or is it? If you can expect a tax refund, can you also expect some kind of refund on life after death?
Well, to get into that you have to get into religions. So you're in the right place. Let's look at how some of the world religions consider the approach, the relationship between life and death, and the afterlife as a hopeful realm of return to origin, peace, and understanding.
The mystery of death has preoccupied the human race since the beginning, since the first one, since the first death. Well, this is hard to imagine. However, we do have the mortal truth in our bones. It's in our genes, and it's deeply woven through our collective unconscious.
So what do we do with that knowledge? Well, this is the problem. It's not really knowledge. Without some structure for this mystery, the issue, perhaps even the potential knowledge of death, gets avoided. Death gets suppressed and subverted by fear. It gets displaced into other, perhaps dysfunctional, forms of life and behaviors.
One of the many things that the world's religions have in common is some kind of belief in the afterlife, a vision for life beyond death, immortality. And this vision informs the action, and hopefully the perception and insight-- indeed, the state of mind-- of an adherent to a particular religion.
In many branches of Christianity, there's a hopeful vision of everlasting life and the spiritual presence of God. Heaven might be a return to paradise, or, depending on one's conduct in life, one's future might not bode so well.
And equally vivid in the stories of the Bible is the subterranean realm of further suffering in Hell. The monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, all have some notion of judgment upon death of the body. It's generally believed to be a time of reckoning, when one's soul receives God's mercy and judgment, which determines one's placement in the eternal realms.
And the vision is not confined to the monotheistic religions. For example, Buddhism. It considers the hope of nirvana, the final liberation from the endless cycle of rebirth into the wheel of life's suffering. However, this is also believed to be contingent upon one's actions and conduct in life.
Karma plays a big part in determining one's placement in any future realm beyond death of the body. In the primal religions, too, there is a great reverence for the hope that is offered in the afterlife in terms of the role that the ancestors play in facilitating communications with the living. They're conduits to the supernatural realm.
So while death might be equally mysterious and perhaps even feared, the hope and possibility of some eternal peace and purpose is a big part of the whole death construct among the primal religions, too.
And so what are the guides? What is the structure that holds this question of death, a question which is perhaps filled with so much anxiety and confusion. What is it that might offer transformation?
Well, in Christianity, it is the life and the presence and the teachings of Jesus Christ, a container for the mystery of life, the mystery of death, and the promise of salvation. Any suffering and confusion along the way are the creative means to a brighter future.
In the Apostle Paul's letter to the Philippians, he says, "And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Jesus Christ." And the hopeful Christian message, then, for many people, is contained in the life of the teachings of Jesus Christ, a model of transforming suffering into peace and understanding through love. For many Christians, Jesus Christ is a model of mercy and forgiveness, guiding the transformation from sin to righteousness.
So now we can review.
In talking about death, we pointed to several religious traditions that regard death as an open door, where the believer or the practitioner is invested with some kind of hope in a spiritual continuity beyond death of the body.
We looked at Christianity and Jesus Christ and his life and teachings as a model of transformation. And we also looked at Buddhism with the hope and the goal of Nirvana, some kind of state of being that is free from suffering.
And we also mentioned that one's actions in life-- both in Christianity, the other monotheistic religions, and Buddhism-- one's actions in life often determine one's placement in the eternal realm. In Buddhism, the return to the wheel of suffering, or in some kind of realm known as Nirvana.
And we also spoke about the primal religions and the regard that primal peoples have for ancestors, and life beyond death as a way of maintaining contact with the living world-- we used the word conduit-- as a way to continue and connect the two realms.
And in spite of the fear and the confusion and the mystery of death, all religions offer some kind of vision, some kind of hope in life beyond death that, in fact, helps carry one through the difficulties and the challenges and the sufferings of existence.
In Buddhism, liberation from suffering.
A descendant from one’s family tree.
Image of gravestone, “Not Lost But Gone Before, by Dr. Colleen Morgan, Creative Commons, http://www.flickr.com/photos/colleenmorgan/5115125875/sizes/z/in/photostream/
Music by Kevin MacLeod, "Amazing Grace," Public Domain, http://freepd.com/Folk/