Many people have a hard time coming to terms with a non-afterlife. The response to “So what happens when you die?” is something like, “Probably nothing.” That’s unsettling for most.
The question is habitually posed with an incredulous air: “How could this be all there is to life?” It feels like a profound question. You might get a tingling feeling up your neck just thinking about it. How is it possible that this is it?
The afterlife is almost always synonymous with Heaven, that laurel for a life well lived in spite of tragedy and injustice. There is always Hell, but no one who knows anything about Hell actually thinks they’re going there even if they think they deserve it. So let’s continue with Heaven. To some, Heaven means living forever with sunshine that lacks radiation, green grass that never bruises, and every person or thing with whom you’ve ever been connected is impossibly happy and with you. It’s a very comfortable thought. Anything that goes wrong here will be corrected there. Heaven almost comes off as a place in which God himself ceases to be the importunate cricket he was on Earth and finally gets out of the way. After all, once you’ve made Heaven, what further demands could God possibly have of you?
That is one popular look at Heaven. Intellectual Christians and theologians probably find that view naive even if it is appealing. There are others. I was personally more acquainted with the lugubrious portrait depicting Heaven as a place of perpetual worship and endless self-abasement. An eternity intoning ‘holy, holy, holy’ with a grand host of saints, casting crowns and jewels at the Lord’s feet again and again. Whatever Heaven was, I always hoped it wasn’t that. But the idea is that God is so multi-faceted, so immensely wonderful and magnificent that forever would not be enough time to comprehensively praise a single aspect of his being.
These are two familiar ideas of Heaven. Scripturally, neither is wholly correct. One goes too far here and neglects something else there, so let me instead give you a short summary of the biblical description.
God is more and greater than your grandest thought. After death, there is no gender or separation from God; no race, no earthly status, and no carnal flesh. God makes all things new, including you. There will be a new Heaven and Earth, and God will be worshipped for all eternity.
So what happens when you die? You melt away into eternity. You become something else completely. You become entirely not you.
The very simple point I want to offer is this: if there is no God and no afterlife, then nothing whatever happens. You cease. And if there is a God and afterlife, you still cease.
Doubtless to some Christian sects this plan sounds wonderful. They have been so caked in the dirt and slop of this world they want nothing more to do with it. They only want God, or they only want to want God. For them, that idea is a sustaining thought, the only reason worth living (or dying) for – so that one day they will meld into eternity and be One with the Lord.
But that is not the reality. If any of that were true, it would be the same as you dying and not living on, for what lives on is not you.
God making you different is not simply making you into something jubilant and holy; it’s changing you irrevocably. The core of who you are is no more in Heaven: “you” end. Whether there is an afterlife or not, in both instances, “you” disappear along with any physical thing you loved. You cannot possibly live the same life. Whatever Heaven is, it doesn’t preserve you, your friends, your family, your pets, or any other cherished thing.
If you die, you change. You change irretrievably. If you live, you change. If you go to Heaven, you change, change, change. You cannot stay the same anywhere, and change is certain death.
For some people, the thought of a non-afterlife brings feelings of melancholy and injustice, deprives both appetite and motivation. Something about it doesn’t sit right. It’s time to consider that the most appealing alternative yet presented, Heaven, fails to offer any real solution. Heaven comforts us because we make the ready assumption that it’s possible not to die, and that if it’s possible then it might be true – but we do end. We do, and we must – whether you believe our bodies dissolve into earth or into eternity.
It should not spoil life to imagine there is only one. Scarcity does not devalue a thing; it is in fact often the very thing we use to determine value. If only there were some way to reconstruct you after you die in a way that preserved the real you. But there isn’t. And there can’t be. All attempts even to imagine an alternative to death, including and especially Heaven, have failed.
So, what? So, live. Live your hardest and do good. Grow. Learn all that you can. Help others learn. Life can be wonderful and you can participate in that wonder. Do well knowing this is it, this is your chance. We’re no longer practicing. The curtain is up, the lights are on. Live.