Learning to live with life after death
by John Wijngaards, The Times, Monday 4 November 1991
WHERE do the dead go when they pass over? The question was bound to haunt many a mind as the traditional days of All Saints and All Souls (November 1 and 2) were remembered in churches and churchyards throughout the country.
Perhaps there is nowhere to go. Perhaps people, burdened with fear, want and sorrow, just dance into the arms of death, as Schopenhauer said, wondering what the tragic comedy of life is supposed to mean — and finding out it ends in nothing. Those who have died are then shadows of the past Nothing remains of them except for the loving scratches or hideous scars they etched on our world, and our memories.
Perhaps our inner atma is made of incorruptible stuff, as Hindus maintain. At death the spark of our soul then divests itself of one mortal body to start life again in another disposable shell Our deceased relatives and friends could then be at any station on the spiralling track of reincarnation. They might even have reached their destination, nirvana, where they merge back into the infinite ocean of Atma.
Perhaps the dead roam as shades in the netherworld, populating the Old Testament she’ol. The psalms describe this abyss under the earth as a house of darkness, a bottomless pit, a land of forgetfulness. All the dead can do is bide their time till their fate will be sealed at the universal judgment.
Or perhaps popular Christian imagination was right On the walls and stained-glass windows of our cathedrals it painted heaven and hell as two distinct, physical places where, somehow or other, life continues as on this earth, with perpetual torment for evildoers and unending bliss for the saints. Those who have died are then in either of these awesome realms, awaiting our arrival. “I never spoke with God,” wrote Emily Dickinson, “nor visited in heaven; yet certain am 1 of the spot as if the chart were given.”
Could it be that all these approaches, though containing fragments of the truth, actually miss the point?
We have no evidence of any “supernatural” world distinct from the world we live in now; pace Francis Thompson’s hallowed phrase: “O world invisible, we view thee: O world intangible, we touch thee!”, about which more later. A passing over to another physical location is out of the question. Whatever happens to us at death can hardly involve moving house to an imitation earth — be it she’ol, heaven or hell.
What exactly do we lose at death? The religious instinct of the ages accepts a dimension of spirit that goes beyond physics and chemistry. Life is more than digesting food, viewing TV and wrestling with computer data. If we open ourselves to its more mysterious horizons, life is found to touch a reality that is beyond time and place. This is the numenous, the atma, the Beyond: not a separate location, but an undreamed of, vast horizon. It justifies the suspicion that not all we are is lost at death.
1 can go further. Suppose for a moment that windows to transcendence and divinity have been opened to us in major religious events, then we may suddenly find that the divine pervades the marrow of our bones. For me, as a believing Christian, the culmination of disclosure came in Jesus Christ. Through him, as John’s Gospel puts it, God lives in us. He is our life and our resurrection.
What about the reality of this divine dimension in us? What evidence do we have for it. Can it be proved? The answer is no. It cannot be proved, but it can be perceived. This is what Francis Thompson sensed when he said: “O world intangible, we touch thee; inapprehensible, we clutch thee.” Progressive steps of insight do not create what is seen, but uncover new layers of reality.
The Sufi mystic Al-Ghazali perceived the sun in the middle of the night: “I sat in my room in the darkness and saw a patch of light on my carpet. I looked up and saw that the light which reflected from the mirror, had fallen in through my open window and shone from the moon. I looked at the moon and realised its light was itself a reflection from the sun.”
Ghazali then goes on to call all light “the face of God”. The more we immerse ourselves in light — physical, mental, spiritual, the more we see God and see with the eyes of God; which is, of course, a metaphor. But then, speaking in images, if there is a Transcendent, why can we not credit him/her/it with at least as much intelligence and concern as we have?
Where do the dead go when they pass over? I believe that the light of God that kindled them during their lifetimes, still holds them. They are being held, as in a mirror, with all the individual traits that made them what they were. Their honourable scars will endure rather than their medals, degrees or diplomas. The wrong they have done will hurt, and be filtered clean. Those who died continue to live in God’s love with a vitality beyond our vision, but none the less extremely real. Just as an idea in our mind may take on a different format as a spoken word, a message in binary code or a printed text on paper — and yet remain the same idea, so the divine dimension in us may assume different forms and remain alive.
We can meaningfully speak of heaven and hell, as long as we remember that they are dimensions of life, not locations in outer space. We can say the dead merge back into God if we realise she/he is an ocean of love who does not swamp our littleness. Properly understood, the time-honoured phrase coined by Kohelet puts it rather well: those who have died live in God.
The writer is a theologian and director of the Catholic spiritual resources centre Housetop.