Searching for the afterlife
“Faith is an island in the setting sun,
But proof is the bottom line for everyone.”
— Paul Simon, “Proof”
I was told by someone who’d heard it himself that the scariest three-word sentence in the English language is, “You have cancer.” That’s awful, but I’ve heard worse. Recently, a cardiologist told me, “Your heart stopped.” Those three words will raze whatever’s left of your youthful sense of immortality, and focus your attention on the long dirt nap.
Most of us view the end of life with such trepidation that we’ve evolved all sorts of pseudoscientific, sectarian, metaphysical and paranormal theories about it, none of which are supported by even a shred of evidence. For example, cybergeeks have proposed we’re all holograms, with implanted memories, living in a simulation generated by an advanced alien race. We can’t die, because we’re not truly “alive” to begin with.
Another bizarre hypothesis is solipsism — the concept that nothing is real beyond the self, and everyone you meet is merely a projection of your own mind. This would make me a demigod, but the idea that I’m psychically generating the world around me seems just a bit too narcissistic. Regardless, any construct purporting to describe the afterlife is bound to be weird and incongruous, because it necessarily involves eternity, and the mind of man is simply too limited to grasp or even efficaciously ponder infinity.
There are an endless number of possible final destinations, but the three most universally embraced are oblivion, reincarnation, and heaven or hell. If someone suddenly revealed he had incontrovertible proof for one of them, and I could bet on what he’d announce, I’d put my money on oblivion. It just seems the most compatible with what I know of reality.
For nearly all of the 13.7 billion years since the Big Bang, the universe functioned without me. In 65 million BC, 1066 AD and 1950, I simply didn’t exist. However, humans want life to have meaning, and, if, as seems likely, we die like fruit flies and return to the mindless unconsciousness we inhabited before we were born, then existence is pointless. Meanwhile, the idea that living for a few decades should confer immortality is presumptuous and egotistical. And what in human history would give anyone the idea that life has some deeper significance or that mankind is entitled to an eternal soul?
Absent an afterlife, consciousness disappears when we die, and everything we’ve ever experienced or might remember evaporates like mist. We also slowly vanish from the world’s collective memory. For example, my paternal grandfather died young, so I’m just about the last person on Earth who still remembers him. When I’m gone, he’ll disappear completely. There’s no immortality for the common man.
More optimistic — and my personal preference — is the eastern (Hindu/Buddhist) concept of reincarnation. It has the advantage of being scrupulously fair, in that your next life is determined by how you live this one (the law of karma). However, none of us seem to remember any of our past lives, so do they really matter? The Zen question is, if something becomes forever unremembered, then did it actually happen?
Some proponents of reincarnation claim you’ll view your past lives during the periods between them, like a series of “life-size” videos. As pleasant as this may sound, the same conundrum persists — that series needs to be infinite, because, whether you’ve had three past lives or a million, if you eventually end up in a void of eternal forgetfulness, then your existence is no less annihilated. (Oddly, this doesn’t bother the Buddhists, who seem to look forward to and actually strive for obliteration of the self in nirvana or satori.)
Most Americans believe in a Judeo-Christian/Islamic heaven and hell. Hell has the advantage of punishing, for all eternity, those who don’t share your faith. The downside is that unending, infinite torture for practicing the wrong religion implies a deity who’s a sadistic monster. Even Hitler (the “gold standard” of malevolence) tormented his victims for only a finite time. I’m trying to imagine what sort of sin (watching porn? ... eating bacon?) would cause Jehovah (or Allah) to follow me into my grave, and drag me out of it to punish me eternally with no hope of redemption.
Theologians estimate there are at least 1,000 discrete religions, so the odds of choosing “the right one” are low (0.1%). And how will that small percentage (the non-infidels) spend their eternity in heaven? Benjamin Franklin, a very wise man, claimed, “Beer is proof God loves us,” but my favorite polka warns, “In heaven, there is no beer; that’s why we drink it here.” Every evangelical I know insists there also won’t be any “sex, drugs, or rock and roll” in the afterlife, which doesn’t sound like much fun either.
I’ve heard pious folks declare we’ll all “bend the knee” and “praise the Lord” for eternity, which makes heaven sound like endless church. But what sort of god needs that much adulation? We’re above the ants, but we don’t demand that they worship us. Jehovah, who’s infinitely greater than we are, needs endless adoration? He sounds like the Donald Trump of deities, and, after a few years of that, the Lake of Fire might start looking good. (No wonder Mark Twain recommended “heaven for the climate, hell for the company.”)
Realistically, none of us know any more about the afterlife than our Egyptian ancestors who built the pyramids. Any profession of faith can be shut down by a simple two-word sentence: “Prove it.” So we might just as well envision whichever heaven makes us feel happiest. And if the Lord truly loves us, maybe he’ll let us go there.
Greenwich native Mark Drought (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an editor at a Stamford IT firm and was an adjunct English professor at the University of Connecticut-Stamford.