Updated: Jul 15, 2019
“Jim, I’m not sure any more about what happens when we die. Do you still believe in life after death?”
I really enjoy these easy and simple questions!
First off let me say the obvious – the question of life after death is not something I can adequately cover in a short blog post. This and other existential questions often become distressing for those who find themselves questioning and doubting the explanations and answers given through their religious tradition or belief-system. It often results in an existential crisis, which is that moment when an individual questions the very foundations of their life: whether this life has any meaning, purpose, or value. It can cause a frightening uncertainty about life’s biggest questions, and a sense of disorientation, confusion, or dread in the face of an apparently meaningless or absurd world.
An existential crisis is often provoked by a significant event in a person's life – trauma, major loss, a life-threatening experience, loss of one’s faith. Sometimes it’s this kind of existential crisis that causes one to seek me out for spiritual direction. These are not matters that are sorted out quickly, and requires quite a bit of personal work.
Human beings want answers to life’s biggest questions, which include: Where did we come from? Why are we here? What is the meaning and purpose of life and our existence? Is there a God? What is death and what happens when we die?
A person’s sense of security in the world is typically tied to their particular religion, belief-system or philosophy because it supplies answers to all the important questions about life and existence. This is one reason why the shedding religion process can be volatile – it’s unsettling to lose that security and certainty. Somehow someway we want that security and certainty back, perhaps with different answers, but back nonetheless.
Here are a few considerations, when it comes to the question of life after death.
The afterlife or life after death is the concept of a realm, or the realm itself (whether physical or transcendental), in which an essential part of an individual's identity or consciousness continues to exist after the death of the body. According to various ideas about the afterlife, the essential aspect of the individual that lives on after death may be some partial element, or the entire soul or spirit. Belief in an afterlife stands in contrast to the belief in no-existence after death.
From a strictly scientific point of view, the only correct answer to the question of life after death is that we don't know. Science is limited to concepts that can be either supported by evidence or that can be disproved. There is no solid evidence for life after death, nor can the existence of life after death be disproved. So real, objective science has no answer to this question. If there is life after death, it involves a soul of some kind. (We know exactly what happens to our bodies when we die.) Similarly, there is no evidence for the existence of a soul, and the existence of a soul has also never been disproved. Until someone figures out a way to gather evidence to support the idea of life after death, or until someone figures out a way to prove that there is no such thing, science cannot supply a definitive answer.
Answers to existential questions cannot be proven by empirical evidence, which is evidence or results that can be observed or confirmed by our senses. If it is raining outside, you can “prove” it is raining because there is empirical evidence – you can see, hear, smell, touch and taste the rain.
In terms of this kind of empirical evidence, you would have to actually die yourself to know with absolute certainty for yourself what happens at death and if there is life after death. But even this is assuming that if there was life after death that it would be a continuation of some form of individual consciousness so you could know it. For example, if life after death involved shedding one’s individualized identity or self and returning to the wholeness of the universe, there might not be a basis for “knowing” anything as you know things now. In other words, there might be some form of life after death but you would not be consciously aware of it.
So the short answer to the question of what happens when we die and life after death is that you can’t know for sure… at least not the kind of sure that comes from the proof of empirical evidence. Even though there are those who claim to have passed to the “other side” and returned to tell about it, it still cannot prove the claim for you unless you yourself have this experience. You can choose to take their word for it and there’s nothing necessarily wrong with considering that as evidence for life after death, but it would not be the kind of direct empirical proof (observation, direct experience, sensory validation) that science typically depends upon to determine the veracity of something.
That’s not to say that there aren’t reasonable justifications for the idea of life after death. There are many thoughtful explanations that people feel support the likelihood of life after death. People find such reasoning from diverse sources, including science. But that’s different from saying that it can be proven and known with certainty. This is why some people fear death even though they hold a belief in life after death – because there’s always that question of how you can really know with absolute certainty.
There are different answers to the question of life after death. A few of the explanations include:
Nothing. Nothing happens when you die. You have this life only; when it’s over, that’s it.
Return to Source. Each person returns to the wholeness of the universe.
Embodied Spirits. We are embodied spirits, having both a physical and spiritual dimension. At death, the body dies but the spiritual dimension or consciousness continues to exist.
Universalism. Everyone in the end will be “saved.”
Reincarnation. Living beings are seen as having an endless series of lives achieved through a continual process of reincarnation into which all are locked until they can be freed through enlightenment.
Eternal Life and Eternal Judgment. Eternal life as eternal spiritual bliss (Heaven). Eternal life as a new heavens and new earth. Judgement as annihilation. Judgement as eternal conscious torment (Hell).
I could continue on with further explanations, different views, and even tell you what my own current personal beliefs are about life after death, but it seems it would be most useful to touch on the matter of how to address or deal with existential questions as a whole.
Consider the possibility that you don’t have to orient your life around existential questions and having answers of certainty. Who says you need answers to these questions to live a deeply meaningful, fulfilling and whole life? Consider these two options: Option #1: There is life after death; Option #2: There isn’t. In what way(s) would your current life be different, depending upon which of these options you decide upon? Rather than tormenting yourself with questions about the afterlife, which can’t be answered with certainty, why not become more interested in the herelife and all the possibilities that this life offers now. Instead of angst about life after death, what about a renewed vigor for life before death. As J.R.R. Tolkien, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” Mark Twain wrote, “The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.” And Jim Morrison, “No eternal reward will forgive us now for wasting the dawn.”
This involves creating a different relationship to life itself. It’s shifting away from seeing life as: a conundrum to be figured out; a threat to overcome; a problem needing to be solved. Instead, one can decide upon any number of other possibilities of understanding life: a gift to be embraced; a mystery to enjoy without fear; a pilgrimage of personal growth; an invitation to actualize oneself as fully as possible; an opportunity to know and experience a communion beyond the boundaries of the individual self; directing your life in accordance with a meaning and purpose that aligns with your innermost self; becoming, embodying and being what you believe to be the greatest truth, such as love; finding meaning in the moment and what's right in front of you, and responding in grace as each situation of life requires.
I discuss these possibilities in more detail in my online Life After Religion course, and help people develop the mindsets and tools necessary to approach life in this way.
Questions of the afterlife can be a byproduct of a basic terror of death, which some people have. I recently read a book that you might find useful: Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Fear of Death by Irvin D. Yalom.