What happens when we die? Nobody knows for sure. Some of us are certain that we go to heaven or hell, or maybe purgatory. Some of us are certain that we are reincarnated, reborn in a new form. Others of us are just as certain that nothing happens, that we are just …not. For thousands of years philosophers and theologians have argued about death. They’ve developed elaborate theories about life after death, and yet there is no consensus. The Christian and Hindu scholars look at each other and scratch their heads.
Understanding death is a big problem, really, because evidence of afterlife is hard to come by. Those who’ve gone tend not to return in ways that can be unquestionably verified. Ghosts don’t leave footprints and heaven can’t be seen with a telescope. We can study past life reports and near death experiences, and while the evidence may be compelling, it never reaches the level of proof.
Heaven and hell have been used to encourage us to be good lest we miss our reward and suffer eternal torment. Reincarnation has had a similar role. Bad behavior leads to unfortunate rebirth, so we’d better behave so as not to come back as an icky thing. What then if we believe that nothing happens at all, that we merely cease to exist at death? Does that grant us license to live a life of moral degradation? Not for a mature person.
Even if we go out like a burned out cinder when we die, there is plenty of reason to live an ethical life while we are here. At a very down to earth level, regardless of reincarnation, the law of karma works. It means very simply that your actions have an effect. "As you sow, so shall you reap." When we are kind, people are more likely to be kind to us. When we are cruel we lose the trust and goodwill of others. Empathy and compassion ultimately bring joy, while selfishness and greed ultimately bring unhappiness.
It is said that the good die young. The truth is that some really nasty people die young too, some of the good die old, and some of the beastly hang on past their welcome. The difference is that when the virtuous die they are mourned more deeply, and they can leave with fewer regrets. A life lived well is no guarantee of longevity, but it carries its own satisfaction.
Think about your beliefs about life after death. Where do they come from? Do you believe what you do simply because you’ve been told to, or have you drawn your own conclusions?
How do your beliefs about life after death shape your behavior? Do you behave well out of fear of damnation or bad rebirth? Do you indulge in selfishness because you don’t believe in eternal rewards and punishments?
Reflect on your life. How has karma generated in this life shaped this life? In other words, how have the highs and lows and in-betweens been the result of your action, whether physical or mental?
Project your imagination into the future to the moments just before your death. See yourself looking back on your life.What will have been the highlights?
What will have been the disappointments?
What will you have wished you had done?
What will you have wished you had not done?
What changes in your plans might you make now to make this a happier scene?
© 1999 Tom Barrett