What happens to us after we die? The most sensible answer to this question — the one that relies most on sensory evidence — is that we return to the dust from which our atoms have come.
This answer may be sensible, but it has not been universally satisfying. Neither, however, are many of religion’s alternatives.
Consider, for example, the depressing depictions of an endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth governed by impersonal karmic laws whose accumulating demands are for all practical purposes impossible to satisfy.
Or the terrifying prophecies of world destruction at the hand of an enraged deity and agonies to be suffered in everlasting fire.
It takes a poignantly incomplete understanding of the Sacred to find any real satisfaction in images like these. They offer no hope whatever that wrongful actions and attitudes might be redeemable through the grace, mercy, and love which flow from what is truly divine.
By its very definition, “afterlife” is a state of being which is beyond ordinary sensibilities. Most people who believe in it do so on the basis of wishes, intimations, and intuitions whose truth cannot be determined on the basis of sense experience alone.
But if afterlife is the provision of a sacred order of things truly deserving of human exalting, it is something truly worth hoping for rather than fearing. Whatever knowledge we may claim to have of it, though, must include at least two acknowledgements that might be unsettling.
The first is that we are not yet fit to experience the fullness of its benefits. The second is that to become so, more than one mortal life may be necessary, either here or somewhere between here and heaven.
Just as the truth of beliefs about afterlife, it would seem, must rest somewhere between the sensible and the unsatisfying.
To the silenced denizens of a shadowy Underworld and the screaming souls in a flaming Hell, it surely would be better to have no afterlife at all.
In other words, there is a moral dimension to human destiny: the morally deficient can expect their experiences in the next life to be lacking much of what those with moral integrity will enjoy. And that is the unsatisfying part of believing in it.
But the satisfying part is their promise of a blessed afterlife to those spiritually and morally ready to receive it.