Reflections on life after death

13 Jan

Where are they now, what are they doing?

Reflections on life after death

My wife, Neva, passed away duringChristmas week. Writing at this time, this  blog installment can be considered part of my grieving, but it deals with difficult intellectual and theological issues. In the days after her death, my mind uncontrollably asked questions, even though I knew there could be no answers. I know perfectly well that these questions are unanswerable, but at the same time, I can’t stop asking them.   They are intrinsically  compelling. Christian faith undergirds my questioning. That faith makes the questions both necessary and possible. If I believed, naturalistically,that we are nothing more than bundles of matter, dispersing through burial or cremation, there would be no doubt about where things stand—at least in the short-term—the days or weeks or centuries it takes for our molecules to merge with the environment. Life after death could be traced to the remembrances of those who live after us, as well as the lasting impact of our actions and ideas. Believing in a resurrection of soul and  body quickens the mind’s inherent curiosity about something more—questioning ensues.

The days after Neva died, I asked myself “Where is she now?” And “What is she doing?” I really wanted to know. If you have a picture of the heavenly city with streets paved in gold, then you “know” where she is. A friend whose husband died a year ago, said to me, “I like to hope that the two of them have met and ate walking together.” Of course, that isn’t really an answer to my question. Just where is the New Jerusalem and where are they walking?

My question seems to be asking about location, but geography doesn’t work here. There is no geography tp the soul’s location after death. It’s like asking, “What happened before the Big Bang?” Since time came into existence with the Big Bang, there is no “before.” We, on the other hand, are permeated by “time,” so we cannot avoid asking questions that assume “time.”  It is impossible to “locate” the soul of a living person; if anything, even more impossible after death. We use emotive terms that provide no answers: “with God,” 

in eternal peace,” “in paradise with Jesus,” and the like. Just as common sense has difficulty comprehending the non-temporal happening of the Big Bang, it is incomprehensible that after death the deceased is “nowhere” and “doing nothing.” That’s why my mind uncontrollably asks questions it knows it cannot comprehend.

Questions about the body are another matter. Since the matter of our body—its atoms and molecules—will never disappear, immortality and resurrection of the body is a credible belief. Those atoms will surely enter into new relationships and be transformed, but will not be destroyed. Although as a practical matter it may not be possible to trace the future course of our body, in theory it would be possible, if we made adequate observations with appropriate instruments. But, practically, even though we know that our atoms and molecules are still in existence in some ways, it is impossible to locate them. It is exciting to contemplate, however.

In the Apostles Creed, Christians affirm the resurrection of the body. After all, since our bodily matter is indestructible, resurrection of the body, in some form, is a credible belief. St. Paul writes that the resurrected body will be different from our earthly body.  But how are the resurrected body and soul related? Some Jews believe the the soul loosens from the body only in a slow process Bodies are stored for a week or more in the mortuary before they are cremated or interred. Has the soul already gone its  way? As the atoms of our body are evolving in new forms and relationships, do they meet up with our soul at some point?

In my theological education, I was  instructed to be skeptical of a soul separable from the body. Ted Peters recently blogged on this point, referring to the thinking of Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict that resurrection of the body was the correct belief, with no emphasis on separable soul. Ratzinger was standard reading in ,y seminary and graduate school days, too. 

However, as Neva’s body lay in storage for more than a week until official permission was finalized for cremation, I concluded that Ratzinger’s proposal is also this-dimensional language, trying to deal with the other-dimensional world I was asking about. What was “resurrection of the body” in those storage days? And was she not also a soul? I agree with Peters and Ratzinger. I also agree with mentor Church historian Jaroslav Pelikan,  who reminded us that talk about soul and its immortality (which is dominant belief in the early centuries of Christianity) and talk about resurrection of body (equally ancient belief) are both appropriate if we are clear both take place as God’s action.

These reflections may seem pointless, even absurd. From this I take a lesson. We are fully embedded in a world with certain dimensions. Death and resurrection bring in another dimension. It is impossible for us to comprehend or enter into this dimension. Our dimensionality defines our finite nature. The dimensionality of other worlds stretches our finitude beyond its limits. Our dimension thinks in terms of time and location, so it no wonder we irrepressibly ask our questions.

It is amazing that our minds and spirits can entertain the idea of other-dimensional world and recognize the impossibility of our entering those worlds. We can define our own finitude. In pondering death, we hit up against the other-dimensionality. Afterlife and resurrection are beyond the dimensional barrier. That is why our only option is faith. Faith is not holding absurd ideas: it is trust—that, as St. Paul writes, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. We cannot say more. Whether my present dimension or Neva’s, We are the Lord’s.

(c) Phil Hefner 1/13/2023

2 Responses to “Reflections on life after death”

  1. Richard Busse January 14, 2023 at 1:11 pm #

    Hi Phil: I wrote a response to your post but don’t know if it went through. Let’s get in touch through email

    Richard P. Busse Attorney at Law PO Box 528 Valparaiso, IN 46384 219-531-1723 219-464-0941 FAX

    NOTICE: This E-mail (including attachments) is covered by the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, 18 U.S.C. §§ 2510-2521, is confidential and may contain attorney-client materials and/or attorney work product, legally privileged and protected from disclosure. This e-mail is intended only for the addressee named above. If you are not the intended recipient, you are hereby notified that any retention, dissemination, distribution, or copying of this communication is strictly prohibited. Please reply to the sender that you have received the message in error, then delete it and any and all copies of it.

    Thank you.

  2. Richard Busse January 14, 2023 at 1:22 pm #

    Hi Phil: Again, my deepest condolences on Neva’s death. Your thoughts on the afterlife are, as usual, provocative. I too don’t think we just end, but what the “other” might be is unanswerable, as you discuss so well. I can’t really believe I am 72 years old. I have minor aches and pains but am in good health. Practice law full time. Still Adjunct religion professor at Indiana University Northwest., online classes. 18 years into my second marriage with Faith who unfortunately has end stage kidney disease. We trained for three months to do dialysis at home and have done so for a year and half now. Every other day I stick the needles in her arms after preparing the equipment. It is a 5 hour process to set up, administer the treatment, and tear down. I do zoom hearings and telephonic conferences all the time during dialysis. Gets a little wild when a pressure alarm goes off when I’m in a zoom. Lynn Hubbard is out in Northern California and I am in touch with him. Dave Breed and I used to correspond but I haven’t heard from him for a while. Glad you are still alive and sharing your thoughts.

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