Editors Note: In theory, nothing is sure in life, but death and taxes. However, in America, if you’re wealthy enough, taxes may be avoidable ... but even members of the Trump family eventually die (even if it’s not soon enough). Ever think about what your demise is going to involve? I do, and I never really come up with a believable or rational outcome. I guess that’s why there are so many religions, all of which have no clue either.

Searching for the Afterlife

“Faith is an island in the setting sun,
But proof, proof is the bottom line for everyone.”

               Paul Simon


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 certainly awful, but I think 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 soil siesta to come.

Most of us view the end of life with such trepidation that we’ve evolved all sorts of sectarian, pseudoscientific, metaphysical and paranormal theories about it, none of which is supported by even a shred of evidence. For example, some cybergeeks have suggested that 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 already know about 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 just return to the mindless unconsciousness we inhabited before we were born, then existence ends up being 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-sized” videos. As pleasant as this might 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 and pointless. (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 the Judeo-Christian/Islamic concept of heaven and hell. Hell has the advantage of punishing, for all eternity, those who don’t share your faith. The downside is that the unending, infinite torture most of us will suffer 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? ... going to law school?) would cause Jehovah (or Allah) to follow us into our graves, and drag us out of it in order to punish us for eternity with no hope of redemption.

Theologians estimate that there are at least 1,000 discrete religions, so the odds of choosing “the right one” are low (0.1%). And how will this small percentage (the non-infidels) spend their eternity in heaven? Benjamin Franklin, an extremely 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.” Most of the evangelicals I know insist 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 an endless church service. 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 from puny humans? He sounds like the Donald Trump of deities, and, after a few years of that, the Lake of Fire might start looking pretty good. (No wonder Mark Twain recommended “heaven for the climate, hell for the company.”)

Realistically, none of us knows any more about the afterlife than our Egyptian ancestors who built the pyramids, and any profession of faith can be shut down by a simple, two-word, imperative 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 send us there.

Click here to return to the Mark Drought home page.