After all is said and done, I think that the case for eternal life, as I have presented it in this book, comes down to what Plato had to say in Timaeus about “the good” being diffusive of itself and turning it into an ontological statement, that is, concerning being itself. Thus, whether we choose, as did Plato, to personify that good as “God” or simply leave it as an abstract value or principle, the assumption is that it is better to be than not to be. Otherwise, it seems to me to be impossible to explain why anyone would dream of a life beyond death, or why, knowing what we now know about the origin and probable death of the universe, theorists have dreamt up their dreams of multiple universes or of a “multiverse” without end.
I realize that many people cannot bring them-selves to accept such a revelation or to have such a faith in the future, even if they wish they could. Freud and the self-designated “New Atheists” have made it almost impossible for many to hope for or accept the promise of eternal life, at least without fearing they are only giving in to wishful thinking or outright deluding themselves.
Even Jung’s testimony—quoted at the beginning of Chapter 6—about the need to recover a religious outlook on life might lead one to think that humanity in general is more psychologically needier than we’d like to admit.
However, I think that I may have come across a method of bridging this divide without taking any unreasonable leap of faith. It came to me some years ago when I first began to realize that I too have to face the fact that I might only have a few more years left to live. And it was also partly motivated by my admiration for the concise summary of Christ’s teaching by the unknown author claiming the name “Barnabas” quoted at the beginning of Chapter 3 of this book.
As I saw it then, and as I still see it now, there are three basic “facts of life” plus an optional “Christian corollary” which I believe offers the best and most realistic way of dealing with those three facts.
First, we have the physical fact that nothing in this life, whether it be our accomplishments, or most likely, even the universe itself, will survive forever. Sooner or later everything appears destined to come to an end.
Second, we have the psychological fact that few or even none of us are really comfortable with the first fact. In fact, we do everything possible to blot it out of our minds, or failing that, inure or insulate ourselves against it. Thus, in addition to the speculations about other “universes”, we have our own natural tendency to place our hopes in what I call “the three Fs”—family, fortune, and fame—as if any of these could guarantee some form of immortality, which, in the end, they cannot.
Third, there is the spiritual fact that all the great religions have taught that the only effective way of dealing with both of the first two facts is to, one way or another, divest ourselves of our ego-centricity and learn to fix our minds upon and to live for the sake of something or some cause or purpose greater than ourselves.
Of course, I realize that there can be many such causes or purposes, and that not all of them are all that worthwhile or even worthy of our commitment. History is littered with the ruins of them, or even the corpses of those foolishly gave their lives or were the victims of such causes, including overtly religious ones.
However, this is where the specifically Christian option comes in. And oddly enough, it came most forcefully to me from the insight of an agnostic of Jewish ancestry—the same Ernest Becker whose Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Denial of Death, I mentioned in the third chapter. According to Becker, while almost all religions in history have attempted to either deny death or to escape it altogether, Christianity is the religion that has most strongly emphasized that the only way to cope with death is to go through it willingly—even if reluctantly—as the only way to pass beyond it.
No doubt some, perhaps many, will say that this is an exaggerated claim, even if Dietrich Bonhöffer, the Evangelical Lutheran theologian who was executed by the Nazis in 1945 for his part in the plot to kill Adolph Hitler, had made much the same claim. Bonhöffer, in fact, seems to have insisted that Christianity should not even be considered a “religion” at all, at least in the usual sense, based on his judgment that most religions have functioned more or less as escape hatches from reality.
In any case, even if we forget what Becker or Bonhöffer wrote—or counter with examples such as both the ancient Egyptian “Book of the Dead” detailing what might await us in the next world, or its more recent Tibetan counterpart, focusing on the process of dying—ask yourself what other of the world’s religions has the cross, no matter how abstractly rendered, or even the crucifix, with the image of a dying person or corpse nailed to it, as its central symbol or even object of devotion? Can you imagine any other religion doing this, let’s say with its hero or object of faith depicted hanging at the end of a noose (as happened to Bonhöffer) or strapped to an electric chair?
Or again, as the celebrated fourth century Syrian poet St. Ephrem the Deacon once put it: “Death trampled our Lord [Christ] underfoot, but he in his turn treated death as a highroad for his own feet…It [death] was able to kill natural human life, but was itself killed by the life that is above the nature of man” (Sermo de Domino Nostro, 4).
even if one does not accept all the traditional Christian doctrines, such
as those found in the Nicene Creed where Jesus is declared not just “Son
of God” in the metaphorical or biblical sense but literally “God from true God”
and “consubstantial with”—that is, of the same nature as “the Father” or
almighty God—one can still follow in the footsteps of Jesus. This can be done
by living or following, as best one can, the example of Jesus
or as did Albert Schweitzer, the theologian turned medical missionary, or Dag
Hammarskjöld, the second Executive Secretary of the United Nations, who died in
an airplane crash during his effort to bring peace in the
Seen from this perspective, that of Jesus, I’m not at all surprised or scandalized to meet Christians who nevertheless doubt or even sometimes feel, like Jesus did on the cross, that God has abandoned them. Nor am I upset by the fact that while many think of Christianity as “ascensional”—that is, primarily a way “up” to heaven—others consider that their spirituality, even if they are not formally Christians, must be more expansive or even “horizontal”, to be lived more in reaching out, like the arms of the cross, to embrace the needs of the whole world.
Regardless of whichever path is chosen, however, I think it is necessary to stress yet again that religion or spirituality must take us beyond ourselves and our own selfish concerns. It is only in forgetting or “losing” ourselves that we shall find salvation, or as the Buddha taught, it is only through anatta or selflessness that we will reach nirvana.
This is why we find repeated warnings by spiritual teachers against false mysticisms that promise short-cuts to ecstasy or that we find in the gospels warnings against attitudes of pious self-righteousness. Above all, the hope for eternal life or for “heaven” is a hope for transcendence, which means, first of all, self-transcendence. From a purely logical standpoint, if there would be anything blocking the possibility of eternal life, if there is such a possibility, it would not be lack of firm belief, but a lack of the desire to have anything more than this life or to be satisfied with anything or anyone better than ourselves, or the refusal to take the risk that faith demands, which is to be able to pass beyond the self-concerned need for absolute certainty. Thus, as Jesus might say, and indeed did say a number of times (Mat 6:2-5) about those who prided themselves on being superior or already having it all now, “Truly I say to you, they have received their reward.”
No doubt this is a hard saying. Yet I think that it remains a fact of life, as well as a hard fact of evolution. Thus, Teilhard, dealing with the problem of evil as we experience it in this world, wrote in the very last sentence of the appendix that he added to The Phenomenon of Man (1959, p. 313), that, in light of our evolutionary origins as well as both the advances as well as setbacks of history, “In one manner or the other it still remains true that, even in the view of a mere biologist, the human epic resembles nothing so much as a way of the Cross.”
“way of the Cross” is, of course, an allusion to the once popular Lenten
devotion imported from the
Yet, may not the same be said on a larger scale regarding life in all its forms on this earth, its continual suppression and apparent failure only to keep rising again to continue the struggle, even if only to what appears to be its final defeat and disappearance?
So too in our own lives lived through the initial stages of growth and struggle to the flourishing of our prime, then, most often, through the slow but certain decline into old age, infirmity, and, in the end, to our graves—all this despite whatever plans and hopes we may have had for the future. In the face of this truth we all live, each in our own way, as Thoreau wrote, “lives of quiet desperation”.
What then keeps us going? For many, it is the distractions, the diversions, even the oblivion afforded by living. For many others, however, it is the hope of and the quest for something else, for a life, however ill-defined and nebulous it may seem, beyond this present one. So too, I believe, it was for Jesus himself and who, against all odds, persisted in his course to its consummation when in the end he handed over what was left of his life to divine providence—the God whom he called “Father”.
Perhaps there really wasn’t anything new in this old story. In one guise or another, humankind has probably always dreamed of or hoped for something beyond this life. And perhaps this hope is, as the skeptics insist, nothing but the “tales told by nursemaids”. If so, then we are all—and here I speak of humanity in general—more foolish than we may have hitherto imagined.
However, given the alternative, which is the end of evolution and of all that lives, not just on this planet, but eventually elsewhere in this vast universe, I really do not think so. In fact, I have staked my whole life on it.