When it comes to how the world views the end of life, I would like to highlight four main views. Most people will hold one of these views or variations on it. Excuse my broad strokes and obvious bias for the fourth view if you believe otherwise.
The first we might call the materialist view. They would hold that all of life exists in the tangible, physical reality. Life is defined by all that is experienced in the heartbeat and the brain wave. When these things cease, the body dies and the person ceases to exist. When your body goes in the ground, that’s it. In that view we have memories of our loved one that can be passed on to the living, but our memories end when we do.
The second group of belief originates from Hinduism and Buddhism. It views the end of life as a time of reincarnation (or rebirth). The transmigration of souls teaches that your life force is reanimated in another form. Depending on your karma (how you are judged) you will come back to life in a higher or lower form of life. If your karma was not so good, you may come back as a mosquito. Good karma means that you may come back as someone better.
Life continues on and the essence of who you are must continually move toward Nirvana where you no longer exist as an individual but are absorbed into the nothingness of the Universe. In this view, a person is judged by their karma and life consists of learning to empty oneself of individuality and self.
The third view I would call ‘the Good Person Checklist’. In the likelihood of God’s existence, we need to be good people. If we are good enough God will accept us into Paradise and if we were terrible people, God will punish us in the afterlife. On the good/bad scale most people would say George was a great guy and earned his way to Heaven. Sometimes this ‘earn your way’ view will have certain rules and entry requirements and you won’t really know what’s coming until you stand before God.
In the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Islam & Christianity) it is believed that humanity was created by God from the elements of the earth and that God breathed life into us. We were embedded with the capacity to know God and be a reflection of God’s character. All these religions believe in a state of being beyond the grave and that God will evaluate us for reward or punishment.
The fourth view is the ‘path of Jesus’. The life/death continuum of humanity is disrupted and reframed when Jesus is put to death and three days later rises from the dead. This is not a normal occurrence, but the start of something that deepens the understanding of what the future existence is. The early followers of Jesus understood that he had demonstrated God’s power over death and was a real life example of how God wants to restore Creation and move us from mortal to immortal—finite to infinite.
When Jesus was being crucified on a cross, there were others being crucified at the same time. One of them was a thief who in his suffering called out to Jesus saying, “When you enter your kingdom Lord, remember me.” Jesus replies to this man who had no way to save himself, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” The man had not religious training, no baptism or chance to prove his goodness. He was a common criminal being executed, but Jesus recognized his true worth before God and Jesus’ death became a gateway for others to enter Paradise and also to face a future resurrection.
Each of us has a view and opinion about whether there is anything or nothing after we die. It is not trivial, because we all will one day breathe our last breath on this earth and want to live a life now that makes sense.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. 2 My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. 4 You know the way to the place where I am going.”
None of us can answer every question about what another person believed in his or her life, but we can certainly open our hearts and minds to understand the need for hope. I find my hope in the resurrection of Jesus and the possibility of something more beyond the limits of my comprehension.