It's been a while since I wrote about my friends 1st hard question... and to be honest, I've been avoiding the 2nd one. She asked me whether there is life after death or if this is all there is.
From a pastoral viewpoint, I would guess she's feeling some deep frustrations regarding the current direction of her life (or at least was the day she wrote me) and as a pastor, I would want to address those issues first. That said, the question still is an important one.
Unfortunately, there really isn't a great deal about life after death in the Bible. Many of the passages that are typically cited are either metaphor or parable and may or may not tell us anything about life after death. As a result some Jewish traditions have affirmed life after death while others have denied it. In the Christian church we have seen very different understandings of life after death ranging from a literal physical resurrection of the body to a spiritual existence, absent a body to a more eastern idea of becoming part of some more universal presence to no afterlife at all. I think you can find support for any f these ideas both in the texts and in the tradition.
So, what do I think? I don't know. Philosophically, I have difficulty understanding my existence separate from a body - after all this physical body with its attributes and failings has made me into the person I am. At the same time, the idea of a physical resurrection does seem a bit... unusual and raises a ton of other questions. I like the idea of continue conscious existence but i just don't know.
So what do I believe? First off, I believe in an inexhaustible and unquenchable love that never abandons us and never lets us go. I believe that in life and in death, God's yearnings for us are full of mercy and grace. I believe that even the smallest actions can have results that change the universe and that because I have been here, things will never be the same as if I hadn't. I believe that life - here and now - is good even if it is never easy or pain free. I believe that if I open my eyes and my heart, that I can experience eternal life, heaven, the kindom of God, today, wherever I am.
Here's what I'm sure I do not believe. I do not believe in a heaven or hell that is comprised of rewards or punishments. While I would not dare to speak for God, I can speak f my own experiences. I cannot imagine a situation where I would turn away from my children forever. There is nothing they could ever do or say that would make me, in my very finite humanity, abandon them. I could never subject them to endless suffering. If my love is bigger than that, I cannot imagine God's being smaller than mine. And if salvation involves the necessity of a person turning to God, then in spite of it being a very small action, it is still an action done by the individual and salvation is no longer a matter solely of grace. Whatever comes later is a gift of God's love. There is nothing I can do to deserve it and nothing I can do to deter it.
And we come back to the underlying question - what about here and now when life seems to be or certainly is less than it should be? I cannot dismiss the pain of another. Sometimes the psychic pain is more than we can bear. Sometimes our most wonderful dreams and deepest hopes are snatched away, never to be seen again. Some of us are broken by poverty that is almost unimaginable. Some of us find ourselves in circumstances where hopelessness is a reasonable response. All I can say is that in my experience, God is always there with us. At those times when the pain is deepest, we are not alone. When we find ourselves dwelling in the land of the shadow of death, in the darkness and anguish of Good Friday, there is always an Easter coming.