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April 2, 2011


Had an interesting e-mail discussion with my former pastor from my fundamentalist charismatic days. He asked what I thought the stories of Christians who have been near death and had what seemed to be experiences that confirmed their beliefs about Heaven and the afterlife. He knows I am an agnostic these days, and asked how I could account for such events.

I responded initially by saying that I had heard of similar reports from people of other faiths whose own near-death experiences seemed to confirm their beliefs regarding their deity, the afterlife, reincarnation, and so on. He asked if I knew where he could find such accounts (I didn’t), and how I explain such experiences.

Now, I have a long history of trouble with the whole question of an afterlife. One of my first unsettling questions when I was a fundamentalist reading Aristotle in college (I recommend his Ethics: I used to carry it in one back pocket and the New Testament in the other) was what was the USE of an afterlife. I mean, shouldn’t we do right because we are good, and the right thing to do is just the right thing to do? Not because we get a cookie.

This caused a minor scene in Sunday School thirty some years ago. My friend Drexel was teaching the College and Careers (20- and 30-somethings) class on Easter Sunday. He asked, first, how many believed Jesus rose from the dead. We all raised our hands. Then he asked how many believed WE would rise from the dead (a reference to the afterlife and, perhaps, the resurrection of believers expected to happen with the Second Coming of Christ). Everyone but me raised their hands. I didn’t make a show of keeping my hand down, but I thought the jury was out on this question, so I sat this one out.

Someone noticed. “John didn’t raise his hand,” she said. We spent the entire rest of the hour asking me what I did and did not believe – one of the most enjoyable hours of my time in church. Are you kidding? I was in my early 20’s, full of questions, and was the center of 30-some people’s attention. Plus, I had a vocabulary they’d never run into: in a moment of frustration with what he thought of my evasiveness, one of my classmates asked, “Well what DO you believe,” to which I replied, “Would you like me to begin with my eschatology or my epistemology?”

This was the same church where, in a different class on a different Sunday, one person brought in a church bulletin from the liberal church in town. That church’s singles group was going to meet in a local bar! Oh, the scandal! What would they do AFTER the meeting? {shudder! thrill!} After these preliminaries – I kid you not – they turned, with no apparent sense of irony, to the Gospel passage to learn how inadvisable it to be to casting stones. When I pointed out the jarring disconnect, they were not amused.

Both of these stories put me in a rather flattering light – is this my good side? – when I tell them to my friends who are agnostics, atheists or Christians of another sort.
But here’s the thing: like discussing the nature or possibility of an afterlife, or reincarnation, the foci of my classmates and I were distractions from what is important.

Karen Armstrong once said, “I am not interested in the afterlife. Religion is supposed to be about losing your ego, not preserving it eternally in optimum conditions.”

The only reason to trash the other church’s singles program was to say that we were better. The only reason to grill me – much as I enjoyed it – was to pressure or even punish someone who seemed to be straying from what everyone believed (and should believe). The only reason to discuss the afterlife, or how many angels dance on the head of a pin, is because splitting doctrinal hairs and grading each other’s orthodoxy is a lot easier than doing things that matter.

And the only reason to tell stories that make me look good at the expense of my old friends is that I have been prepared to use them to shore up a personal foundation in which I have had little confidence.

Stephen Batchelor, in his provocative book, Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist, relates a story about how Buddha refused to answer questions about some things. In the Pali Canon Buddha said that to waste time with such speculations is like being shot with a poisoned arrow and refusing to have it removed until you know “the name and the clan of the person who fired it; whether the bow was a longbow or a crossbow,” and so on.

A recent example is with the Catholic bishop that stripped a hospital of its affiliation with the Church because it terminated the pregnancy of a woman whose life was in danger because of the pregnancy. Nicholas Kristof revealed this travesty in his column. The bishop first excommunicated a nun who participated in the decision; when the hospital continued to employ her, he withdrew their affiliation.

My hope is that Jesus would hold the hand of everyone who has to make that wrenching decision, regardless of which tragedy they choose to endure.


  1. Provocative and wonderful, John. Thanks for this -- I love the way you manage to hook the imagination drifting aimlessly downstream, and pull it out into the air and the light (mine, anyway).

  2. I've never understood the obsession with afterlife that seems to be prevalent in all religions. Are we so afraid of our mortality that we have to believe we're going somewhere, turning into something/somebody else, or whatever? The reward for living a good life is.... living a good life!


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