It seems that for as long as mankind has been externally and internally conscious, there has been speculation about eternal life, or an existence beyond this current state of being. Our recognition of finitude has naturally led us to posit various ideas of the afterlife and/or immortality. From ancient literature to Swedenborg to blogposts today, fascination with the mystery of mankind’s potential is clear.
Interestingly enough, much of ancient Jewish literature before the 3rd and 2nd centuries BCE had little to do with life after death. Sheol was simply a place where just about everyone ended up. The focus was on this life. Take, for example, Qoheleth, the philosopher of Ecclesiastes, who concludes somewhat depressingly, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity” and that life is often a “chase after wind.” Yet all was not lost. We could still live fully in this life, an ideal which he captures by stating that one should “eat, drink, and be merry.” I am not encouraging constant partying, however metaphorically, that ideal emphasizes the value which can be taken out of this life. The Jewish apocalyptic genre changed Jewish conceptions of the afterlife, such as in Daniel which touches upon the resurrection of the dead. At the period when Daniel was written, Hellenistic thought was influencing Jewish doctrines, and a transformation began to occur. The timing was ripe for new conceptions of God, the adversary, and the afterlife, all of which would become more objectified.
Christianity, of course, has led to vivid depictions of the afterlife. During medieval times and especially in response to the Enlightenment era, Christianity became a religion focused on the afterlife. Dante Alighieri’s lucid descriptions of heaven, hell, and purgatory is perhaps the most well-known example, however others, such as the mystic Meister Eckhart contributed to the images as well. As I mentioned earlier, Emanuel Swedenborg wrote widely publicized descriptions of the afterlife, with some of his ideas perhaps even influencing Joseph Smith.
The point of this brief historical discussion is to illustrate how much the mystery of eternal life has influenced the speculative thought of mankind. In keeping with this tradition, now seems as good a time as any to offer my thoughts.
The short answer is that I don’t know what any state of post existence may contain. Though I may be unsure of its exact nature, I like to believe that there is eternal life. Yet the most I am willing to say is that when I die, I believe it will be into the immanent and transcendent, accepting and sustaining God at the ground of my current state of being.
Eternal life can be experienced even now. What is eternity, but the confluence of time without time or limits; paradoxical on paper, but such are the limits of language. I would like to speculate on the exact nature of that which is beyond existence but language prevents me. I digress. The blessings of eternal life in this existence can be attained by overcoming the powers which serve to bind our actualization and fulfillment. As the theologian Bruce Epperly has written, the ultimate goal of life in terms of achieving fulfillment is growth in God, or as Paul wrote, growth through a life in Christ.
The Christian message should not be focused on the afterlife, as that leads to a focus on creeds and requirements. The Christian life should be one of cultivating a relationship with God in this life. With any relationship, there are ups and downs. In our imperfection, we may be unfaithful. Eternal life, however, cannot be distorted with images of reward and punishment in the form of eternal joy for some and torment for others. The imperfections of our finitude will never render us cut off from God, though we may be estranged. As I must include Paul Tillich into this post somehow, we can always accept that we are accepted. God as love means that God accepts us, trying to unify all that is, and working to bring about our individual and collective fulfillment. Our existential despair can be overcome not just as an individual, but also through experiencing the joy of others as they strive to grow and actualize themselves. The offer of acceptance and the ability to grow is, to modify Paul’s statement in Romans, limited to neither Christian nor Jew, atheist nor believer, rich nor poor.