Come back with me. It is July 8, 1741. You are sitting in a pew at First Church of Christ in Enfield, Connecticut. You are a British subject, as America’s independence is 35 years in the future. The colonies are in the grip of what we now call the First Great Awakening, when a rush of religious revivalism swept through Britain and the colonies.
Theologian and Pastor Jonathan Edwards walks to the podium. He steps up into it, positioning himself, as my childhood minister used to say, “four feet above contradiction.” He turns and looks straight at you. He then tells you with utter certainty and conviction that there is nothing that keeps wicked men at any one moment out of hell, but the mere pleasure of an angry, vengeful God. He then goes on to deliver the rest of what has become one of the most famous sermons given during the period known as the First Great Awakening in America. His sermon was entitled, aptly, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.
He goes on to instruct the faithful that “The God that holds you over the pit of hell…abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire…you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely…and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment.”
The vivid image Edwards gave on that day is that we are all sinners, we are all lost, and the only thing that prevents us from falling right now into the chasm of burning hell is God’s arbitrary wish. The visual he gave is of us suspended over the pit of hell by the hand of God which can be withdrawn at any moment.
Why is he preaching this message? As he said, “The use of this awful subject may be for awakening unconverted persons in this congregation. ..That world of misery, that lake of burning brimstone, is extended abroad under you…there is nothing between you and hell but the air; it is only the power and pleasure of God that holds you up.”
Imagine if you were sitting in those pews, and if you believe what this learned pastor is saying? That image of God, of your potential fate, would have a radical impact on how you lived your life, would it not? It would have a radical impact on your relationship with the divine, wouldn’t it? It would profoundly color how you feel about yourself.
Fast forward 277 years, to today. While many in traditional Christianity and other Abrahamic traditions still believe that our options are salvation or hell, many no longer do. Our worldviews have opened up and we have been exposed to other traditions with very different theologies and beliefs. However, we still wonder – what happens when we die, where do we go, and is “going” even an appropriate image?
I am not going to give you an answer today. Why? Because I don’t know.
I am in very good company. Christian theologian Marcus Borg wrote “I am a committed Christian and a complete agnostic about the afterlife. I use “agnostic” in its precise sense: one who does not know. Moreover, I know that I cannot resolve “not knowing” by “believing” – whatever we believe about an afterlife has nothing to do with whether there is one or what it is like.”
None of us know, and whatever we say about the afterlife is not based on what actually happens. It’s based on belief, hope, a dash of superstition, opinion, what our friends think, an article we read last week, or perhaps life experience. Based on all those things, I feel that it is a truth that is far larger than my thinking mind can comprehend.
But, even if we don’t know and won’t know, the question still matters.
Christian mystic, theologian and author Richard Rohr has said that our attitude about death is our attitude about God. I will add that our attitude about death also reflects our attitude about ourselves – who we imagine ourselves to be here and now.
Think about that. Think about those unfortunates in the pews listening to Pastor Edwards – didn’t the fear of that he was teaching impact their attitude about God, and about themselves? God was angry, judgmental, whimsical. They were broken, worthless, sinful.
This attitude was not limited to colonial Puritans. As a young monk Martin Luther was so terrified of God’s judgment that he would sometimes confess for as many as six hours a day, going over every aspect of his life. Finally his teacher and confessor told him “Man, God is not angry with you. You are angry with God. Don’t you know that God commands you to hope?”
Luther’s fear of judgment after death translated into, or perhaps arose from, his anger and alienation from this God who would deal out such harsh punishment.
So what does ancient wisdom teach? We’ve seen the puritan spin on Christian teachings, but that’s only a partial view. Traditional Christian theology is that there is a heaven and there is a hell. Teaching today tends to lean toward a modern version of Pastor Edwards – you don’t get the hellfire imagery but it’s still a pretty stark choice.
However, there are more and more Christians, and followers of other Abrahamic traditions, who don’t see it that way. They live a theology where hell is what we make ourselves when we separate ourselves from God, or from the divine spark in ourselves. How do we do that? So many ways – living lives of judgment, unkindness, lack of compassion. Removing ourselves from the loving heart that is at our center – that creates hell for us right now.
The same is true for heaven. What did Jesus say? The Kingdom of God is within you. It’s here, if you can find it and live it. Love, compassion, connection, service. Living in accordance with your divine nature, hard as it sometimes is, places us there now.
So in this theology what happens when we die? How do these traditional belief systems adapt themselves to a worldview where such fundamentals as heaven and hell have literally relocated?
Well, Marcus Borg, the afterlife agnostic we spoke of above, didn’t worry about it. He said “So, is there an afterlife, and if so, what will it be like? I don’t have a clue. But I am confident that the one who has buoyed us up in life will also buoy us up through death. We die into God. What more that means, I do not know. But that is all I need to know.”
We die into God. If we are in hell here, it ends as we transition into perfect love and knowing. If we are in heaven, our vision opens up to enfold us in the true light and power of pure love.
I think questions like this are one reason why so many who follow the mystical traditions in the Abrahamic faiths have taken themselves east, to learn the wisdom and the very different worldview of the eastern traditions, primarily Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism.
Religious historian Huston Smith, whose ideas were so influenced by Hindu mysticism, compared a human death to “a dewdrop slipping into the shining seas.” He believed that at death the human psyche becomes part of the Godhead, that the boundary between the divine and human disappears. To him, that’s what it meant to become one with God.
So let’s go back to our first question. How do these divergent worldviews impact how we live, how we see ourselves and how we see God?
If I believe in judgment and damnation, I live in a world of ego. My focus is on avoiding damnation for myself and making sure I am headed for heaven. It’s about me – a worldview grounded in duality. There is God, and then there is me. This view prevails today.
How about for those who agree with Marcus Borg, or Huston Smith? How about those mystics among us, who find Heaven or hell right here and celebrate our unity with the Divine?
I believe such a view changes our entire paradigm. My purpose is to live as the expression of God here and now, and I won’t focus as much upon my reward or punishment after death. When I die, the love that carried me here will continue to carry me on. The transition of death is not a harbinger of judgment, but a moment of greater and clearer knowing as we return to source.
As we shift our view to the east, we learn that the Buddha spent no time opining on an afterlife. He called the question of what happens to us after death “an ineluctably moot point”, saying “bear in mind what I have explained to you and bear in mind what I have not explained.”
The Buddha’s teachings focus on how to eliminate suffering in this life. He gave us practices to accomplish that, not pages of metaphysical speculation on other matters that he believed had no bearing on our efforts to achieve peace and equanimity now.
in Buddhism the challenge is to transcend ego, to realize that it is a false construct. The Buddha’s practices encourage us to merge into non-self, universal consciousness, to lose ego entirely.
Author Rami Shapiro says the question “where am I going?” has one of two answers – somewhere or nowhere. The way you answer this question affects how you live, what you believe about Spirit, and how you see yourself.
The “nowhere” option is more in line with the perennial wisdom, the teaching of the world’s mystic traditions. We are already one with the great reality, with the universal unconscious. We have nowhere to go, because we are already there.
This wisdom was exemplified by the 20th century Indian sage Ramana Maharshi. As he lay dying, his students begged him not to go. His response was “where could I go?”
As you consider this question, what do you believe? Somewhere, or nowhere?
Author: Rev. Melanie Eyre, Interfaith Minister
Spiritual Leader of One World Spiritual Center
Founder of North Fulton Interfaith Alliance