Dear Donagh, would you please say something about the next life? It's something I think about more often lately, and a friend of mine is always raising questions about it. I get the impression that a lot of people don’t believe in it any more, and I don’t rightly know what to think of it myself. Thank you. James P.
Dear James, thanks for your letter. I agree: one hears the question raised more often now than in the past. That is probably because many people have questions and doubts about it now who took it for granted before.
What if I were to say that there is no next life? I'm serious in this sense: life is always in the present, never in the future. The future is not a life, it is only a thought. A recovering alcoholic was telling me recently about his drinking days. One evening in Belfast he entered a pub and to his great surprise he saw a notice over the bar that said, "Free drink here tomorrow!" He could scarcely believe his luck, and told himself that he must be sure to come back to this particular pub tomorrow. He did manage to find it again, and sure enough, there was the sign, "Free drink here tomorrow." The penny didn’t drop, and he asked the barman about this 'free drink'. "Yes, you're in the right place," said the barman, "come back again tomorrow!" Still the penny didn’t drop (alcohol does that to you). On his way to the next pub he passed a library and on an impulse he went in and asked for a dictionary. He looked up the word 'tomorrow', and it said, "the day after today." "That's pure madness!" he said. "There's no day after today! Every day that comes is today!" It was a moment of tremendous clarity for him; it went right to the core of his being and he never drank again. He had been sober for four years when I met him, and he had never slipped in that time. That's what I mean by saying that there is no next life.
Tomorrow is created by the mind, as a way of postponing today. Think of all the gallant things we've promised to do tomorrow! Such promising gives us the impression that we have almost done the things, but we have done nothing but talk about them. Everything real exists in a tremendous Now. We tend to hide this from ourselves by the way we say things - even by the way we translate the texts of the Liturgy. "…And bring us to life everlasting," we say. In the New Testament the word is 'aionios', which should be translated 'eternal'. 'Aionios' does not mean life that goes on and on forever (what a nightmare that would be!); it means 'God's kind of life'. That of course is beyond our imagination, so we settle for something we think we know: time stretched out endlessly. You could say, then, that eternity is not a long time! It is not time at all: it has no duration. So what will happen at death? The mystics say things like: We will be united with God. We will be engulfed in an eternal Now. We will enter the ocean of life, not the drop-by-drop life we experience now. This is something we cannot think clearly about at all, because the very thinking process creates past and future - creates time. But that is by no means the end of it. If clear thinking alone could set our limits, then computers could live our lives better than we can. We have intuition, and passion, and feeling: we are human beings and we know life from the inside. Rational thought is an attempt to view it from the outside. That is a valid perspective in its own right, but it isn't the only one. It's a wonderful thing that people are no longer satisfied with pat answers about 'the next life'. They want to dig down deeply, and when they try to do that they find that it is the same question as the existence of God.
For Christians everything regarding this is underpinned by the resurrection of Jesus. He trusted God so fully, he even lived his death so totally, that "God raised him up." "In him," says the Liturgy, "our hope of resurrection dawned."
I hope you never have this question 'answered', James! An answer is a closing of an account. A question is an opening. To stay teasing this question forever is to stay searching for God. And may God bless your searching.