“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.” This is the traditional formula for the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday. It raises the question of what happens after death. It is an interesting, indeed intriguing question. The problem is that the most accurate answer we have to this question of what we experience and what happens to us when we die is, “we don’t know.” I suspect that it is a different experience from what we know here, so vastly different that we cannot describe, comprehend, nor understand it.
As an analogy, think of a baby forming in its mother’s womb. And let us, for the sake of argument, say that the baby knows that eventually it will have to leave the womb. Some babies may think that they are going to a bigger, better womb. Some babies may think that this is all there is and when you are born you just cease to be. Some babies may get it into their developing heads that there is a whole new kind of world beyond the womb that is so different from their current experience that they cannot conceive of what it is truly like.
Because I am a Catholic Christian, I think that our situation is like the last: we pass from this life into a whole new way of being that is so different from our ordinary experience here that we cannot talk about it accurately. All we can do is wait and see what it will be like.
But also as a Catholic Christian, I think that there are some things we can say, or postulate, about what happens after we die. First of all it will still be ME. The life that is in me does not simply join into some amorphous pool of life force. What continues after death is something that is still ME, Chuck Kullmann. This is a direct consequence of belief in the resurrection of the dead. In order for the dead to be raised, they have to continue in some way to be who they were in this life. So I believe that we will all be around for a very long time to come! And somehow, what I did and what I failed to do, both good and bad, will have an effect on me in the next life. Just as how a mother takes care of herself, eats well, gets good medical care and so on, or conversely drinks, abuses drugs, gets ill or is traumatized, all affects the child in her womb, so how I have acted and behaved in this life influences me in the next, for both good and ill. But it will be me, Chuck Kullmann. What I do, or what I fail to do, will make a difference in the next life beyond death.
So how we act now is very important. It has consequences that we don’t fully understand, but that are real and very, very long lasting. So it only makes sense to improve our lives now, as such efforts pay eternal dividends!
Next week I will look at judgement and purgatory.