After reading my friend Jerry Ford’s thoughts on the thoughts of physicist Stephen Hawking’s regarding the afterlife, I was compelled to reply. I feel this post is best served writing from the Jewish side of me, after all, this is on the afterlife. But don’t worry, I’m not going to get too biblical. I’ll speak mostly from experience. Please chime in on the comments with whatever you’d like to add.
First, I share the opinion of Jerry Ford and Stephen Hawking. Yes. It’s true. I believe that when it’s time to do the dirt dance, push up the daisies, or kick the bucket, that’s it. There’s no dreamy land called heaven, no tortuous place known as hell, and we don’t spend time in a place called purgatory until our judgment is completed. Though after seeing Family Guy’s thoughts on the subject, it doesn’t seem terrible, but it doesn’t seem great either.
Not being one to develop theological opinions from Family Guy, I digress.
Second, while I believe that once you die that’s it as far as your experiences go, I do not believe that is the end. Jews believe in something called Olam Ha-ba, the World to Come. In short and simple terms, this is when the Messiah rules the world in peace and harmony, and everything is made new and perfect. It’s the whole lion and lamb lying down together that you’ve heard about since you were a child. There are those that say it begins once you die, but personally I’m of the opinion that this is what we experience at the resurrection. (As a side note, this is also for righteous non-Jews—you don’t have to be a member of the tribe to get in.) This can get a little confusing, so I’ll spend a little time on it.
First, I said when you die that’s it. Then I said the opinion is that the Olam Ha-ba begins when you die. Here’s how I think about it. It’s like surgery, or one of those really, really good naps where you’re awake, then you’re asleep, then you’re suddenly waking up without any knowledge of sleepy-time passing in between. No dreams, no tossing and turning, no nothing. Awake, asleep, awake. It’s a frighteningly seamless transition from life, to death, and to life again. This process, well the waking up again, is the resurrection, or the restoration of life to a reconstituted body.
Now the Christians have gone and made this theirs, and us Jews don’t like to talk about it much because it so quickly gets confused with their religion and some guy that we’re still getting blamed for killing 2,000 years ago. So I’ll say it here that Jews invented this concept of a resurrection. It’s Jewish and there’s nothing Christian about it, and that’s that. Sorry to get all theological at that point, but I felt it was necessary to better explain my perspective.
Now for my last point (which consists of a couple of sub-points)… with respect to Jerry Ford and Stephen Hawking (did I just use their names together?), I believe that saying “this one life is the only shot we’ve got and that’s it” just kind of sucks the life out of everything. There are a few reasons I believe that there has to be something more to life than matter and energy, and continuing with the Jewish reasoning, I’ll phrase them as questions.
Why do we have such a curiosity and capacity to learn if ultimately it will all perish? It seems kind of like a waste to me. Sure, there’s the life is a journey not a destination thing, but doesn’t that journey have to have an ultimate purpose? Otherwise it’s just a terribly and grossly inefficient use and perverted waste of energy. There’s got to be a reason for it, right? I don’t understand why we would have that capacity if there were no greater purpose.
How do we explain the mystical things we experience? Ghosts, psychic experiences, UFOs, rainbows, unicorns… Where do our legends and folklore come from that belie explanation? It’s not that a person experiences them, but that the experiences are so consistent across time and space that makes the phenomena interesting.
Isn’t it okay to have fairy tales? What’s wrong if it makes our lives easier to bear by giving us hope? Life can be hard, cruel, and merciless. It takes effort to see the good in and make the most of, in spite of whatever situation we may find ourselves. If there’s a belief system that gives someone hope for something better and makes that person a little nicer to boot, then hell, go for it.
In conclusion, and most importantly, regardless of your thoughts of the afterlife or lack thereof, much credit has to be given to the answer Stephen Hawking gave to the question, “So here we are. What do we do?”
We should seek the greatest value of our action.
There is nothing more important than this thing, that we make the world a better place, and make the most of what we have. In fact, it’s a very Jewish answer (but that’s for another post). While I am a man of faith, and as such have a belief in the hereafter, Judaism is a faith that does not focus on death. After all, no one has come back to tell us about it. We focus on making this world better. And it’s something that we can all do regardless of our faith, or lack thereof. This is a worthy endeavor for us all—may we all pursue it with passion and purpose.