“If we’ve only got one life, if we’ve only got one try, if time was never on our side, then before I die I wanna burn out bright.” —Switchfoot, ‘Burn Out Bright’ on Oh! Gravity.
The idea of Heaven as described in Sabbath school never had great appeal for me. Even as a child, the notion of bouncing on clouds, playing an endless scales on the harp, and singing praises to a god with nothing better to do than be worshiped seemed both boring and unproductive. I remember lamenting the eternal lack of autumn, my favorite season, since there was supposed to be no death in the new world. By the time I was eleven or twelve I wondered how a perfect world could any good stories in it, since all good stories are built around conflict, and conflict implies imperfection. (To see what I was raised to believe about death and the afterlife, check out the ‘Fundamental Beliefs’ 25-28 of the Adventist church.)
My flawed childhood expectations kept me from seeing the great appeal in Heaven when I was younger. Now I simply don’t feel that I need the concept for my life to have hope and meaning. Of course, like most people, I want to persist in the universe. But I don’t really fear death anymore. Instead it is dying–the passive state of slipping away, feeling my consciousness fade for the last time–that disturbs me.
I like action. It’s part of the reason I took up sports as a kid. Flag football, basketball, track and field, soccer–they all had their own unique appeal, but collectively they provided me with the thrill of a countdown, minutes to help or hurt my team, seconds to score. I wasn’t exactly a star, but I enjoyed the game. When I was in high school I used to tell my parents that I wished I’d been born in the 1960s so that I could’ve taken part in the great social movements of the era. Having studied history in college I am extremely grateful that I wasn’t born in any other time, but my desire for revolution, for massive displays of optimism, and fearless attempts at problem solving is still there. And I’ve learned to embrace the urgency of the countdown. I’ve been given what every athlete craves, the go ahead to get off the bench and get in the game: consciousness.
I don’t know what I believe about life after death, but I feel sure of two things: if there is nothing, then I have to make the most of life while I live; and if there is something beyond the grave that is shining and perfect, Elysium or Heaven, then all the work to be done is now. Either way, the only thing I can know about for sure, the only thing I can affect, is my now.
“If you are aware of a state which you call ‘is,’ or reality, or life, this implies another state called ‘isn’t,’ or illusion, or unreality, or nothingness, or death. There it is, you can’t know one without the other. And so, as to make life poignant, it’s always got to come to an end. That is exactly…what makes it lively. Liveliness is change, is motion.”
Related articles (of various perspectives):
- Proof of Heaven (psychologytoday.com)
- A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife (gaylekimball.wordpress.com)
- Grieving as an Atheist (richarddawkins.net)
- Thoughts of Death (deideismusings.com)
- Greater Things In Store… (iamrichardreed.wordpress.com)