Revisit: The Afterlife: A Sober Look

Image from What If?

Image from What If?

[First posted in 2012, part of a series from one book.


This is the final chapter of the MUST READ book earlier recommended, entitled The Death of Death by Neil Gillman. When you read this concluding chapter, you will be curious enough to wish to read more, and hopefully you will secure a copy of this book, it is worth the buy! A post linked to this:

Reformatted for posting; highlighting ours.—Admin1]






Chapter X:  What do I believe?



MOST OF THIS book has reviewed Jewish teachings on the afterlife from the Bible to our own day.  The tone was deliberately dispassionate; our goal was to study the most significant Jewish statements on the afterlife, to come as close as possible to unearthing their literal meaning, and to trace the evolution of the doctrine through the centuries.



That part of our task has been accomplished.  What remains is a very different kind of inquiry.  We now must ask:



  • What does all of this mean for us today?
  • How are we to understand it?
  • What are we to believe?


These questions demand not dispassionate objectivity, but existential testimony.  The believing Jew must present his or her own beliefs about the afterlife as clearly and coherently as possible and argue for their validity.  Others must then determine whether this personal statement works for them as well.



My Data



One of the unexpected results of my delving into this issue has been my growing awareness that the theological and philosophical literature on the afterlife by Jews and non-Jews in the past two decades is simply overwhelming.  No single volume can encompass it all.  Before I proceed to discuss my own conclusions, the reader deserves to know what data I have chosen to ignore—and why.



  • First, I have chosen to ignore many of the arguments for and against human immortality that are couched in the language of academic philosophy and psychology.  These arguments deal with an analysis of how moderns can speak meaningfully of the human soul, its possible relationship or non-relationship with the human body, its origins and its ultimate destiny, and the implications of all of this for notions of bodily resurrection and spiritual immortality.  This kind of argumentation, however interesting it may be in a scholarly setting, assumes a grounding in classical philosophical literature and is difficult to convey to readers without such a background.  It is primarily the intelligent and concerned lay reader that this volume hopes to reach.
  • Second, I have chosen, with a much greater sense of guilt, to ignore the literature that finds convincing arguments for immortality in the wide range of experiences commonly denoted as “New Age.”  I concede the value of being open to the entire range of human experience, yet I remain unconvinced by the evidence of parapsychology, near-death experiences, and alleged communications between the dead and the living.  I acknowledge the bias that leads me to be skeptical of these claims. But fortunately for the reader who does not share this skepticism, there is a wealth of easily accessible published material that does take this data seriously.
  • Third, I tend to minimize the popular notion that one’s immortality rests in the memories one leaves behind, in the impact of one’s life on friends, family and community, in children and grandchildren, in the institutions one helped build, the students one taught or the books one published.
    • I am fully aware that my identity has been shaped by biological factors that predate me by millennia.  I know that my more immediate ancestors had a decisive impact on my psychological make-up.  I also share a Jewish communal memory that dates back, at least, to the biblical Abraham and Sarah.  Some of those who succeed me on earth will in turn be shaped by who I was, by the life I lived and the values I affirmed.  This is a kind of immortality, and for many, it is quite sufficient.
    • It is not sufficient for me, however, largely because this view does not acknowledge my concrete individuality as I experience during my life here on earth.  According to the view that my immortality is fulfilled through succeeding generations, my immortality merges with that of the countless others who share in shaping the identity of those who follow us.  Judaism, on the other hand provides me with a doctrine of the afterlife that affirms that despite the influence on me of countless others, I remain a totally distinct and individualized human being.  It is precisely this individualized existence that is most precious to God and that God will preserve for eternity.  We shall quote below, the claim of the Mishnah that though we are all shaped in the image of the single person that God created at the outset, each of us is different from the other.  Each of us can say:  “For my sake was the world created.”  Moreover, when that individual person dies, he or she dies, and there will never be another precisely like him or her.  The burning question remains:  Is that death the final word on the destiny of that individual?  Judaism argues that it is not, and I agree.
    • I will reconstruct a Jewish understanding of the afterlife out of our classical sources, but one that is also congruent with our contemporary understanding of religious thinking and language.  Also, in much of what follows, I will be drawing on the work of the contemporary thinkers that I discussed in the previous chapter.



The Reality of Death



To deal with the question of the afterlife means, first of all, to accept the reality of death.  This may appear incongruous because, at least in the popular imagination, notions of an afterlife seem to be designed precisely to challenge the reality fo death.  Not so!  The very opposite is the case.  What doctrines of the afterlife do challenge is the finality of death, the view that death represents the end point of our individual destiny and of our individual relationship with God, not its reality.  The distinction between the reality of death and its finality may be subtle, but it is crucial.  It may even be argued that until we have fully accepted the fact that our death is real, there is no reason for us to even consider whether or not we have an afterlife.



Note that even scientists such as Dr. Sherwin Nuland (whose thinking we discussed in the first chapter) accept the reality of death, while rejecting its finality.  They believe that, like plants and animals, all humans live on in the broader ecosystem:  We die . . . so that others may live.  The tragedy of a single individual becomes, in the balance of natural things, the triumph of ongoing life.



I will never appreciate the full power of what Judaism says about my afterlife until I fully accept the fact if my death.  Not simply death in the abstract, not my all-too-human mortality, not simply the acknowledgement that all living things must eventually die, but precisely my death in all its painful concreteness.  If I never really die why worry about an afterlife?  It is precisely because I live daily with an impending awareness that I will soon live no more that the question of what will happen to me after I die presses upon me.  And that it does so with increasing urgency the closer I come to the end of my days.

All living things eventually die, but only human beings live with the awareness of their death.  This is the terrifying paradox at the heart of human existence:  We are animals who are yet conscious of our animal nature.  We live an animal-like existence:  We eat, drink and mate.  Yet, we have self-consciousness.  We are aware of our bodily functions and can control them.  And we think, value and feel.  We are capable of love and generosity, guilt and despair.  We can search the mysteries of nature and create great art.  We can even spin theories about our afterlife (as I am doing right now).  Yet we die the death of animals.



William James calls death “the worm at the core of all our usual springs of delight.”  The fact that we can die, that we can be ill at all, is what perplexes us . . . . We need a life not correlated with death, a health not liable to illness, a kind of good that will not perish, a good that flies beyond the Goods of nature.



To live with the constant awareness of that paradox is well nigh impossible, which is why most of us work desperately to deny it.  But such denial is increasingly difficult to maintain, as we age or become mortally ill.

How i deal with my death is crucial to how I deal with my life.  That is what lends the issue of my afterlife even greater urgency.  Discussing the afterlife is not simply determining what will happen to me in some indefinite future; it affects how I live today.  If my death is an integral part of the larger reality which constitutes my life, then to deal with my life demands that I deal with my death.  Of course, I can also avoid the larger issue of my life’s meaning; most of us do.  But one who is not satisfied with simply living day by day without a broader purpose, without a sense of what it means to live as a human being, or of how a human life-experience coheres and acquires significance, will eventually have to confront his or her death and integrate that fact into the broader structure that constitutes the life that one is living.

No more than any other human being do I know what will happen to me after I die.  But what I believe will happen to me after I die affects how I lead my life today.  That is why the issue of my afterlife presses upon me now.



[Next:  Religion and the Afterlife]

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