Here’s the hustle of bad religion: The scarier religion makes death (and what comes after it), the more you buy into their message, and the more you’re obedient to their precepts. So much of our death shaming comes from the temples, holy books, and firey teachers of religion that have to heighten your fear to garner your obedience. Death, and what comes after it, has to be horrible to make it all work. On the other hand, once you lose your fear of death (and fear of hell), bad religion loses its power over your mind, and you can gravitate towards healthy religion or none at all.
When the reality of hell comes to a head at funerals, I don’t think we actually think anyone goes to hell. Sure, many religious people believe in hell, but few actually believe THEIR family and THEIR friends and THEIR community go there. I write in my book, that of the thousands of funerals I’ve worked, “I have never once heard a pastor state conclusively that the person they are memorializing was going to hell … pastors have done some fancy preaching for those who have lived less than generous, kind, and loving lives.” Hell may exist as an idea, but — for most — it doesn’t exist as a reality.
Maybe it’s time we jettison the idea too. I mean, have you read some of the ideas of hell? They’re so horrible it’s almost funny. It’s like stuff made up to scare to children …
One. In Dante’s Inferno (a great book that Disney should animate [fingers-crossed]), there are a whole lot of scare-the-disobedience-out-of-you descriptions of hell. My personal favorite? If you were a flatterer in life, you will live in a sea of poop when you die … which means that politicians (who are known to be full of crap) will go to a place as shitty as their promises.
Two. Also of note in Dante’s Inferno: If you commit suicide, you’re turned into a living thorn bush that is constantly eaten by birds. I have not idea if such a punishment is even painful (I mean, maybe I want to be eaten by birds if I’m full of thorns because at least I’m not entirely isolated by my thorniness), but I do know these special types of punishment for suicide helped create the shame culture surrounding suicide. Let’s be clear: suicide (and suicidal attempts) does not deserve punishment from us, or the gods.
Three. Chinese Taoism has a hell funhouse that consists of 19 levels with varying degrees of mutilation. In one such level, you get thrown off a cliff where you’ll eventually land on a ground made of knives. To review: if the impact from falling off a cliff doesn’t kill you, the knives will.
Four. Taoism has another level where you’re continuously dismembered, and THEN crushed by giant rocks, and THEN fed through dismemberment machines, and THEN run over by chariots … just in case the dismemberment, rocks, and machines didn’t hurt enough.
Five. Niflheim in Norse mythology is probably the version that frightens me the most because instead of being hot, it’s VERY, VERY cold. My greatest fear — aside from the existential void of meaninglessness — is not having enough blankets on a cold night. To make Niflheim even more frightening, they added a snake that goes around eating people. Extreme cold. Deadly snakes. Yikes.
Six. Now the Jewish “Gehenna” has some teeth to it. “Gehenna” was a place outside of Jerusalem. At one point in the history of Judaism, some Jewish kings decided to worship the god Moloch, who — didn’t demand wheat, goats, and money like the “nice” gods of the ancients — but babies. They’d heat up a large skillet and threw their children into the skillet in sacrifice to Moloch. When “Gehenna” was mentioned throughout the Bible, the image of hot skillets and burning children is the image that would be conjured in the minds of the Jews.
Seven. Moving on from Gehenna, I present to you Diyu, the Chinese hell with 18 different levels, with each level having a different torture chamber, all of which sound like an S&M dungeon. There’s the chamber of ripping, the chamber of knives, the chamber of ice, the chamber of pounding, and the chamber of uncomfortably tight latex.
Eight. The Babylonians clearly didn’t understand the political value of hell. In fact, it sounds like they were just a bunch of self-loathing Calvinists who believed that all of us deserve it. Because, for the Babylonians, everyone — from the best to the worst — ended up going to the bad place.
Nine. Avici was hell for certain sects of Buddism. It wasn’t eternal like some of the Christian versions, but it still lasted trillions of years. But, unlike most other hells, YOU COULD ACTUALLY DIE IN AVICI. Unfortunately, you’d be reborn in the same place only to suffer torment unto death all over again. It’s basically Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day as a horror movie.
Ten. One of the Hindu ideas of hell is called “Narak”, a place of 23 different levels of torture. One such level consists of constant diarrhea. I’ve been to Mexico. I’ve had Montezuma’s Revenge, and it’s not all that horrible. But have you ever had to do a number three and there was no toilet in sight? That. Is. Living. Hell. And if that’s what Narak consists of, I’m truly frightened and I’ll be a good boy to avoid it.
I don’t believe that afterlife hell exists. If you do believe in it, I hope you’ve grown out of it. In other words, I hope that hell doesn’t have a hold on you because this is literally the control system of immature children, or disobedient dogs. It’s the most base form of human motivation: fear. And as long as we fear death, and what (doesn’t) come after it, we’ll never be able to enjoy life, nor will we ever be able to have a good relationship with death.
Some of this content comes from my book, “Confessions of a Funeral Director.” Click the picture below to read more:
WHY CAN’T HUMANS BE IMMORTAL?
There are some animals that don’t show signs of aging. These animals don’t have a decline in functionality nor do they lack virility. This characteristic is called “negligible senescence (or negligible aging)” and is seen in the Rougheye rockfish (which can live up to 205 years), the Ocean Quahog clam (405 years), the Aldabra Giant Tortoise (255 years) and lobsters, which some scientists believe can live the longest of the above list.
Then there are creatures that are biologically immortal. These creatures are not immortal in the “can never die” sense, they simply have no cellular senescence and would live “forever” barring disease or injury. Although, theoretically, there is an aging plateau for these creatures that occurs from exterior damage, not from internal dying.
Biologically immortal creatures include the Turritopsis nutricula Jellyfish, Hydra, some lobsters, and planarian flatworms.
If the lobster can have eternal cell reproduction, and the Giant Tortoise has negligible senescence, why can’t humanity?
This question is being asked by fringe think tanks like the American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine, the Methuselah Foundation and the Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence. It’s being asked because scientists like Marios Kyriazis are suggesting that negligible senescence is inevitable and biological immortality is likely in humans.
OUR FIGHT WITH NATURE
The history of humanity has been defined by our relationship with nature. For the majority of our history, nature played lead character in our drama, determining how we lived and how long we lived. Whether it was drought, deluges, famine, earthquakes, prosperity, fertility, such was the force of nature that humanity sought for ways to bargain with the capricious Mother of life and death. We invented gods. Gods that we believed controlled weather. Gods who controlled fertility. And we sought to offer sacrifices of livestock and obedience if only to move the gods in our favor.
The dawn of our Enlightenment came when we realized that gods weren’t the puppeteers behind the workings of the world, but that world’s workings were made of realities that we could manipulate through science, technology and medicine. This epic discover in the history of humanity began to level the playing field with nature. No longer did we need our gods; today, we bow to science, and science responds to our sacrifices.
BIOLOGICAL IMMORALITY: THE HOPE OF MANY
The last enemy remains untouched. For 1,000s of years, we’ve dreamed of not just living healthy lives, but lives that continue indefinitely, in this world or another. From the Tree of Life to the Fountain of Youth, men and women – for reasons greedy and benevolent – have sought some form of life eternal. And what the gods could not give to our physical bodies, we now, once again fix our hopes on science.
Who wouldn’t want immortality? Isn’t this the end that ALL of us are seeking? Isn’t it an innate desire planted within each of us?
Heaven and its various forms have motivated thousands of souls towards acts of glory and acts of … well … acts like the Crusades. Many of us are on a search to rediscover Eden.
What will happen if we get what we want?
What will happen if/when we engineer a pill/a medication/a five calorie juice drink that creates negligible senescence?
What happens when we produce Methuselahs on a regular basis?
What if Jesus’ view of heaven … of eternal life … happened … here … on earth?
MORTALITY DEFINES OUR HUMANITY
While biological immortality is certainly tempting, it is our morality that creates our humanity. While greed and wars can be attributed to the violent fulfillment of our needy and fragile state, it’s also our empathy, our desire to create and reproduce and charity that is undergirded by the fact that we are mortal. Remove our mortality, and our humanity is likewise removed.
I do not know whether the advancement in bionics, medicine and artificial intelligence will fulfill our quest for immortality. I don’t know what such immortality would look like. And I don’t know if will be positive or negative. But, I DO know that if a kind of immortality takes place, those who become “eternal” will cease to be the species of human that we know today. Mortality is such a defining characteristic of humanity that to remove it makes “us” into something entirely different. It is that next evolutionary step.
If ever such a “Methuselah Pill” is manufactured, it will probably also be marketed. It will be bought and sold by the powerful few who will amass their wealth and power over hundreds of years, creating a race of legitimate superhumans.
Such a race could/will rule the world.
Death as we know it is humanity’s accountability. You can only become so powerful in one lifetime. Your hatred can only last so long. Death, in many ways, is humanity’s greatest grace.
Yes, the world as we know it exists because of death. Death defines our way of life. And while I’m sure that if we’d have the ability to create a “Methuselah Pill” that we’d have the tech to solve overpopulation and the other sundry problems. A whole new world would come into existence. A world where the prevalence of immortality could only be rivaled by the lack of immorality.
A world with human immortality is a world we can’t fully comprehend. It would be a world of gods. A new race … a new stage in the evolution of mankind.
And all this begs the question: Do we REALLY want biological immortality?
Today’s guest post is written by PreetamDas Kirtana
It always seems to be assumed that if we knew, actually knew when we were going to die or if we could get in touch in a visceral way of how short our time is that we would suddenly be, if not more productive, definitely more generous, more forgiving, and more loving. There’s a dozen or so modern little refrigerator magnet adages meant, I think, to inspire. There’s the classic: “Today is the first day of the rest of your life,” which, frankly, always just made me feel exhausted every time that I heard it, not inspired.
Sometimes I’m not sure that all of the Hallmark presents-Touched by an Angel-lives miraculously transformed after near death experiences aren’t the spiritual equivalent of high fructose corn syrup; a great high and a completely malevolent diet. Another classic handicap meant to inspire, of course, is “Live each day like it’s your last.” This assumption that this knowledge of our death would suddenly compel everyone to finally feed the hungry, not cut off other drivers in traffic, and tip their server takes too much for granted I’m afraid; namely assuming our innate goodwill and integrity.
At the risk of admitting even a little bit of my humanity and a fraction of my capacity for inhumanity, I’m not totally convinced that if I Knew that this was the last day of my life that that would necessarily inspire me to act with the um, higher good in mind. Maybe I’m the only asshole here, I don’t know, but assure me that this day is the last day of my life and feeding the hungry may not even cross my mind, but eating more of whatever I want is virtually guaranteed. I would probably not only be tempted to cut off whoever I wanted to in traffic, but there’s also the chance that I’d give in to the previously only fleeting flirtation to exact revenge on someone who cut me off by just going ahead and ramming their car. Tipping the server could possibly depend not on their fine dining serving skills and not even on just how cute they were, but possibly, on how graciously they lied after I slept with them. Hey, I know; it takes a big man to admit he’s at least a good quarter pig.
All of these messages frequently appear to be predicated on the presumed present-time benefits of life after death. The thinking seems to be that if we just absolutely knew that we’re eternal beings and that we are just one flattening by a city bus away from suddenly leaving here and rocketing to wherever “there” is, that we’d shape up. We’d be like Ebeneezer Scrooge and let the spirits do it all in one night. We’d be changed people; people changed for the better.
But what if?
What if maybe there are some benefits in believing that you’re Not eternal. Maybe this is sometimes where atheists may arguably, have a perspective worth considering, as they focus so much on the present. It’s a great day-to-day, practical, relational theology, well, belief system; sorry. It’s worth considering, if at least, a true, present time, real life living out of “doing unto others”, rather than a constant focus on hell avoidance, heaven entry, and sin management, isn’t one of the better ideologies no matter where it’s lived out, in addition to The Beatitudes, of course; but clearly no one wants to really even talk about them.
Of course, I don’t think that I could personally be an atheist again as I’ve witnessed too much grace and mercy in my own life and first hand in the lives of others to believe otherwise. While my evolving answers may not ever exactly match anyone else’s theology profile, I do believe. As I told a friend last Easter who asked if I really believed in resurrection, “I do believe in resurrection, and not only because Jesus rose from the tomb, but because I left the house today; because I got out of bed today. Because I’m standing here, now, with my head up talking about resurrection is enough reason to continue to believe in resurrection.”
While atheists may deny the Source of Grace that believers proclaim, it’s undeniable that, too often, atheists may do a better job of living grace while making no profession at all. It’s worth noting that they don’t seem to eat their own so consistently and with such relish. I wonder if “faith without works is dead, what, then, are works without faith? Maybe not a ticket to Heaven City with it’s golden streets and virgins, if that’s your belief system, but it sure does make this place, this day-to-day, this day with your coworker, with your neighbor, your spouse, your children, even your ex-, a lot more pleasant. Perhaps, it could even be a mustard seed beginning for the prophesied New heaven and New earth; a return to the garden with the banquet table where confession and compassion are more important than what we profess.
But, for some of us, maybe the very real pressure of believing “This is It. Period.” is as motivational for us as the religionist’s fear of eternal hellfire is for them. Hindus and Christians, among other religious traditions, believe in some kind of life again later. Personally, I find this belief motivational. I mean I think there’s a real element of the kick in the hindquarters that I often need to go ahead and make that apology; maybe resolve that situation now since there’s the risk or guarantee, depending on your tradition, of running in to them Again! Now, I understand that forgiveness, and reconciliation, or any act of ours is not a ticket to heaven. That’s not how grace works. And I would not be treating it as a ticket to heaven, but instead I’d be trying to use it as an assurance that when we did see each other again, that we’d speak.
I admit to laughing when comedian, Daniel Tosh jokes, “It’s like when I meet a girl and she says ‘I’m not reeaaligious, I’m just spirit-chill.’ and he jokes that he would like to say, ‘ I’m not honest, but that’s really interesting.” Brutal? Maybe, but pretty funny and I think, may have a point. Goodness knows I’ve explored at least a few traditions in some depth, even becoming somewhat immersed occasionally. But, it does feel important to pick a path, if only because in following that path we smooth the path, we prepare the way. Author William Paul Young addresses the question of whether all roads lead to God by saying something to the effect of “I don’t know if all roads lead to God. I know that God will use any road to get to us.” I like that. That has been my experience: the experience of how this idea of radical grace and the God that has a furious longing for a relationship with us slowly, incrementally, steadily growing from a shocking idea to tiny moments of getting It in our real life.
Maybe there is more later, something after this;
something better, something divine even.
I hope so.
I believe so.
But just maybe, this is one more situation that isn’t an “either/or” equation.
Even if, or when “heaven”, or the afterlife, or that part of eternity is cued for us,
it doesn’t negate the fact that this exact, particular moment will not happen again,
no matter the truth of eternity.
This moment, that person,
this circumstance, this opportunity,
not like this.
Maybe we can still “be here now”, even if, after this, we will always be somewhere relishing the “out of time” that eternity provides without regrets of being “out of time” in the moment.
No more ideas of time to be “out of”, no more ideas that grace and Love could ever be conditional.
I’ll take That heaven.
– PreetamDas Kirtana 12/17/13
From the video’s creator: “This is an animated self-portrait exploring the idea of rebirth and illustrating the transfer of energy from one incarnation to another. I painted this stop frame animation on myself over 5 days, using some face paints, a mirror and a camera.
I’d like to think there’s truth to this video. I’d like to think there’s a lot of truth to it. In fact, I wonder how much of me, how much of you, is made up of those who have gone before us. That not only our character constitution, but our physical constitution, is inherited from our ancestors. Kum ba yah.
Most people only think about heaven / the afterlife during times of death. So, if you’ve had someone close to you die, you probably have strong opinions about the existence or nonexistence of the afterlife.
And, our opinions are probably wrong.
If heaven exists at all, it – by definition — is much different than what you or I imagine it to be. And while my religion’s scripture (Christianity) has little to say about what heaven is like, it seems that my religion’s preachers – especially the ones at funerals – know much more about it than their Bible.
So, here are eight common ideas about heaven that I think are false.
Heaven is not …
One. An opiate. Like religion, heaven has too often been used as an opiate to blind people to the dismal reality that someone is in fact dead.
Two. It’s probably not about you. It’s selfishness that has made this place so shitty. So, if heaven is better than what exists today, it will probably only happen when we are somehow drawn out of self-absorption by something greater (i.e. God).
Three. A product of subjective validation. If you find heaven meaningful, good for you. But, that doesn’t mean it exists. Just because you like the idea of an eternal life where everything is unicorns and butterflies is not proof for heaven being an actual reality.
Four. Subject to wishful thinking. “In heaven I’m going to have a Ferrari with Kathy Ireland as my wife. I’ll dress her up in My Little Pony outfits and I’ll play Black Ops all day. Oh yeah, and grandpa will be there too and we’ll fly around together on the back of my Pegasus.” Probably not.
Five. A product of communal reinforcement. If the only reason you believe in heaven is because your family believes in heaven and because everybody wants to believe in heaven, you probably haven’t thought about it too much. And any perception you have about heaven probably sucks.
Six. Escapism. Or, an excuse to trash this world because it’s going to be destroyed anyways (some evangelicals believe this.) If anything, I believe in an inaugural eschatology that is bringing heaven to earth as opposed to bringing us earthlings to heaven.
Seven. Hedonism. A place where we can do whatever the hell we want. Yeah, that place – if it exists – is called Las Vegas.
Eight. A certainty. That’s right. It’s a hope, not a certainty. It’s a valid hope during death. It has a valid place in our lives now, but you simply can’t prove its existence empirically. In some sense, we are creating heaven. We are bringing it into existence. And its creation is conditioned on us losing our egotistical outlook. Heaving is becoming, but it’s not a certainty.