My dear friend confided that she finds it difficult to believe in life after death. She’s not alone. Such belief is a stretch for many of us. I instinctively knew that it wouldn’t help to quote religious dogma about life after death. I instead said that how we answer that question has to take into account that death is a final horizon beyond which none of us can see. Literal notions of Heaven and Hell can get in the way. Our faith and how it informs our lives is what’s important.
Irish, poet philosopher John O’Donohue reflects on being a child and looking up at the mountain near their village. He imagined standing on that mountain and being able to see the whole world. He was very excited on the day when his uncle invited him to come with him to bring his sheep over that mountain. He remembers, “As we climbed up the mountain and came to where I thought the horizon would be, it had disappeared. Not only was I not able to see everything when I got there, but another horizon was waiting, farther on. I was disappointed but also excited in an unfamiliar way. Each new level revealed a new world.”
According to German philosopher Hans Georg Gadamer, “A horizon is something toward which we journey, but it is also something that journeys along with us.” O’Donohue reflects, “If you are striving to be equal to your destiny and worthy of the possibilities that sleep in the clay of your heart, then you should be regularly reaching new horizons. Against this perspective, death can be understood as the final horizon. Beyond there, the deepest well of your identity awaits you. In that well, you will behold the beauty and light of your eternal face.”
What’s temporal is caught up in the eternal—that’s real. Sure, we can’t see beyond the final horizon of death (it’s a mystery) but we can have confidence that we’ll be part of the eternal life of God. I find it helpful to relate this to the fact that we’re creatures of time and space.
O’Donohue writes, “It’s a strange and magical fact to be here, walking around in a body, to have the whole world within you and a world at your fingertips outside you.” Yet our bodily existence also entails separation. “I am here. You are there. Even the person that you are closest to, the one you love, is still a separate world from you. That is the poignancy of love.” Likewise, our lives are defined by time. “Time is primarily linear, disjointed, and fragmented. All your past days have disappeared; they have vanished. The future has not come to you yet. All you have is the little stepping-stone of the present moment.” It’s what mystics call the eternal now.
In the words of the Apostle Paul, “The things that can be seen don’t last, but the things that can’t be seen are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:18). O’Donohue considers, “In eternal time all is now; time is presence. I believe that this is what eternal life means: It is a life where all that we seek—goodness, unity, beauty, truth, and love—are no longer distant from us but are completely present with us.” (Anam Ċara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom, 215-229).
This does not directly answer my friend’s skepticism but it does give us added perspective on our hope in the eternal.