WHAT awaits every person after death is something no one truly knows. Communities of believers have held in faith that there is an afterlife. Philosophically, however, no one really knows with certitude what is beyond the grave. It is practically a dimension inaccessible by all the living.
Neither science nor religion, any religion for that matter, can tell us with absolute certitude what’s out there. That is why the concerns of “eschatology” (a branch of theology dealing with the last things) are not the concerns of science. This is not to say that heaven and hell are meaningless concepts. They are meaningful concepts within one’s system of belief. Life after death, the judgment on the soul, heaven, and hell are meaningful statements in relation to faith and hope.
Precisely why the interpretations and perspectives on after life differ. Not everyone believes in the resurrection. But the same is true with reincarnation. The belief in reincarnation also differs among religions. In Hinduism, it is clear that there is “atman” (the soul) whose ultimate goal is oneness with Brahman (the ultimate reality). This is not the case though with Buddhism where the reality of the soul is denied. The soul is, in fact, an illusion just as this life is.
Our beliefs are otherworldly, but we are basically a “people of this world.” This only means that the interpretations of “the-other-world” come from this world. Thus, such interpretations are as varied and diverse as there are interpreters and their cultures and even socio-political and economic contexts. We are all beings of hope but we hope differently.
This is the time of the year when once again we lift our eyes to the heavens as we honor all the saints. We bow or look down on the graves of those whose destinies we truly don’t know but only pray with hope that the God we believe in would in his power raise them back to life on the last day.
In a much deeper sense, our commemoration of the saints and the souls is actually for the living. In the face of someone’s departure, we are lost. Something has ended. Something very essential has gone. The living can continue living. But usually this is easier said than done. The difficult question to answer is what now of the “relationship” between the one who has left and the other one who continues to stay? What now of the hopes of those who are left behind, and what about those who have gone ahead?
Life is too dry to just say that death ends all relationships. Human existence always has these “deep longings.” When looking into these deep longings either we see an abyss or a tunnel towards eternity. The afterlife, expressed in its various forms and explanations across time and cultures, is the ultimate symbol of this hope. It is, to borrow the words of Joseph Ratzinger, “it is not that [we] know the details of what awaits [us], but [at least we] know in general terms that [our] life will not end in emptiness.”