Good Questions: What Happens When We Die?

Reflections from Dr. Howell

When I was preparing for this Good Questions series, the #1 question directed to me was What Happens to us when we Die? I wonder if there are at least 3 questions tucked inside there: What is the act of dying itself like? What is my death like for those left behind? And then, What happens to me after death – if anything?

That “if anything” is huge. It could be (and nobody can really prove otherwise) that when you die, you’re just dead, nothing left but memories, stories, photos of you, maybe a little inheritance. That’s what the Israelites believed in Old Testament times. We could ask, If this life is all there is, would you just misbehave? Or would you be motivated to be nobler? No Easy Answer to this quandary.

Dying itself: I’ve seen people slip away very peacefully, even joyfully. And I’ve seen others in much pain and barely hidden terror. I like the Catholic rosary’s ask of Mary: “Pray for us, now and in the hour of our death.” Does faith in God’s presence, a firm sense of being embraced in the loving, even if invisible arms of God make that hour more bearable, even beautiful?

Those we leave behind: this seems the saddest aspect of dying – not just for those left to grieve but for the one slipping away. To leave those who make living worth living: was Juliet right? “Parting is such sweet sorrow.” Don’t many who die grieve what they will miss? Or does God swiftly give them the realization that they aren’t entirely leaving us behind, but that they will delight in being with us in fresh, mystical ways? Is God’s grace powerful and beautiful enough to hold the departed near us, not just in our memories, but in some unseen but tender presence?

So then, what happens to us, for us, once we’ve died? We’ve poked around on questions of which “direction” you might take, up or down… If there is some reality after death, there’s a sticky question of time, and then questions of what eternal life will be like.

Do we zoom directly into heaven? Or is there a long wait until the end of time? Jesus told the thief on the cross “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). But then Paul speaks of those who’ve died as sleeping (1 Thessalonians 4:13). Martin Luther wryly explained that “We shall sleep until He comes and knocks on our little grave, saying, ‘Martin, get up!’ Then I shall rise in a moment and be eternally merry with Him.” Are our loved ones with God now?

I think this puzzle is solved if we envision time like a large cabinet. We’re inside the cabinet of time, sensing now, then another now, time moving left to right inside the cabinet of time. But God is outside of time. For God, all time is simultaneous, yesterday, 10,000 years ago, 4 hours or 10,000 years from now. When we die, we step out of the cabinet of time. Eternity, life with God once time is no more, is now, just as it will be now when I exit time, same as when my grandparents did decades ago. To us on the inside it seems far off; but for the saints, as for God, that future is now. To us it seems like a long nap; but beyond time the awakening has happened.

What will that fully awakened, eternal life be like? Will we get to continue doing the fun things we’ve loved, and with the people we’ve adored? The Bible prods the imagination, inviting us to dream of something far better, an existence that boggles the mind. Words fail the writers of Scripture, so they resort to kaleidoscopic images of what’s too fantastic to depict in mere human words. The gate is a pearl. The light is so brilliant, no shadows are cast. The city is a cube, the streets are gold. C.S. Lewis reminded us that our wildest imaginations of the grandeur are “guesses, of course, only guesses. If they are not true, something better will be.”

We’ll say more in our next emails, including if there’s a Judgment Day, and if Purgatory might be a thing. For now, let me underline that eternal life (a) isn’t automatic, (b) it’s not a reward for a life well-lived or for believing earnestly, (c) it’s entirely a gift from God, and (d) it’s not actually about us. It’s about God. More to come! Stay tuned.