Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Can We Be Sure?

A few days ago I got onto the bus and sat down. On the seat next to me was a small pamphlet with the back cover facing upwards. It didn’t take me long to realize it was a religious tract. I flipped it over and alas, it was. The title of this particular one was “Can We Be Sure?” and its cover had numerous arrows pointing upwards and downwards. It became quite evident that the topic within was the afterlife.

The first sentence (no pun intended) that greeted me was “Can we be sure we’ll spend eternity in heaven?” This is immediately followed by: “Many people say you can’t be sure. Are they right? Does spending eternity in heaven or hell have to remain uncertain until it’s too late?”

The middle part of the booklet is made up of the story of Queen Victoria of England, and how she wanted to be sure of where she would be in the afterlife. She made an inquiry to the chaplain at a cathedral, but he didn’t know how to be sure. Upon hearing of her question, an evangelist of the time sent the Queen a letter, humbly asking her read John 3:16 and Romans 10: 9-10.

Most people with a passing knowledge of the Bible know the first verse, and the second one is similar. A fundamentalist interpretation of these verses suggests that in order to be assured of a place in a literal Heaven in the afterlife, one must believe that Jesus Christ’s death served as payment for our sins and that he rose from the dead.

The pamphlet notes, by the way, that the Queen wrote him back and said that she did read the verses and that she was now sure. It also states that “the way of salvation is the same for a queen or a common citizen.”

Hmm, where to begin? The rest of this particular piece will not exist in order to rebut the idea of a literal Hell, mostly because I have written about this in other pieces, and partially because I don’t particularly like the word “rebut,” as if we were talking about plastic surgery on one’s posterior. But briefly, I’ll state again that when I think about the words Heaven and Hell, I think about things that we experience in this life, external things that happen to us, or internal peace or unrest.

Instead of discussing Heaven and Hell, I return to the beginning, as that’s a very good place to start. The question was asked, “Can we be sure we’ll spend eternity in heaven?” My first question is: “Does it matter that much to you? Do you spend a lot of time thinking about it?” Perhaps you think about it a lot if you grew up in a church, because it tends to be talked about quite a bit in some churches. And if you didn’t, perhaps you don’t spend a lot of time thinking about Heaven and Hell. I think regardless of your (in)experience with religion, probably everyone thinks of the end of his or her life from time to time.

But can we be sure, I mean really sure? (Remember the deodorant commercial from a few years ago that repeated over and over “Sure? Unsure?” People were comfortable raising their arms in public or being close to other people on the bus if they were wearing this particular product, and if not they weren’t comfortable. Anyways, enough about that.) Personally, I don’t think that anyone can be absolutely sure what happens when they die, because no one has died, taken a video camera into Hell or Heaven, and came back and shown it on Larry King Live. Some people have had near-death experiences, or say that they’ve had experiences when they’ve briefly been dead in an emergency room or on an operating table, but you’re not completely sure. They very well could be telling the truth, or it could be a unique experience to them, or they could have eaten some underdone potato. Many have written about the afterlife – I’m thinking about religious books particularly, and many view these as literal and without possibility of error.

But personally, I don’t think we can be entirely sure. And you know, that’s okay with me, I’m quite comfortable with it. I have my hands full with this life, and find that I have little time to worry about the next one.

And I think that living life unsure of a definite answer to this question and many others can be a great thing. Yes, for some it can be scary, because they’d prefer solid answers to their questions; this provides a level of security. But there are those who, though it can lead them into a certain amount of discomfort, find that living their life is more about wrestling with the questions and coming up with personally true and personally believable answers than making sure they’ve found a one, solid answer. They prefer to explore all kinds of possibilities.

It requires an openness, a boldness, and a deep trust in yourself that no matter where you are or where you go on your way, you’ll be alright, you’ll be okay. The openness and boldness that this kind of life requires also opens the doorway to new discoveries, new truth, and fulfilling, truly personal growth.

I hope today finds you doing well and that you will experience peace and confidence on your journey, wherever you may be today.