If you ever want to freak yourself out, just sit there and think hard about what it’s like to be dead. Not “playing a harp in Heaven” dead, or even “roasting in a lake of fire in Hell” dead, but really dead. Just no more thoughts, forever and ever and ever and ever.
Doesn’t that send a shiver down your spine? That’s called self-preservation instinct. No wonder people like to believe in an afterlife, right? Everyone wants to live forever.
Now let’s think about something much less scary. Try to remember what it was like to be a 5-year-old (or if that challenge is too hard, try to remember–really remember–what it was like to be you 10-years ago). Of course you can remember snippets - the feel of a set of toy blocks, or the sound of your mom’s voice, or the shape of your kindergarten classroom. But I bet you can’t remember what it was really like to experience life, moment-to-moment, as a 5-year-old. How would the 5-year-old you react to this blog post? Would (s)he be comfortable in the chair you’re sitting in right now? What would (s)he be looking forward to right now?
You may be able to guess at the answers to these questions, but the truth is, you don’t know. The experience and feeling and “qualia” of being a 5-year-old you is gone forever. You will never again perceive the Universe the way the 5-year-old you did. In other words, the 5-year-old you is dead. Really, truly gone from the Universe. The 5-year-old you will never think another thought.
Even if you go to Heaven.
So don’t be so afraid of Real Death. It’s something you’ve already experienced - not just once, but an indeterminate number of times. You, right now, are a living person, but because you’re living and growing and changing, you’re dying at the same time. Death is an old friend.
Now think about what this means for the afterlife. Heaven is a comforting thought because it quiets our self-preservation instinct. But what would happen if we really went to Heaven? Either we’d have experiences similar to those we had when alive (flying around, playing a harp, eating infinite Doritos without getting fat, whatever), or we won’t. But if we experience things, those experiences will change us. Then eventually we won’t be the same person anymore. The soul may be eternal, but the part of you that’s really you just can’t stick around.
So it doesn’t really matter if there’s an afterlife or not, does it? Life is change, and change is death. The process of living is the process of dying.
So what does this mean for our lives? It means we shouldn’t spend much time worrying about death. And it also means we shouldn’t put our hopes in a better life in the next world. This is the world. This is life. You’re awake and alive and thinking things right now. Isn’t that amazing?