I have always taken interest in the mystery of death. It is the ultimate unknown. “What happens when we die?” is life’s greatest question, but I believe humans will never be able to answer life’s question. I believe there is no way of knowing what happens to us when we die.
I was born and raised in South Orange County in the city of Lake Forest. Living within a mile of Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church, my city was predominately Evangelical Christian. I was baptized and raised Roman Catholic. I attended bible study classes once a week for twelve years, until being confirmed at the age of 16. Growing up, I never questioned my religious beliefs. A majority of my family and friends were Christian, and I found comfort with Christianity’s promise of immortality in heaven. But the visible absence of God sometimes led me to question what really happens when I die.
I had never seen or spoken to God. Maybe heaven was just another fable perpetuated by our parents, like Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy. At first, I labeled such thoughts as dangerous. Even a second of disbelief awoke a guilt-filled darkness within me. I did not want to end up like the thief who refused to repent during his crucifixion alongside Christ, and be forever shunned into hell. My doubt was an animal, which I controlled by burying deep inside me.
Not until world news exploded with scandals involving Catholic priests did I let that animal loose. I learned the church, to which I entrusted my eternal soul, was as human as I was. Years later, I read an article about Mother Teresa. The article revealed letters she wrote to a clergymen, explaining her inner turmoil and felt detachment from God. It was obvious that religious leaders had the same doubts as I concerning life after death.
On the other hand, theories involving death are not always religious. Atheists make the same mistake as religious leaders when they claim to know what happens when we die. Some atheists say the bright lights people see before death are merely the result of large amounts of dimethyltryptamine released into the brain. But this chemical could also be your body’s natural way of facilitating the journey into a new existence. The simple truth is no one knows.
It is human nature to fear what we don’t understand. We use the afterlife as a way to rationalize our limited life-span, and ease our worries as we approach life’s great mystery. The fateful day we die, maybe we will sprout ethereal wings and ascend into the heavenly kingdom, or maybe the lights behind our eyes will flicker away, leaving complete nothingness. It is even more likely that the afterlife experience is something completely unexpected, unimaginable by any soul still bound to their human form. Anything is possible.
So what can we do? We must continue to seek the truth beyond our existence, while taking comfort in the unknown. The ability to admit what we do not know is a symbol of true wisdom.