What happens when you die?

November 12th, 2019

Sometimes I feel my mother’s presence. Trudy died in 1995, so I’ll understand if you write this off to nostalgia or attribute it to my imagination or explain it as the byproduct of a memory triggered by some melancholic tune on my playlist.

My thoughts, however, run in a different direction. She’s alive—and we’re profoundly connected—in some way that I fumble to articulate. I cannot prove that this is true and have no intention of offering logical arguments for believing in life after death.

Instead, I invite you to wonder along with me about a mystery that Christians profess: the resurrection. We live. We die. And in some way, we live again.

Let’s start by considering what Jesus said about the resurrection. In his day, like in ours, there were competing views about life after death. Luke records an exchange that Jesus had with the Sadducees. They did not believe in the resurrection and offered an argument intended to show that accepting the idea of the resurrection leads to logical absurdities. (Luke 20:27-32)

Jesus then responded with this:

The fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive. (Luke 20:37-38)

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God is the God of the living. We live because God loves us. God’s love is the power that brings us into and sustains us in existence, in this life and in the next. To riff on the 18th Century philosopher and bishop George Berkeley, to be is to be loved and to give love. God’s love never ends, and we live so long as we receive that love and impart it to others.

The philosopher Martin Buber says that we humans can speak two basic words, inhabit two fundamental ways of being: I-It and I-You. These words are pairs. You cannot simply say “I” or “It” or “You.” To be an “I” is always to be in relationship. If I speak I-It, I belong to the world of things. I’m an objectified sex object or an economically quantifiable commodity. A spiritual being speaks “I-You.” Here’s how Buber puts it:

The basic word I-You can be spoken only with one’s whole being. The concentration and fusion into a whole being can never be accomplished by me, can never be accomplished without me. I require a You to become; becoming I, I say You. (Martin Buber, I and Thou, p. 61)

Receiving love from the eternal lover and giving that love away is eternal life. Saying that God loves us is more than a report about God’s emotional state. Rather, God the Holy Spirit inhabits us, dwells within us. God weaves God’s self into our lives. In turn, by loving one another we actively participate in God’s life—in eternal life.

In the Episcopal Church we pray that, at death, life is changed, not ended. God’s love has been gradually changing us into what we have been meant to be all along: one with God and one with all whom God loves.

When I feel my mother’s presence, it is this oneness in the divine love that I’m sensing. I’m brushing up against what the Apostles’ Creed calls the communion of saints—or stumbling over what the Celts call thin places. These words from a prayer attributed to Bede Jarrett resonate with me; perhaps they will with you: “Life is eternal and love is immortal, and death is only a horizon.”

So, what happens when you die? Honestly, I’m not certain. But I have a powerful feeling about it.

What Happens When You Die? originally appeared at Looking for God in Messy Places. Reprinted with permission.

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