There’s probably one thing we will never know, and that’s what happens after we die. Sure, plenty of people have “died” and were revived, only to tell tales of bright lights, dead relatives, and all sorts of tangible and intangible descriptions. But there are countless stories, each with their own variation. Either death is different for each of us, or these people’s minds have played tricks on them (and I’m sure some of them are attention-seeking liars).
The first is the question: does anything happen for us after we die? If yes, we can move on to another comparison. If no, then the part of us which thinks disappears upon the death of our physical body.
If something happens after we die, we must ask: is our existence linear or cyclical? If our existence is linear, then we move on from our lives here to inhabit some other world. If our existence is cyclical, then we somehow re-enter this world in a new form.
Here you see what are the three primary thanatologies: oblivion, afterlife, and reincarnation.
Not every religion views these as distinctly independent situations. Most religious views of reincarnation hold that there is some place your spirit goes immediately after death; generally, you don’t die and instantly pop out of a womb somewhere (though some may believe this to be the case). You usually go someplace, where you may be judged or tested, or you may just hang out as you wait to be reincarnated, either as a human or an animal (and in rare cases, plants).
The Greeks and Romans believed in both simultaneously, where most people die and congregate in the land of the dead, only to drink from the river Lethe (forgetting) and then be reborn. Some people who are evil (or who piss off the gods), like Sisyphus, are tortured forever in the area of Hades known as Tartarus. Buddhists believe sort of the opposite, that through right living and upon achieving Enlightenment, one can escape the reincarnation cycle and achieve Nirvana, eternal bliss.
Jews, Christians and Muslims are very much linear, believing that we are born once, we die, and then we face our eternal fate. People in the West are quite familiar with this concept, so I won’t go too much into it.
I am fairly confident nothing happens when we die. I know some who try to clumsily quote Einstein as saying energy is neither created nor destroyed, it just changes form. Well, to test that theory, try this: write a comment at the bottom of this post, but don’t send it. Just write out your thought, and see it on the screen. Look at it; it’s there. It is there because of energy. Now, turn the power off on your computer. Is the comment still there? Why not?
The medium through which that energy was flowing has ceased to contain that energy, and it dissipated without so much as a whimper when you turned the power off. What’s more, the information does not have any sort of magical means of being immortal, so if you turn your computer back on, it won’t be there anymore. It’s lost, like someone who has suffered brain damage will never get what they lost back.
But let’s suspend my views and focus on another matter. If I had to rate these systems based on which I believe would have the most positive effect on people, I believe I would say: cyclical > linear > oblivion
[For any confused by my math terminology: cyclical is greater than linear, which is greater than oblivion.]
Oblivion is the worst system, in my view, if one wishes to motivate people to act ethically. Don’t get me wrong, plenty of people who believe in oblivion upon death are perfectly ethical people, but their morality is not in any way tied to their view of death. The only moral one might ascertain directly from the view of oblivion is that one should live carefully, so as not to die.
Cyclical far exceeds linear, because it provides incentives which do not exist in a linear model of existence. If I believe I will be reincarnated, I have a vested interest in keeping the world a nice place to live, or even to make this a better place to live. If I am a man, I would not look down on women or minorities, if only because that would perpetuate sexism that may come back to haunt me if I am reincarnated as a woman or a minority.
Or, that would be how it works, if people were logical. However, both cyclical and linear models have some shortcomings which don’t come with embracing oblivion. In actual practice, believers in both cyclical and linear views tend to see their own privilege as justified. The reincarnationist sees their privilege as a reward deserved for past lives; those who believe in heaven often see any inequality in this life as being not worthy of correction here, since it is a finite time we spend on earth, compared to eternity in the afterlife.
However, oblivion may be the best system for motivating one to act ethically, assuming you have some other view beyond just the belief in a finite existence. If you believe that this life is all we have, and you also value justice or fairness in some form, or even if you just possess empathy for others, then you see that there is no inherent justice in our world. There is no one judging us after we die, there is no one making bad people pay for their actions, there is no one rewarding good people who were unappreciated or abused in this life. These things are not naturally present, so we must construct them artificially.
There is a certain degree of urgency to act in the face of injustice if you don’t just tell yourself, “Well, everything happens for a reason,” or, “Everything will work out in the end.” Nothing is part of “God’s plan,” and none of this was predestined to happen. This mess of ours is ours to clean up, and only we can do anything about it.
And it’s hard to do so when the majority of people just shrug their shoulders and trust their faith.