Progressive Christians are typically humble about the afterlife. As progressives, we are clear about what we don’t believe. We critique the following traditional images of the afterlife, identified with popular and conservative forms of Christianity: 1) the traditional dualism of heaven and hell, 2) eternal punishment in hell for finite sins, 3) a heaven that excludes anyone who doesn’t confess the traditional tenets of Christianity and doesn’t accept Jesus as their savior or receive the sacraments in the correct way, 4) the use of the afterlife as a fear technique and evangelistic tool, and 5) spiritual and theological visions that are so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good!
For the most part, we accept the Marxist critique of the afterlife as a way of encouraging people to accept the unjust status quo to focus on eternal life. We know what we don’t believe and the good news is that such disbelief has liberated many people from superstitious, supernatural, and shame-based theologies. Our disbelief has freed people from fear of hell so we they can focus on social transformation and planetary well-being. A little theological Lysol goes along way, but faith ultimately lives by what we do believe – our humbly held affirmations – rather than what we deconstruct in popular and conservative theology. So, the good news is that we progressives can present a positive, life-affirming vision of the afterlife.
Progressives have been challenged to reconsider the afterlife as the result of a number of cultural and religious movements: 1) the growing interest and belief that Near Death Experiences reveal something about the afterlife, 2) the reality that over 50% of mainstream Christians, and progressives fall into that category according to the poll, have had mystical or self-transcendent experiences, 3) the recognition of the importance of the afterlife among non-Christian religions, 4) the impact of new age “optimism” about karma and reincarnation, 5) the end of the “modern” era and its identification of the afterlife with supernaturalism, and 6) the birth of a “new naturalism” that includes mysticism and life-affirming images of the afterlife. In the paragraphs that follow, I will describe with great humility one possible progressive vision of the afterlife. I will, in the course of my reflections, substitute the words “everlasting life” for “eternal life” to emphasize the dynamic, relational, and creative nature of the afterlife. The afterlife vision that I affirm involves process and growth rather than unchanging completeness.
I believe that a progressive vision of everlasting life will be guided by the following affirmations:
First, progressive Christianity affirms the continuity between this life and the next. There is no supernatural jump in experience when we die; rather, the “energy” of this lifetime continues in another context. What we do in this lifetime becomes part of our post-mortem identity. We do not suddenly change from imperfect to perfect but continue to grow spiritually and relationally in the afterlife. This is the foundation for the quest for justice in this lifetime. In seeking justice in this lifetime, we create positive experiences for others that will be carried over into the afterlife. This responds to the Marxist critique: the best way to support another’s everlasting journey is to provide for their growth and well-being in this lifetime. Our growth and positive – or negative – experiences in our current lifetime become the foundation of our post-mortem adventures.
Second, the interdependence of life continues in the afterlife. Just as we shape one another’s experience in this lifetime, we continue to have relationships in the afterlife. The “cloud of witnesses” or “communion of saints” is a true community. The afterlife is relational rather than individual in nature. Accordingly, one of the joys of the afterlife will be the recognition that our companions continue to grow along with us. In an interdependent universe, the idea of hell is counter both to God’s universal love and our care for one another. We cannot rejoice if others experience eternal torment.
Third, we will continue to create in the afterlife. Just as a balance of order and novelty is essential for happiness in this lifetime, a greater sense of creativity and freedom will characterize the afterlife. Alignment with God’s will is not the surrender of our freedom, but enhances our ability to make free, creative, and life-supporting decisions. Our creativity implies that everlasting life involves spiritual evolution. We will continue to grow. Some of our growth may involve healing the pain of this lifetime and forgiving and being forgiven by others. There is no competition between God and creatures in this life or the next: God seeks freedom and creativity in the context of appropriate order and regularity. God encourages creativity, innovation, and surprise in this life and the next.
Fourth, God’s love is universal and embraces all creation. God does not change God’s attitude toward us at the hour of our death. In contrast to those who say “the choices have been made and God can do nothing more to help you after you die,” progressive theology proclaims “God continues to love us at the hour of our death and beyond.” Whatever was loved in this lifetime will continue to be loved in the afterlife. God will continue to work in our lives toward healing, wholeness, and beauty.
Progressive theology sees everlasting life as constantly evolving and growing toward greater and greater wholeness in the context of an evolving community, “the reign of God” or “communion of saints.” We are part of a never ending story of call and response and creative interdependence. Our vocation continues in another context, and we receive new missions and possibilities in an unending adventure of creative transformation. From my perspective, a progressive vision of everlasting life joins the traditional vision of heaven as a place of joyful community and praise with the emphasis on growth and evolution characteristic of reincarnation. In the afterlife, we will continue to have relationships, make choices, fulfill our vocation, and contribute to the ongoing evolution of Life. Perhaps, we will be able to support our friends and relations in their earthly journeys, providing wisdom and guidance at the unconscious or mystical levels. Perhaps, we will be given new tasks and invited to embark on new adventures.
The continuity of life and experience, characteristic of progressive understandings of evolution and causation, suggests that the afterlife will include non-humans as well as humans. Whether the dividing line in terms of the afterlife is based on complexity of experience, I cannot hazard to guess, but my assumption is that dogs, cats, monkeys, dolphins, and other cogitating and relational beings will enjoy an afterlife either in their own realm or as companions in our post-mortem adventures. Perhaps, my dogs and cats will continue in their companionship beyond the grave or dwell in worlds of their own.
While we must be humble about the afterlife, it is my belief that a progressive vision gives us hope that our actions matter in the here and now as well as in the great beyond and that God’s care is universal and all-embracing. After all, nothing can separate us from the love of God.
Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, healing companion, retreat leader and lecturer, and author of nineteen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living; God’s Touch: Faith, Wholeness, and the Healing Miracles of Jesus; and Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry. He has taught at Georgetown University, Wesley Theological Seminary, Claremont School of Theology, and Lancaster Theological Seminary. He is currently theologian in residence at St. Peter’s United Church of Christ in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He can be reached for lectures, retreats, seminars, and conversation at firstname.lastname@example.org