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Life After Death: Fad or Final Destination?

Michelangelo's "The Last Judgment" in the Sistine Chapel
Javier Larrea

The afterlife is a topic that just won't die.

Proof of Heaven, neurosurgeon Eben Alexander's account of what he saw while he was "brain dead" in a hospital, is at this moment No. 1 on the New York Times paperback nonfiction bestseller list. And Heaven is for Real, a young boy's recollections of his experiences when he "died" following an appendicitis attack, sits at No. 8 (it's been on the list for 122 weeks which is, in book terms, its own kind of eternity).

Of course, to say the topic of life after death is just now "trending" would be preposterous. Humans have been imagining boat rides across the River Styx, carving images of the Sun God and his cats, and dissecting the Book of Revelation for thousands of years.

Back in 2007 I wrote a well-received article about life after death for AARP The Magazine - and to this day I still hear from folks who either take issue with or embrace my basic premise: That in a world where we love to split the difference, where we don't like to think anyone is totally right or utterly wrong, the spirit of compromise stops at the shores of the afterlife. Either I am correct that there is a life beyond this one, or I am 100 percent, irretrievably wrong. And the converse is true for those who feel otherwise. Period.

Last year I wrote another article for the magazine, a personal account of the final illness of my wife of 34 years, Cindy. Looking back, I find it interesting that Cindy and I seldom spoke of the afterlife during the four years she battled ovarian cancer. As Christians, there was no debate for us, and maybe we felt that discussing what came after death would, in some way, be admitting defeat.

But we did have one good, long talk about it, some three months before she died. Cindy loved our family with the ferocity of a lioness, and one day she confided to me that no matter how glorious Heaven must be, she was afraid she would miss being with our children and grandchildren.

"Well," I said, "if Heaven is eternal, then the years between right now and when our family will be in Heaven together are like nothing. I suspect you'll arrive in Heaven, and when you turn around we'll all be there with you. As a practical matter, it's as if we're all there right now, already."

That was, of course, strictly amateur theology, but it still makes sense to me and it seemed to satisfy Cindy, at least for the moment. And I meant then and believe now the last words I whispered in her ear as she slipped away: "I'll see you in Heaven."

Now I'm married to a wonderful woman who happens to be Jewish, and although our two faiths are rooted in the same tradition, Carolyn and I have quite different views of what becomes of us after we die. For the present, at least, the Heaven we share is here and now.

Of course, even within the take-it-or-leave-it concept of an afterlife, there is room for disagreement and discussion in some areas. The two current Heavenly bestsellers offer differing views of Heaven: Alexander's is a seemingly nondenominational paradise of clouds, angels, and loved ones. Heaven Is For Real, based on the recollections of a then-4-year-old child, is profoundly influenced by a Christian viewpoint, including a personal visit with Jesus Christ.  And while some authors, like Randy Alcorn in his Bible-based book Heaven, present detailed views of what awaits beyond, I have always suspected that Heaven will hold at least two major surprises:

1)   How wonderful it really is, and

2)   Who else is there

Rereading that Life After Death piece I wrote more than five years ago, I was inspired to check up on the people I interviewed.   Barnard College Professor Alan F. Segal, one of the century's great thinkers on Judeo-Christian theology, died in 2011. And Leona Mabrand, who was 90 at the time I spoke with her, passed away at 94 (the story mentioned her devotion to radio host Paul Harvey, who offered his own last "Good day!" in 2009).

The rest of those with whom I chatted are, as far as I can tell, still alive and kicking - and to varying degrees anticipating the day when, like Alan and Leona, they will find out who's right, once and for all.

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