When I was in the first grade, I once called a classmate of mine “pig face.” I don’t recall who the boy was, but his response has stuck with me for over fifty years. He was aghast at me for “swearing” and told me with all the confidence of a six year old that I was “going to hell.” Any other child might have shrugged this off and called him another name or said “Oh yeah!” but his comment cut me to the quick. You see, even at that young age, I was a firm believer in a three-tiered universe with the earth in the middle, heaven above and hell below. Somehow I understood that everything I did on earth was going onto a tally sheet that would eventually determine whether I was going to the “good place” or the “bad.” It was devastating to discover that the battle for my soul had been lost at such a young age just for making an accurate, though unkind, comment to a fellow student.
The three-tiered universe was part of my belief system for a very long time, reinforced by Sunday School, and well-meaning ministers and the prevailing beliefs of the American Christian culture of my childhood and youth. Although I eventually understood that my first grade friend was (probably) wrong, I held on to the notion of a tally sheet based on everything I did every day of my life (that thing you did was good, that was bad, that was good, that was bad). As a youngster I swore constantly and creatively, sometimes even embarrassing my friends (that was bad, that was bad, that was bad). In ninth grade I stopped swearing and was convinced that the tally sheet was starting to even out and that I might be winning the battle for my soul (good, good, good!). Unfortunately, adolescent sexuality crashed that party and once again I feared for my constantly horny soul (that was, well, what can I say?).
In time, though, simple reason and a little basic science began to dismantle my three-tiered universe. Neither heaven nor hell made much sense to me. I wish I could say this was a relief, but it wasn’t. If I wasn’t fighting the good fight so that I could get into heaven, why was I here?
Nevertheless, I went on to seminary. There, immersed in Greek and Hebrew and all manner of theological study, a whole new world opened up. Things were not as clear-cut as I had always thought. In fact, most everything I learned in seminary made me more and more uncertain about what I believed, something that scared the hell out of me for a good while until I grew into the idea that faith included not-knowing (faith being trust, rather than belief). I found myself trusting more in an “eternal now” (thank you, Paul Tillich) and the idea that eternity is not about longevity of life, the foreverness of life, but rather it is about the depth and quality of life lived here, now.
Whether you are religious or not, this is a pretty good notion. It suggests that how we live each moment matters; how we live each moment can sparkle a little with the dust of eternity.
So, what will happen to me when I die? I can answer unequivocally that I don’t have the foggiest notion. The good news, though, is that it no longer matters (most of the time).