When the lights go out, what happens? That’s the big mystery.
Some say you cease to exist or at least with no further evidence, you stop being you. Others speak poetically about “crossing over” or “going through the doorway.”
Who knows since no one has crossed over and back to let us know differently? Resurrection accounts are either held by faith or discounted by the lack of belief.
Everything said about the beyond is speculation or belief based on nothing more than a metaphor. The great religions—Judaism, Islam and Christianity and likely every other religious realm of belief—all have variations on this very human theme.
The details differ, but the intent is the same, asserting by doctrinal voices that the soul goes on beyond death and into the beyond. The destination or any measure of certitude is up to interpretation.
Beneath the strong feelings we have about the death of a loved one is a strong question: What happened? Sickness comes to all of us, so what happened that couldn’t be fixed? Why did death overtake her body, her spirit, her will to live?
What do we say to the good family—not to mention, what do we say to one another? Death is an intrusion, an interruption to life as we know it. Death is a thief, taking from us what is ours.
First-century Christian convert Saul of Tarsus admitted, “we know only in part” (1 Cor 13:9). While he’s referring to our understanding of the power of love, one can see that love is not the only area of life where our knowledge is limited.
One of our problems is we’ve got more questions than we’ve got answers, and the sheer number of questions we can’t answer is problematic. In his admission, Paul clarified further, “we see through a glass dimly.” Going beneath the surface of the original Greek language nuances this phrase.
Paul sees what he sees and understands only what he knows. “For we know only in part” and this partial knowledge helps us understand the Greek word he uses. Though translated as “dimly,” a more exacting word is “enigmatic.”
Thus, Paul says, “we see through a glass enigmatically.” One can imagine the glassworks of the first century as being uneven, thicker than we’re accustomed to seeing through and thus, fuzzy.
The admission of enigmatic as the basis for understanding is stretched to imply that finding meaning is much like solving a riddle. Paul, though highly educated, admitted that his understanding was fuzzy. His words suggest that a riddle needed to be solved for clarity to be gained.
For questions regarding the soul and the adjoining concerns about what might be expected when the lights are going off, the best the Christian Scriptures seem to offer us on the great mysteries are promises wrapped up in metaphors and stories and analogies. That’s it.
No comfort in science, no verifiable, uncontested statements of fact—only poetry and hymns and the testimony of a handful of the saints to assure us. “Things hoped for,” the book of Hebrews tells us, and “the conviction of things not seen” (11:1).
Parker Palmer knows a good metaphor when he sees one. In his book, On the Brink of Everything, he uses nature itself as a metaphor to give death meaning: “I’m certain of two things: When we die, our bodies return to the earth, and earth knows how to turn death into new life.”
Joachim Jeremias, 20th-century German theologian, once observed that, “we come from God and we are moving to God, but in between, we live in tents.” Maybe that’s an apt metaphor for the humanness of our stories and the way in which we live as needy humans who care for one another.
Maybe a good metaphor is enough as we live on the arc of life.
Intentional interim minister at Countryside Community Church of Omaha, Nebraska, the Christian partner in the Tri-Faith Initiative, a partnership with the American Muslim Institute and Temple Israel. He is author of Living a Narrative Life, Exploring the Power of Stories (Smyth & Helwys, 2019).