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Asking the Clergy: Is belief in God the same as belief in the afterlife?

The Rev. Valerie Freseman of First Universalist Church

The Rev. Valerie Freseman of First Universalist Church of Southold, The Very Rev. Richard E. Simpson of St. Mark's Episcopal Church and Rabbi Sam Pollak of The Community Synagogue. Credit: Christine Fischer / Richard Simpson / Diana Berrent Photography

Can one believe in God as the all-powerful creator of all things yet also be certain that “dead is dead” — that no next world exists to receive us after we die? This week’s clergy discuss why some think belief in God and the afterlife are inseparable, and others aren’t so sure.

The Very Rev. Richard E. Simpson

Rector, St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Islip

For Christians, belief in the afterlife, eternal life or heaven means we believe we will dwell with God in God’s kingdom. We believe that the Son of God, who pre-exists creation, came into the world, taking on the fullness of our humanity, so that all humanity will one day take on the divinity of Jesus, be healed and live with God in Heaven.

When Jesus offered himself upon the cross (Good Friday), he fully shared our human suffering and the reality of death. But on the third day (Easter) Jesus was raised from the dead, thus showing us that our way to eternal life is through Jesus. So, we take up our cross and follow Jesus, now and in the age to come. Believing in God and in God’s son Jesus, is the Christian’s way in this life that leads to eternal life.

Many other religions, both ancient and modern, believe in the afterlife in many varied forms. Most, but not all, also have a belief in God. Often the path to eternal life is based upon belief and good works in life. For some it is only the spirit or soul that goes onward after this mortal life. Christians believe we will be raised from the dead as Jesus was raised, and with a resurrected body and soul, and join in the heavenly banquet.

Rabbi Sam Pollak

The Community Synagogue, Port Washington.

What is God? What is the afterlife? What links the two is our faculty of imagination. When we experience loss, we might only be able to hold our pain by weaving a story in which a benevolent caretaker shepherds us through the valley of deep darkness — such is the message of Psalm 23. Alternatively, we might tell a story like Psalm 44, in which the poet rages against God for being taught there is a divine protector while experiencing destruction and abandonment.

Both Psalms portray understandable expressions of the pain of loss, of our inability to comprehend the ultimate mysteries of death and the world’s capriciousness. As our religious traditions develop, they accrue an ever-expanding set of tools with which we can talk about our lives. This is one reason to familiarize ourselves with our traditions’ breadth and beauty: We need different images to help us tell our stories through a lifetime of varied experiences. They all are examples of our innate religious consciousness, our capacity to see meaning in the world. None is “right,” but each can be “right for now.”

The Rev. Valerie Freseman

Minister, First Universalist Church of Southold

As a Unitarian Universalist, I root myself in the notion that we are enriched by the possibility of being in communion and mission with atheists, humanists, believers, practitioners of religious traditions, perpetual seekers — all at once!

Unitarian Universalists see the sacred and the holy in movements for justice that dismantle oppressive systems of all kinds, in scientific inquiry, in the practice of human kindness and in moments of mystic awareness. Yet all these inklings of what the God/dess of our understanding is doing in this world are experienced by humans that breathe and reason and bear scars from this life. We are bound to “love the hell out of this world,” assisting each other with the alleviation of suffering, rather than worry about the afterlife as punishment or reward.

I cannot hope to know of an afterlife with the same degree or quality of certainty that I can come to know of the God/dess of my understanding. For most it is an understanding that evolves over time. For others, it will never be about a personal or even archetypal God. For the majority it is a place where body, mind, spirit and heart intersect, come alive and feel at rest, all at once, even if from time to time there are deep and angry quarrels.

If we attain certainty, we do it through curiosity, help from others, spiritual practice and life experience. Because of this, although a firm belief in the divine — of something more than us — may be interconnected with a belief in the afterlife, they are not one and the same.  

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