An important new initiative for the New Church of Phoenix is End of Life Education and the training of hospice volunteers. End of life is a precious time. It is a chance to provide a comfortable and dignified environment for someone's whose physical condition is declining and the end is in sight if they don't take a turn for the better. While approximately twenty percent of hospice patients will recover enough to no longer require hospice, the rest will transition out of this natural world.
At some point almost every person will ponder the question: What happens when I die? Organized religion has long tried to provide the answer. But, in today's world, fewer and fewer people are attending worship services or seeing themselves as overtly religious. Yet, perhaps surprisingly, the percentage of people who believe in some type of life after death seems to be growing. Why this apparent inconsistency?
There are many theories. The one, though, that seems to make the most sense to me, is that traditional answers to the life after death question have not proven satisfactory. Therefore people are moving away from formal religion and are looking for life's answers elsewhere. Part of why people are moving away might be because religions have tended to divide the world into two categories; the believers and the unbelievers.
In the Christian tradition, many have believed that Jesus came into the world, was crucified and rose again in order that those who believe in Him will escape the fiery torment of hell. This is a fate that all humanity would otherwise be subject to because of our corrupt and fallen nature. Some have observed that this can become a fear-based theology. In other words: you will burn forever in hell unless you become a believer.
Not everyone views things this way. There are some who read the words of King Solomon in Ecclesiastes 9:5-6 and have come to believe that for most people, the afterlife is simply nothingness; that is, of course, unless you are restored to life by Christ. Here are Solomon's words:
For the living know that they will die; but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten. Also their love, their hatred, and their envy have now perished; nevermore will they have a share in anything done under the sun.
Despite what traditional religion has tended to preach, when you ask an essentially non-religious person where a relative or friend who has passed has gone, the answer is often that they have gone to heaven. Is this just hopefulness, or is there truth in the feeling that many people have that their loved one is now in a better place?
New Church teachings are built on the premise that there is an all-loving God who is taking care of us. The afterlife is real, and most importantly, heaven is real. Many people have come back from near death experiences to declare how certain they are that this is the case. God's love reigns supreme there. The afterlife is therefore something to be joyfully anticipated, not something to be feared.
In speaking about life after death, New Church teachings describe how heaven will never be restricted to people of one religious group or cultural tradition. Every person who our loving God has ever created has been given life so that they might one day join Him in the wonder of His kingdom.
Of course, the person we are in this life is not always compatible with the type of mutual love that exists in heaven. If our life looked like that we would be angels here on earth today. Most of us aren't angels. Therefore, we need an opportunity to transition from the imperfect person we are today into the angelic person that God wants us to be tomorrow.
For this reason, most people leaving this world arrive first in a transitional zone that is often called the World of Spirits. When we arrive there we can be ourselves, warts and all. The biggest change from this life to that one is that all our physical ailments will be left behind. But, it is not God's intention to let us stay in this realm of existence for long. Soon we will have to decide what type of person we want to be to eternity.
Hopefully we have begun making those types of choices here in the natural world. In the next life the process accelerates. There are essentially two doors open to us. The one door leads to a life ruled by love for our Lord and God, and at the same time love for the people in our communities, near and far. The other leads to selfishness and the perpetual quest to obtain power over others and to satisfy immoral desires.
One of the greatest gifts that we are given is the gift of freedom. We can choose to be whatever type of person we want to be. And, our eternal destiny will be a reflection of our free choices.
So, what happens when we die? We enter the next phase of becoming the person that in our heart we really want to be? We can choose to be enveloped by the Lord's love and be guided by it to heaven. Or, we can run away from it and choose a different eternal path. Our past is always forgiven and our future is always open. When we leave this world we go to the place where those before us have gone. Many of them might be there to greet us when one day we arrive. We pray that they have chosen to embrace the Lord's love and have found his eternal peace and blessedness. They are praying that we will find these things as well.