What Do I Really Think Happens When I Die?

What Do I Really Think Happens When I Die? September 30, 2010

Patheos’ new What Do I Really Believe? series is about what we feel is true in our heart and soul, which may conform to our faith tradition’s beliefs or not. Only so many Pagan responses made it to the homepage but we received some really fabulous ones. Instructions on how to respond to the next question are at the bottom of this post.

What really happens when we die?

Your best friend is crushed when his 10-year-old son dies of cancer. He tells you that he is comforted, at least, that one day he’ll get to see his child again in heaven.

Later that day, you begin to wonder… Is there life after death? Are heaven and hell real places? Do our souls continue to exist in some form?

What do you really believe?

I believe that beliefs about particular afterlives tell us far more about the views of the people involved about life as-we-know-it-now, rather than presenting any accurate description or depiction of what actually happens.  Pagan views are no different, except that many of us are able to experience those states while still living through trance, journeying, and shamanic work.  Who is to say, though, that it occurs in the same way for a person once they are dead?

The prerequisites for ideas known to us cannot exist outside of a material form that has senses, intelligence, emotions, and the like.  When a person dies, whatever is in us whether soul or simply energy?o longer inhabits the body, and thus life after death is not really a good way to think about an afterlife, ironically enough.

Some people‘s beliefs in an afterlife are cemented by a near-death experience.  I‘ve had about five of these.  While I am qualified, therefore, to describe what an afterlife is like, I am in no way capable of doing so.  As a result, I‘ve tried to live my life as well as I possibly know how.  I do not fear death, as much as fearing that I won? get to accomplish everything I would like to before I die.

Time is short and precious, and should not be taken for granted.  No matter how beautiful our beliefs are about afterlives, it is not up to us in the end.  Therefore, my focus is on this life, now, and what I can do with it.

P. Sufenas Virius Lupus is a founding member of the Ekklesía Antínoou (a queer, Graeco-Roman-Egyptian syncretist reconstructionist polytheist religious group dedicated to Antinous, the deified lover of the Roman Emperor Hadrian and other related gods and divine figures), a contributing member of Neos Alexandria, and a Celtic Reconstructionist pagan.You can find Lupus’ blog, Aedicula Antinoi, at http://aediculaantinoi.wordpress.com/.

Do I really believe I will be reunited with the souls of loved ones when I die? I have many I‘d like to reunite with, that‘s for certain. My mother, because I miss her more than ever now that I? a mother myself. My sister, because when she was alive, she was mentally handicapped and I would love to meet her as a whole soul.

But I‘m not certain I will, at least not right away. Not because I don‘t believe we will be in the same place. I don‘t believe in a specific place of eternal life; not a heaven or a hell. I emphasize eternal because I believe we have choices. I believe in reincarnation, but I believe we have the choice to do so. We can choose to come back for whatever reason. Maybe we need to learn something or maybe we want the opportunity to live life as a completely different type of person. We can choose to rest for a period before coming back. Or we can choose to move on to a place of peace.

Yes, I believe I will see my loved ones again because some connections reach beyond mortal life. Maybe we won‘t be at that place of rest or peace at the same time. But I believe when we do meet again, we‘ll know each other not as human bodies with eyes and ears and noses and mouths. I will see my loved ones, and they will see me, not as I see with my physical senses, but as pure, spiritual beings, not limited by physical frailties.

Julie Maldonado is a member of the Covenant of the Spirit Wheel, a member of CUUPS and is on the planning committee for Front Range Pagan Pride Day ( www.frontrangepaganpride.org ).


I‘m going to Hell when I die.

Unlike the Christian concept of Hell that is associated with the devil and eternal suffering, the original meaning of Hell was far simpler: it simply meant place of the dead, or the place where something was concealed (which is an apt description of a grave).  The term originally had no connotation of good or evil associated with it. Hell was simply the place where all the dead went, whether they were good or evil. The Goddess Hel as guardian of the graves would host the dead within her Hall, but we also see some scattered mentions that the dead in other circumstances may be hosted by other deities: warriors would either go to Odin or Freya, drowned persons to Ran, maidens to Gefjon, etc.

While Hell isn‘t a bad place to be there are two specific places in Hell you really don‘t want to visit. Nifolhel and Nastrond are areas reserved for the oathbreakers, those who spoke false oaths, those who seduced married women, and murderers were said to dwell in torment.

I‘m on a road to Hel, and when the day comes when my life here on Midgard (earth) comes to pass (whenever that will be) I will be glad to go to Hel, where I will go to the Halls of my Gods and the Halls of my ancestors where I know I shall find welcome.

K.C. Hulsman is a gythia of Urdabrunnr Kindred and an active member of her local Asatru community. Her combination of academic research and personal exploration provides interesting insights into modern day Heathenry. Ms. Hulsman has contributed content to several devotionals, and delights in bringing attention to seldom spoken of Gods and Goddesses in the Northern Tradition.

I believe our souls — the essence of who we are — survive death. Past-life memories, after-death communications, and thousands of years of human thought and experience strongly indicate that there is more to Life than the material world. I believe that after death we experience a time of peace and rest and reunion with our ancestors before returning to this world to resume learning and growing and helping others to learn and grow.

That is what I believe, what I think, what my heart tells me is true. The only certain answer is “we don’t know.”

But this I do know. I have looked up at the night sky and felt my connection to the most distant stars. I have walked barefoot in the grass and been warmed by the life-giving rays of the Sun. I have been refreshed by cool water on a hot summer day. I have seen scattered families come together to mourn a death, and I have watched the miracle of birth.

What I cannot know by fact, I believe by love. Whatever the Universe has in store for me after death, I am sure it will be good.

John Beckett is an engineer, Pagan, Druid, and Unitarian Universalist. Coordinating Officer of the Denton Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans and a Druid in the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids.

What happens after we die doesn’t matter. There’s no way of knowing and focusing on it doesn’t get us any closer to an answer. It frightens me, like I’m sure it does most people. I’m not frightened of my life ending, of no longer existing or being reborn, but the thought of an afterlife makes me sick to my stomach.

The idea that my soul gets caught up in some spirit world, even a pleasant one, makes me entirely uncomfortable. I’ve spent time in the spirit realm in my spiritual practice and always with the comfort of knowing I have a body to return to. The idea of an afterlife sounds like journeying to the Otherland and not being able to get back.

I’m much more comfortable with the thought of my soul dissipating or being immediately reborn. If death is the end, well there’s nothing I can do about it so why worry? Why not make the most of life? If I am reborn, which I think is likely since the Universe wastes nothing, then I return to the earth I adore. What could be more pleasant than that? Water fills many vessels and even turns into steam and cloud, suspended in the air, but it’s always water. Just the same, the soul is always the soul. It bumps about with other souls, and even leaves the body occasionally, but it is always the soul. I just hope the turnover rate on reincarnation is quick.

Star Foster, Wiccan, Pagan Portal Manager at Patheos.

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  • “The prerequisites for ideas known to us cannot exist outside of a material form that has senses, intelligence, emotions, and the like. ”

    It is wildly unscientific to claim that there is a materialist explanation for human consciousness. The claim that “ideas known to us cannot exist outside a material form …” is, in fact, based on nothing but the highly irrational pseudo-scientific belief system known as “positivism” or “scientism”.

    T.H. Huxley, one of the great scientific figures of the 19th century, an early and ardent supporter of Darwin, and the man who coined the term “agnostic”, thoroughly debunked the positivist view of epistemology that Lupus has uncritically adopted.

    Huxley’s position was “that all of our knowledge is a knowledge of states of consciousness.” Huxley explains his thinking on this in an essay he wrote in 1870, which cannot be too highly recommended: http://tinyurl.com/huxley-consciousness

    A very nice overview of the naively irrational nature of the positivist/materialist mindset can be found in Nicholas Campion’s new book “History of Western Astrology, Vol II”. See especially Campion’s discussion of August Comte on pp. 217-221. An in-depth review of Campion’s book is here: http://www.skyscript.co.uk/rev_c2.html

  • Hmmm. My comment has been “awaiting moderation” for six hourse. Hello? Hello?

  • They are anonymous but also moderated. I think they are updated once daily. We’re a family site. We don’t want to know about someones pervy Mohammed dream… *shudder*

    Should be up in the morning!

  • Apuleius: you may have noticed that the title of this larger series is “What do you really believe?” (emphasis mine). It is not “Do you agree wholeheartedly with P. Sufenas Virius Lupus?” Nor is it “Do these answers pass the philosophical muster of Apuleius Platonicus?”

    All of us who read this blog–you included–were given the opportunity to respond to a specific question by providing one’s own answer. Several of us decided to do so. I’m simply stating an explanation based on my own experiences, as I’ve been able to put them into articulate form. This is an answer that is based on my own experiences, not anyone else’s; as a result, it is an answer that is right for me and my own experiences at present, and is not binding on anyone else, particularly, and perhaps especially in this case, you.

    You’ve made a very wild leap in your response to then suggest that I’m espousing a materialist and scientist/positivist position on human consciousness that I’ve adopted “uncritically.” Epistemology is not a scientific endeavor, it’s a philosophical one. I’ve not said anything about any scientific explanation for human consciousness, because–to my knowledge–there is no scientific explanation for it. I am also not aware, at present, of any explanation for “organs of sense” or “knowledge” or “emotion” that exist outside of the material reality we’re currently aware of, that do not rely on either philosophical or religious presuppositions that are completely rooted in the material organs of perception and human thought, emotion, etc.

    I think, for myself, that it is unwise to attempt to say anything definitive about a state of experience that, by definition, is beyond our ability to experience at present and with the tools we have to work with here and now. I’m not saying it isn’t possible, either within science or any other human endeavor, to know these things; nor am I saying that such organs do not with certainty exist outside of human material realities.

    I am saying that there is no way to know at present, based (as far as I’m aware) on scientific knowledge, nor on my own experiences. I prefer to use science for questions of factuality; and religion, philosophy, and theology for questions of existential meaning. I have supplied the sufficient existential meaning for myself in my answer above, and have refrained from attempting to describe something “factually” that cannot be described factually. The question of “What really happens when we die?” is a question that cannot be “really” answered, in other words.

    But, we were only given a very short amount of space to answer, and it seemed best to me to keep that part of the answer short.

    If you don’t agree, I’d suggest telling us what you actually believe, rather than trying to tell anyone else they’re wrong based on your perceptions of their answer, and what other people have said about what you think is the position implied by their answer. A lot of things have been “debunked” over the years–including the existence of pagan gods and the validity of evolution, and both the lack of evidence for global climate change and the definitive proof that it must exist–but, even if you can quote chapter and verse on who did so and when, that doesn’t mean that anyone has to accept such counter-explanations. Again, we’re dealing with individual beliefs here, which people were asked to share.

    If you want to participate in this conversation, share your own belief.

  • Really, good article… :) thanks. My friend !

  • P. Suf. Viri. Lup., you chose to frame your contribution in terms of what you claim are limitations on what we can and cannot know. I consider that to be a very reasonably concern when discussing the question at hand, or any other matter. We can’t very well talk about what we have no knowledge of!

    But I disagree with the answer that you give to the question “what can we know about?”

    You claim that the human mind is not capable of knowing about things that are “outside of a material form that has senses, intelligence, emotions, and the like”, and, therefore nothing can be known about what, if anything, happens to us after the death of the body.

    My position is that the mind is not ultimately physical, or at least not only physical. More specifically, I do not think that the mind is only a side effect of the physical activity of the brain. Therefore I reject your premise — and from that it follows that I reject your conclusions based on that erroneous (in my opinion) premise.

    Ancient Pagan philosophers (especially Platonists and Pythagoreans) argued that it is a mistake to identify one’s “true self” with our physical bodies. I agree with that. This is also an essential teaching in Buddhism and Hinduism.

    In large part due to the fact that these schools all teach that the mind is not limited to the physical body, Platonism, Pythagoreanism, Buddhism and Hinduism all share a common belief in multiple births during which spiritual progress is made — or, more specifically, during which the opportunity for spiritual progress is available.

    My opinion is that T.H. Huxley, in the essay I already linked to, provides a definitive critique of the positivist view of the mind. Moreover, I believe that Plato’s writings provide a very solid basis for a philosophy of life, death, and rebirth. This is a philosophy in which ethics and cosmology are seamlessly connected.

  • Apuleius: Let me try and explain this better, then, because what you’ve said isn’t what I had attempted to explain.

    My words were: The prerequisites for ideas known to us cannot exist outside of a material form that has senses, intelligence, emotions, and the like. When a person dies, whatever is in us whether soul or simply energy no longer inhabits the body, and thus life after death is not really a good way to think about an afterlife, ironically enough.

    What I mean by that is not that mind results from matter, or that our “true self” (which is a concept I don’t even believe exists) is only our physical self.

    What I’m saying is that the senses and other functions of the brain and body are like a prism through which the light of knowledge, if you like, is refracted. It is only because we have a brain and bodies that we can see individual bands of light and distinguish their differences, and respond to them accordingly. It isn’t that there is nothing else other than the physical world as known to the senses, it’s that at present, with minds and bodies, we can’t know much about what the experience of or perception of those states happens to be; anything that we do think or perceive or know about it is still a knowing refracted through that prism, rather than being what the thing is in itself.

    In using that metaphor, I’m not making any suggestions about monism or unity; it’s simply a convenient way to talk about something that exists in one form and how its passing through a particular medium changes the perception of that form. Just as a prism is to light, so too is the body and brain to consciousness. Or–though I am reluctant to do so–to use the words of Saul of Tarsus in 1 Corinthians 13, “now we see through a glass darkly…”

    If I didn’t explain that clearly enough in my initial answer, I do apologize. You were reading into it things that I did not think I implied, and making very large conclusions as a result, which I was disputing, because I made no such statement.

  • I still see this as some sort of materialism. Why is it that you assume that everything must be filtered through this prism of “the senses and other functions of the brain and body”? More specifically, why do you reject any ability for the mind itself to perceive directly? Must everything be at one (or more) remove?

    These questions go to the heart of the issue of self-knowledge, which in turn is the ultimate goal of spiritual progress over many lifetimes.

    One of the primary reasons why Platonists insist that the mind is ultimately not physical/material is that direct, “unfiltered”, awareness cannot be explained in physical terms. A physical process of perception always has (1) a perceiver, (2) something that is perceived, and (3) usually some intervening medium that mediates the act of perception.

    Iamblichus also states in his “On the Mysteries” that this kind of direct, unmediated “knowing” is not only the nature of self-knowledge, but is also the true way in which we “know” of the Gods, which makes sense from the point of view that the psyche is of the same order of existence as the Gods.

  • Apuleius, can you describe anything material that doesn’t rely on visual or aural characteristics (and the other senses)? Probably not. Likewise, can you describe anything that is non-material, or non-corporeal, that without resorting to the same sorts of sensory terminologies? I’m guessing you might resort to using abstract terms, like the gods being “perfect” or “good” or other such things that may not have direct physical implications. But, what are any of those things apart from abstractions that are so prone to individual interpretation that they are essentially meaningless when it comes to characterizing anything in an objective or direct manner. I could say “the gods are nice,” and that might have every reaction from some people thinking the gods are like a cup of tea (because they think tea is nice) to thinking that the gods are a kindly old nursemaid (because kindly old nursemaids are nice–or, more likely, one kindly old nursemaid this person knew of was nice), and so on ad infinitum. These abstract qualities, in other words, would probably come back to something that is rooted in sensory experience of a personal nature. I don’t think there’s necessarily anything wrong with that; but I don’t mistake that kind of abstract thinking for an actual apprehension of divinity, or of an afterlife, on an objective level.

    Do any of the philosophers you’re so fond of quoting ever actually talk directly about what constitutes divinity, or self-knowledge? If I’ve understood you (and them) correctly, one of the reasons that they don’t talk about these objects of unfiltered awareness is because they can’t talk about them in physical terms. They must talk about them in abstract terms that are ultimately transcendental and have nothing to do with physical, sensory perception, with all of its limitations that you’ve described.

    And, here’s what it boils down to: I’m not a transcendentalist. I think that this life, the body, and the physical world are really wonderful and beautiful things, and while I have access to this wonderful and beautiful world of physicality and the panoply of the senses, I’d like to appreciate it for what it has to show and to teach and to experience. I’m not willing to suggest that even my most intense moments of rapture, spiritual ecstasy, vision, and insight are direct moments of unfiltered awareness of the divine realms and the things in them, because I think those realities are so different from what we are able to experience and apprehend now that it’s useless to even try. It’s like describing a protein molecule as seen through a very powerful microscope, and building an entire theory of life based on it, without knowing that one is looking through a microscope at a part of something–say, a rabbit–that is so complex and varied compared to that one molecule that no matter how accurate the molecular picture happens to be that one develops, it tells one very little about the life of that rabbit, how it moves and sees and interacts with all of the other rabbits, etc.

    It isn’t that developing the molecular picture isn’t useful or revelatory–it is. Humans do come to know and experience gods and other divine realities while they are alive; I certainly have done so myself on several occasions. But to think that my experience of the gods now is or will be the same as or contain the same information as my experience of the gods and other divine realities–including afterlives–when I no longer have a body is very likely to be underestimating things, at very least. No matter how well I come to know the molecules and how they work, it is still a limited and contingent understanding of the larger systems at work.

    The human mind is a great tool with nearly infinite possibilities in it for perception and intellectual apprehension; but, it cannot “do it all” in its current form in anyone or anything that has existed physically.

    In the midst of all this, you’re still evading my questions on what you actually believe, or what you’ve actually experienced. You’re very quick with the Platonic and philosophical quotes, but you have yet to say what YOU believe, or what you’ve experienced. Is there a reason for your evasion?

    I suspect that no matter how much I try and explain my own position on this, though, you’ll simply keep arguing and quoting various Platonists at me to “prove” to me I’m wrong. Well, as I’ve said to you previously, I’m not a Platonist, and I see no reason why I (nor anyone else) must be.

  • “Do any of the philosophers you’re so fond of quoting ever actually talk directly about what constitutes divinity, or self-knowledge?”

    That’s an odd question. Self-knowledge and the nature of the Gods were two of the central concerns of ancient Pagan philosophers.

    For example, Propositions XV through XX of Proclus’ “Elements of Theology” deal explicitly with the non-corporeal nature of the psyche, and with the non-corporeal nature of anything capable of self-perception. And by its title it should be obvious that all of that book is concerned with the nature of divinity.

    On the relationship between self-knowledge and knowledge of divinity also see Iamblichus’ “On the Mysteries” I.3, which, in turn, draws on the Enneads 5.3.

    Much earlier examples could also be given (which laid the groundwork for Plotinus, Iamblichus and Proclus) going back to Classical Athens in the 5th and 4th centuries BC.

    “And, here’s what it boils down to: I’m not a transcendentalist.”

    And here is where my central point of disagreement with you lies. I reject the idea of a rigid, binary opposition between immanence and transcendence. It is, in my opinion, a false dichotomy. It would be helpful if you could explain what you mean by “transcendentalism”, and give examples of people who actually take this position (otherwise it is just a straw man argument, if you are defining yourself in opposition to an ideology that is not actually held by anyone).

    “you’re still evading my questions on what you actually believe”

    I agree (broadly) with ancient Pagan teachings concerning the question of “What do I really think happens whey I die?” These teachings (especially those associated with such labels as “Platonism”, “Pythagoreanism”, and “Hermeticism”) are actually deeply embedded in modern Pagan thought. These ancient teachings can be shown to underly the widespread beliefs among Wiccans and many other modern Pagans (and non-Pagans) concerning the phenomenon of spiritual progress over multiple lifetimes (which ancient Greek Pagans called “metempsychosis”).

  • Apuleius: I’m wondering, though, if the basis for the arguments of Proclus, Iamblichus, Plotinus, et al. is philosophical propositions and logical argumentation, philosophical and logical reflection on experience, or simply experience itself.

    One can easily agree with something someone has read or argued, and if you’d like to do that, that’s fair enough. My own beliefs have evolved, however, in relation to direct experiences; and my essential misunderstanding with you is that you’re telling me that my own reasoning, based on my experiences, is wrong and flawed and so forth, based on what someone else wrote a century or more ago. If your own beliefs are based on your actual experiences, that’s also fair enough; but, thus far, you’ve not indicated that they are, your entire argument has been based on appeals to philosophical authorities. If you are Proclus or Iamblichus, that might be different, but you’re clearly not.

    I don’t necessarily disagree with the possibility that metempsychosis occurs–I think there are good arguments for it, and good ones against it. I do have some experiences that seem to support it. However, for now, I’m not that bothered with it, because this particular life has challenges that need to be faced, and it is out of my hands, in any case, once I am no longer living. I think it’s a waste of time to theorize over those matters when there is actual work of a spiritual nature to be done.

    I am here understanding “transcendentalism” as anything which suggests that embodied existence–with both its limits and its beauties–is in any way “lesser” than things which are not embodied. I was initially understanding your arguments to be that because “mind” and other matters do not rely on physical or sensual components, that you understand these things in a more transcendentalist mode than I do–and, I think (for my own definitions) you do. Why does the possibility that our own capacity to understand is bounded by physical limitations have to be such a scary concept, to you or to any of your philosophical authorities? (And note, not “generated by,” but simply “limited by.”) I think it devalues our potentials as physical beings to think this, personally.

    I don’t fundamentally disagree with your idea that there is no conflict between what is transcendental and what is immanent. However, I would disagree on any point that eliminates the dichotomy between them yet maintains that they are “the same,” which goes to the fundamental core of what I’m saying in any case. I think divinity and divine things can be understood in this life now, with its physical limitations, in an immanent fashion. However, I also think that beyond this life and physical things, those same divine realities will be experienced and understood in ways that we cannot currently imagine because we lack the equipment to do so; or, from a more anti-materialist viewpoint (which I do not hold), we’re burdened with our human physical form since that prevents our full understanding. I am not comfortable with saying “there is no difference,” because I think there’s a very big difference. Returning to the microscope metaphor, or the “dark glass,” or the prism, demonstrates what I think on the matter.

  • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus, I have greatly enjoyed this discussion, and I thank you for your very thoughtful replies to my comments and questions. Unfortunately I will be away from my computer for several days and will not be able to keep up my end of the conversation. Thanks again!