A Better World

Twice in the span of 24 hours I heard it said, “He has gone to a better world” in response to news that someone had passed away. One of the deceased was a man at my church who had died suddenly of a stroke after a long and losing battle with cancer. The other was a neighbor who had been in poor health for years and died in his sleep. I had known and liked both of them and was sorry to see them go. If, in fact, they have gone to a better world, I am happy for them. However, I confess I side with Henry Thoreau on this issue. When asked on his deathbed whether he could see beyond the shores of this life, he replied, “One world at a time.” As much as we might wish to console grieving family and friends – and perhaps ourselves in the bargain -- we don’t actually know whether someone has gone to a better world. If, instead, our departed loved ones have been consigned to oblivion, they are none the worse for it, since they are beyond caring. I suspect the thought of a better world is really meant not for the dead but for the living.

My Jewish father-in-law, who lived to be 105, could never be accused of having any illusions about an afterlife. He believed that once you had lived your life, that was the end of it – no pie in the sky when you die. He was very matter-of-fact on the subject. Of course, that doesn’t mean he has not gone to a better world; indeed, if anyone deserved a better world, it was him. The point is that my father-in-law had no more reason to think this life was the end than those who believe we go to a better world. Since no one has received so much as a postcard from the hereafter, we can never know for certain.

Human cultures have long believed in an afterlife, although not necessarily in a better world. Grave sites dating back more than 100,000 years have been found with artifacts to equip their occupants for journeys to the next world. However, the beliefs of some ancient civilizations made it doubtful that anyone would have been looking forward to the trip. Sumerians could expect to wind up in a hellish underworld where they crawled on their bellies and ate dust. Ancient Egyptians fared little better, although their pharaohs got to hobnob with deities in paradise. Hades – originally the name for the Greek god of the underworld – came to be identified with his gloomy realm. The term was used in the New Testament, which was written in Greek, as a place for the dead.

People are generally surprised to learn that the Bible has almost nothing to say about heaven and hell. There are scattered references in the Old Testament to Sheol, another shadowy underworld. The New Testament looks forward to a resurrection of the dead, which will take place not in the next world but in this one. Granted, the world is in a bit of a mess right now, but whose fault is that? We forget that this is the world God created, and he judged it to be very good. If it’s a better world we seek, perhaps we should reclaim the one we’ve already been given.

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