Q: I have a dear friend, “L.” We are both volunteers at a soup kitchen and have worked together for more than 10 years. She has no faith, although she was born Jewish, and does not believe in an afterlife. My friend can’t imagine never seeing her family, or her grandchildren again. I tried to tell her about my belief in the afterlife, but she was not convinced. She recently was diagnosed with cancer and is undergoing treatment. Do you have any suggestions on how I can help her? My deepest sympathy to you on the death of your dear friend, Monsignor Thomas Hartman, in February. I admired the special relationship that you two shared.
– A., Locust Valley
A: Thank you for your kind words of condolence on Tommy’s passing. I keep waiting for a sign from him across the life/death barrier. We promised each other that we would try to communicate even though he believed in that possibility more than I do. So far, there has been no sign from Tommy.
Your friend is lucky to have you as a friend during her struggles with cancer. Your presence in her life is far more important than your explanations in her life. It took me a long time to learn this.
Ask yourself why people are religious – why are they drawn to faith in God? I believe that it is not really to honor ancestral traditions; neither is it to participate in religious rituals and holidays. Such things are good and satisfying, but they’re not at the heart of the matter. At its deepest essence, faith is a way of coping with the fear of death – our own death and, even more importantly, the death of those we love. Since we cannot know what, if anything, awaits us beyond the grave, we make a leap of faith and trust and hold strongly to the religious belief that death is not the end of us. This belief is the source of our hope in the face of death.
God’s love for us is so deep that we are not separated forever from those we love. That is the gift of faith. That is the reason for faith. That is the heart of the spiritual ballgame. As the theologian Mordecai Kaplan once wrote, “It is hell to live without hope, and religion saves people from hell.”
This hope is the main gift and the main reason for religions of every kind. Eastern faiths such as Hinduism believe in reincarnation until our souls are released from the cycle of death and rebirth. In the West, Judaism, Christianity and Islam believe that our souls go to God in heaven and are either there forever with God or are, in the end of days, reunited with our bodies and resurrected. Both ways result in hope in the face of death.
Is there any evidence that this religious belief in life after death for our souls is actually, empirically true? Like the rational proofs for the existence of God that I discussed recently, I think that there is evidence, but I also think that it is beside the point. Faith does not contradict facts, but faith begins where facts end. If you could prove that life after death was true, it would no longer be a belief. It would be a fact, and no matter what so-called evidence is adduced, heaven remains a hope sustaining belief, not a place on a map like Cleveland.
However, there is some evidence that has moved some people to consider the rational – not just the religious – concept of life after death. Those include near-death experiences, in which people who have died and then been revived reveal an amazingly consistent report about seeing a tunnel of light and hearing the voices of their ancestors telling them that it was not yet their time. Also, there’s the inability of science to locate consciousness in our brains convinces some people that consciousness is just an alternative word for our souls, which are immaterial but real and are impervious to death. And so on.
My advice to you is not to try to convince your friend that heaven is real, but rather give witness to the belief of heaven by your hope and kindness in the face of human finitude and her understandable fear. Thank you both for your work in the soup kitchen. Both heaven and green beans are life-sustaining foods.