While talking with some friends recently the subject came round to the ongoing hoopla over the Mayan Calendar and the supposed “end of the world” come December of this year. While talking of other failed apocalyptic predictions we could not forget Harold Camping, the radio evangelist who made waves last year when he predicted that the Christian rapture would fall in May of that year (later revised to October – both wrong). It was suggested by one of my friends that the actions of his followers (i.e. selling off their worldly possessions while waiting patiently for the big event) demonstrated the workings of a cult mindset.
These people were just being good Christians. They may actually have been the best Christians I have seen in a long time. They followed almost exactly the example set by the first followers of Christ, putting aside personal wealth and friendships and in some cases even family connections in favor of their faith. They did not try to force their beliefs on anyone. These devout individuals suffered through tremendous ridicule while simply cutting their worldly ties and waiting for their lord to take them home.
They waited and they prayed but the end didn’t come. It never really does.
It is an interesting irony that the way in which we live our lives seems to be determined by the manner in which we imagine our deaths. As time goes by, I find that our beliefs about the afterlife make up the very core of our understanding of the living world around us. The biggest difference between a Christian and a Pagan is not truly which gods they choose to believe in but which life.
For the Christian, life after death comes down to a choice between Heaven and Hell. Our shared mortal existence is little more than a staging ground for the eternity (of either torment or divine happiness) that comes after. This is the central promise of the Christian savior, an end to your suffering.
For the better part of 2,000 years the Christian faithful have been waiting for the return of that savior and the advent of their blissful eternal lives in the world to come. This glorious Kingdom of God will, they believe, wash away our current imperfect world which was tainted and ruined by the sin of man. In the new and perfect world to come there will be no suffering or regret and the faithful will live forever within the radiant presence of their god.
The Christian chooses to believe in the life after death.
And what of the Pagan?
The first thing I must point out here is that there is no singular Pagan viewpoint on these matters. Modern Paganism encapsulates a growing number of beliefs and there is nothing like a unified position on the topic of life after death. I may speak with some generalities for the community at large and more specifically regarding my own faith tradition, but the specifics of Pagan Eschatology are not really important to this discussion. The reason for this is that generally speaking, the Pagan believes in the life before death.
This is not to say that we do not believe in life after death. The great majority of us hold such beliefs and there are some beautiful traditions which explain the journey of the soul once released from its mortal coil.
The lore of my Celtic ancestors speaks of the Otherworld, a realm which exists both within and throughout our own, yet hidden by a thin but vital veil. Within the Celtic Otherworld exists the Teach Duinn (the House of Donn) where the souls of the dead abide after their bodies have fallen into decay.
The veneration of our ancestors and the beloved dead is a common practice throughout the Pagan community. Within my own spiritual tradition we honor the dead and provide what we can for their continued comfort. Sometimes we may ask for their spiritual guidance and protection just as we would a parent or guardian in the living world.
It may be tempting to liken these beliefs to the Christian concept of the afterlife but the two are really very different. Those who make the journey to the Teach Duinn do not remain there eternally. The Celtic Otherworld (and most of its parallels in other cultures) is neither a final destination nor a place of punishment or reward. Think of it as a Way Station, a place to take rest and watch over family and friends in the world of the living before moving on to the next life.
And that is the key difference: the next life.
The Christian appears to see things moving in a straight line with a beginning, a middle and an end but the Pagan sees only the Great Wheel rolling ever onward.
We are born, live, die, rest and are born again.
Spring is followed by Summer, Autumn and Winter after which Spring blooms again.
Billions of years ago a star erupted into a super-nova spreading gasses and heavy metals throughout the galaxy which eventually coalesced into our yellow sun and its attendant planets. Eventually our own star will shed its solar gasses back into the cosmos and the cycle will repeat again and again.
If eternity exists, it is in the endless cycle of death and rebirth.
This is the life that matters! What happens beyond the grave is no more than a temporary departure from the land of the living. The lore suggests that we should care for the dead not only to honor the lives they lead but the lives they are yet to lead through us.
I sometimes worry that those who pass away expecting to be reborn into a blissful eternity may retain something of that dying hope upon their return to the mortal coil. Perhaps that is the reason so many people exhibit such dissatisfaction with their lives. They were born expecting something else entirely.
My hope is that they will instead awaken to a better appreciation of the world we all share. This world, this life, needs our undivided attention. Let’s try to focus on the now. Tomorrow will take care of itself.