Painting by Mark Rothko
We all will die, and so will everything else; even the space that contains us. Everything we have down to our own bodies is ultimately on loan and will be paid back. Like most other gay men of my generation, I’ve seen too many people die before their time. Life is short and uncertain, and the absurd and the arbitrary happen. We never know how much time we have left, so how we spend it matters. The people we love and who love us are not forever and should be enjoyed, cared for, and cherished now.
I have no idea if there really is anything beyond the horizon of death. The afterlife may all be a big nothing. Much of the ancient world thought so. Hades, Sheol, and Abzu are all places of shadows where all the dead go regardless of virtue or wickedness; all exist in eternal darkness cut off from the living and the gods. These places seem to me not very far removed from the state of oblivion. They may be simply poetic metaphors for extinction. The Egyptians with their elaborate afterlife were the exception, not the rule in the ancient world. If the afterlife is all a big nothing, then there won’t be any conscious entity left to know it, or to regret it. Still, I treasure the hope that extinction is not our ultimate destiny.
Even so, as a friend of mine said, “It doesn’t matter if you believe in God or not; you don’t want to lie on your death bed knowing you’re an asshole.” Somehow in some way we are accountable for our lives and how we spend them. God’s mercy is infinite, and his justice is perfect.
If there is a Heaven, then I don’t believe that anyone pulls themselves up by their own bootstraps to get in it. Heaven is the free gift of God to all of us. No one earns their way into it. No one “deserves” to go to heaven or is “worthy” of it. It’s not an apotheosis. We’re not heroes winning admission to Olympus and immortality. I’ve never believed golden harps and clouds. I don’t believe in any celestial brothel as some believe. I don’t believe in any warriors’ Valhalla either. I don’t believe in anything like that changeless realm of disembodied light that Dante described. I believe that if there is a Heaven, then it is a place where we will indeed live again; live in every sense of that word. If we go there, we go there because God wants us to be there, not because we earned it or won the lottery. Heaven is like the return of the Prodigal; no matter what reason or where or for how long we wandered, Our Parents are always there waiting and are so happy that we’ve come back. Heaven is like the Wedding at Cana; joy like the best wine anyone has ever tasted, and more of it than all the guests can possibly drink. Heaven is the Bosom of Abraham where everyone belongs and is welcome. In Heaven, no one is lonely and no one is without. As Mahalia Jackson described Heaven “It’s always ‘Howdy! Howdy!’ and never ‘good bye.’”