At the wake of Jugo Bernas, the 13-month grandson of former president Gloria Arroyo who died on All Souls Day, a slide show flashed pictures of the baby afflicted by congenital heart disease. A shifting mix of sadness and pain, innocence and joy, love and loss stirred as one viewed the images from a year of struggling to survive. One cannot begin to imagine the family’s anguish over the tragedy of their toddler taken.
In the face of such passing, belief in a loving God Who brings the grieving and the grieved together forever is for many the only way to accept their irreversible parting. The atheist’s assertion that nothing remains or follows once heart and brain are stilled, is so tough to take, most mourners far prefer a next life to one and done, even if the former may be wishful thinking.
So what if hopes and prayers for some unending Utopia are vain pinings and petitions, as long as the dying and the bereaved find solace, if not joy in their faith?
Why, indeed, should anyone begrudge the mourning what non-believers see as consoling canard in the popular Prayer for the Dead, proclaiming death as “the end of poverty and the beginning of riches; the end of frustration and the beginning of fulfillment; the end of fear and the beginning of tranquility; the end of pain and the beginning of joy; the end of weakness and the beginning of strength”?
Nor is it harmful to society for most of humanity over the millennia to pay respects, make preparations, and regularly commemorate the deceased in the sincere if unscientific belief that they still live in some unseen form. These traditions cultivate a healthy regard for forebears which helps promote their virtues and ideals.
To be sure, one can also find solace amid death and edification from the dead even without belief in the afterlife. For non-believers, there is joy and learning enough just to cherish the memory, lives and character of departed family and friends as well as great personages. No need for fantasies of joining them in Paradise.
Nor are Christianity’s Four Last Things of death, judgment, heaven and hell necessary for people to choose good over evil. Countless non-believers live exemplary lives and build great legacies, even sacrificing their lives, without seeking reward after earthly existence.
They may even strive harder to end war, injustice, suffering and destitution, since they don’t expect any heaven to redress those enormities.
The certainty of scientific uncertainty
Still, belief in the afterlife persists. After all, like the existence of a supreme being, no one actually knows for sure that there is no sequel to every human’s three, four or five score. All that empirical science can say for certain about God and the afterlife is that it can’t be certain about either, since tangible, measurable and replicable verification cannot at this time yield uncontestable evidence for or against spiritual phenomena.
Mathematician James Lindsay, writing in the book Christianity Is Not Great: How Faith Fails, a compendium of atheist writings, asserts that based on scientific knowledge, God “almost surely” does not exist. Nor is science the only field of human knowledge admitting uncertainty about spirituality.
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, among other leaders of faith, has also acknowledged that God’s existence and creation of the cosmos cannot be proved or disproved without doubt. Thus, he explains, a person has to decide whether to believe or disbelieve the divine. Or as Jesus Christ challenged His Apostles: “Who do you say that I am?”
So people have to make a personal bet on whether there is a soul that lives on after the body expires. And for millions if not billions since Homo sapiens pondered death, the afterlife is true enough for those accepting evidence unacceptable to science, but still coming from credible sources.
This writer’s mother Noemi has had several experiences of dead people manifesting themselves. As a hard-nosed businesswoman who once served as the only woman president of the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry, she isn’t one who easily accepts things she cannot personally verify. At the same time, she has no reason to lie to her immediate family about her experiences.
In one instance in the 1990s, she, my aunt Belen and my cousin Joji momentarily saw someone who looked exactly like another cousin, Ruby, undergoing a heart operation in Los Angeles. This figure was standing in a pool of water in Tagaytay Highlands Resort at around 1 p.m. Immediately afterward, Noemi got a call from Ruby’s mother that she had just expired on the operating table.
This writer’s sister had a more direct experience of the afterlife. Also suffering from a congenital heart condition, Linda had siezures as a child. In her last attack at age 8, her heartbeat stopped, and a deathly blue color crept upward from her extremities. As our father Reynaldo, a doctor, frantically massaged Linda’s heart, his mother Angela prayed that she be taken instead of her granddaughter.
After that plea, Linda regained pulse and consciousness. She told of walking through a dark tunnel toward a faraway light, like many near-death experiences. But she got tired and went back. Days later, Grandma Angela fell ill and went into hospital; she died a week after Linda’s siezure, choking on a slice of papaya the night before she was to be released from confinement. And my sister fully recovered from her condition.
These and similar accounts from countless people through the ages cannot be independently validated or experimentally replicated. But for those who go through these events and others who trust their words and faculties, these experiences are real enough to make the idea of life after death not entirely baseless.
Breaching the wall of death
Two days ago the world marked the silver anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall once separating then communist East Berlin from the rest of the city. Thousands of East Germans dreamt of escaping autocracy by climbing over, tunneling under, and otherwise slipping through the 140-km-plus barrier. Some 5,000 tried, including a hundred killed by border guards.
That perilous quest for freedom seemed misguided, since almost surely, it would end in death. But the walled-in kept climbing, tunneling, believing, and betting with their lives. So will those who hope and pray that there is freedom, happiness and peace beyond the wall of death.