What I Believe About Life After Death

My friend Thomas died in August. His death was sudden and tragic. He and his 22-year-old child were killed in a car accident.

Thomas was the priest who introduced me to Anglicanism a decade ago. He explained to me why ministers wear purple during the season of Advent, why people make the sign of the cross in church, why we take communion. He opened me up to a whole world that I didn’t know existed, a world that feels enchanted, beautiful and poetic. He was also one of the first people I told that I was considering ordination, and he mentored and guided me through the yearslong process of becoming a priest myself.

In the last couple of years, Thomas and I spoke less often, and mostly online or over email. But I find I think of him every day now. This month, for his sabbatical, he was supposed to be walking the Camino de Santiago, a 500-mile path that has been a religious pilgrimage since around the 10th century. He trained for months. Each day, I wonder where he would have been on the trail had he lived.

It feels to me like something went wrong. He can’t die, I think. He’d made plans. He had so much left to do. A journey interrupted.

Death, for all of us, is a journey interrupted. I feel this acutely when someone young dies. But not only then. When my father passed away in his 70s, I felt like there was so much that still needed to happen, so many more conversations we needed to have. He’d always wanted to see the Panama Canal. There were grandchildren in his future that needed him to be alive.

The week before Easter, Thomas would lead a Tenebrae service — a gathering focused on the waning light as Good Friday approaches. These services, in Thomas’s hands, were gorgeous works of art, incorporating film clips, live music and poetry. One year, he played a clip of the beloved children’s author Maurice Sendak in an interview with Terry Gross.

Sendak’s frail, gravelly voice spoke of his brother who had passed away: “It makes me cry only when I see my friends go before me and life is emptied. I don’t believe in an afterlife, but I still fully expect to see my brother again.” Though he was an atheist, Sendak couldn’t shake the hope for another glimpse of his brother’s face. There is something deep within us that rejects the idea that the road just stops. We feel there must be more. We must be made for more: more conversations, more laughter, more breaths to take, more miles to walk along the trail.

Reading the Bible, I notice how Jesus’ death too feels like a journey interrupted. There was so much more he could have explained, so many more people to heal, so much more to be done. After his death, most of his closest friends hid out, lost in grief and fear. And I wonder if this was in part because they thought that this wasn’t how things were supposed to end. They had plans. They were part of a revolutionary brotherhood. And then it suddenly was over.

I saw my friend Pete at Thomas’s funeral. Pete and Thomas were close friends and he told me about how he would miss their weekly breakfasts together at the Waffle House. He also told me that since Thomas had died he kept thinking about the story of Jesus’ resurrection and what it must have been like for the disciples to experience it. What struck him anew was how it would feel to be in deepest grief and then suddenly see your friend again. There is a deeply intimate and human reunion story amid the larger cosmic meaning of the resurrection account. A community of friends was broken and then, somehow, against all hope, remade.

The truth is, no one — not priests, not scientists, not the most ardent atheist, not the most steadfast believer — can be 100 percent certain about what happens to us after we die. Each week at church, when we say the Nicene Creed, I affirm that I believe in “the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.”

I believe that after I die, somehow mysteriously but also materially Jesus will raise me up to live on this good earth, made new. I believe this because I believe that Jesus is risen from the dead. Specifically, I believe the witness of the disciples and others who lived and died for their claim that they (and somewhere around 500 others) had seen Jesus alive again and spoken to and touched him. That’s ultimately why I believe there’s a God at all and why I believe God has defeated death.

As a priest, when I talk about life after death with others, I tend to keep it objective, theological and creedal. I worry about making resurrected life sound sentimental, like we are just making stuff up, dreaming of what we wish was true. So I try to be evenhanded and factual.

But the fact is, I believe this is true, and I believe there are good reasons to believe it’s true, but I also want it to be true.

I hate death. I have never made my peace with it and I never will. I don’t want to live in a world where everything good suddenly ends.

Like Maurice Sendak, I want to see the people I love again.

I hope that my longing for eternity — for joy and pleasure and friendship and beauty to last — is there because it whispers of something that is true. I hope that death feels wrong to me because it really is wrong, it really is not how things are meant be. And I hope that this hope for more is not silly or delusional. I hope to see my friends again and that death is an interruption, but not an ending.

Have feedback? Send a note to [email protected].

Tish Harrison Warren (@Tish_H_Warren) is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America and author of “Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep.”

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