At death some think we are snuffed out for ever. And since this life is all we have we should derive as much meaning and joy from it as we can.
Others picture their soul escaping the body, and returning in another form. For them the quality of their soul or real self in this life will govern what they will become.
Many Muslims expect a judgment in which Allah will decide if they are good enough for heaven or deserve to go to hell. For them the object of life is to meet the standards that God requires.
A variant of this vision is that those who get to hear about Jesus Christ, and accept him as their personal Savior, will go to heaven and all others will burn in hell for ever. For those who adopt this view the most important thing in life is to make the right saving decision, and then persuade others to do the same.
Is there any alternative to these unappetizing visions of the meaning of life? Instead of beginning with the problem of what happens when our body dies, we could begin with love as the ultimate reality of our universe. This means we view love as creating and forming matter rather than love emerging from our material bodies.
At first sight this seems to deny all that science had taught us. We assumed that matter is the one permanent reality. Even the Bible tells us that we are dust of the earth and to dust we must return (Genesis 2:7; 3:19).
But matter might not be as material as we thought. Materialism was the idea that human love emerges from matter. But then suddenly ninety years ago Einstein persuaded us that matter and energy are interchangeable. All matter is a temporary organization of energy.
This changes the meaning of death. Since every atom of our body is energy, death is a change in the direction of our energies. We might restate the basic fact of life to say that we are energy and to energy we must return.
In this century another astonishing fact has become common knowledge. Babies who are given all the proper foods, but are deprived of love, tend to die. This suggests that love influences the direction of our life energy. Which is obvious when someone falls in love and every atom of his or her body has a change of chemistry.
When a wilted plant receives the water it needs it revives dramatically. And when a person has wilted through feeling unloved, a sudden experience of being loved has an equally dramatic effect. We also know that love has tremendous healing power. This is why humans have always valued being loved above everything else. Joyful people are those who can love and enjoy loving. For them life feels like a configuration of energy for the purpose of loving.
From that it is easy to think of love as the most creative thing in the world. We used to talk about the power of mind over matter. Perhaps the world is now ready to think of the power of love over matter.
This vision has already changed our perception of the needs of the dying. They do not want heroic measures to preserve their present organization of matter till it finally disintegrates. They want the freedom to love and to be loved.
A Copernican revolution has begun. Love has moved to the center of our universe. And we are ready to try out the astonishing statement that God is love (1 John 4:16).
What if we took a step beyond Einstein? Love brought energy into being, and energy brought matter into being. The eternal Love then took pleasure in bringing vegetable and animal life into being. And finally after various species of hominid had roamed our world for a couple of million years Love chose to make humans who would also be capable of creative love. In that sense Love is the Artist of our world, and when we love the way God loves we are in the creative image of God.
Christians view Jesus as the perfect expression in life and words of the love of God. He came to invite us into the perfect love that love has in mind for us.
That obviously implies that death is not the end of our loving. Death is not a mere reversion to matter, but a change in the direction of our energy. Our body is a temporary organization of energy for loving in this world. The resurrection of our body is the reorganization of our energy to free us to love as perfectly as God loves. With that freedom every atom of our body will be changed infinitely more than a lover is changed by falling in love.
But if God is love, and wants us to enjoy the perfect love of heaven, where does hell come into the picture? In the Bible the word "hell" is a translation of the two words "Hades" and "Gehenna." Hades (Sheol in Hebrew) means "death," or the abode of the dead. And Gehenna was ge hinnom, the Valley of Hinnom, which used to be the place where garbage was thrown over the east wall of Jerusalem. Fire from the cinders that were dumped there burned continually, and on wet days the stinking mess was crawling with maggots.
Obviously both these words "Hades" and "Gehenna" are metaphorical of something which was viewed as terribly awful. One metaphorical meaning was the equivalent of our expressions for being trashed, hell on earth, or making shipwreck of our life. It corresponds to the Old Testament idea of wrath which meant terrible consequences for a nation, or a city, or a person in this life.
Others view the words "Hades" and "Gehenna" as metaphorical of God's intention to trash large numbers of humans in the eternal flames of hell. Fire was used to burn witches in a horrible quick death, but some believe that God chose to create a hell fire to punish eternally those who do not do what He requires.
Those who delight in love and being loved find it hard to believe that God's eternal Love could delight in eternal fiery punishment. There is however the strange fact that some people do seem to reject loving and being loved. They go into a hell of their own. In some cases the rejection is temporary till Love finds a way to find a way back into the organization of the person's energy.
But what if a person deliberately chose the final rejection of Love and being loved? That would be a hellish Hades because apart from love humans are dead. It would also involve being trashed, burned, and eaten by maggots on the Gehenna garbage dump of life because when we finally reject love we cease to be human.
Such a thought is awful enough, but at least it does not make Love responsible for burning those who do not want to be loved.
The strange paradox of loving is that love is caring about the other's freedom. And that includes loving so much that you respect the right of the other to reject your love. As some parents know, for humans to love that much is a long drawn out crucifixion. And it seems that for God the willingness to let us crucify love is an inevitable part of his loving.