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There Might Yet Be an Afterlife for Hitchens

12/16/2011 04:37 EST | Updated 02/15/2012 05:12 EST

My workouts at the gym are usually routine events, but that day a few years ago was much different. On one of the televisions above my treadmill, George Stroumboulopoulos was interviewing June Callwood, whose terminal cancer was bringing her time on earth to an end. "Dust to dust is the way it ought to be," June said shortly into the interview.

"You're about to enter that great stage in one's life when you get to find out what's next. Do you have an idea?" George asked.

"There's nothing next," June replied without hesitation, followed by a pensive, "That's all right."

George was strikingly poignant as he continued to question his 82-year-old guest. "You don't believe in God?" The response: "I believe in kindness."

Here was one of Canada's leading interviewers questioning one of Canada's foremost social activists, who was utterly convinced that life simply ends. Full stop. Nothing more. Absolutely nothing.

As I finished my workout, I couldn't stop thinking about George's seeming disappointment in his guest's rejection of an afterlife. Even those who are "convinced" of their final end must have a bit of lingering doubt. I would go further: Most of us would do anything to sneak a peak at the next destination.

As Benedict XVI said in his best-selling book Jesus of Nazareth: "What preoccupies man is the hiddenness of the future that awaits him. Man wants to tear aside the curtain; he wants to know what is going to happen, so that he can avoid perdition and set out towards salvation."

June Callwood's adamancy contrasts radically with that of Martha, the sister of Lazarus and Mary, three people who were close to Jesus. From John 11:

A brokenhearted Martha said to Jesus: "If you had been here, my brother would not have died. Jesus said to her, "Your brother will rise again." Martha said to him, 'I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day." Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?"

That is the fundamental "Easter question" for Christians. Do they, or do they not, believe in life after death? It either does or does not exist. Both positions ultimately require an act of faith; after all, in this life it is impossible to "break on through to the other side," to use the memorable phrase of The Doors' Jim Morrison. Life and death come down to weighing our two options and hedging our bets, since it just might be true that death is only the entry point to an unending existence in the afterlife.

A friend, having heard I was writing on this topic, wrote to me: "I look forward to your piece on life after death. I'm not convinced but I am eager to be proven wrong. Nietzsche said life has meaning because we die. But when you see how breezily people throw their lives away, I'm not sure that is the case."

It's easy to understand why some people equate death with "game over." They never give a thought to the afterlife because they are too busy in the present life, rushing around, chasing time, absorbed in everything they must finish before they die.

The German philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand observed:

Some people are so engrossed in their daily concerns that, though not leading an agreeable life at all, they simply find no time to stop and think. The complete enslavement of their attention to the practical task immediately ahead deprives them of any leisure for feeling their lack of peace. Like beasts of burden, they tread along their path in dull monotony, without ever becoming sufficiently awake to feel distressed by the meaninglessness of their lives.

Then there is the fact that "eternal life" is tough to wrap our minds around. We can imagine an unlimited data plan for our cell phones, but not unlimited time for ourselves. Much less can we conceive of eternity as not a long time, but a time of pure timelessness.

Benedict XVI took a stab at this in his encyclical letter on hope. Here is his effort to describe heaven:

[It is] something more like the supreme moment of satisfaction, in which totality embraces us and we embrace totality (...). It would be like plunging into the ocean of infinite love, a moment in which time -- the before and after --no longer exists. We can only attempt to grasp the idea that such a moment is life in the full sense, a plunging ever anew into the vastness of being, in which we are simply overwhelmed with joy.

A big stumbling block is the need for faith. Someone could say "I don't have faith, therefore I am convinced that with death comes the end." Ironically, that attitude requires quite a leap of faith to conclude that humans are just flesh, bones and chemicals. How can chemicals produce such immaterial concepts as eternity and love? The thought that we are just a sack of chemicals is not especially appealing or even logical. Yet many accept that belief without blinking an eye.

A professor at a U.S. university took a poll before class one day. He asked his students what they thought they were: a composite of immortal soul and physical body or flesh, bones and chemicals. Only two out of the forty students opted for the body and soul composite but then one of the two got embarrassed and yanked his hand back down. Thirty-eight blithely chose flesh, bones, and chemicals.

But chemicals can't possibly explain our yearning for eternal life. The human psyche was wired at the factory for infinity. To paraphrase Augustine of Hippo: "Thou hast made us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee."

A contemporary thinker, Peter Kreeft of Boston College, says: "The big, blazing, terrible truth about man is that he has a heaven-sized hole in his heart, and nothing else can heal it. We pass our lives trying to fill the Grand Canyon with marbles."

So what if it turns out that death truly is just the beginning?

Joseph Ratzinger spoke about the "moral exigency" that arises when we consider the account we will have to give to our creator. The thought of the afterlife confers to moral decision-making gravity and definiteness. As a recently ordained priest back in the 1980s, I walked into a Cambridge Square printing shop one day. The manager looked up from her desk. She smiled when she noted my clerical garb, and said in a rich Southern accent: "I haven't seen anyone dressed like that in a long time. When I was growing up, I used to see priests dressed like you and I would always say to myself, 'Honey, you'd better clean up your act!'"

Christians, particularly, have a compelling reason to believe in eternal life. Not only did Jesus speak often about the life that awaits us in heaven, but he then rose from the dead and, during forty days, appeared to hundreds of people. A betting man would not want to ignore that clue.