People have devised different ways to cope with their mortality. Consider three ways it’s been done in the past. There is a fourth way, however, and it's the only way that we can rely on, if we hope to know the truth.
Epicurus promoted a lifestyle of serene simplicity and made the social value of friendship the basis of enlightened living. For seven hundred years his philosophy claimed the allegiance of followers from Europe to India and Asia Minor. People wore signet rings with the portrait of Epicurus engraved on them. Women and folks from all grades of society were invited to join. In this way, the Epicureans were like the early Christian communities.
But despite persisting for about seven hundred years, they faded from history, and the Christian movement emerged as the dominant Western religion. Is there a reason for this eclipse of Epicurean society?
I think there is. The two schools of thought had very different solutions to the problem of mortality. The philosopher Epicurus had a facile argument for dealing with death. As long as you’re alive, he said, death is not; when you die you are not. It will be as it was before you were born. Problem solved.
The Christian solution to death is quite different, more hopeful and attractive, one reason for the appeal. The promise to early Christians was resurrection of the body for all who accept Jesus as their savior. The Epicurean way as well as the Buddhist way presuppose a high degree of enlightenment for dealing with one’s mortality.
Christianity requires simple faith and piety and relies on the beneficence of the Creator. Unlike the Epicurean who doesn’t have to worry about having a bad time after death, even if you’re Adolf Hitler or Donald Trump, Christians have to worry about hell and Buddhists about rebirth.
So we have Epicurean extinction, Buddhist reincarnation, and Christian resurrection,
What’s the best option? Squeeze all the possible joys into one life and forget about death (Epicurean). Aim for enlightenment, even if you have to keep coming back to life again and again until you hit the jackpot (Buddhist). Hope for eternal bliss but risk misery in hell forever (Christian).
I find none of these three options satisfactory. My view is as follows. Most religious views of life after death are boring, cruel and absurd. They may have served purposes of consolation and edification in the past—but not anymore.
But with the rise of modern psychical research, we’re in a position to form opinions on the subject—if, that is, we do some homework. Actually, there’s quite a bit of data; the issues can get abstract, and require a little philosophical reflection. But this is a totally new way to approach the question. Epicurus, great thinker, was wrong about assuming there was nothing in the big ‘after.’ He just assumed without testing his view.
It is possible infer that there is (or isn’t) a life after death by virtue of experiences that people have. Certain experiences can lead us to believe that we will survive our bodily demise. Apparitions, near-death experiences, mediumistic revelations, reincarnation memories—and so on. You can decide for yourself what all the data means.
And there’s another way to form an opinion on this. Some people have experiences that don’t just imply the reality of another world; they have experiences of entering the ‘next’ world now. In this special state of mind, it becomes luminously self-evident that they are immortal. For an overview of the issues and the types of evidence, try my book Experiencing the Next World Now (2007).
My main point. We’re at a new place to deal with the question of our mortality. Religion is no longer able to be of much help. And for the most part science and philosophy are indifferent or dogmatically negative. But there’s enough data and understanding of the issues to make up our own minds.
And there’s a kind of inner experiment, disengaging consciousness from the inner chatter, learning to lose oneself in the Great Mind.