So in the midst of the ongoing incident with Rob Bell, I have been thinking about the nature of the afterlife. The readily apparent conclusion is that we know very little.
Now, I have an opinion on what I believe happens. I base that opinion on my beliefs about God. I might be wrong. Lots of religions say lots of things about what happen to us when we die--even within Christianity there are competing versions. There are some Christians, for example, who assert that everyone gets into Heaven. Others believe in Purgatory, many for years believed in Limbo, etc. There are even some who believe that only those who have prayed some formulaic prayer to 'accept Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior' or some variation thereof will enter Heaven.
Despite the strong resemblance to the casting system of Dungeons and Dragons (if you don't get the hand positions just right, the spell fizzles and nothing happens), this peculiar notion surprisingly predates even First Edition.
The Bible itself speaks of Hell surprisingly little: in Revelations it says that the dead were judged according to what they had done; in the story of Lazarus and the rich man, the beggar who had suffered in life goes to Heaven, while the rich man who had been uncaring goes to hell; and in Jesus' version of the final judgment it is those who have done good deeds to the 'least of these' who make it, whereas those who did not now find the tables turned.
The Bible, then, follows the general tradition of some sort of judgment wherein a person's deeds in life determine his fate after death, but with a twist. In Christianity, the poor, the meek, the downtrodden--all those who have suffered--are comforted, whereas the proud, the arrogant, the wealthy find their situation reversed.
That's an idea--in broad terms--that makes sense granted what I think of God and revelation. There are lots of ideas that make sense, however:
We could say that, since the the processes of consciousness--memory, thought, perception, emotion--are functions of the biological brain, then they will simply cease upon the death of the organism. That idea makes sense.
We could say that our deeds in this life will direct our path in the next cycle of reincarnation, bringing us back as either a lower form or a higher form until we eventually manage to break the cycle. In an odd sort of way, that idea makes sense.
We could say that the next world represents the inversion of this world, where its hurts will be healed and its injustices corrected--the righteous and compassionate and suffering will be rewarded and the arrogant and oppressors punished in some way. That idea makes sense. It may be wishful thinking, but it makes sense.
Other ideas don't make sense: for example, the notion that the line between the sheep and the goats is drawn through the middle of the Sinner's Prayer. It may be impossible to disprove per se, but aside from an emotional need for certainty I can't think of a single reason to believe this. It's not even in the Bible--the Bible flat out contradicts it in multiple passages.
So we can say about the afterlife that certain ideas make sense and certain ideas don't; this is somewhat of an arbitrary standard, and we might be wrong, but at least it's a start as we're trying to sift through the various claims of revelation. We can also say that some ideas are compatible with certain other ideas, whereas others are incompatible.
For example, the idea that God predestines those who will get saved whereas everyone else gets to suffer in hell for all eternity makes a certain kind of horrifying sense*--sort of like the works of HP Lovecraft, it has a kind of eldritch logic of arbitrary madness. However, it requires us to believe in a God who makes Cthulhu look like a pussy: in Lovecraft's mythology one could escape the Old Ones by suicide, but in Calvin's taking your own life merely speeds you to the fires.** Calvinism is incompatible with the notion of a loving God. Either one (or neither) might be true, but not both--not by any definition of 'loving' that I have ever encountered.
Likewise, we can say that the idea of eternal punishment for the misdeeds of a finite lifetime, committed under the misapprehensions of a fuddled mortal mind, is incompatible with the idea of a just God. God might be just, and Hell might be forever (or there might be no God and no Hell), but both can't be true--not if 'just' means 'just'.
I mention Calvin and eternal damnation specifically, as most of the folks up in arms about Rob Bell hold to both.
But aside from these sorts of musings, we can't ever really know--not in the way that we know things about this life. Observation trumps theorizing, after all, and even the sources that ought to know granted the premises of the various religions are actually pretty vague and allegorical. My response, then, to Rob Bell's critics is two-fold: to scoff at the flippant certainty with which they reassert their own dogmas*** and condemn him****, and to point out the gross inconsistencies (and rampant plagiarism from Lovecraft) in their own belief systems.
As for my own beliefs, they are more like hope and poetry than anything systematic--tentative, and painted in broad strokes rather than details. I might write about them at some point, but tossing my own hat into the fray of assertion was hardly my purpose in this entry. I don't know for sure what happens when we die; the difference between me and Piper is that I'll admit it.
*Even single predestination isn't much better. If there are no obstacles to God's overriding a mortal's free will to save them from His wrath (in fact, single predestination asserts that He does so on a routine basis), and if He refuses to do so for some despite knowing their fate, then in what way is that any different from having predestined them to perdition in the first place?
**Another point of similarity is that both the Cthulhu cult and the premillennialists (which Calvinists like Piper tend to be) believe that when the times of prophecy are at hand, their respective deities will reappear in their respective sacred cities to destroy the earth and cast the puny civilizations of man into everlasting torment, an event which both groups eagerly anticipate.
***I probably seem pretty flippantly certain myself, but there is a difference between maintaining that certain adjectives cannot be applied to a being that acts in a certain way and in asserting that the afterlife will definitely be this, that or the other and anyone who thinks otherwise is verging on heresy.
****cf Piper's tweeted excommunication; and I use the term 'excommunication' deliberately.