What Happens to a Person’s Soul When They Die?

Recently, a journalist asked me a series of very basic questions about religion. I want to share my answers with you, and I encourage you to share your answers here, with The Wisdom Daily community.


What’s your view on heaven and hell?
Heaven and hell are accountability technologies designed to incentivize human beings to do the right thing. As with all technologies, the question is whether they are getting the job done and whether there are new technologies that can be more effective in helping us be better people. I know people who believe in the most literal version of heaven and hell, but it clearly has no affect on their moral choices in this life. And I know people who think heaven and hell are delusional projections, who act in ways that, if it turns out there is a heaven, they’ve surely earned their way in.

Determining what is evil, and eliminating it, is an ongoing human task.

What happens to a person’s soul when they die?
I don’t know, as I haven’t died yet. But after more than three decades of sitting with people as they are dying, and experiencing the deaths of parents and other loved ones, I have become very pragmatic. Soul or no soul, death is a homecoming or death is the end, resurrection, reincarnation, immortality, to dust and ashes…my criteria for what to believe are: Does your view mitigate the fear and terror around death? Does your view help you live more vitally and ethically? Does it support your fight for life, and help you let go at the right time? Does it enable you (and those around you) to be more honest, hopeful, comfortable, aware, compassionate, loving and even more “joyful” about dying? Does your view allow you to grasp the truth of the Ecclesiastes poet who wrote, “There is a time for birth and a time for death”? If it does, then believe it, and we will compare notes in the next world.

What counts as evil?
Evil acts are unimaginably hateful and horrifyingly abusive acts that cause intense harm, pain and suffering in others. People aren’t evil. People commit acts that are evil for a wide variety of reasons, including some mix of biography (how we were raised; our attachments, teachers and models; where we grew up; our values; how we metabolize rejection, guilt and shame) and our chemistry. Murder, rape and slavery are all evil acts. And yet, for most of human history, they’ve been practiced and continue to be. This suggests that, whether or not there’s objective evil, what actually constitutes evil is affected by our social and cultural context, by the communities in which we’re embedded. Determining what is evil, and eliminating it, is an ongoing human task.

And what counts as kindness?
Kindness is the practice of caring, understanding, supporting, sharing, giving the benefit of the doubt, acting with generosity and taking other people’s feelings/needs seriously. As much as kindness is a virtue, it’s also a muscle that needs to be exercised. Kindness is a practice we can get good at, so that when we encounter the choice to be kind or not – which we encounter myriad times during each day – we reflexively choose kindness.

What is sin, and can it be repented?
Sin is the gap between the way we act in any ethical moment – either out of ignorance, temptation, pain, shame, laziness or lack of awareness – and the way we know deep down we ought to act. In Jewish wisdom, sin simply means missing the mark. It’s being absent or forgetting who we really can be: our best and highest self.

We can always repent. Repentance is the process of: Recognizing how we missed the mark, Regretting what we did, and Repairing what needs to be repaired. Repentance means reconciling what we did with who we really want to be. And we only know whether we’ve truly repented the next time we’re in a similar situation and actually act differently.

What is the meaning of life?
To love others in order to better understand them. To help each other seek the truth about ourselves and our world. Each day, to become a bit more compassionate, ethical, grateful, loving and aware of the miracle of life than we were the day before. To develop our gifts, talents and abilities to make the world a better place during the short time we are here.

To flourish as human beings.


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