As most of you that know me are aware, I have high functioning autism. In some ways, this is a blessing, and in others, a curse. I see the world in black and white. There is no grey. There is no maybe. There is no “kinda sorta”. Things are, or they are not one way or the other. Logic is my guiding principle. If it makes no common sense, and has no logic, I don’t generally give it any further thought. With that being said, there is one area (yes only one) of my life and cognitive reasoning that troubles me, and that I DO consider to be a grey area. That area, is the idea of an afterlife. You see, along with my autism, for biologically complex reasons, my brain doesn’t process “feeling” and emotion the way others appear to. I was created incapable of having a real relationship with an intangible force, as I possess only logic and reason, with no satisfactory spiritual-emotional abilities. Any belief that I have is not rooted in emotional intelligence, merely in choice, logic and reason. Bearing that in mind, let’s explore death.
I have been legally dead multiple times over the course of my thirty-nine years. The first time I died, was as an infant. I remember after being revived, seeing everything blurrily through the oxygen tent. Another time, as a toddler, I drowned. Another time as a teen, I fell from a second story roof. The list goes on. Death has courted me since birth. Each time, heart had ceased. There was no brain activity. I was physically dead. And guess what? There was nothing. I didn’t float out of my body. I didn’t hear people trying to revive me. There was no tunnel with light. There were no family members greeting me. There was no angelic music. There was no demon trying to pull me down. There were no visions of heaven or of hell. There was just nothing. I simply ceased to be. Until I was revived, my personhood was gone. My hopes, dreams, aspirations, my consciousness… all of it was completely gone. This was the absolute biggest blow to any faith I may have had. The faith that existed only because my father hammered it into my over and over as a child. The faith that was only going through the motions to begin with. The faith that had no roots because I cannot believe anything that isn’t based in logic – anything that isn’t tangible – anything that cannot be proven. To me, the experience was, if anything; proof that there was nothing after death whatsoever. As a result, I wavered in my “faith”.
On top of all of this, there is no shortage of books and movies about people who claim to have encountered things after their deaths. Tales of seeing their close relatives, of being shown the pains of hell and the pleasures of heaven. Of feeling the very presence of the Divine. One I’m reading now, called “Return from Tomorrow” loaned to me by my friend Kathy begins with the man having an out of body experience in which he finds himself moving through the town suspended fifty feet in the air, floating about. In his “floatings”, he met his X-Ray technician who of course, couldn’t see him. He witnessed his own dead body, which he was able to identify by the ring he was wearing. He saw the typical light growing in the room, and witnessed a man made of light. He details the hell he was shown, the heaven he was shown. Then there’s the story (pretty much the same) from a boy who died, but his vision of hell was not of a soul trying to grasp a tumbler to press to his lips in vain, but of actual suffering and punishment. There are books upon books written by people claiming to have experienced this phenomena. I question the narratives, having died multiple times and having experienced nothing whatsoever. Why was such a glimpse into the eternal denied me? Or because my way of thinking differs from the neurotypical person, did my neurons just not fire off in whimsical desperation for oxygen the way others do?
Is there a heaven? Is there a hell? Truthfully, I don’t know. I like to think that I believe that there is, and I go through the motions… Over the years I drifted back and forth, unable to really find myself or faith or belief at all. I have prayed at great length asking for feeling. For something, anything that would allow my faith to increase. I have prayed for belief. I have prayed for trust. I have received none of those things. Yes, I am faithful. Following a code of laws that I believe to be Divine. Attending religious services. Praying and confessing my sins, trying to do better, living according to a code that the rest of the world views as silly and antiquated. I am kind to others. I force myself to like everyone by killing that judgmental little voice. I do my best to not get angry. I give my tithes and offerings. I read the Holy Book, the Word of the Divine inscribed by the hand of man, His messengers. Is it really His word? I honestly don’t know. I like to think that I believe, but do I? The fact is, I am filled with doubts. All I know is what I can perceive with my senses, and even my senses betray me.
What makes it worse, is that so many people tell me that just going through the actions is worthless. Without belief, and without faith, and without love for God etc. I am just a phony that has no chance of redemption. But for me, actions are all I have. I simply cannot feel, I cannot love something that I have no knowledge of existing. I don’t know why God chose to make me like this, but I refuse to believe that someone referred to as “Compassionate and Gracious, Slow to anger and Abundant in Kindness and Truth, Preserver of kindness for thousands of generations, Forgiver of iniquity, willful sin, and error, and Who Cleanses” could hold it against me for not being able to do what He created me not to be able to do. This thought, and this thought alone is the only reason that I continue to pray and attend religious services. I do exactly what the faith I follow requires of me. But I don’t really feel anything in this service. I act primarily because following the rules of my faith makes me a better person, and because when I die, I don’t want to suffer in any afterlife that there may be as well.
If the afterlife is real, as I like to think that I believe, what hope do I have? Will the angels at the moment of my final death draw swords and prevent me from uttering my final declaration of faith? Will demons scratch and grasp at me as I attempt to ascend? Will the accuser be able to pile enough in the scales to have me declared a completely wicked person? If I go down to punishment, will there be enough silver remaining once the dross is cleared for me to rise up again? If the afterlife is not real, I leave no legacy. I have done nothing worthy of praise. I have accomplished nothing worthy of memory. Wandering through life, only to find that my final destination is destruction. Either way, do I have anything to look forward to? On the one hand, a glimmer of hope, the minuscule chance of reward for an unworthy sinner, on the other, the end of it all. What is it about me that any Creator, any Divine, if such truly awaits me, would find worthy of consideration? If I do not sink into darkness, but instead go to judgment, what merit accompanies me in my favour?
As I told my friend Michael the other day, as long as we confess our sins and are contrite (regardless of our physical and mental limitations), and serve God according to the tradition of the apostles and do good to our fellow man, I believe we can trust in the mercy of Christ. Beyond that, I’m just a man struggling to please a God that refuses to tell him which direction to walk.