The afterlife is the greatest source of wonder, amazement and confusion in the lives of many, if not all, people. What happens after our stint on planet Earth has come to an end? Is there something and, if yes, what will it be like? Will we be able to have self-awareness? How will life after life continue? Will there be nothing at all, a dark sleep without dreams or consciousness? Or will we wake up in the body of another with no recollection whatsoever of our previous lifetime(s)?
Take 1: The Personal Soul
According to many religious traditions, there is a personal soul that will continue in the afterlife. It is purported to be the essence or unique quality of each person that will separate from the mortal frame, the body, and will soar to the heights of the afterlife. A sort of bodiless floating spirit or ghost.
In the case of the personal soul, you will remember all that has happened in your lifetime and will continue the rest of eternity carrying your name and memories. In many traditions, there will also be judgement on your previous life, so you may end up in Heaven, where you rejoice of delights, Hell, where you pay for a life of wickedness and sins, or for those who walk the middle ground, you will have the chance to cleanse yourself in Purgatory.
There are a variety of questions and doubts that arise with this view. First off, will age be a factor? For example, if you die in your youth, will you continue to exist within that frame and mentality? What if you die in old age? Will you transfer all your knowledge, skills and experiences to the afterlife? Will you be able to speak various languages and play chess over there? Do computer skills matter?
What about people who grow senile or who suffer from mental or degenerative diseases like Depression or Alzheimer's? Will they carry those forward to the other realm, or will it separate from the body? Can there be cases of depression in the afterlife? And will you be allowed to have more than one wife?
The other question is this, what if you don't like yourself in this life? Will you be able to shed off all the negative aspects of yourself and become new and shiny bright over there?
In short, can we reinvent ourselves, can we make a new name of ourselves or are we trapped in the workings of what we were before in our previous mortal life? Is it a mere continuation of our own identity or will we gain a new perspective and be able to give a new spin to our identity? Can we shed off painful experiences or are we stuck with them for all eternity? Finally, is eternal life of a personal soul really a good thing then? Do we have a choice?
Take 2: The Non-Personal Soul
Another "way out" may be a non-personal soul. By this, I am referring to an existence with the possibility of consciousness but with no recollection whatsoever of the previous life. The most apparent form would be the idea of reincarnation.
In this case, we would be reborn but in another body. We are generally not aware of any previous lifetimes, but are building up our spiritual essence or energy over time. We are not tied down to one person or personality but are connected to a variety of them. We continue from lifetime to lifetime until finally one day, it is said, a realization or enlightenment may occur that would clear up all doubts.
But who are we then essentially? Would we pick a certain person we like best on this journey over lifetimes? And will we still be married to one person or will we have many husbands and wives? Or, and this idea I find most intriguing, are we always ending up committed or married to technically the same person (soulmate?) over and over again from life to life, unbeknownst to us? Are we essentially always surrounded by the same people in each and every life?
Who are we really in such a view? And who do we become to be? Is there something that passes on from life to life like energy, something that may hold traces of the previous life? And is this essence free of daily troubles, hardship and suffering? Is that non-personal soul relatively independent from the earthly body?
Certain views embrace this thought. It was developed by Aristotle as a non-thinking part of the person that would continue, as an existence without consciousness but as pure energy. But what good is this to the Western mind who cannot exist without thinking? Without the ability to reflect and feel, one does not actually exist in this point of view.
The mystical or gnostic view tries to circumvent the view by claiming that there is a divine spark within (at least some of) us. The divine spark or essence would then reunite with the divinity and become complete and whole. We would be part of the godhead again, but not as our self, but rather in the form of our divine higher self. Interestingly, all higher selves would be equal and the same; they unite to become one and the same super-powerful body.
Mysticism boggles the mind and is the death of logic. But if it were true, then we would not exist in our little limited consciousness or definition of the self, but would reach out to a unifying experience, where drops of water combine to make up an endless ocean.
Take 3: Nothing
I would have to do my atheist readers and friends also justice in this discussion. There would be absolutely nothing according to this view. We live and die. That's it. Period. You had your chance, you probably blew it and wasted the unique gift of life on unimportant things and you will never live again.
It can be a sad and disconcerting view, but it does not have to be so according to some of the existentialists. The focus would be on this life, so that we will appreciate it more, try harder and realize the many blessings we have. Life will become so much more precious because that is all that we get. One shot.
This can lead to two different types of behaviors. Some might take life more seriously and take heed of their actions and feel more responsible despite the fact that there is no afterlife punishment, while others may become full-blown unscrupulous hedonists. You may disregard other people's needs because you say, what's the point, we will all die anyhow, so why not enjoy life to the max even to the detriment of others. This is, of course, an exaggerated form and borders strongly on narcissism. However, in most cases, atheists tend to have their feet rather firmly on the ground.
Regardless of whether there is an afterlife or not, one should take this life seriously, by which I mean one should not let it slip away, but in fact have fun all along the way and follow one's dreams. After all, we really do not know for sure what will come afterwards. We can subscribe to Pascal's Wager or we can make our own assumptions. And one day we may meet up again, be it up there or down below or anywhere in-between to discuss these matters all together.