MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
Several weeks ago, I interviewed a novelist who wrote what I thought were very vivid and sympathetic descriptions of characters whose beliefs were very different from his own. They believed in an afterlife. He didn't. I admitted to sharing his skepticism that a hereafter awaits us and I heard from a listener about it. I can assure you, he wrote, there is an afterlife.
The listener is, according to the polls, among the great majority of Americans on this point. And I was struck by how much we must be motivated by what we believe awaits us. And by how, in the civil discourse of a news program, how little we talk about that belief. So, I've been asking people of different faiths, including no faith, about what's next?
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHEEK TO CHEEK")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Singing) Heaven, I'm in heaven...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Everybody now alive will die some day.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: We will retain an awareness beyond this life.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Whatever the soul wishes for and desires in paradise, that will be there.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: There'll be no more suffering and tears.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Where we finally learn to be reconciled with God and each other.
SIEGEL: Today, an evangelical protestant's view of the afterlife. Reverend Gabriel Salguero is pastor of The Lamb's Church in New York City. And he's president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition.
REVEREND GABRIEL SALGUERO: For me, I think that the faith of my childhood was - talked about a heaven where there was no sickness, no disease, no hate, no crime, no evil. And I very much still cling to that eternity of heaven where we, as people, have learned to live together despite difference and despite our cultural backgrounds. So whether that's a, you know, a distant place beyond the galaxies or a renewed Earth, you know, where the Kingdom of God and the reign of God is, I think that's what's most important.
SIEGEL: Kingdom of God, which is a phrase laden with religious meaning, at its most banal suggests that there aren't other kingdoms or there's no nationality in the afterlife. Fair enough?
SALGUERO: Well, I think - actually, you know what I actually think is that what Revelations says, particularly in Chapter Seven where it says: From every tribe, nation, and tongue. I don't think eternity does away with difference. What I, you know, I think we're going to see people's race, culture in eternity. What I think it does is it reconciles it. Where it says, I'm Hispanic, I'm Latino. You know, and I'm going to see African-Americans. And I'm going to see whites, and I'm going to see Asians in heaven. And I think that phenotype will be there.
I would be saddened if difference was obliterated in eternity. I think they're just going to be reconciled and we're going to learn, finally, to live together.
SIEGEL: So you're talking about, in heaven at least, a morally corrected eternity. But people would retain very much their biographical identities as of where they are, what their ethnicity is, what their religion was. Do I have that right?
SALGUERO: Yeah, I don't know - I don't know about what their religion is because I think religion is a very human construct. What I do think is there will be this phenotype, I think this biological, this maybe even linguistic - which is still a human construct, but it's how we've learned to communicate. I think what God is calling us in, particularly as a Christian, is right relationships. And for me that's done through the person of Jesus Christ: A right relationship with God here on Earth and also in eternity. So I'm going to see people from across the geographic spectrum and across the racial/cultural spectrum. I think that - I don't think there's a need for religion in heaven because we are already in the presence of the absolute.
SIEGEL: If we still possess, say, racial characteristics in heaven, are we corporeal beings, do you think? Do we have to eat? Do we have to drink? Do we - are we with our loved ones? How much like life do you think the afterlife is?
SALGUERO: Well, you know, Revelation has these beautiful images. And of course Revelation, I interpret most of it metaphorically, right, not literally, right? It talks about us eating and playing and singing and chatting and having relationships, you know. Jesus, when he talks about preparing a place for us, you know, he often talks about us talking and eating. After the resurrection in the New Testament narratives, the first thing Jesus does is actually ask for food in his resurrected body. You know, he says: Hey, where's the bread, where are the fish? You know? So I think it's a vision of a corporal reality where we finally learn to be reconciled with God and each other.
SIEGEL: How does it affect you in your everyday life to sense this belief in eternity?
SALGUERO: Yeah, I think that the calling of eternity, for me - and even as I preach to my parishioners, which is a very multiethnic congregation - what I tell them is that the view of eternity should serve as an ethical imperative. Or, in the words of Jesus of Nazareth in his prayer: Let your kingdom come and let your will be done, on Earth as it is in heaven.
So heaven is really - the view of eternity is a template for moral relationships here on Earth. It's a calling to our higher angels, if you will.
SIEGEL: Let me ask you a little bit about what befalls those who are evil. There are behaviors that in their day were considered sinful and are not today, or that were considered normal and today are rejected. Slavery was once tolerated by religious authority even. Interracial marriage was once regarded as sinful by believers. Can there be a hell in the afterlife that we can understand if, indeed, our own appreciation of sin has changed so much over time?
SALGUERO: Yeah, I think, you know, there are very socialized and acculturated understandings of sin. I think that for me I would respond Socratically, which is: Are there absolute understandings of sin? You know, that we respect the human dignity of the other; that we love our fellow human beings; that we do not kill or murder premeditatedly unless it's in self-defense, or some justified reason. I think those are kind of these more transcendent understandings of sin, rather than these socialized and historically situated understandings of sin.
SIEGEL: What do you think, though? Do you think we could, in heaven, we could meet a prayerful slave-owner from a couple of hundred years ago? Has he become an abolitionist in heaven?
SALGUERO: I'm not sure they'll need to become an abolitionist because there won't be any slavery in heaven, from where I sit. But I do think that people's historical limitations, as I have my own, God sees that and God understands it and God judges it rightly. So I'm sure that in eternity, I will be surprised by who gets there, and people who see me might be surprised to see me there.
SIEGEL: If there were no eternity, no afterlife, do you think people could still manage a moral order on Earth and go to church, worship however they might? Or is that absolutely necessary for us to live saintly lives, let's say?
SALGUERO: If there were no eternity, I think the teachings of Jesus would be enough for me. You know? He lived a moral life. He told us: Love our neighbor, forgive our enemies, bless those who persecute you. That's enough. That's the highest teaching I've ever encountered. But fortunately enough, it's not an either-or, but a both-and. There is an eternity, from where I sit, and the teachings of Jesus are enough.
SIEGEL: Well, Reverend Gabriel Salguero, thank you very much for talking with us about this today.
SALGUERO: Thank you for having me.
SIEGEL: Reverend Gabriel Salguero is pastor of The Lamb's Church in New York City, and president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition.
Tomorrow, an Islamic view of the afterlife. And we'd like to hear what you think happens to us after we die. Send us a message on Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook or Instagram with the hashtag #nprafterlife.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.