By JUDD MATSUNAGA, Esq.
Since the beginning of time, man has wrestled with the Big Question: What happens when we die? These questions are buried deep in the mind of every man. We often push these questions into our subconscious, but they have a way of surfacing to the conscious level every now and then, and we usually mull them over for a while before we return them to the subconscious.
Often these questions arise again at the death of a friend, a relative, or even a famous person. Severe mental or physical suffering can also rouse them. These questions have existed in man’s mind from the beginning. They are always there, begging for answers. One of the oldest, if not the oldest, books in literary history is the book of Job. We find Job asking, “Where is man after he takes his last breath?” (Job 14:10) But for Job, there were no answers.
Job asked, “If a man dies, does he go on living?” (Job 14:14). Job’s questions arose
from his grief over the deaths of his ten children in a tragic accident and out of his own intense suffering. Scholars, philosophers and seekers the world over have plumbed the mysteries of the “great beyond,” giving rise to a near-universal belief in heaven or paradise in the afterlife.
(Source: “The Complete Guide to Heaven,” Centennial Media).
Today, even as organized religion is in steep decline, 71% of Americans still say they believe in Heaven, according to a Gallup Poll. And the idea of paradise remains a foundational tenet for even the most liberal-minded believers, Christians, Jews and Muslims alike. So as long as you are part of the 71% who believe in some sort of “life after life,” there’s hopefully something in this article for you.
This Easter, I wanted to do something slightly different with my Easter article. Instead of strictly adhering to Christian beliefs and Bible truths, I wanted to discuss things in more “secular” (not religious) terms. Why? Whether or not you’re a Christian, it’s important for your health and well-being that you be one of the 71% of Americans that believe in Heaven. Modern-day science says there’s a real power to optimism that benefits both the mind and body.
Various cultures through the ages have believed in “places of bliss” in the afterlife. For example, you may have heard of “Shangri-La,” a fictional paradise on Earth enclosed in the western end of Tibet’s Kunlun Mountains. In Norse mythology, Valhalla is a grand meeting hall with ceilings of thatched gold shields where select warriors traveled after their death in combat.
Utopia refers to the Garden of Eden, an ideal island state, in which there was “no knowledge of good and evil.” In Islam, afterlife is in Jannah, a lush garden paradise of pleasure. However, to get there, one must live religiously, according to the teachings of the Quran, including prayer, fasting and attending mosque. Most importantly, have faith in Allah and do good deeds.
In Hinduism, there’s Moksha, an emancipation from the cycle of birth, death and reincarnation. However, to get there, one must let go of worldly desires, acting in service to others and practice of meditation or yoga to build spiritual knowledge and self-control are generally a part of it. In Zoroastrianism, there’s afterlife in the House of Song, a sweet-smelling paradise where there is not old age, death, fear or hostility.
In Buddhism, there is Nirvana or enlightenment, the state of perfect peace and happiness, like heaven. However, to get there, one may need to live many lives on Earth in their quest to reach enlightenment, when an individual’s desires and suffering go away. To end the cycle of life and rebirth, Buddhists must work to achieve a Buddha-like understanding of desire, suffering and how to let go of both.
In Judaism, Gan Eden is Hebrew for the Garden of Eden, or the World to Come. Here, eternal life is spent in the radiant presence of God, stress-free. However, to get there, one must live a righteous life, do what is right and just in all relationships and perform positive deeds, or mitzvahs. These can range from helping out a friend to praying.
In Christianity, Heaven is a place of joy and peace, free of pain and sorrow, where believers live in harmony with God and Jesus forever. However, in contrast with the other major religions, it is impossible to get there by your own “works,” i.e., you can’t get there by being good enough, or by being better than most. Christians receive eternal life in Heaven by accepting Jesus Christ’s redemptive work on the cross on Easter Sunday some 2,000 years ago.
All these religions give the believer hope and optimism. However, the opposite of optimism is found in the following quote by Woody Allen: “Life is hard, then you die.” About 8% of Americans have thanatophobia, an irrational fear of dying. This condition causes severe anxiety symptoms when confronted with the topic of death or the process of dying. You might experience fear and anxiety in situations related to death and dying — such as being in a hospital, reading obituaries, or hearing about someone’s death.
People suffering from thanatophobia find themselves avoiding the topic of death, both in real-life situations and in stories — such as the books you read and shows or movies that you watch. Symptoms can include chest pain/pressure, sweating, shortness of breath, increased heart rate, nausea, and feeling powerless. Treatment for thanatophobia primarily includes therapy and sometimes medications to help decrease symptoms of anxiety.
It is interesting to me that none of the treatments offered for thanatophobia are a healthy, optimistic belief in Heaven. Rather than give people antidepressants, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), e.g., Zoloft (sertraline), Lexapro (escitalopram), Prozac (fluoxetine), Effexor (venlafaxine), Celexa (citalopram), wouldn’t it be easier to have people join a Bible study?
Boundless research papers from eminent psychologists across the world conclude, pretty unanimously, that optimistic people benefit from better mental and physical health. They suffer less anxiety; they adapt better and recover more quickly, and they live longer. (Source: Forbes, “Are You Harnessing the Power of Optimism?” Jan. 31, 2022)
Dr. Johnn Medina is affiliate professor of bioengineering at the University of Washington School of Medicine and author of “Brain Rules for Aging Well.” According to Medina, optimism can actually increase your life span by nearly eight years. People who are optimistic — the “glass half full” type of people — tend to avoid getting depressed as easily as the “glass half empty” people. Medina explains the science: Optimism not only reduces stress, but it also promotes the production of the neurotransmitter dopamine.
“Dopamine packs a serious wallop,” Medina says. He likens dopamine to the ignition system in your car. “Insert the key into the lock, and the car springs to life.” Dopamine begins to fade as we age — beginning in our thirties. But we don’t want dopamine to decline. Dopamine makes us happy, increases motivation, and is even responsible for giving entrepreneurs the courage to take risks. As Medina says, “Dopamine is a big deal.” (Source: Forbes, “Brain Science Reveals the Striking Power of Optimism,” Nov. 19, 2017)
To conclude this Easter article, I wanted to share a wonderful story I heard about a debate between a minister and a doctor, both highly respected and admired in their professions. They discussed whether or not God exists. After both had used up all their best arguments, they both agreed that you could not scientifically prove the existence of God. They also agreed that you could not disprove the existence of God. It’s all a question of faith.
The discussion ended when the minister said to the doctor, “Let’s say that I believe in an all-powerful God who loves me and has a place for me in Heaven after I die. Therefore, I’m not all stressed out when something goes wrong. I’m optimistic about the future, have an inner peace in my heart, and joy in my life. And if I’m wrong, what have I lost?”
The doctor thought about it for a moment, then smiled and said, “Absolutely nothing.” The minister continued, “And if you live your life believing there is no God, and you’re wrong, what have you lost?’ Again, the doctor smiled and said, “You got me.” The story goes that the doctor became a member of the minister’s church soon thereafter.
Judd Matsunaga, Esq., is the founding partner of the Law Offices of Matsunaga & Associates, specializing in estate/Medi-Cal planning, probate, personal injury and real estate law. With offices in Torrance, Hollywood, Sherman Oaks, Pasadena and Fountain Valley, he can be reached at (800) 411-0546. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.