“You can rest in peace only because you are awake.”
Back many years ago when I was teaching a comparative religion class at a South Carolina technical college, the final assignment was a much-dreaded group project where students had to invent their own religion. They were required to include a founder, dogma and doctrines, styles of worship and gathering, initiation rituals, and the all-important question of whether the religion embraced an afterlife, whether it was heaven, hell, purgatory or perhaps, reincarnation.
Students grumbled about the project, but many of them came up with some brilliant religions based on everything from football to shopping to capitalism itself. Curiously, there was always one thing missing from every single religion these students came up with — there was no hell or form of eternal punishment. In fact, the majority of the religions they invented had some form of reincarnation — a promise that you’d come back and do this all again — only better the next time around.
I was curious about why this was, and the answer I got most often was not so much that any of the students were afraid of death, per se. Every religion embraced the fact that our bodies die in some form of fashion. What every student feared was one thing: annihilation. They were afraid that their lives would end by being cast into a black nothingness and they would be forgotten about in this world.
I told them that annihilation sounded like heaven to me — because you wouldn’t know anything that happened after you’re dead, so why would it matter? You wouldn’t even know you had been annihilated. Yet, this fear was deeply rooted in many of my students. It seems that fear over what happens after this bodily life is pretty common — not just the fear of annihilation, but there are those who suffer from “apeirophobia,” which is the fear of an eternal life that goes on forever without an end or an amen.
I think the problem stems from how we think about consciousness, either in annihilation or eternal existence. Our ego has us convinced that no matter where we go — into oblivion or into eternal life — we will still exist as we are now with our likes, dislikes, stories, thoughts, feelings, and beliefs. From that point of view, I can see why it would cause fear and loathing. I don’t want to be this “me” forever and ever. I mean, I like me well enough, but how terrifyingly boring it would be to be this without end!
A Course in Miracles gives us a different way of thinking about the consciousness that inhabits not just our bodies, but the bodies of everyone we see around us — and believe to be separate entities from us — and assures us neither annihilation nor an eternity as these ego identities will be our ultimate fate.
“Complete unconsciousness is impossible,” the Course says in Chapter 8, so annihilation is off the table. This chapter also tells us that “rest in peace” should be a blessing for the living, not the dead, “because rest comes from waking, not from sleeping.”
By keeping us asleep, the ego keeps us gripped in fear about death — a kind of death that can never happen to us since we are already eternal beings who remain in the realm of the Holy, even as we experience this bodily world. Awakening to the truth about ourselves as blessed, eternal beings, is the worst thing that can happen to the ego because our fear about annihilation — or even a fear of eternal life — will disappear — because, as the Course tells us, “You can rest in peace only because you are awake.”
The fear of complete unconsciousness — or annihilation — is one of being forgotten. Our ego does all it can to convince us that our function here is to make some lasting mark on this world before we leave our bodily form so we can be remembered.
There are many traditions around this idea of remembrance. In African-American communities, they believe you’re never truly dead if someone still remembers you. This is why you see those memorials to people on the back of cars, keeping their memory alive. Even Jesus instructs us to enjoy a communion meal in remembrance of him, and we’ve done a pretty good job at keeping his name front and center in our culture for thousands of years.
The ego, though, convinces us that making our mark on this world requires hard work. Some of us employ benign ways of accomplishing our worldly immortality by trying to write the great American novel, working to cure cancer, becoming a rock star or other celebrity, becoming a popular social media influencer or a great teacher or leader of some sort. Others go the opposite direction, claiming fame for themselves by becoming thieves, autocrats, dictators, corrupt politicians or mass murderers.
This is the choice our ego sets before us — we can be Martin Luther King Jr. or we can be Charles Manson. It doesn’t matter to the ego. Its goal is to get us to work hard to be somebody – it doesn’t care about the specifics.
This is why “rest in peace” is a blessing for the living — for those who are awake in this world. Those of us who are sleeping — who are living from our unconscious ego — are out there “striving for wind,” as Ecclesiastes puts it — motivated by a fear of dying to the memory of this illusory world by gaining some manner of illusory fame. We exhaust ourselves in the process, striving for something, anything to be remembered by when our bodies wither and die.
This is why we fear the reaper so much. We believe we have to physically die before we can rest in peace — and, paradoxically, we believe we can’t achieve that peace until we achieve something meaningful in this world. What we fear, truly, is not a physical death, but something much worse — the death of our ego if we ever truly muster the courage we need to awaken to our higher, Divine Self.
There is no death. Wait, what?
When I first began studying A Course in Miracles, I was a bit unsettled about its insistence that death does not exist. I thought that was demonstrably untrue, given that every single one of us experiences a physical death. What I’ve realized is that the death that the Course says is impossible is the death of our higher, Divine Self. The ego, though, convinces us that to even believe in such a thing — a higher, Divine Self that is eternal, timeless, and changeless — is insanity.
I must admit, the ego has a good argument against it. The ego can show us countless ways that we can die in this world, and it can make endless, and convincing, arguments about how woo-woo and ridiculous it sounds to even talk about a “higher, Divine Self” that you can’t see, touch, hear, taste, or smell. This is, of course, where we go off track, trusting in the ego’s bodily senses to tell us anything about the real world of spirit.
The ego’s tell, though, is this: We’re often not so much afraid of physical death as we are the little deaths we die each day — the mental, psychological and emotional deaths we encounter when we feel shamed, abandoned, lonely, fearful, powerless and marginalized in some way. This is because the death we fear is to those things that our ego has convinced us are our true identity. The ego isn’t afraid of your physical death. It’s afraid of its death as the creator and driver of your identity.
This is exactly why Jesus, in John 12:24-25, talks about the necessity of a grain of wheat falling and dying to bring forth new and abundant life. He’s talking about why we must embrace those moments of the death of our egoic identities — why we must seek them out, even — because in that moment when we allow that egoic death to occur is when we are most fruitful.
My ego once told me that the most fearful thing that could happen to me would be that people would find out that I was a lesbian. I was afraid that those I loved would hate me and abandon me and those I didn’t know would reject me outright or do some manner of violence to me. So, I spent decades locked in a closet of fear and loathing.
My ability to die to that fear has produced much good fruit including an online spiritual magazine for LGBTQ people, a published book and years of activism for LGBTQ equality that has helped others die to their own egoic fear of coming out and embracing and healing their sexuality and spirituality. Now, I “rest in peace” with my sexuality. There is no one who can take that peace away from me — but it came about only because I was willing to allow my ego’s fears about coming out to fall away and die.
The death that does not exist is this: The ego’s insistence that we will die if people know our secrets and then abandon us in some way. The ego wants to keep us asleep in this darkness of fear — this place where we can experience no true peace.
The Apostle Paul in his first letter to the early Jesus followers in Corinth (1 Corinthians 15:22, 42-45, 54) makes the argument, even back then, that the death our ego says is real doesn’t exist. He likens the ego to “what is sown” which is “perishable.” But, he says, “what is raised is imperishable.”
What is “sown” is always in the darkness — that seed that is asleep. What is raised, though, according to the Greek word egeiro used in this passage, is “awake.” Paul is literally telling his followers, and us today, that only our sleeping ego can die, but what is awake is eternal.
Within each of us is a higher, Divine Self that is already awake — it is already eternal. Our ego, Paul says, is sown — or planted — in this physical body but it is “raised” or “awakened” in our spiritual body which we also have in this moment. We were created, Paul says, as “Adam” — which doesn’t mean just one guy but means “humankind” — as living bodily beings, but our higher, Divine self is that “life-giving spirit.” When we realize this — when we overcome our fear of our perishable body and put on “imperishability” — then the ego’s false death will be “swallowed up in victory.”
When we see through the darkness of death and realize that it’s simply something the ego fears and does not affect who we truly are, then we understand that death — like everything else in this world — is an illusion. Death does not, and will never, give us peace — only awakening will do that.
How do we awaken? We awaken when we understand that our purpose in this life is not to strive to be remembered. Instead, our function is to remember — to remember who we truly are: We are the light of the world. Then, we are to remember that we are here to shine that light of Holy love in every moment so that others will remember who they are. When enough of us stop trying to be remembered, and instead remember, then we shine our light together — there will be no reason to fear the reaper because the ego’s game of death will be over.
When we remember who we truly are, that ultimate ego fear of not being remembered is gone. Why? Because we are creations of the Holy and we are always remembered because we have never left the mind of God. The ego’s dream is to be remembered in an illusory world, but the good news is that we are already remembered by our Creator in eternity — that true, capital R, Reality that never ends.
This bodily life is about remembering. If you remember who you are while you are in this world, then you WILL change this world because you will be part of creating the happy dream that helps us all to finally awaken. Remembering who we are — and remembering those we perceive as separate from ourselves are also extensions of the Holy — is how we heal and save this world. In that remembering, you help others remember. The more who awaken and rest in peace, then the faster we all awaken.
Our mission, then, is not to be remembered for our money, fame, power or influence in this world, but to deepen our relationships. How many lives can we change and heal with the Holy Love that comes through us when we touch and live into that spacious awareness that is our higher Divine Self?
It is not selfish — or an act of spiritual bypass — to work on your own awakening. Instead, awakening is the one thing you can do that makes the biggest difference for the whole world because you help others awaken.
If you awaken and touch that spaciousness awareness within, then you become an awakened person. You will still have your history, your life, your stories, and people that you love — but you will rest in peace while you are still living, because you have allowed the ego’s fear to fall away from you and die. What grows in its place is “a life-giving spirit” that emanates from your very being.
There is no reason to fear the reaper because we are all part of the eternal wholeness that flows without beginning or end. And that should make you say: “Oh, yeah.”
Founder of Motley Mystic and the Jubilee! Circle interfaith spiritual community In Columbia, S.C., Candace Chellew (she/her) is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians (Jossey-Bass, 2008). Founder and Editor Emeritus of Whosoever, she earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained by Gentle Spirit Christian Church in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She is also a musician and animal lover.