Muslim beliefs about the afterlife was the theme of the lesson. The problem in teaching it was that few students had any understanding of the concept of an after life and fewer still had any belief in it.
“Sir, I don’t believe in heaven, so why should I learn what people believe about it?”
I tried to open up the conversation, tried to get them to think about what heaven would be like, if it did exist. I told them a story I have often told of a conversation a friend in Ulster once had with a friend who was a pastor,
‘What’s heaven like?’ he had asked the pastor
‘Heaven?’ said the pastor, ‘Heaven for for me will be standing with my dog on a bridge in one of the glens of Antrim; just standing there looking down the glen. And someone will come up and say, ‘What are you doing?’
And I’ll say, ‘I’m just standing here enjoying the view’.
And they’ll say, ‘Are you standing here long?’
And I’ll say, ‘Ach, no, not more than ten thousand years’.
The story only added to the confusion. The class sat looking mystified. Why would anyone stand looking at a view for so long? How could he be there ten thousand years? The idea of eternity was alien, it meant nothing to them.
Standing at the grave of my aunt who died from motor neurone disease in 1999 on the day that would have been her 80th birthday, I wondered what meaning there could be found in the here if there was no hereafter.
In childhood days, even though we were not religious, we believed in a life after this one. Perhaps it was a weakness on our part, perhaps the belief satisfied some inner need. Perhaps it was our way of coping with the stories of the millions who had died in the war a generation before.
Heaven seemed to help us to make sense of life, it said to us that life was fair, it told us that people who lived good lives might not be rewarded now, but that they would receive a reward in a life to come.
It is hard to stand in the places of those twelve and thirteen year old students. If there is no heaven, then where do they find a sense of fairness and justice? If this life is their lot, then what about those who never receive the reward they deserve?
With a gulf between us, lessons can be perplexing times.