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More on the Afterlife Belief

February 1st, 2009 · Posted by Hugo · 4 Comments

This post was promised as a follow-up to Sadducees and the Afterlife. That makes this the third post in a series of three, the first was Hope.

Here’s the paragraph I pruned from the previous post in this series — you need to read that post for this to make sense:

I love this piece, not only for its history on belief in an afterlife, but also for that last paragraph. If you’re rich and powerful, who needs an afterlife? By global standards, I can’t claim I’m not rich and powerful. In fact, I’d go so far as to suggest, by global standards, the majority of my readers are rich and powerful, as evidenced by their being able to read something on the internet. I wish I had my fingers on some stats on how little you need to have to find yourself in the “top third” of humanity on a global scale. So I ponder: who am I to prescribe to others that they should let go of their beliefs in reincarnation, afterlife, or something similar? Which is why, in the previous post, I talked about afterlife obsessions in particular, and suggested: “These things become evil when people are so obsessed with something expected in the future, that they forget to live in the present.

(I gotta fix this theme’s style sheet, I hate not being able to use emphasis/italics in blockquotes.)

So yes, from that you may correctly deduce that I don’t have a belief in an afterlife or in reincarnation. My more careful wording for this would be “I don’t have any beliefs with regards to an afterlife, it doesn’t particularly concern me. There are enough concerns in this life”. I would also point out that I do care about a very real heaven and a very real hell that does exist: right here in this life.

Development of Heaven and Hell

A quick recap (this paragraph): when the afterlife idea originally developed, as explained in the previous post, it served to provide a solution to the “problem” of people with great devotion to living their lives as best they can, receiving no justice: dying a martyr’s death. It is a belief that provides justice in an otherwise unfair situation: a positive belief, receiving blessings in an afterlife.

A noble idea… that begins to turn a bit ugly when you start asking “but do some receive more blessings than others?” During my afterlife-believing years, the answer that had me most convinced went something like this:

Heaven is a bit like an all-you-can-eat buffet. Not food mind-you, just being with God, experiencing all that joy. Those that lived holier lives, arrive with a greater appetite, they have the benefit of being able to enjoy it more. Those whose lives weren’t that great, but were nevertheless saved, have a smaller appetite.

A wonderful solution to the dilemma: everyone gets to enjoy heaven to their maximum. The “big guys” (I dunno, those that saved the most souls?) do get a greater reward, but the little guys are still satisfied, they can’t handle more anyway. Aint it marvelous what our minds can come up with! It’s certainly better than the “deposit into your heavenly bank account!” idea Jarrod Davidoff came to Stellenbosch with.

What was my stance towards this in my afterlife believing years? I decided I’d be satisfied with a small appetite, I’m not a particularly greedy kind of guy. Besides, I couldn’t expect to receive a bigger appetite anyway: I couldn’t bring myself to evangelise, because the whole idea was so muddled and confusing in my head. (From an outside perspective, one might say: It Makes No Sense… but you can’t acknowledge that from inside.)

Of course, now that I no longer have a belief in an afterlife, I’m evangelising like mad! 😉 (Just not exactly the same message, I guess.) Why? Because now it all makes sense, and what I understand from Jesus’ teachings really has me excited and all fired up to share that understanding with the world. Pity that concept’s so stigmatised in secular culture, makes you want to find other words to express the same idea. And I need no longer fear the big wide world out there, as I won’t go to hell for learning from Buddhism, humanism, science, and any other thing that crosses my path.

But I digress… that was just about the “who gets more in heaven?” idea. The other way the noble idea turns bad, is when people start pondering a flip-side to the coin. There’s then no longer just the positive idea of martyrs receiving their justice, instead we start evolving some idea of a hell. Which grows worse and worse, and more and more literal, and becomes the “traditional evangelical” view of hell.

I really struggle to find any argument in defence of a belief in a literal, populated, burning/flaming hell. In other words, I consider it a harmful belief in most instances. As I don’t really want to talk about it in this post, I’ll refer you to Real Live Preacher’s Hell videos (by a Christian, for Christians) instead: 1, 2, 3 and 4. I haven’t watched 2, 3 and 4 yet, but I have much faith in the value of his videos: I highly recommend all four of them!

Let me echo a paragraph from the fourth post:

This is the fourth and final video in the hell series. I offer some thoughts and suggest a different way to think about the issue. It is my opinion that we shouldn’t waste time talking about hell in detail, other than in speculative conversations. I don’t think we have enough information about heaven to speak much of it either. Christians should concentrate on this present life, leaving questions about the after-life aside.

Read the rest of the fourth post for a short textual summary of his views if you’re curious but want to skip the videos. These thoughts also remind me of my favourite pastor’s answer to a question about an “afterlife-existence”, in a conversation last June (iirc): “I don’t know. We don’t really have any evidence either way.” (I immediately responded with “now you sound like a scientist! <grin>”)

False Hope and Harmful Hope

To connect back to the first post on Hope: Many would agree false hope is something that is harmful. One thing that makes it harmful is the effect of dashed hopes, the disappointment they have to face when it doesn’t come to pass. See the Great Disappointment if you want an (imperfect) example of this.

Now let’s suppose there isn’t an afterlife… would heaven-after-you-die then be an example of a false hope? Assume for a minute your (individual) life ends when you die (you’re still part of the eternal picture of what happened in the universe, your influence lives on — I’d phrase that: you may have lived an eternal life, if your life bore that kind of significance). Then disappointment never comes to pass. You’re dead! How can you be disappointed? Thus, even if heaven-after-you-die were technically a “false hope”, it is still something that’s interestingly different from other false hopes that might actually lead to disappointment.

So we’re minus the potential for disappointment-harm on heaven belief then. Does that make it harmless then? No, not always. Consider one of our contemporary clichés:

Someone says “but if you fly this plane into that building, you’ll go to heaven and have many virgins”. Ditto for blowing yourself up. So you do it, because you have faith in your human leader’s teachings, or their particular ways of interpreting scripture even. And besides, maybe you’re stricken by poverty, your life sucks… An honourable way to end it.

According to the world in my head, this is putting the cart before the horse. (Bad metaphor. Here’s a better one:) Heaven becomes a carrot dangled in front of your nose, belief-in-heaven leading to a change in behaviour, a reversal of the state in which the belief originated: good behaviour met by injustice, leading to belief-in-heaven. The second way in which hope can be harmful, is if it causes detrimental changes to your behaviour. (Know a tree by the fruit it bears. If it is a bad tree, chop it down, use it for firewood or something.)

How does this happen? Hey, we all know “anything can get corrupted when money, also known as reward, gets involved”. Here’s the sequence of beliefs: First, the ability to tell right from wrong (using whatever input helps: mind, heart, scripture/movies/books, God speaking through any or all of these, whatever). This is the universal human belief in an idea called “Justice”, despite our inability to actually say what Justice really is. From there develops a belief in an afterlife, in order to ensure that justice can be served — enter stage left: the Reward. That Reward, she is a beauty, winking, smiling, and naive. She warms the heart. But Reward catches man’s eye, it twinkles, and greed kicks in. Reward grows to become an end in itself, a new goal, the most important thing, fed by man’s greed, or fear of not receiving Reward for that matter. Flip sides. Reward’s influence and power grows and gets corrupted, until the point where it starts pushing Justice around. And so Justice gets confused, our ability to tell right from wrong (aka the ability to hear God’s voice/instruction?) leaves us, and we end up blowing ourselves up to receive Reward. Reward has become the new authority, and should no longer be called Reward. The other way a false hope can be harmful is just that: it can influence your behaviour, for the worse. Bear in mind: terrorism is just an easy and unambiguous target with which to illustrate,

…these concerns apply to Christianity too. Sometimes Christians do the most horrifying things, while soothed by their hope/belief of getting-to-heaven-after-they-die.

So this is where I stand up and say: if your behaviour would be different depending on whether there is an afterlife or not, your heart is not in the right place. The “correct” course of action remains the correct course of action, irrespective of the existence of an afterlife. I therefore think it useful to flip the coin: If you believe in an afterlife, try not believing in one for a while. If you don’t believe in one, try believing in one. See if it makes any difference…

Categories: Shofar · Worldviews
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4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Ben-Jammin' // Feb 2, 2009 at 11:47 am

    If you don’t believe in one, try believing in one.

    I can’t. I can only come up with hypotheticals and play around with the idea. The math just points at this life being not worth worrying about if there is an afterlife many times longer than this life. (shrug)

  • 2 Hugo // Feb 2, 2009 at 12:14 pm

    😉 Hypothetical’s fine. It all seems rather hypothetical and speculative to me too.

  • 3 miller // Feb 7, 2009 at 8:22 pm

    If you believe in an afterlife, try not believing in one for a while. If you don’t believe in one, try believing in one. See if it makes any difference…

    You know, I think I already tried this experiment. Because I’m pretty sure that earlier in my life, I believed in an afterlife, and that now I don’t. But I don’t even remember when it happened. It must not have made much difference if I don’t even remember it.

  • 4 Bokkie // Feb 8, 2009 at 7:22 am

    Hmm, ek dink ek gaan maybe in ‘n wolk verander.

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