Yet Christianity has often focused on the afterlife as being its central concern, particularly avoiding hell and getting into heaven. Many people in the church and without have left that notion behind as a relic of a superstitious past. So what is Christianity without a focus on the afterlife? What does Resurrection symbolize if it is not interwoven with the afterlife?
I addressed this issue in one of my early posts, Choose Your Afterlife. I spoke about it again in Sunday's sermon, "Imagine There's No Heaven" in my series "Beliefs Worth Letting Go in Order to Grow." Here is a snippet on Hell:
Hell is the easiest one for me to let go. With the exception of using it as a swear word or as a symbol for suffering, cruelty, and despair, I have dispensed with it. The idea that God would send people to hell doesn’t make sense to me at all. It is a cruel doctrine. The idea that god, as biblical scholar Robert Price put it, who is a cranky theology professor and gives out big rosy “F’s” to those who don’t have their beliefs correct and sends them down the chute to eternal fire--is weird.
However, not everyone is ready for that. If a belief in hell is the only thing that keeps you from dealing drugs or killing your neighbor, then by all means, keep believing it. If you haven’t developed a moral compass on your own nor dealt with your own anxieties, then simply ceasing believing in hell may not be the best thing for you. That is true with all beliefs. If we do not come to terms with the feelings underneath them, then we will simply substitute one belief for another.
But what about Heaven?
I think the great Apostle Paul needs to be challenged.
Heaven is a bit more complicated. As a minister I know that many people find comfort in the idea that they will see their loved ones again or that they are in heaven and at peace. The idea that heaven is a better place when this life seems unbearable can be a great comfort. If that belief works for you, then keep it.
That sounds perhaps too pragmatic, but I think what works is a good way to evaluate our beliefs. If believing that when we die, there is a better place enables us to get up in the morning, breathe more deeply, enjoy this life better, then by all means believe it. I would add that if there is a heaven, then it is for everyone, including those people we don’t like too much.
As far as other beliefs regarding the afterlife, such as reincarnation, or transport to a parallel universe and so forth, I am agnostic. I am not against it, I just don’t know. How can I? Again, I am pragmatic. If it works, then believe it. We might, even so, ask why it is important for us. What fear or dissatisfaction does a belief in an afterlife address? We might ask ourselves, do I really need this belief? Again, if you are not ready to address the underlying feelings, be careful about discarding beliefs. They serve a purpose even when we are not conscious of the purpose.
My concern with beliefs about an afterlife is that they can (not necessarily so, but they can) lead one to devalue this life. This is my problem with the Apostle Paul when he writes: If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.”What to do with stories in the Bible regarding the kingdom of God or of heaven or of the New Jerusalem? Are they about our own personal survival? I think not.
Paul, as I read him, did not have a great value for this life. He advised people not to get married because the end was coming. He wrote some wonderful things. But not everything is a keeper. His was an interim ethic. This life is not good, it is coming to an end, so live this one in preparation for the next one.
I don’t see things that way anymore. I think that this life is a good life and we should pay attention and enjoy it. Not only that, but we should work to make this life better for others too. We should live as if Earth is our home, because it is. Not only is it our home, but it is the home for all of life as we know it. It is the home for our future generations. I do not devalue life or Earth. It is a good place to be. Selling it short for some belief in an afterlife is irresponsible.
I retain the symbol of heaven, not as afterlife, but as quality of life. Heaven for me is Presence. Presence of mind, presence of love, presence of God. Heaven within is what John Shelby Spong calls the courage to live fully and to love wastefully.Why is it that human beings invented the concepts of afterlife at all? I can think of two reasons at least.
Humanity may be on the verge of growing up and growing out of these beliefs. We don't need heaven, hell, and various theories of afterlife to deal with anxiety and injustice. We need, I believe to fully give ourselves to this life--all of it--to enjoy it and to do good that others may enjoy it and so that future generations may enjoy it as well.
Joseph Campbell, the great mythologist, said that the first conscious thought was, “I am.” It was a euphoric thought. I am! I exist! Joy! But the second conscious thought followed closely, “Someday I will not exist.” I am leads to I am not. The thought, “I am not” creates anxiety. I am and I want to be I am forever. I am not is the end of I am.
Enter religion in all of its forms. Maybe there is a way to beat the I am not. Perhaps even though this life ends, I somehow continue. That is one explanation for an afterlife.
Another explanation has to do with the injustice and unfairness of this life. The great wisdom literature of the Hebrew scriptures, wonderful writings such as Ecclesiastes and Job address the problem of injustice. Why do the good suffer and the wicked prosper? The first painful rule we learn is that life is rarely fair. And that is not satisfactory. If justice is unattainable in this life, then perhaps in the next life all of us will get our just desserts. Notions of karma in the eastern traditions and heaven and hell in the western traditions developed in response to the injustice in this life. Systems of belief and practice developed as a way for us to secure a better standing in the next life.
Heaven and Hell in Islam, Christianity and its derivatives represent ultimate and eternal justice, reward for the good and punishment for the wicked. Two things at least are at work in this business of the afterlife, anxiety for our end, and the dissatisfaction with injustice.