Shuck and Jive

Monday, March 12, 2007

How Important is the Afterlife to Your Faith?

I have noticed a change in funeral and memorial services. Many people request of me that they don't want a funeral but a celebration of life service for their loved ones. When they say funeral they usually mean some kind of sermon that speaks about heaven and hell that you often find in the Bible Belt. Instead they want to acknowledge the life of the person and celebrate that. I notice in this trend that people seem less concerned about the fate of their soul/consciousness after death and more concerned with life itself--this life. Personally, I find this to be a healthy trend.

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?

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.
I think the great Apostle Paul needs to be challenged.

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.”

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.
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.

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.

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.
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.


  1. Interesting blog. From a Christian perspective the the promise of eternal life is critical. The early martyrs of the faith gave up their lives believing that there was something better afterward, that after the preparation of this life we would finally meet God. Back then professing Christianity was a very bad thing to do if you only believed that this life was it.

    The true Christian belief in the afterlife does not diminish the importance of this life but actually enhances it. Look at the Apostle Paul. You claimed that he devalued this life but Paul didn't just sit around Tarsus or whatever proclaiming doom to the everyone who came by him. He went out and established churchesthroughout the Roman empire which dramatically affected the world.

    The central message of Jesus and Paul is that eternal life starts now for those who believe.

    I think your thoughts about the origin of the afterlife belief is spot on. The belief in reincarnation, karma, etc. can tell us some profound things about human nature. But I disagree with your assumption that Christianity is just another human religion, just a creation of our imaginations. (I don't doubt that after 2,000 there are some very human elements to it though). At the base of Christianity is of course Christ. It is the God of the universe revealing Himself to us and showing us the way.

    Christianity at its root is, "God hath revealed..."

  2. This is big pet issue for me. In my view, the best thing that Christianity could do would be to jettison concern for the afterlife from its theology. If Christianity had spent the last two millenia focused more on our relationship with God in the here and now, and thus on building the Kingdom of God, we might have had a truly just world by now, and the Kingdom of God might truly have been with us. In any case, I think that the whole focus on life after death utterly diminishes the faith.

  3. Life after death - a most interesting thing to define and understand - which none of us can do with 100% certainty.

    I like the thought of an after-life and that it is a place we can 'look forward' to being. This belief, for me, has done nothing to hinder my thoughts about cleaning up the world we currently have (nor should it). But that belief (oddly enough) has also given me the courage to be in situations some might consider dangerous to their 'well being' - but I never let that get to me - basically because being there to talk with people might be really meaningful in those cases.

    I think the afterlife idea ahould help expand one's theology and understanding of 'hope' - if it doesn't - then I guess it should be re-examined (but not scrapped).

  4. It's this sort of thinking that makes me most sad for you and the sheep under your care.

    Jesus talked about hell three times as much as he talked about justice. He talked about hell more than he talked about the poor and the oppressed (if you leave out those times dealing with people "demon-oppressed" or "oppressed by a demon"). Search for yourself on "Kingdom of Heaven" and "Kingdom of God" and see how often these refer to a time of future judgment. Similarly, everytime we find the phrase on Paul's lips, it concerns a judgment on sinners in the end times.

    If you think global warming is going to be hot, see how hell is described in the Bible. And if you think the industrial nations are destroying the earth now, wait till you see what Jesus is going to do to it when he returns!

    The Bible clearly teaches an afterlife in which we are conscious. It also clearly teaches that there are two outcomes of dying.

    It never ceases to amaze me how accurately the Spirit foretold of those who would scoff at such clear teaching in the last days.

  5. An emphasis on the afterlife among many denominations is dangerous especially to our youth.

    I remember a young girl when I was in High School whom I talked with often about the afterlife as such great attention was being brought to it from our respective church leaders. We marveled in the curiosity of what it might be like. When this life got tuff, as it always does, she said to me one day, "I can't wait to die, leave this earth, and go to heaven."

    This statement shocked me, but made perfect sense in the context we where taught about heaven and what this life is for. It should not only be a teaching from the bible that suicide is sin to keep people from doing it. There should be a love and importance in life that can be brought through the teachings of Jesus. When I read those teachings, I don't see where he is saying the Kingdom of God is contingent upon bodily death.


    Gospel of Thomas, Saying 112

    His disciples said to him, "When will the kingdom come?"

    "It will not come by looking for it. Nor will it do to say 'Behold, over here!' or 'Behold, over there!' Rather, the kingdom of the Father is spread out on the earth, but people do not see it."

    So look for it and enjoy it.

  6. I added that last sentence by the way. I guess there is no edit function on this blog thingy?

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  8. Your blog is an amazing confession of unbelief for a functioning pastor. Your thoughts are not really worthy of an intellectual response, as they are not intellectual in nature. Your call to challenge "the great Apostle Paul" are disingenuous. Your problem is the same as mine used to be, with God. I finally cursed Him directly, challenging His existence, challenging His ability to control anything were He to exist - I even cussed Him out. He woke me up at 3:45 am and paid a little visit. That was the end of the discussion.

    So I do recommend you doing that. Give God hell, drink two Tecates and go to sleep. But please do that before you have the baggage of celebrity that poor Spong-bob has! Good luck, or as we Christians say, God bless you!