How Important is the Afterlife?

Ok class,

My classes will never be as cool as this guy's.

Time to sit up and pay attention.  I’m asking YOU a question today, so I want to see lots of answers and comments down below!

This is a question that my philosophy students at Utica College are pondering and discussing this week and I thought it would be fun to put it before you.

I was having lunch at a cafe yesterday when someone walked up and handed me a religious pamphlet that asked whether I knew for sure that I was going to heaven when die.  This is an interesting question.

It’s even more interesting that so many in the fundamentalist camp choose to start their evangelistic pitch with this question.  If one’s faith is based on fear for the ego’s survival in an unknown afterlife, then it doesn’t seem to be qualitatively different from the dog-eat-dog drive for survival in this world.

I’m not trying to disparage eternal hope for anyone, but during Holy Week, Christians celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus.  Jesus was willing to sacrifice himself.  His vision and ultimate concern was much larger than his drive for egoic survival.  He embraced death willingly and so became the primary model by which Christians measure their faith.

There is an extent to which I believe we Christians are called to do the same.  Jesus said, “Take up your cross and follow me.”  Christians like to remind each other that Christ died for us, but there is also a very real sense in which we are called to die with Christ.  We are participants, not merely consumers, in the unfolding drama of eternity.

Friedrich Schleiermacher said it like this in On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers (1799):

Religion is the outcome neither of the fear of death, nor of the fear of God. It answers a deep need in man. It is neither a metaphysic, nor a morality, but above all and essentially an intuition and a feeling. … Dogmas are not, properly speaking, part of religion: rather it is that they are derived from it. Religion is the miracle of direct relationship with the infinite; and dogmas are the reflection of this miracle. Similarly belief in God, and in personal immortality, are not necessarily a part of religion; one can conceive of a religion without God, and it would be pure contemplation of the universe; the desire for personal immortality seems rather to show a lack of religion, since religion assumes a desire to lose oneself in the infinite, rather than to preserve one’s own finite self.

The question I am putting before you, superfriends and blogofans, is taken from chapter 9 of William Rowe’s Philosophy of Religion: An Introduction.

How important to religion is the belief in personal survival after death?  Do you think that religion must stand or fall with this belief?  Can you imagine a viable religion which accepts the view that death ends everything?  What would such a religion be like?  Explain.

Post your answer in the comments below!

10 thoughts on “How Important is the Afterlife?

  1. Initially the question of not having an afterlife left me a little saddened. I’m trying to look into myself and see if this comes from the selfish part of me that wants a reward for my belief or just that I don’t want to think of myself as a finite moment in time, never to do more than I can on this mortal coil. As for what religion without this belief, I feel that some of the questions I leave unanswered in my life including my daughter’s death would feel cheaper and less significant. Or would it. This is a tough thing for my small mind to get around right now, but it is definitely something to ponder.

  2. Ed Ratazzi

    I believe there is a God. After that I am not sure of much. Christianity is my way to the infinite because I was born into a Christian Family. But there are many ways to the infinite on this planet and on the many others with intelligent life.
    What will the after life be like? I have no idea since my poor finite brain can not begin to comprehend the infinite. If death ends everything, then perhaps we would worship the glory of nature and the universe itself.
    Personal survival after death is very different from there being a God that we might reunite with after death. Maybe the Buddhists have the answer. This question is very thought provoking but impossible to answer.

  3. brother Bob

    My Orthodox Jewish ancestors did very well without an afterlife. Like them, I believe that membership in a loving family begets such feelings of love, concern and generosity that one must try to make the world His Kingdom. Unlike them, I believe that there is an indescribable “more” than just this world and this span of years I have. I am still working on whether they are connected.

  4. I feel that religion is *entirely* based upon the premise of survival of the mind — I’d bet that the first religion was formed just after the first prehistoric man realized what it means when his loved one won’t wake up anymore. In my mind, religion exists for two reasons: egotism and social control. For the purpose of this question, I’ll stick to egotism.

    Death is a difficult concept. Our brains are so complex, and our minds full of this idea of consciousness that feels so permanent and important, that it’s virtually impossible to even imagine it not existing. Your consciousness is the one and only thing that has always and forever been with you from even before you were born. How can a person even wrap their mind around such an idea as death, when *no* person could ever even *dream* of experiencing it (literally — can’t dream without a mind, after all)?

    I can see how that would be terrifying. Especially to mankind in it’s relative infancy, just barely out of caves and scrabbling for a foothold in a social structure. The more we learn about the universe, the more terrifying it gets — science tells us that you, me, and everything we’ve ever known exist for an infinitesimal speck of time in the huge arc of the universe. Not only that, but all of it takes place in a nondescript corner of a boring galaxy, on a single small, young rock revolving around one star out of the billions inside of it. Every second, entire worlds and stars like our own are blinking in and out of existence. Nothing you’ve done, are doing, or will do could ever really matter on a scale that large.

    That can be a pretty depressing thought to an individual mind, which is so consumed in it’s own existence that the idea of ME NOT MATTERING is barely even plausible, and for those who do understand it, it can be pretty depressing. Across the board, every major religion that has ever taken hold on a population large enough to upgrade it from “cult” status has, in one way or another (be it heaven or reincarnation), a theory on how we can cling to our consciousness. It’s egotistical, and it’s desperately searching for something that seems FAIR in a universe that is decidedly not.

    I certainly don’t feel the need to delude myself with social constructs that are literally thousands of years old. That’s silly to me. These people thought, fought, tortured, and murdered for the belief that we were the center of the universe. Everything revolves around us. Humans are just THAT important.

    Well…we aren’t. If the Sun exploded tomorrow, it’d be like dropping a grain of sand in a swimming pool – the rest of the universe wouldn’t even feel a ripple.

    Science tells us that neither matter nor energy can be created or destroyed, only changed. Every molecule in my body will continue to exist for the rest of time. With enough time (which means nothing to my molecules), these bits will eventually be in the earth, plants and animals, eventually stars and nebulas. Every one of us is important in the respect that we’re a part of something so big that we’ll never understand it.

    And I’m okay with that. It makes the fraction of a fraction of a second we exist for when faced with eternity all that much more important. It makes my life, and the lives of everything I come in contact with so much more precious. I think there’s a good reason almost every conflict in the history of the world has spawned from religion – say what you will, but the idea that every human consciousness will always exist (be it in heaven, hell, or thrust back into reality) makes the lives of others that much less valuable.

    And to me, that thought is much more depressing than the death of the mind.

    /end agnostic sermon 😉

  5. When I was young, healthy, and clueless, talk of heaven meant almost nothing to me. But then one day I woke up 60 years old. My baby sister has been gone for two years now, a victim of colon cancer. A younger cousin gone, too — breast cancer. My husband pastors a church made up of a lot of older people. To all of us, heaven is a promise and a hope. But following Christ for me is an ongoing love story based in the here and now. I can’t imagine this faith without heaven, but neither can I imagine it without the daily presence of Christ within me, lighting the journey, informing my thoughts, comforting my soul, and laughing at my often ridiculous assumptions about Him.

  6. Jeremy Marshburn

    An interesting question. Do I know if I am going to heaven when I die? The answer is no, I don’t. My family background and upbringing was Christian, but my current beliefs falls to the side of Agnostic. So I am unconvinced there is a heaven in the first place.

    However, going down to my roots, and taking my life for how I feel I am living it and assuming there is a heaven… I still don’t know if I am going to heaven or not. It’s not really my call in the end. I just try to live my life as well as I can and within my moral code and I am prepared to justify my existence as one with good works.

    However, taking my strong agnosticism to heart, I do not know what the afterlife has in store for me. While I have my doubts that there is one, I genuinely like the idea of there being one. For one simple reason. I have an undying curiosity. I want to know more, I want to know what happens after I pass on.

    So, ultimately, the only answer I can give is “I don’t know.” And thus, I must learn more so that I will understand how little I know.

  7. People spend a lot of time trying to find out who they are. Becoming a unique individual is a prized and encouraged endeavor (at least that’s what every after school special told me. “Just be yourself kids :)”) It is just not an appealing thought that after all the time and effort is put into a life, all the thoughts, feelings, joys and sufferings that shape it that one day it will simply not exist in any form. It is our most basic and universal fear, the fear that begets all other fears, that we, as we know ourselves will cease to be. You don’t see too many religions without afterlife because of this. Even buddism, which does not speak of a soul or afterlife in it’s original texts, does have some sects that have stories of a sort of “heaven” where enlightenment continues. It is simple once you have known existence you want to go on existing, in some form. Disembodied spirits, creatures of light, reincarnation, resurrected bodies, or being like the Q continum on star trek. Voyager. Why do the funamentalist’s use their afterlife “pitch”? Because it works. Because it has worked for over 2000 years.

  8. Jon Stovell

    How important is the afterlife to religion? Well, Schleiermacher’s quote already dealt with that easily enough: it is not necessary. But the question of how important it is to religion in general is not very interesting to begin with, since a generic entity called religion (i.e. what is left after all the differences between actual religions have been bracketed out) is almost devoid of content. The good questions in this regard can only be about how important an afterlife is to this or that actually existing religion.

    Now, regarding the Christianity of the New Testament era, the answer is “not very,” if by afterlife we mean going to heaven (or hell) or however one wants to describe it immediately after death. The New Testament says almost nothing about that. What is does talk about a whole lot is resurrection, which N. T. Wright pithily calls “life after life after death.”

    Going off to heaven when you die is a very cheap and thin hope that fundamentally tells us that this world doesn’t matter, and that neither do most of the things we understand to be what make us human.

    Resurrection, on the other hand, is a robust hope that death will be undone, that this world will be transformed and liberated from all the effects of evil and chaos (not just left behind while we go off somewhere else), and moreover that what we do here and now matters beyond measure, because our actions today are either contributing towards or detracting from the fullness of the transformed and perfected version of this world that we look forward to.

    So in short: Afterlife? I don’t really give a rat’s ass. Resurrection? The most fundamental and all important point of Christianity, without which the whole thing is pointless, as 1 Corinthians 15 makes abundantly clear.

    P.S. If you haven’t read 1 Cor. 15 and you are a Christian, do so now.

  9. The highest values in life have a right to be eternal – Truth, Beauty, Goodness, plus the great organizer of hearts – Love. In fact these values can only be crudely, brutally, and irrationally taken for granted as material epiphenomena if one has no afterlife concept.

    The afterlife is less valid (breaks down philosophically) as a moral spur or as a medium for either reward or punishment for behavior. It is more truly taught I think when correctly related to the Spirit’s internal guarantee of eternal values.

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