Does it matter if a person believes in life after death? That is, does it matter if a person lives in a way such that it is impossible to tell from her or his actions whether she or he truly believes in life after death? (This post builds on the previous two posts about the meaning of belief and of life after death.)
The Apostle Paul’s conviction of life after death gives evidence of a courage and boldness that result from his conviction. The same qualities are evident in the lives and deaths of many martyrs, both Christian and Islamic. Careful analysis of the factors that led to the death of many martyrs exposes a misguided religious fervor, e.g., the martyr who chooses death rather than step on a cross and the martyr who chooses to die in a suicide bombing in order to kill many enemies of the faith.
Conversely, Stoics and others (e.g., Marcus Aurelius and Bill Lawrence (a U.S. POW in Vietnam inspired by Stoicism) exhibited the same qualities of courage and boldness as religious martyrs. Buddhist monks who set themselves ablaze to protest injustice do so recognizing that their act may incur negative karma and will certainly not help them end their participation in the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth.
In other words, my studies of religion and history makes it difficult to identify any unique quality or character trait associated with a conviction in life after death.
In seminary, one of my theology professors found my lack of firm conviction about the reality of life after death troubling. He pushed me to explain how people faced with unfairness in this life (e.g., the chronically ill, the economically exploited, and the politically oppressed) could have hope unless these people could believe that God would set things right through judgment after death.
The professor’s line of reasoning has remained profoundly unsatisfying to me for more than thirty years. I cannot escape nor silence the insistent, reverberating counterpoint to my professor’s position of Marx’ critique of religion as the opiate of the masses. Too often, people in positions of power have used the promise of future rewards to pacify those of whom they sought to take advantage. Too often, religions, and especially Christianity, have emphasized acceptance of present difficulties as the will of God in preparation for the glorious reward of heaven.
Future rewards, even when pictured in conjunction with the future punishment of evil doers, does not cancel the unfairness of this life in which some very good people – good by almost any standard – enjoy multiple comforts and luxuries and other very good people – good by the same standard – suffer multiple discomforts and harms. Presumably, both can expect the same reward, for both exhibited the same goodness. The converse is also true. Some evil people live enjoyable lives while others live miserable lives. Why should they expect different punishments? In biblical language, the rain falls on the just and the unjust. What happens in the future cannot undo what has happened in the past or is occurring in the present.
Finally, no way exists for anyone to explore what happens after death and then to report to the living on that experience, if indeed there is any experience at all. The reports of near death experiences by people, while suggestive, also seem very culturally conditioned.
Scripture similarly represents an unverifiable witness and raises the question of which religious tradition’s scriptures to accept as authoritative. Accepting the Christian scriptures as authoritative because I am a Christian begs the basic epistemological question of why I accept the Christian scriptures as authoritative and reject other scriptures. Most people inherit a religion by virtue of their birth rather than making a free and equally informed choice among the various religions – if such a choice is even possible. The strongest epistemological approach is to seek common ground among the world’s religious traditions. Sadly, common ground does not exist with respect to their teachings about life after death.
The Apostle Paul clearly acted as if confident of life after death because of his encounter with the risen Christ. However, some interpretations of the resurrection do not necessarily entail belief in life after death for all of God's people. And as I will argue in my next blog post, Paul was wrong when he maintained that if there is no resurrection of the dead that Christians of all people are most pitiable.
In sum, a Christian’s attitude toward and ideas about life after death seem unimportant because they rarely alter how a Christian lives his or her life today.
Jesus gave those who would follow him two great commandments: love God and love others. My love for God prompts me to desire to be with God and to entrust my future to God. That is sufficient for me. My love for my neighbor prompts me to work for justice and peace in this world and to hope for the best for my neighbor in any life that may follow this one.
What then does the traditional Christian proposition that only the saved receive eternal life mean? My fourth and last post in this series on the meaning of salvation addresses that question.