Someone recently inquired whether I believed in life after death. That seemingly simple question really has two difficult parts. This post will explore the meaning of belief; the next post will examine the meaning of life after death. A third post will consider whether belief in life after death is important and a fourth will discuss the meaning of salvation.
What is a belief? (Unfortunately, this is a far more substantive question than President Clinton’s famous response about the meaning of is.)
· Is a belief simply an idea that a person finds attractive? If so, then belief connotes desire.
· Is a belief an idea that a person thinks is true? If so, then belief connotes aspiration or hope, a desire for which one expects fulfillment.
· Is a belief a concept upon which a person bases action. If so, then belief connotes faith, when faith signifies the trajectory of one’s life.
Each option emphasizes a different understanding of what belief means, usages common in the English language.
I think that most people, me included, find the prospect of life after death attractive, especially as we humans generally tend to think about life after death as a substantial improvement on one’s current existence. The most numerous exceptions to that generalization will be among people who conceive of life after death in terms of reincarnation, whether that next life is living another human existence or taking a different form, e.g., an animal.
God's goodness and love seem to know no bounds. I hope, think reasonable, that God might give new life to those who die as an expression of God's infinite love and goodness toward the person.
Determining the trajectory of one’s life is much more difficult. Few people live with an immediate and constant expectation of their own impending death. Most of us live expecting this life to continue and with some fear – large or small – of death, perhaps because we do not know what follows death, perhaps because we do not want to lose our connection to loved ones, or perhaps we are afraid of dying rather than of death per se.
If the trajectory of a person’s life was toward the expectation of new life after death, then that would cause most people to live in a manner very differently than they do. Paul the Apostle, for example, wrote that he preferred to die to be with God rather than to continue in his present life, but would accept whatever God wanted for him. Paul’s attitude is very foreign to most Christians. I suspect that few of us actually live a trajectory based upon a firm conviction in life after death. Otherwise, we would take more risks, live more boldly for God, and care less about the things and transient pleasures of this world.
In sum, we wrongly understand belief as cognitive assent to a proposition. Instead, correctly using the word belief requires far more nuances than we typically utilize and recognizing that actions ultimately speaking louder than words.