Lots of folks, when they discuss the truth (or not) of faith, or when they try to sell Christianity to outsiders, spend a great deal of energy on issues surrounding the afterlife. The crassest version, but one many of us have encountered, is encapsulated in the question “do you know where you’d be if you die tonight?” The core message, of course, is that we’re all going either to heaven or hell, and that being true, we should choose heaven and make whatever earthly choices and/or behavior changes required to ensure that the heavenly outcome is ours. At its extreme, I will never forget the time I met a career Baptist missionary in Honduras, who looked me in the eye and told me in all sincerity that if he didn’t believe in the certainty of hell for the unbeliever, he wouldn’t be a Christian. To this day, I wish I would have asked him what he’d do (or wished he could do) differently.
Unsurprisingly, atheists have picked up the theme. I have had more than one of the benevolent stripe of atheist somewhat condescendingly aver that if I needed the comfort of a happy afterlife to give me peace of mind now, that was all right as long as I didn’t bug anybody else about it. And of course atheists who aren’t quite so magnanimous can get pretty steamed (not entirely without justification) about Christians who are so focused on the afterlife that they seem indifferent to suffering here and now … or those who are so sure this world is going to burn soon that they care nothing for ecology or stewardship.
But for me, the afterlife is really not a factor in my choices for this life. Though it is difficult for both my believing and unbelieving friends to grasp, if I were to become affirmatively convinced that there’s no God, no heaven and no hell, and that this life is really all I’ve got, I don’t think I’d change much at all. My charitable giving might change a bit; there’s no point in supporting any evangelical efforts if there’s no evangel. I probably wouldn’t bother going to church, though I might still just because there’s not much that forms community like church does (although I must admit that a lot of “worship” is hard for me to tolerate even though I do believe it).
- I wouldn’t cheat on my wife … our relationship here and now is too good to ruin regardless of whether it’d be sin or not.
- I wouldn’t change my social/economic outlook on justice; although the best of Christianity gives a lot of sound foundation for justice, it’d still be clear to me that the powerful have no right to abuse the weak.
- I don’t think I’d change my choice of career; my passion for international health comes right out of my perspective on justice, and my personal sense of purpose is strengthened when I’m able to help others.
- I probably wouldn’t have started this blog, but on the other hand I have lots of opinions and like to say them, so I very well might have started a different one.
Ultimately, I don’t think the emphasis on afterlife by Christians is particularly helpful. Not that there’s no biblical foundation to be sure. Jesus certainly spoke about resurrection and God rewarding the just and punishing evil. Paul did say that if there is no resurrection “we are of all men most miserable” (1 Cor. 15:19), but if we keep reading it appears to me that the context is a persecuted church. People who are dying for their faith can reasonably be described as “miserable” if they’re dying for a lie. But here in our too-comfortable 21st-century West, any misery we may suffer has nothing to do with our hope in the resurrection.
So while I would not want to pierce the comfort of a bereaved widow who finds solace in the confidence that she will see her husband again, and while I would never wish to rob the downtrodden of the hope that some day justice will be served on those who oppress them, in the final analysis my own motivation for the Christian life is found in this life, or it’s not found. The careful reader may notice that I have not even addressed the question of what I think will happen to me when I die. This is deliberate. I neither fear death (ultimately) nor have I any desire to hasten it. I’ve written elsewhere that I don’t fear hell. But whether or not I have the hope of heaven is irrelevant to my life choices today.