We understand our lives best when we see them against the horizon of the infinite. Nowhere is this more important than in the belief that there is a life beyond this one.
Today it is not always fashionable to say this. More and more, theologians and spiritual writers are either ignoring the importance of life after death or, worse still, positively denigrating any emphasis one might want to put on it. For example:
A few years ago, I was watching a discussion on television between a prominent religious commentator and a panel of theologians representing a number of Christian churches. The commentator asked the panel this question: “Should it make any difference in the way you live whether or not you believe in life after death?”
Everyone on the panel and the host himself agreed that it shouldn’t. In their view of things, whether or not you believe in life after death shouldn’t make any difference practically in the way you live. Each asserted that they believed in individual immortality, but each also said that this didn’t, and shouldn’t, influence their daily actions in a practical way.
Moreover they pushed things further: Several of them suggested that focusing on belief in life after death can be positively harmful because it can deflect a person off of the proper agenda for this life, work against strong involvement in this world, and tie one immaturely to a system of rewards and punishments. Belief in life after death, for them, can throw off the proper focus for life in this world.
What’s to be said about this?
There’s a certain commendable stoicism in it to be sure, but, at the end of the day, such a view of things is religiously false and wreaks a certain havoc in our lives.
What’s wrong is not that God, or anyone else, is disappointed with our theological inconsistency. What’s wrong is that we are more prone to do violence to ourselves and to others because life cannot give us what we want.
Simply put, when we stop believing in life after death we tend to put too much pressure on this life to give us the full symphony. When we stop seeing our lives as being completed by something beyond the present world, it becomes natural to become more frustrated with the limits of our lives and to begin to demand, however subtly or unconsciously, that our spouses, children, friends, careers, jobs, and vacations give us something they can’t give, namely, complete fulfilment, full meaning, final satisfaction, joy beyond frustration, ecstasy, heaven.
When we stop, practically, believing in a heaven beyond this life, we too easily demand that we have a taste of heaven right now. Crassly stated, if this life is our only kick at the cat, it’s becomes pretty hard to handle the fact that this one kick at it is almost always a long, long ways from what we would want it to be. None of us goes through this life without our share of bitter disappointment, crushed potential, broken dreams, and daily frustration. Our lives are never the way we dreamed them to be. There’s always a huge gap between our dignity, our desire, our potential, and the actual state within which we find ourselves. We come into this world over-charged, are all too soon beaten-up, and never quite find the end of the rainbow. There are no perfect lives. There is no heaven this side of eternity.
All of us have suffered abuse of body and heart. All of us have been unjustly robbed of our potential. All of us live inside situations of tension, bitterness, gossip, and hatred. All of us suffer a certain silence between ourselves and those we most love, and all of us suffer the absence of full embrace and sexuality in our lives. None of us have the whole symphony and none of have joy without shadow. All of us too live with a history of bad choices, mistakes, sins, and opportunities missed.
Thus, unless we can somehow place our present lives against an horizon of an after-life that completes it, the punishing limits, daily inadequacy, and brute mortality of this world will eventually drive us to depression, bitterness, or violence. Outside of a vision of life after death, we can’t come to full peace with this life, the sophisticated stoicism of so much of contemporary theology and spirituality notwithstanding.
In one of the parables, Jesus points out how those servants who do not expect their master’s return go about getting drunk and beating their fellow-servants. This image of violence is precisely a metaphor for the type of violence we do to life and to each other when we do not see our lives against the horizon of the master’s return.
Conversely, when we do await the master’s return we don’t have to demand that this life give us more than it can and we can more easily live without impatience, bitterness, and violence, even inside of lives that are far from complete.