Does belief in life after death have an impact on how we live our lives right now? Should it?
Several years ago I watched a panel of theologians discuss this question on national television and was surprised by their conclusions: All of them, theologians who professed to believe in God, without a dissenting voice, stated that it shouldn’t make any difference whatsoever whether or not there is life after death in terms of how we actually live our lives. Belief in life after death, they said, shouldn’t affect really our daily lives.
I have problems with that: First of all, it isn’t true, whatever our protests to the contrary. If we say that belief in an afterlife does not (and should not) affect how we live our lives, we’re simply out of touch with some of the deeper things that motivate us. It makes a huge difference, unconsciously, as to how restless or peaceful we are. When we no longer believe in a life hereafter we will, one way or the other, put unfair, restless pressure on this life.
There is a tendency today, both in church circles and in everyday life, to deny this. This, I suspect, is based on an over-reaction to the old punishment-reward system, which played too big a part in the religion of our youth. For too many of us, the idea was that we were supposed to live good lives so that, when we die, we’d go to heaven and not to hell. Part of that view too, over-simplified in the critique of religion made by Karl Marx (“Religion is the opium of the people”), was the idea that, if we believe in life after death, we were more likely to be unhealthily passive and not fully creative in this life.
Our instincts are right in wanting to reject this. However in our proclivity to be more liberal and open-minded, we generally lose sight of something else: Belief in life after death is important, not because it can affect our present lives with fears of hellfire or with the promise of a heaven that can be a soothing narcotic when life can’t deliver what we want, but because only the infinite can provide the proper horizon against which to view the finite.
Our lives our better understood, and more peacefully lived, when they are viewed against the horizon of eternity, against an afterlife.
Whether we believe in life after death consciously and unconsciously colours how we feel minute to minute inside our daily lives. If, for example, we don’t believe in life after death and don’t view our lives against the horizon of the eternal, how do we keep the demons of restlessness, disappointment, sadness, jealousy, self-pity, and cynicism at bay?
If this life alone has to carry everything, how tragic then to be poor, to lack opportunity, to not be healthy, to not have a perfect body, to lack the talent to adequately express ourselves; how tragic then to not regularly experience ecstasy in love, to not find a perfect soulmate, to have to sleep alone; how permanently tragic then to have been the victim of some accident, to have been abused, to be wounded, less than whole; how tragic then to be in a marriage that cannot fully take our loneliness away; how tragic then to be caught up in duty, in circumstance, in family, in history in a way that limits our freedom; how tragic then to not have a job that is fully satisfying, to not have a career that properly honours our gifts; how tragic then to find ourselves aging, losing our physical beauty and becoming marginalized; how tragic then to have face death with our lives still incomplete; how tragic then to have to miss out on any of life’s pleasures; how tragic then to find ourselves always in lives too small for us, small-time, small-town, unknown, our dreams reduced to ashes, nostalgia, jealousy, frustration; how tragic then to contemplate what might have been, to have made wrong choices; how tragic then simply to be alone on a Friday night; how tragic then to have to spend a holiday without someone special to share it with; how tragic then to live in a body, a family, a marriage, a home, a world, and a life which can never give us the full symphony nor ever take away our deepest restlessness and longing.
There is no other horizon, outside of eternity and afterlife, against which we can view the human condition in a way that doesn’t produce undue restlessness, disappointment, sadness, and cynicism.
Belief in a life after this one isn’t meant to make us live in fear of hellfire or in the infantile hope that if we’re good we’ll get a reward for it after we die. Belief in life after death is meant to give us proper vision so that we can, precisely, enjoy the real joys of this life without perpetually crucifying ourselves because of they, and we, aren’t perfect.