This Life Matters

Religion that focuses entirely on an afterlife is at best Gnosticism and at worst nonsense. Which is fine if you are happy being in one or both of those categories. But if not, then here are some things to think about.

As I emphasize in my book The Burial of Jesus, the doctrine of the afterlife appeared in Judaism in response to a crisis, in which people were being killed precisely because they were being faithful to what they believed to be God’s Law. This created a crisis for religious belief – how could God not defend and vindicate the righteous? The answer some came up with was that even death could not stand in the way of God carrying out justice. If necessary, God would bring the dead back to life. As a response to this situation, belief in resurrection was a solution to a problem created by life in this world. It was not a negation of it.

The Gnostics typically viewed this world as the work of an inferior deity, and thus it made sense in that religious framework to focus on escaping from it. That is a world-negating sort of afterlife. Mainstream Judaism and Christianity rejected that view of the world. And so too ought those who reject the view of creation adopted by Gnosticism likewise to reject that view of the afterlife, if they hold that there is an afterlife at all.

My point is that, regardless whether one believes in an afterlife, we ought to be able to agree on the importance of this life we now live in this world. As I put it in the title of this blog post, this life matters.

In the context of mainstream Abrahamic faiths, to suggest that an afterlife is all that matters creates insoluble problems. Why would God make this life, with its temptations and trials, if we could simply be made to exist in a form that is perfect and incorruptible? If we can be transformed into beings incapable of suffering or sinning, then why not simply make us that way from the outset? Or if there can never be guaranteed perfection, then might an afterlife simply be a prelude to another Fall and another mess? These problems and more confront those who try to view an afterlife as all that matters, or what really matters. Indeed, whether they inevitably confront any doctrine of an afterlife is a question worth asking.

Be that as it may, if one holds that there is an afterlife, it will only make sense in relation to the lives we now live. If you have not found anything worth living for, anything valuable and precious in the life you now live, then to imagine that somehow another life will resolve all the problems and answer all the questions seems misguided. If you cannot here and now find things that are worth living for, then what would you live forever for?

Daniel Kirk included the image below in one of his recent posts:

I discovered that there is even a song “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth” (for which the anagram is B.I.B.L.E.) In my opinion, to view this life as basically a hindrance or obstacle to the real lives we are supposed to be living somewhere else and somehow else, so that “leaving Earth” becomes one’s ultimate goal, is essentially to adopt a Gnostic viewpoint. If there is an afterlife, surely it will not involve regretting having found meaning and joy in existence. But it might well involve regret at having failed to do so.

And so I’ll leave you with what I think is a more moving and apt song in connection to this topic than the one I linked to above, a song which Maggi Dawn embedded the video for on her blog recently:

YouTube Preview Image

  • Treyj

    Really James? I would say that strain of Gnostic thinking dominates the thinking of “mainstream” Christianity and specifically those who call themselves evangelicals. The majority of evangelicals will tell you that it is not about this life it is all about the next life and where you will spend eternity. I hold Paul of Tarsus largely responsible for that since his epistles largely focus on his belief on the death and resurrection of Jesus and say almost nothing about anything that Jesus specifically taught and did. Perhaps then evangelicals really are gnostic believers and gnosticism still lives on. 

    • Paul D.

      I think we can cut Paul a little slack in this instance. He never said anything about going to Heaven for eternity when you die. That’s folk religion nonsense people made up or borrowed from pagans later on.

      (On the other hand, Paul didn’t advocate for living one’s life to the fullest either, apparently because he thought Jesus’ return was around the corner, so it wouldn’t matter.)

  • Yinka

    Trey J,
    Ya think ?
    Just browsing thru evangelical reactions to the Koni 2012 thing left a sick feeling in my being.  Critiques of the movie makers and complexity of the situation aside, one could sense the valiant ( at times pathetic  ) efforts of everyday evangelicals straining to come to terms with the horror in front of them. One by one, they  fell back on the “salvation/eternal-life schtick” and the alleged cleavage between a ‘social gospel’ and their understanding of ‘the gospel’. One person wondered out loud: “where was the church all this time’ ? Others lamented, “if only they shared Christ with such passion”.

    Seriously ?

    I wonder how one can live within such an overarching  narrative such and not lose it completely.

  • http://www.facebook.com/john.w.morehead John W. Morehead

    Unfortunately, many Protestant fundamentalists and evangelicals are very Gnostic in this regard, so afterlife focused that they care little for the material world, the body, and the present life. Thanks for this post.

  • Tim

    Dr. McGrath, I’m surprised at this post. What’s wrong with Gnosticism? According to Elaine Plagels works that I’ve read, Gnosticism offers “spiritual power” that is much more attractive to modern people than things like evangelicalism.  I don’t understand why you’d slam Gnosticism by relating it to evangelicalism. Let me know. Thanks, Tim

    • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      Thank you for all the comments so far!

      Tim, there are certainly positive things about Gnosticism. But when modern people find Gnosticism attractive, it is consistently not the case that they embrace Gnostic mythology in its entirety. It is not hard to find positive things in a religious tradition, and it is often easier to do so with a relatively unfamiliar one when one has become disillusioned with a more familiar one. For instance, do you view the world as having been created by the God of the Bible, whom you view as an inferior deity who rules over this world aided by the planets and the signs of the zodiac?

      Treyj, the focus on resurrection in Paul means that there was still more anchoring him to an affirmation of this life, than is the case for most modern Christians who believe that they will go to heaven when they die. That said, he did indeed focus on the resurrection age at the expense of the present. I wonder whether he would have done the same had he known that the present age would still be going strong some two thousand years later…

  • Wilson

    The world does not care about me.  This world does not forgive.  And once you are too old or lose your money or your health they are done with you.

    If there is not future life, I may as well check out now.

  • Woodbridgegoodman

    Much of the New Testament flirted with with (and helped create?) Gnosticism; Paul with Platonistic idealism; with generally the emphasis of Egyptian tombs at least, on the afterlife.  But important parts of the Bible – like the famous John 3.16 – have Jesus himself reaffirming the importance of the physical “world.”

    Indeed, the final “kingdom” is not supposed to be in some spiritual “heaven,” but on this material earth (Rev. 21).

  • Brian S.

    Althoug I don’t want to sound like I’m advertizing my own religious tradition I think that much can be gained by adapting the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox tendancy to view the universe as sacremental. Meaning that God and his grace are present to the living order on all it’s levels. Doing so will greatly increase our appreciation for the created order and it has plenty of Biblical support, especially from the Wisdom tradition.   

  • http://thetalkingllama.wordpress.com/ SketchesbyBoze

    I just wrote a blog post making the connection between Gnosticism and American Christianity explicit: http://thetalkingllama.wordpress.com/2012/03/12/against-the-protestant-gnostics/. See also Philip J. Lee’s book, “Against the Protestant Gnostics.”

  • Ethan

    Dr. McGrath, as a Christian, do you affirm faith in the resurrection of Christ, and thus a hope for resurrection that models in the footsteps of Christ?  Obviously, we can never know what transpired with any certainty, but is a resurrection hope that is modeled after Christ’s part of your christian faith?

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  • Chris

    What is your own take on an afterlife?  Does being a progressive christian shape your views concerning an afterlife?

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    @1ded15c4d7045be89c01d48372aa6dff:disqus and @2e5109d530ec2ee4ebe8fee6a47a54ff:disqus, I don’t think that hope is inappropriate, but I am not sure that we know enough about matters pertaining to the ongoing existence of Jesus, or what human life would look like if extended indefinitely or transformed into something radically different than our current existence, to be either dogmatic or definite. If I were to become an entity no longer bound by time and space, or my life were to go on in bodily form forever and ever – in short, a more and a less spiritualized vision of the afterlife – I am not sure in what meaningful sense what existed a million years from now would be “me.” And so whatever the future may hold, whether annihilation, extension, or transformation, it surely makes sense to focus on doing what our principles tell us is right in relation to the human beings that we interact with or whose suffering and abuse we are aware of in the here and now. If we neglect them because we are too busy disputing who has the right answer to questions that we simply cannot definitively answer in the present, I think we’ve missed the point. That’s my progressive Christian perspective, in a nutshell. :-)


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