Belief in Afterlife and Worldviews

Tomas Rees:

Kevin Flannelly, at the Spears Research Institute in New York, and colleagues assessed data from the 2010 Baylor Religion Survey to see whether belief in the afterlife was linked to different world views.

He found that positive beliefs about the afterlife (belief that the afterlife means a union with God, a reunion with loved ones, and/or a life of eternal reward or eternal punishment) increased the likelihood of believing that this world is just.

In other words, people who believed in an afterlife were more likely to think that “Anything is possible if you work hard” and that “Everyone starts out with the same chances in life.” They were less likely to agree that “The world is controlled by a few powerful people” or that “Finance is a field where people get rich without making a real contribution to society.”

Flannelly also found that people who believed in a just world had less anxiety and other psychiatric symptoms such as paranoia, obsession and compulsion.

Plugging these results into a statistical model, he found that the lower level of psychiatric symptoms seen in religious people in the Baylor survey can be explained as a result of their belief in the afterlife, moderated by its effects on their beliefs in a just world. He interprets this in terms of Evolutionary Threat Assessment Theory, which hypotheses that hypersensitivity to threats in your environment (real or imagined) is a fundamental cause of many psychiatric symptoms.

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  • Maybe people who believe in a “just world” do so because they would rather be anesthetized by hope in another time and place than have to deal with the reality of sudden suffering and oppression in this world.

    Maybe anxiety and “other psychiatric symptoms” are not illness, but evidence that a person has chosen to be honest about what they see and experience rather than close their eyes and pretend that the world is just and everything will work out in the end.

    I’m firmly convinced that equating the concepts of eternal life and “after-life” is one of the most deadly mistakes the church has ever made. Eternal life is True, full, Life that exists outside of time, in the place where heaven and earth meet—at the cross. The “after-life” is pure opiate.

    Of course the bible discusses life-after-death, but sometimes to believe in God we have to chose not to. To follow Christ is to hope that in my daily death self-giving love will be shown victorious. To see “face-to-face will be glorious, but if that hope is blinding us to the pain of those in need it is surely false.

  • In other news… I think I’ll change my name to “discussion killer”

    ; )

  • CGC

    Hi Nate,
    I’ll bite . . . There are always abuses and extremes. It almost sounds like you believe in an after-life but you are cynical of it or at least how you have seen others portray it that leads to passivity towards others. Or possibly you were being provocative and suggesting the Bible teaches eternal life which emcompasses all of time and out of time, not just something we assign to ‘the after-life?’ I’m also thinking of N. T. Wright who says something about “life after life after death” language?

    I’m not so sure that hoplessness is a better posture than hope as if that is being more honest about reality? Surely that would not be what we would say to someone possibly comtemplating suicide for example? But your overall point about the cross and living out lives in our present for others is surely better than some kind of wishful thinking about the future which leads everyone else to fend for themselves.

    Despite your overall good point here Nate it does seem that rather than taking the positive remarks about mental health and hope in this research, somehow your focus seems to be on the glass half empty rather than half full? There may be some kind of crude realism here but doesn’t faith urge us to focus on the glass half-full rather than half-empty? (while not denying that the glass may truly be half-empty).

    Isn’t one of the telling problems in the church today are faith-lite people who have nothing better to do than to point out all the problems and weaknesses of the church without offering to do anything really about them or for others? Maybe we are arguing from two sides of the same coin but I for one find the research as a positive even if there are abuses of it by people of faith.

  • Stephen Hesed

    This is odd, even somewhat troublesome. The Biblical idea of resurrection first emerges in the Old Testament prophets precisely as a response to how unjust this present world is. In the classic passages Isaiah 26 and Daniel 12, the Resurrection is introduced as means of vindicating the righteous martyrs and punishing the wicked who “get away with it” in this life. For the Jews at the time of Jesus, the afterlife was all about justice that had tarried long finally rolling down. The fact that this association has been lost in American Christianity is a little disturbing.

  • Tom F.

    Just world stuff is a mixed bag, from what I understand. Just world beliefs do tend to lead people to have less compassion for the poor, for example, while also having less approving behaviors of something like bullying. (I am going from Wikipedia, but I have read similar things in other places I can’t track down now.) So just world beliefs aren’t necessarily good or bad for discipleship purposes. Somewhat akin to a personality trait: those with high levels of belief in a just world will have certain strengths and liabiliites, and those with low levels of belief will have other strengths and liabilities.

  • Dave D

    I’m afraid I’ve found my belief in an afterlife to a primary cause of my mental/ emotional problems. Get it wrong and God tortures you for all eternity, right?

  • CGC

    Hi Dave,
    I had one of my friends go through what sounds like the same thing you did (from what I saw, his coping ability of so many problems overloaded him—-the real problem) and his belief in the afterlife then just scared him to death and compounded it (“I am losing my faith so I must be going to hell where I don’t want to go!”). He obviously worked through a lot of this and I suspect you have to Dave?

    This does bring up the issue of God as a divine torturer? Is this really how we see God in the church or outside the church? I know many do but is this really an accurate picture of God and how eternity works out? (despite the many artistic paintings of hell and everlasting punishment). Surely the church can do better than God likes to punish people to God never punishes anyone? I don’t know if Darrin Belousek book answers this question but I just started reading his book.

  • EricG

    I think they have the causation going in the wrong direction here. People who are faced with some of life’s greater injustices may be less likely to believe in an afterlife. People who face less difficulties may find it easier to believe in a just and loving God and afterlife, and experience less anxiety. I am weekly surprised by the obliviousness of some to the great injustice in the world, and how this affects their view of God.

  • CGC – Thanks for the thoughtful reply. I’ll gladly admit to sometimes inadvertently trying too hard to be provocative. Sometimes I guess I just figure it’s better to be a bit controversial and let the cards fall rather than endlessly qualifying every thing I say. : )

    I try my best to hold my belief in specific doctrines lightly, realizing that it’s very possible for two people to disagree, arguing over intellectual beliefs, while each affirms the same spiritual Truth in their hearts. So, I would have to say that I have trouble concretely affirming or denying belief in the “after-life” since I know that will likely mean something different to everyone who reads this.

    Similarly, I feel like we need to be careful in our talk about “hope.” If in one breath we proclaim that we have a sure hope of eternal life based on the resurrection of Christ, we must be willing to affirm in the very next breath, just as strongly, that that the Way of eternal life with Christ is inseparable from experiencing death with Him. Our hope is made real in choosing, by faith, to suffer with another person, submit to the abuse of the world, and rise from the ashes of our daily death in love. In some ways to hope is the same thing as honestly admitting to ourselves and others that we have no reason to hope that things will turn out ok in life. A person who is doubtful that things will turn out ok for them in the end and yet chooses to give themselves in love regardless possesses a deeper faith and hope that is worked out in love rather than intellectual belief.

    I know that’s all a bit heady and I’ll admit that it sounds a little pessimistic. The Truth is as I look at “the glass” I see it as both half full and half empty simultaneously. To follow Christ is to empty myself of hope that I will be happy and in the emptiness to be surprised to discover fullness of life overflowing.

    I’m reminded of Johnny Cash singing “Man in Black”.

    “Ah, I’d love to wear a rainbow every day,
    And tell the world that everything’s OK,
    But I’ll try to carry off a little darkness on my back,
    ‘Till things are brighter, I’m the Man In Black.”

    I pray that I can immitate Christ by humbly descending from my belief in heaven to fully enter the world of those who don’t believe it exists; to give myself for others even if it means subjecting myself to the experience of hopelessness, forsakeness, and death. Someday death itself will finally die and we’ll all be able to put on our rainbows, but until then I hope we can be honest about the reality and severity of suffering, entering into other’s mourning with them, absorbing their pain bred insults, and showing them that self-giving Love is the Way to really truly Live eternally.

  • CGC

    Hi Nate,
    Thanks for sharing more, it sounds like a realistic hope to me 🙂 In regards to what it really means to follow Jesus today, I am reading Robin Meyers provocative (and I mean provocative) book “The Underground Church.” I am just through the first three chapters and even though he is a self-professed liberal Christian, he writes in such a way to make both conservatives and liberals really squirm. Somebody mentioned this book on this list once and I hope Scot would do a review of it unless I missed it? (at least in his opening chapters, I think he gives an approach to scripture that cuts through not only the liberal-conservative rhetoric, but how scripture should be read within its own context and its own focus (and not what we want to focus on which has much to do with what we talk about on this list rather than the scriptures focus).

    Anyhow, some good thought Nate. Thanks!

  • Thanks once again. I have similar feelings about the work of Peter Rollins (I’ve read “Insurrection” and am currently reading “how (not) to speak of God”) He’s more of a self professed “emerging” and post-modern neo-orthodox mystic than liberal and definitely makes you squirm a bit, but in such a good way if you’re able to get past the provacativeness of what he says to hear what he’s saying, if that makes sense. Sort of an if you have “ears to hear” kind of book I guess.

    I’ll have to check out Robin Meyers.


  • Cal

    Nate I’m very sympathetic to your view.

    I think man is much more unified than the sort of ‘ghost-in-the-machine’ outlook Platonic/Cartesian dualism has imported into the Scripture. My hope isn’t that my homunculus soul will fly off once freed from this mortal coil. Rather it is that when I die, my union with Christ is the promise, that as He rose, so shall I and God will breath into me once again.

    I can’t stand the pie-in-the-sky lingo (though I’ll never hit someone over the head for it). Resurrection is God bringing His justice, not that “If you work hard, everything will be ok”. That’s a tenet of American civil religion NOT the God of Israel.

  • I was really hoping this study would explore the worldviews of those who held differing views of the afterlife. (Heaven vs New Earth) Oh well.

  • Mike M

    “The Type of God You Believe In?” That point is moot since belief in ANY God leads to a happy afterlife.

  • Richard

    It seems to me that believing the world is naturally just is a rejection of the pervasiveness of sin… It’s pollyanna-ish.