Is Modern Christianity Too Egotistically Focused on the Afterlife?

I will be blogging over the coming days and weeks about many of the topics that I touch on in my book, The Burial of Jesus: What Does History Have to Do with Faith?, which is now for sale at for just $2.99.

One of the topics I address is the focus (some might say obsession) that contemporary Christianity has with the afterlife. Now, some might find that statement strange, but that is precisely because for many today, religion is by definition about an afterlife, to such an extent that it is simply unimaginable for them that there could be religion that is not focused on life after death.

Many of my students are surprised when they learn that that has not always been the case, and that within the Bible itself, most of the Old Testament/Jewish Bible has no interest in or evidence of belief in an afterlife.

One of the best examples is the Book of Amos. Amos is one of the closest examples we find in the Bible to the stereotypical “fire and brimstone” preacher. And yet note what he does not say. He warns the nation of judgment that is coming because of unrighteousness, but that judgment is never hell or some other notion of punishment in an afterlife. What he predicts is always disaster that will strike within history. Punishment in an afterlife simply was not on his radar. It was not part of his religious thinking, as far as we can tell.

I was sparked to blog about this particular topic by a post at Unreasonable Faith, which included this image:

In fact, the rise of belief in an afterlife in Judaism probably had more to do with the problem of evil than narcissism. The development of belief in God raising the dead to reward and punish first appears in the Book of Daniel, and thus seems to have been connected with the crisis the Jewish people faced during the reign of the Syrian king Antiochus IV. Antiochus outlawed observance of the Jewish Law, and this brought the classic problem of evil to an unprecedented peak. Now those who were considered righteous were not merely prone to suffer just as they unrighteous are – they were being singled out for harassment and even execution.

In response to this, belief in an afterlife was developed, out of the conviction that God is just, and so it cannot be the case that the wicked can exterminate the righteous and get away with it forever. Justice will be done, it was suggested, even if it means God raising the dead back to life again in order to accomplish that.

Today, as the caricature in the image above highlights, belief in an afterlife has taken on a different sort of character, and sometimes it even seems to work in a manner directly opposite to the reason the belief developed in the first place. Rather than being a solution for the problem of evil, it can exacerbate it. I remember in my younger days being in a church setting in which the view of this life was that “there is no point in polishing the china on the Titanic.” This world is passing away, I was told, and what matters is a world to come. And so belief in an afterlife has come to be used not as an effort to make sense of injustice, but to justify ignoring it. Why make the world a better place, when the world to come is what matters?

Surely this stance ought to trouble us.

I discuss this and related topics in more detail in my book, The Burial of Jesus. Here in this blog post, I want to ask what others think. Is the extent of focus on an afterlife in most modern Christianity a distortion of what belief in an afterlife was originally about? Can you envisage a Christianity that doesn’t focus on an afterlife in this way? If you think that there is change or rethinking that it would be useful to see occur regarding Christian ideas about the afterlife, what would that entail, and how might one go about being an agent for such change?

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  • Kevin

    When I was little (And I mean really little; I’m 19 now), I used to think that life was a test for the afterlife.  If I wanted to go to heaven I needed to be on my best behavior throughout my life, which generally meant making the world a better place.  Plus, I knew this world would still be here after I went to heaven, and my vision of the bridge between the worlds was a mix between All Dogs Go to Heaven and The Littlest Angel: you can’t go back to being alive for too long, but you can go and watch/affect the people you left behind.  That encouraged me to make friends and be on my best behavior, since I knew the punishment for ‘failing life’ would be jumping around a pit of lava while dragon/devil/dog hybrids breathed fire at me.  After all, all humans DON’T go to Heaven.

    Now I’m atheist, though, which has lead to an entirely different side of the discussion and a complete reworking of my why-I-should-be-good philosophy.  The initial thought was that since there is no afterlife, there is no test.  Why bother being good?  But then I realized that if this was the only world, and if I don’t have a ‘spiritual soul’, the only thing that makes me ‘good’ or ‘evil’ is what I do with my life.  Although I generally make up my own moral code as I go along based on society, the bible’s (and other religions’/lifestyles’) better lessons, and my own feelings, I generally find it more rewarding to be a ‘Christian good’ guy.  By that, I mean my brain releases more happy chemicals when I don’t hurt people.  I like the happy chemicals.

    In summary, I guess, when I was a child the afterlife was an egotistical focus for a good reason.  ‘Afterlife’ was not a singular place; there was both Heaven and Hell, and I selfishly wanted to go to Heaven.  To me, all behavior seems to be somewhat selfish anyways, since people usually feel good for doing nice things, which leads them to do more nice things.  Why not use that selfishness for something ‘good’?

  • Beau Quilter

    Kevin, your wisdom belies your age! If all the life we have is here on earth, how much more precious is our time on earth, and how much more important that we spend it well.

    Those who criticize atheists with the argument that we have no reason to be moral, don’t realize just how shallow the argument is. Atheists aren’t moral in order to get a reward after death. We’re moral because we know that the best rewards in this life come from having good, loving relationships with each other.

    Are we also guided to love others, to some extent, by the “happy chemicals” in our bodies? Of course, we are! I know that I evolved to find apples tasty; but knowing doesn’t make the apple taste bitter.

  • Robert

    Yes. To me it seems that Christianity in general spends more time than warranted talking about the afterlife. When I read the Bible, I don’t see much that seems to me to be talking about the afterlife. I see a message that my attitude, words, and deeds have a real impact on my life. It says the kingdom of God is at hand. Here. Now. I can enter that kingdom anytime I want, and I can just as easily wander back out.

    I can find God’s peace and love even in the midst of war and hate. And I can share them too.

    As for being an agent of change… I suppose that I believe the best way to be that is to change the one thing I have complete control of: Myself. But then, in the words of my church’s “spiritual typology”, I’m more “lamplighter” and “mystic” than “crusader”.

  • Just Sayin’

    Are you in accord with Jon Levenson on OT resurrection?

  • Michael Wilson

    I may be unique in both denying a theistic god and affirming an afterlife. Of course objectively one can’t know one way or the other, yet (nobdy comes back to tell the tale!) I do think many Christians don’t understand what Paul’s after life was, and frankly, I’m not sure any one does, we really don’t have a lot of his writtings. I think the Jewish assumption was a resurection to resume physical life on earth, but I can’t discount some sort of spritual union with the divine as the ultimate goal, not living as an angel in a senual paradise. But then again, who knows what form ultimate bliss might take?

    I do think that the idea of an after life is pretty central to Christianity and without it it seems to lose its appeal. I do agree with the comments above that there other reasons to be ethical and find fulfilment other than an after life and it is largely a fix to the question of how a just god rewards good people who died during the shit times.

  • Sabio Lantz

    Fascinating post —  loved it.  I had not thought about that.  It would be fascinating to see a Christianity without an afterlife — it would be unrecognizable, I think.

    Interestingly, in Buddhism, there is great debate over reincarnation and rebirth that strikes me as similar.  Some feel that much of Buddhism would make no sense without ReBirth while others think it is a superstition foreign to Buddhism which corrupts it.

    The great theme express themselves in apparently widely different traditions.

  • Robert Perry

    I completely agree that Christianity is way too focused on the afterlife. I think what is important is wisdom for how to live this life differently. My understanding of what we can piece together of what Jesus really taught (I’m a big fan of Q) is that this was his focus as well.

    I suspect that part of the secularization of society is a reaction to this quaint focus in Christianity. If people saw Christians concerned about living this life according to a higher wisdom, I suspect there’d be more Christians.

    That being said, I think evidence for an afterlife is surprisingly strong, from a number of lines. One significant line of evidence is near-death experiences, in which people have incredibly lucid, organized, intense, and transformative experiences (which often include veridical perceptions of physical events) while their brains are shut down and unable to produce consciousness. Interestingly, what these people are often told while apparently on “the other side” is that our lives on earth are not about preparing for heaven or hell. Instead, it’s all about the love we show to other people. It’s all about living a different way here.

    • Beau Quilter

      Regarding the evidence from near death experiences (NDE’s), I think that caution is warranted in using these as evidences of an afterlife. It’s true that some neurological event seems to be in evidences by these reports. And you are correct that they involve “lucid, organized, intense, and transformative experiences.” The same is true of the many thousands who have reported alien abductions, and in centuries before by those who have been visited by succubi or other spiritual creatures. The reports of knowledge that couldn’t have been gained except through contact with the dead are entirely anecdotal and always occur in cases where the subject has extensive contact with people (usually family members) who do have this “secret knowledge”). While there are times that these subjects seem to have experiences during low brain activity, it’s evident from our own dream states that our “time” in a dream is not the same as “time” in reality. A subject may report an hour-long dream which in reality only occurred in 5 minutes of a dream state.

      In any case, as with many discredited “evidences” of the past, this should be touted with reservation.

  • Sabio Lantz

    After more thought on James’ excellent point, I think I should have added “eternalism” to my cartoon of stuff to sweep out of religion.

  • Sabio Lantz

    @ James:

    I put a link in my above comment and it is barely visible.  But in your main posts links are easily visible.  Is there any way to correct that?

  • Trey

    Well it is Paul’s thinking that dominates, shapes and defines New Testament theology and Paul is focused on the resurrection more so than on Jesus’s ministry or on Jesus’s moral exhortations. So, it is not surprising that the Christian community is largely preoccupied with an afterlife. Traditional Christians are likely to counter with Paul’s exhortation that if Christ be not raised the Christian faith is in vain to anyone who suggests that the resurrection and an afterlife is not central if not the central message of Christianity. Is Christianity still Christianity without a central message of resurrection and an afterlife? I suppose all faiths evolve, change and are redefined over time but this would require a radical departure for Christianity. I continue to wrestle with these issues.

  • Woodbridgegoodman

    Not only egotism; also Greed. 

    Nietzche, I heard someone say, claimed that Christians are actually extremely greedy:  greedy for Heaven.

  • Brad Jones

    Hi! I just came upon your blog and really appreciate your thoughts on this topic.  I agree that the Bible is very “this worldly,” and I think a good dose of inaugurated eschatology would cure a lot of our ills.  We could say that if Christians are of no earthly good, then perhaps they aren’t being heavenly minded enough! And so I definitely want to put the emphasis where the Bible puts the emphasis.  However, the question that will always linger in the mind of the typical layperson is, “What will happen to me immediately upon death?” This is a real question that all people must wrestle with and so I want to be sensitive to this common concern as well.  Thanks for posting on this, and keep up the good blogging!

  • James F. McGrath

    Thanks for all the comments, and apologies for my delay in replying to them.

    It may be that, without belief in an afterlife, Christianity would lose something essential. But then again, one could easily say that Judaism managed to remain Judaism despite the addition of afterlife, and more recently, despite the removal of afterlife once again along with an objectively-existing God, in Reconstructionist circles. So perhaps there is nothing that is truly essential to a religion over time, in terms of preserving identity, other than that the later forms have emerged from the earlier ones.

    Having said that, I think that it is possible to respond to my question in a much less radical fashion. One could just leave the matter of afterlife in God’s hands, as something that is up to God and beyond our comprehension.

    Ultimately, whether one posits “me” being kept in something like my present form for all eternity (and thus being unlike myself in my present, ever-changing existence), or “me” continuing to change eternally so that, just as there is a very real sense in which I am no longer the person I was when I was a child, the future me will be even less “me”. And of course, that issue of continuity over time is the very same one we were talking about in relation to the persistence and evolution of Christianity.

    [Sabio, I am not sure why your link wasn’t visible. There may have been some formatting changes to the template. In the past, hyperlinks in comments seemed to me easier to spot than those in the body of posts].

    • Ian

      “So perhaps there is nothing that is truly essential to a religion over time, in terms of preserving identity, other than that the later forms have emerged from the earlier ones.”

      Perhaps not even that. I suspect that often the main reason for continuity of naming is the desire for continuity of identity. So a person calls their NRM “Christian” because they want to associate with current or previous Christians, or want to inherit some of the respect or social credit of Christianity. Not necessarily because they have a doctrinal continuity (or if they do, that they have doctrinal continuity that is anything more than coincidental).

      I suspect this is the core dynamic at work with most non-theists who consider themselves Christians, for example. A non-theistic Christian is primarily Christian because they identify with other Christians in community, not because they are theologically or even cultically Christian.

      Karen Armstrong’s God, for example, is rather novel, and has little doctrinal continuity with any faith tradition. But by explicitly identifying it with the God of orthodox Christianity, Judaism and Islam, she avoids the obvious charge that her theological invention is entirely irrelevant. She gets to pretend that hers is a meta-God, unifying the disparate views of each faith. She even gets to tell people that the forms of those religions that don’t agree with her are ‘false’ or mistaken.

      Seems to me the same process is at work when patristic Christianity decided to retain its identification with the Jewish God, presumably because of the added credibility having an ‘old’ God brings.

  • Robert B

    Without a literal belief in the afterlife, I am unsure what the point of Christianity would actually be.

    Maybe someone could enlighten me.

    • James F. McGrath

      Robert, that is indeed a common view, and one of the reasons I wrote the book and this blog post. I am curious what you would say the point was of Judaism/ancient Israel’s religion before it developed belief in an afterlife, or what you make of for,s of Judaism today that do not espouse belief in an afterlife. I can’t help but wonder whether your real question is not what the point of life is without an afterlife.

      • Robert B

        Hello Dr. McGrath.

        I suppose the point of ancient Judaism was not really different than the point of other ancient religions; community, cultural history, exceptionalism (anachronistic perhaps, but true in some form) and simple answers to some of those tricky ‘why’ questions, etc.

        I suppose that much of this still holds true today, to some extent, but as you noted, people couldn’t get around the fact that ‘bad guys’ didn’t always seem to finish last, or something to that effect. Thus an answer to this problem was given… generally speaking.

        However, it seems that Christianity was based specifically on salvation in an afterlife. I suppose one could rationalize a kingdom within, quasi gnostic view of the texts, but the mass marketing couldn’t have been more clear.

        Jesus Christ died for our sins to save us from eternal damnation. This seems to require a literal afterlife a priori. 

        I am not sure what Christianity would be without that particular concept.

        And to your last statement, I would only say that I do not think the point of a football game is the aftergame commentary, but to each his own, I suppose.    

  • Ian

    @sabio – your link isn’t a link, just an empty anchor (a-tag) without a href. That’s why it isn’t being colored right.

  • Sabio Lantz

    Thanx, Ian.  I will try again to link to my drawing where I should have added “eternalism”  to things to sweep out of religion.

  • Sabio Lantz

    James’ links seem to have nice pretty dotted lines under them.  Our links only have a slight change of color.  How do we get nice links like James’?

  • Ian

    The css makes links in the main entry appear differently to the comments, so you’re out of luck. You could try wrapping the link in your comment in a {div class=”entry”}…{/div} (with the curly braces as angle brackets), which would trigger the correct css rule, but I’d be very surprised if disqus didn’t strip that. Its probably not good netiquette to go hacking around in somebody’s comments anyway.

    • James F. McGrath

      Ian and Sabio, I have no objection to HTML “hacking” if it doesn’t make the blog crash or go haywire! :-)

  • Sabio Lantz

    Many religions and people have no ambitions for an afterlife and yet their lives are (of course) filled with meaning.  As you are alluding, James.
    The greedy desire for afterlife is almost an embarrassing shared traits among many other religions. 
    Your suggests that this need not be are excellent James.  Thanx

  • Sabio Lantz

    PS – I totally agree with Ian’s evaluation of what it means to hang on to a title of a religion while changing everything else.

  • contantlysearching

    The only way I know how to change this is to do exactly what you are doing…talk about it!

    But that can be difficult. Heaven/Hell is so widely accepted that to believe otherwise is “crazy.” I grew up being told that being a Christian wasn’t about the afterlife…but it kinda was so make sure you get saved.

    Just because people said it wasn’t about the afterlife, doesn’t it mean it wasn’t. Their actions and general attitude said otherwise.

    It seems like the black and white version of the afterlife is not compatible with the grey world of today. I don’t think viewing life as a test is healthy or productive. Some may say it reduces crime rates, but other studies suggest a belief in Hell leads to a less satisfactory life (which makes a whole lot of sense). I struggle from a deep seeded fear of Hell. At times, it’s debilitating. How is this a good way to go through life?

    I view myself as a panentheist. I think God is the ground of being, and I see God in everyone. I don’t know if there is anything after this. I just hope it’s peaceful.