Is Belief in the Afterlife Good for Us?

Is Belief in the Afterlife Good for Us? November 14, 2018

Not too long ago a question like this would have made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. My defences would have sprung up, rendering me virtually incapable of rational thought or open conversation.

The reason for this fairly extreme reaction is that until recently, the existence of an afterlife was central to how I interpreted the world around me. The centrality of this belief meant that any opinion to the contrary was met with low-level hostility, because of the perceived threat it posed to the comfort and stability of my worldview. This anxiety and hostility didn’t fit with my understanding of Christianity, so I knew something had to change.

I don’t think the belief itself was a problem (I still hold some sort of belief now), but my white-knuckled grip of it most definitely was. Some people are content not to know, but I needed it to be true. My entire worldview was dependent upon the existence of some sort of life beyond death, and I was desperate to remain convinced. I had to believe in some sort of greater story; a culmination; a happy ending that would finally make sense of all our human struggles. I engaged in intellectual wrestling matches with myself and others, fighting to maintain some sort of grasp on the deepest and most unfathomable mysteries. True to my evangelical Christian upbringing, I believed I could understand these things if I thought hard enough about them. I had been taught that I had access to the bigger picture; that I could know how the story began and how it would end.

A couple of years ago I began to see how unhealthy the way I believed had become. Clinging to my belief in the afterlife was taking up far too much emotional energy. I had to find a way to let go and stop caring so much about something I had absolutely zero control over.

Let me backtrack for a moment and explain some of the eschatological meanderings that brought me to this point. Growing up in church, I was taught that I should have full confidence in a very particular vision of the afterlife: that is, heaven and hell. I saw this life as a prequel to the real thing, and I knew that I would experience a blissful eternity, provided I held the correct beliefs.

As I started to question this belief framework, I was introduced to some beautiful ideas that were new to me but had long been embedded within orthodox Christianity. These ideas saved my faith at this point by giving me alternative beliefs to hold onto. I stopped believing in any real concept of hell, and began to understand the afterlife as the Kingdom of God coming to earth in the beautiful, climactic culmination of all things. This is the vision of an afterlife that I found myself clinging to. It really is a magnificent way of seeing reality. It provides endless comfort and hope as well as a thirst for justice and a motivation to work towards a better future.

While I still love these Christian ideas of heaven and resurrection, I now try to hold them as hopes or possibilities, rather than fixed beliefs. As a natural overthinker I find this very difficult, so to prevent myself spiralling down into mental rabbit holes I often have to actively avoid thinking about these things at all. If I dwell on imagined scenarios for any length of time I start to feel my fists clenching again, so I just don’t go there. Instead, I try to focus as fully as possible on the here and now, living out my Christian faith in this present reality without giving too much thought to what may or may not lie beyond. I remind myself to let go of the illusion of certainty and accept that as a mere human I don’t get the privilege of a God’s-eye view. This might not fit with the assuredness of Paul and the gospel writers, but certainty in these matters simply isn’t something we can claim – as much as we might like to. (The writer of Ecclesiastes would agree with me there).

Is belief in the afterlife good for humanity?

Since I stopped asking (with hindsight, fairly ridiculous) questions like “how can I be sure heaven is real?”, I have started to wonder about the effects of belief in the afterlife on humans in general. For something we can never possibly know about for sure, people hold some very strong views on it – views that sometimes lead to extreme life choices.

Judging by global statistics of religious affiliation, it appears that most people in the world still hold some sort of belief in the afterlife. A 2014 study found that 72% of Americans believe in heaven, and even in the UK (reported to be one of the least religious countries in the world) 46% of people interviewed in a 2017 BBC poll professed a belief in the afterlife.

We see examples almost daily of how strong beliefs in particular versions of the afterlife can lead to violence, bigotry and hatred, often on a terrifying scale. Within Christianity we see how believing in certain doctrines of the afterlife can lead to neglect and in some extreme cases even wilful destruction of our planet and the many forms of life that depend upon it. Not to mention the church’s long history of using the promise of heaven (and more effectively, the fear of hell) to achieve mass control and manipulation.

I’ve seen a number of Brits and Americans reacting against this “bad religion” by asserting the opposite belief – that this life is definitely all there is. The Sunday Assembly– a global movement of secular congregations – claims to be radically inclusive and have no doctrine, and yet the first point of its charter states confidently: “We are born from nothing and go to nothing”.

Like many others, I find myself floating somewhere in the middle of these two positions. I can see how having strong beliefs in the afterlife can be, in some ways, terrible for humanity. I sometimes wonder if the comfort and assurance from my belief in an ultimate “happy ending” has cushioned me from the reality of serious global issues such as climate change, making me less motivated to make drastic changes. Even if my Christian doctrines encourage me to work for social justice, am I really going to be mobilised to act if I ultimately believe everything will somehow sort itself out?

However, having spent most of my life immersed in Christianity and its promise of an ultimate hope, the prospect of nothing isn’t too attractive either. The thought that this is it still appals me if I think about for long enough. Not because my life isn’t full and rewarding, but because I can’t stand the idea that all human striving and suffering has no ultimate significance beyond this life. I can’t stand the idea that someone can be born, suffer constantly, and die – for whatever reason, my brain refuses to find that an acceptable view of reality.

If everyone on the planet stopped believing in the afterlife tomorrow, would we all become better, happier, more altruistic people? In truth I have no idea, but I would suspect not. There is something about the minds of humans that prevents us from easily accepting our own mortality and that of those we love.

Clearly, the effects of a belief in the afterlife depends greatly on what exactly that belief is. If you believe in a real threat of hell you may live a life of fear (from this point of view the idea of no afterlife at all would seem a wonderful prospect), whereas if you have full confidence in a glorious redemption where love triumphs over all, your life will be full of hope for the future. As with most religious belief (and other beliefs for that matter), belief in an afterlife can become harmful when the assumption is made that everyone should agree. Authoritarianism in religion invariably leads to abuse and suffering in some form or another.

In my own life, holding on to beliefs too tightly was breeding hostility towards those whom I wished would see things as I did. Yet despite various dangers, I still think afterlife belief can be a good thing. We all have different personalities, experiences and needs, and I am certain that for many people, belief in an afterlife reduces suffering and enhances the experience of this life. That said, it never hurts to examine our own beliefs and the unseen negative effects they may be having on ourselves, those around us and those who will come after us.

I imagine there are as many views on this as there are people on the planet. What do you think?

Image via Pixabay

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  • soter phile

    “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (1 Cor.15:19)

  • I’d say this: the belief in an afterlife sets us free from caring about the backlash of men, when you do go to do God’s calling. If you are called by God to, say, protect the environment, then the freedom from the fear of death (because you believe in an afterlife) takes away the very worst threat they can throw at you. You are therefore free to do God’s will, as the Father leads you (and it will be different for each of us) because what’s the worst they can do to you? Even if they wipe out all your wealth and everything you love, what’s that when compared with eternity? In Isaiah 25:7, it says that ‘He will swallow up the shroud that covers al nations; He will swallow up death forever’. For all of history up until Christ, people were held in thrall by the fear of death. But as Paul says, when paraphrasing that Isaiah Scripture, ‘Death, where is your sting?’. The Resurrection, and the consequent assurance of the afterlife, takes away the power of the threat of death. So, then, I would say that a belief in the afterlife makes a huge difference, because it sets you free to fulfil your calling, no matter what the cost.

  • Iain Lovejoy

    It depends what you mean by “afterlife”: the Christian message also includes the resurrection of the dead, and asserts that God’s kingdom into which we are to be resurrected is coming here. Does belief in resurrection into God’s future kingdom on earth count as belief in an afterlife? Or is belief in the “afterlife” restricted to some eternal but purely spiritual existence elsewhere?

  • Emma Higgs

    Hi Iain, for the purposes of this discussion I mean afterlife as anything beyond death – so yes, resurrection and Kingdom on earth counts as afterlife.

  • Al Cruise

    Great post. In 1 John 4:16 it says God is love, love was there when history began , Jesus is a manifestation of that love into something we can understand. 1 John 4:16 goes on to say “Whoever lives in love lives in God and God in him. There it is clearly stated, that you remain in God even after death. What that really looks like is a mystery. Knowing the nature of love , I am pretty excited about it.

  • Emma Higgs

    This is a great point. Although, does that argument really work for environmental concerns? Right now climate change is arguably humanity’s biggest threat, and I wonder how many religious people are largely unconcerned by it because of their belief in an afterlife? It’s true that not fearing death means you might be emboldened to fight for what you believe in, but I think even people who don’t have such a hope could fight and be willing to die for the sake of others – which in some ways is more selfless than fighting for a reward in heaven. (Still not saying it’s necessarily bad to believe… just think these are things worth considering.)

  • Al Cruise

    ” fighting for a reward in heaven.” I think that’s where most of the problems arise with Theologies , and where most religions go off into the weeds. Trans-formative love seeks no reward , it does not seek power over others, it just is.

  • Iain Lovejoy

    I asked because I think that what you understand by “afterlife” makes a huge difference to how the belief affects you.
    Any concept of an afterlife where you escape from the world and see what happens to you while in the world as just a prelude to the main event, or even as being activily harmful, is likely to make you less caring of others and of the world.
    This might range from a certain amount of indifferent disdain, where the aim is seen as purifying oneself from the world to escape it, or complete indifferent selfishness if you believe in the “lifeboat” sort of an afterlife (of the Left Behind and Late Great Planet Earth type) whereby your particular group escapes to God’s country club and it’s all going to burn anyway. Even if you believe that what you do (or believe) in life will affect your eternal reward this can lead to morality about being what you can get away with rather than any genuine desire to be good, with always the danger of imposing your standards on everyone because you don’t see why they should be getting away with it if you can’t.
    On the other hand, if your concept of the afterlife includes hanging around, or still being involved with the world or your loved ones, or ultimately returning, it is likely to have the opposite effect, since any good you do you get to see pan out, and enjoy vicariously or actually yourself, and you are more likely to be self-sacrificial if the self you sacrifice survives in some form.

  • Lynn

    I just wish I knew if there even is an afterlife. After losing my son to suicide, partly because he struggled with finding God, I just don’t even know if I’ll ever see him again. And PLEASE don’t quote scripture to me. I know it backwards and forwards. Noone really knows!

  • Definitely, and I gathered that this was one of your main points in the OP. What the environment-rapists fail to recognise is that the Gospel is all about wholeness, both for humans and also for all of our world – the planet and its inhabitants and flora/fauna and all that. My comments (and thank you for the compliments on that!) were written bearing in mind that ‘doing our bit’ against climate change and other environmental concerns are those most likely to inflame the ire of ‘powerful’ people (in a human sense). And when, like you say, a belief in the aferlife appears to allow us to abdicate all responsibility for our environment, I would consider that those who have such beliefs have only got ahold of half the story. Which I think is what your OP kind of says 🙂

  • Shirley Blake

    I grew up believing in a heavenly afterlife but not in hell. Over the years the idea of an afterlife really lost its importance. I no longer believe but find myself strengthened to make my experience in this space and time to be more meaningful as a result. This does not preclude spiritual focus instead it strengthens my interactions and my sense of journey more. However I believe that this is an individual decision. No ones journey is the same. We are simply called to walk in harmony with our world and with each person we meet on the path.

  • Emma Higgs

    Love this, thanks Shirley

  • Michael Tymn

    What if retirement meant no income of any kind – no savings, no social security, no pensions? There would be nothing to look forward to except poverty, squalor and despair. Unfortunately, that is how most people now look at death and the afterlife. Orthodox religion has not been able to paint a picture that offers anything more than a humdrum heaven or horrific hell. Assuming that a person feels qualified for heaven, how can he or she get excited about floating around on clouds all day while strumming a harp, or in what seems like an endless Sunday church service singing hymns and praising God? How appealing is that?

    In effect, there are three approaches to viewing death: 1) a march into an abyss of nothingness; 2) seeing the humdrum heaven and horrific hell of orthodoxy; 3) viewing it like beginning retirement with an around-the-world cruise.

    The few who embrace death see the wisdom of choosing number three. The atheists or non-believers, who make up 10-20 percent of the population in the United States and as much as 50 percent in other Western countries, stoically accept number one. Thus, the majority of people in the United States and roughly half in other Western countries mindlessly opt for number two. The problem is that they don’t really “believe” in an afterlife. They just “hope” for it while striving to be “one with their toys,” worshipping celebrities as gods, living completely in the moment, and having no conception of what death brings. In effect, materialism is their philosophy.

    Clearly, the philosophy of materialism has resulted in an era of moral decadence, a time of egocentricity, intolerance, hatred, hypocrisy, disorder, flux, strife, chaos, and fear. We have become hedonistic materialists, consumed with the pursuit of pleasure and sensory gratification, making merry with intoxicants and drugs, and reveling in the “Playboy” philosophy.

    The fact is that modern revelation has given us a much better picture of the afterlife. It is not a black or white picture as orthodox religion would have us believe. There are various shades of gray based on the moral specific gravity one develops in this material life. It is too much to go into here, but my book “The Afterlife Revealed” does discuss it in some detail. Sorry for the self-promotion, but it’s not something that can be summarized in a paragraph or two.

    Age is a big factor here. While most people in their 20s, 30s, and even 40s are too wrapped up in their careers and raising children to give it much thought, the concern gradually takes hold in one’s later years You can live with a foot in both worlds, one foot heavily planted in the material world and one foot lightly touching the spiritual world during the youthful years. The weight can slowly shift from one foot to the other as one ages. The object should not be to live in the past or the future or even in the present. One should strive “live in eternity,” meaning living in the past, present, and future at the same time.

  • Emma Higgs

    I’m so sorry, I can’t begin to imagine what you have been through. Not knowing is so hard.

  • Emma Higgs

    Fascinating, thanks Michael!

  • John Thomas

    Personally I am agnostic about the existence of afterlife. But I totally understand why people believe in afterlife and I am all for them to keep that view if that makes sense to them, has faith in what their scriptures say about it, helps them deal with the tragedies that they face in their lives and even try to make sense of their own existence in this planet. What is the harm in holding it since we cannot falsify it either way?

    Personally I find it hard to make sense of the mainstream Christian view of afterlife, i.e. in what form will we exist in afterlife – in our childhood form, young adult form, middle age form or old age form? One other way to think about it would be using Neoplatonist metaphysics i.e. to think that there is a rational (nous) and animating (psyche kosmos) principle behind the workings of sensible reality and we could imagine us being just extensions of it. So when we as individual beings go out of existence, matter making us up goes back to matter-energy of the reality, rational and animating principle within us goes back to the rational and animating principle behind the reality only to be manifested in other beings that comes after us. So life and intelligence within us and the matter that constitutes us always exists in some form, even though we as individual beings came into being at a point in time and go out of existence at another point in time. Much similar to how a tree exists for long period of time, individual leaves as extensions of it come into existence and go out of existence all the time. That makes more rational sense to me.

  • Markus R

    Well….so much for the Bible. We can just make up things as we go along.

  • Nat S.

    For me the issue isn’t belief in an afterlife as such, it’s when we take something that was only ever part of the Gospel and make that the entire Gospel. Obviously Jesus’ message was about knowing and following God in *this* life as well as the next, yet I don’t see how one can’t do that while still believing in an afterlife.

    Thank you for your blog btw Emma, I’ve been following it for a while and you express a lot of the things I often think and feel 🙂

  • R/R 2016

    It appears you’re saying the merit of belief is bound to its utility. If from belief follows harm, whether of direct or indirect cause, then such a belief should be either discarded or at the very least reexamined. Is that an accurate summary?

  • Emma Higgs

    Thanks Nat 🙂

  • Emma Higgs

    I’d agree with that.