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This Life Matters

This Life Matters March 10, 2012

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:

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