The empty promise of eternal life

The empty promise of eternal life December 29, 2015

Empty Promises

One of the perpetual challenges I get from Christians about my new non-belief in the supernatural is the impact this has on life’s present meaning, especially absent any universal, external, “objective” value anchored or the eternal nature of the Christian promise.

I have thrilled in the past few days to read Philip Kitcher’s new book, Life After Faith: The Case for Secular Humanism (Yale 2015). It’s few pages and unassuming title belie a challenging and sometimes technical read. Still, it is well worth the effort. I am planning to interview Professor Kitcher on the Life After God podcast in January or February, so if you’d like to read it and suggest questions for that interview, please click the link above and see for yourself.

For now, I want to share one quote that resonates with something I have felt for a very long time. I’ve called it, “the empty promise of eternal life.” I began to sense the real emptiness of the promise about 4 years before I resigned my pastoral ministry. Without my really noticing it, I had stopped giving sermons about eternal life, heaven, or the new earth, spoken of in the Bible’s final book, The Revelation, and elsewhere. The primary reason for this was pragmatic. The church is located in an urban center full of pain and suffering and our primary calling, as I saw it, was to see to the alleviation of this suffering and the struggle for justice. Promises about future bliss were a distraction. Again, without my conscious recognition, I had come to regard the promise of eternal life as increasingly vacuous and dehumanizing. It started by realizing—a decade or more before—that I really, really enjoyed my life in this world (the only world I have any experience with, incidentally). This was something I was not supposed to do. The devout in my community would make pious declarations about how they longed to leave this world of pain and be received into the beautiful paradise of God’s perfect kingdom. But I loved the struggle to understand, to create community, to solve the truly challenging problems of our time. These struggles gave—and continue to give—my life meaning. What could a life devoid of struggle possibly be worth? What’s the point? More pragmatically still, what would I do for all that eternity? I began to feel bored already.

Here’s how Philip Kitcher puts it.

If the compensation [by religious faith] offered is a life in which suffering is behind us, in which there is an end to challenges and to struggle, the promise has a superficial appeal— but only until we reflect that our individual identities are founded in commitments, in goals we struggle to realize, that glorifying a form of existence in which all our strivings cease nullifies what we do and who we are. We may envisage a being psychologically continuous with ourselves, no longer invested in anything we have taken to be significant or central, but it is hard to regard that being as anyone we would want to become or to celebrate its existence as a splendid continuation of our own (104-105).

It is darkly ironic that the promise of meaning comes at the sacrifice of what it means to be human in the deepest sense—the struggle to create meaningful relationships and experiences from a world that is beautiful and systematic but indifferent to our survival. I don’t want to live in a world where all my problems are solved and everything goes my way. Humanity is formed in the crucible.


*I put the word “objective” in quotes to indicate that Christians are often using this word in a very selective way which is not always consistent with the way it is use in philosophy.

[Image:Empty Promises” by Tom Beard is licensed under CC BY 2.0. Cropped from original]


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