Last night I had to opportunity to discuss my views on the afterlife with an atheist friend. While he may not have agreed with what I had to say, he still seemed genuinely interested and receptive, and sometimes that’s all you can ask for. Anyway, I thought my response to his question, “What are your views on the afterlife?” might make a good blog post. So here we go…
Obviously any discussion about the afterlife has to begin with a belief in God. For an atheist, it wouldn’t make any sense whatsoever to believe in an afterlife… well, unless you’re a Buddhist, but that’s a whole ‘nother can of worms. So first of all, as should be evident from my other blog posts, I am a Christian and I believe in God. As for the reasons why I believe in God, well, that’s a much longer discussion. But for now, let’s just say it’s not simply because my parents told me so. Actually, one of my favorite quotes on the matter comes from C.S. Lewis, who said, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen. Not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” By the way, I’ll probably end up quoting Lewis a lot.
There are two aspects of the afterlife I’d like to address: common conceptions of Heaven and Hell, and common attitudes about Heaven and Hell. Because I think there are some serious flaws with both.
First, common conceptions. Most people tend to picture Heaven as this tranquil, otherworldly paradise in which all the righteous have halos and float around on clouds while choirs of angels sing old-timey hymns. Conversely, most people picture Hell as this dark, fiery, cavernous dungeon where sinners are poked, prodded, and tortured for all eternity. But I don’t think either image is very accurate. In my humble opinion, both are beyond the realm of human physical description. Instead, Heaven is simply the state of being in the direct presence of God, and Hell is the state of being entirely separated from God. That’s pretty much it. But to be more detailed, I’ll have to delve into Platonic philosophy.
Plato talked a lot about the concept of universals — the idea that everything on earth (tangible or intangible) is an imperfect reflection of a universal ideal that exists somewhere out in the aether. For instance, you have never seen a perfect horse. Every horse you see is merely an imperfect reflection of the universal ideal of “Horseness.” Just like every chair is an imperfect reflection of the universal ideal of “Chairness,” and so forth. I believe that’s true, but mostly when it comes to intangible concepts such as Love, Joy, Truth, Peace, etc. None of us have ever really experienced perfect Love; rather, our love for one another (be it friendly, romantic, or sacrificial) is merely an imperfect reflection of the universal ideal of Love, and so forth. And those universal ideals of Love, Joy, Truth, Peace, etc. exist within God — or rather, they exist as God. So whenever we experience Love or Joy, we are actually (in some small, imperfect way) experiencing God, whether we know it or not, because He is the source and the embodiment of all of those universals.
So what’s the point? Well, this concept is important whenever we talk about Heaven and Hell. That rather cartoonish image of Hell that I described earlier mainly comes from Dante’s Inferno, which was written in the early 1300’s and is extremely Catholic in it’s theology. So no, I don’t remotely think that Hell is some elaborate, flaming torture chamber specifically created by God to punish nonbelievers. I just think it’s the state of total separation from God. However, if God is indeed the source of all life, love, joy, peace, light, truth, etc., then by default, Hell must be the absence of all these things, and thus is marked by darkness, sadness, strife, and chaos. Evil is not a thing unto itself, but is merely the absence of Good, if that makes any sense.
As Lewis writes, “Hell is a state of mind…. And every state of mind, left to itself, every shutting up of the creature within the dungeon of its own mind — is, in the end, Hell. But Heaven is not a state of mind. Heaven is reality itself. All that is fully real is Heavenly.”
Speaking of which, I wholeheartedly recommend checking out Lewis’ classic allegorical novella The Great Divorce, since I find it to be an extremely insightful and intelligent look at the concepts of Heaven and Hell, especially the idea that no one is really condemned to Hell, but rather, they choose it for themselves. Again, Lewis writes:
“There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. To those who knock it is opened… Milton was right. The choice of every lost soul can be expressed in the words ‘Better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven.’ There is always something they insist on keeping even at the price of misery.”
The other issue I want to address is our common attitudes about the afterlife. I actually really like something my atheist friend said had always bothered him about the afterlife: the idea of people “living to die.” When I thought about it, I realized that I couldn’t agree with him more, because that’s really not how we as Christians should think about this world and the next, but far too often, we do. In America, I think the prevailing attitude shifted because of the influence of American-American slave culture. If you’ve ever heard the old “negro spirituals,” most of them are all about how our troubles in this world will soon be over and we’ll get to go to Heaven where we’re free from pain and suffering. They tended to relate more to the Old Testament stories of the Jews being freed from slavery in Egypt or rescued from foreign conquerors. It was a focus on deliverance, and that’s completely understandable considering their lot in life at the time. But that rather myopic focus on escaping this fallen world for the glory of Heaven ended up bleeding into mainstream Christian culture in the modern era, and now, a majority of American Christians seem to have lost sight of our true purpose in this life. It was explained best when Jesus’ disciples asked him about the greatest commandment, and He replied, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Too often we forget about this. Instead, we arrogantly focus on condemning others based on whatever sin or imperfection happens to be all the rage this week. We conveniently ignore the fact that Jesus spent most of his time hanging around with prostitutes, lepers, widows, tax collectors, the crippled, the homeless, and other marginalized members of society. We bemoan the fallen state of this world while doing very little to make it better. We sit safe in our homes and churches praying for a miracle instead of doing what we can to be a miracle for someone else. We long for Heaven instead of trying to bring a small, imperfect picture of Heaven to this world. Jesus told his disciples they would be known by their love. But I’m sad to admit that, for many nonbelievers today, they instead know Christians by our spite, fear, and judgment.
I’ll quote Lewis one last time: “There have been men before… who got so interested in proving the existence of God that they came to care nothing for God himself… as if the good Lord had nothing to do but to exist. There have been some who were so preoccupied with spreading Christianity that they never gave a thought to Christ.”
So what are my views on the afterlife? Well, to summarize this rather lengthy blog post, I do believe that each one of us is made up of both a mortal body and an immortal soul, and yes, our souls will live on after death, either in the presence of God or entirely separated from Him. But at the same time, I believe our focus in this life should be on showing love to others while we’re here, and thus being (to them, at least) a small, imperfect reflection of God on Earth.