An Unbeliever’s Disgust with the Afterlife

I continually labor to attempt and view Christian doctrine through the lens of blind eyes. A good question to ask is “How does this sound to an unbeliever?” It is not a standard for truth, but rather an aid in evangelistic communication. Simply because ‘the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing’ (1 Cor. 1:18) does not render it truthfully foolish; but it realigns our perspective of the lost man in our preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Recently, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association announced their new program to be released in November 2014. It is entitled “Heaven,” and seemingly focuses on the Christian claims concerning the afterlife. You can view the trailer for the program here. The notable “Gospel Coalition” recently opened registration for their 2015 National Conference, the focus of which is “Coming Home: New Heaven & New Earth.” All that to say, the Christian doctrine of the afterlife is set to be a ‘hot topic’ in the months to come.

Certainly, the afterlife is a major concept for all religions, and it is no less important for Christianity. For the sake of space, it is evident that the afterlife and eternity were major teaching topics for Jesus and the New Testament authors. The Old Testament similarly emphasized much of the eschatological element of God’s intention in their messianic expectation. I am sure that a simple biblical word search or topical search would adequately communicate the importance of hope, the afterlife, the restoration of all things, etc. Simply for the sake of one more example, Cornelius Van Til marks the importance of hope in the Christian ethic:

“Finally, we must note the fourth characteristic of biblical ethics, namely, that it is an ethics of hope. It is to live in the daily assurance that the universe can and will be renovated completely in God’s own time…because this ethical ideal is an absolute ideal and demands complete destruction of evil, its full realization lies in the life hereafter; biblical ethics is an ethics of hope.” [1]

Nonetheless, in our pondering and preaching of the Christian doctrine of the afterlife, of heaven and hell, etc., it is crucial to be aware of what unbelievers hear in such a pronouncement. For one, it can be a frustrating resolution. They hear, “The world is in shambles and people are rotten with wickedness; but fret not, everything will one day be perfect.” Of course, this declaration is firmly rooted in the fulfilling person and work of Jesus Christ, but the end is often more considered than its means.

Sam Harris provided a perfect example of how the biblical ethic of hope sounds to an unbeliever. In his book The Moral Landscape, Harris sought to belittle the coherency between present-day morality and the concept of an afterlife. After drawing two examples, one labeled the ‘bad life’ and the other the ‘good life,’ Harris reinforced the self-evident objectivity of morality – i.e. hardly anyone would deny that the Good Life is better than the Bad Life. Therefore, in Harris’ scientific consequentialism, he affirmed that no one pursues the Bad Life and no one should pursue the Bad Life.

Even in the religious concern for the afterlife, there is a pursuit of the good life over the bad life. Harris, however, rather than leave religion be, claimed that such an extension of the concept of life into the afterlife renders a pursuit of the ‘bad life’ on earth. Harris provided the possible exception that people in the Bad Life would achieve some greater happiness in an afterlife; but rightfully noted, this extension does not challenge his “basic claim around the connection between facts and values.” [2] Therefore, in such a scenario, Harris’ essential claim would remain true, but it would be radically altered given the universality of things – i.e. the particular assessment of human well-being would become subordinate to the universal assessment of well-being. However, if the particular Bad Life could lead to an ultimate Good Life, what would this do to the designation of the Bad Life? Harris recognized, as a kind of misnomer, “then the Bad Life would surely be better than the Good Life.” [3] As it logically follows, if this were the case, “we would be morally obliged to engineer an appropriately pious Bad Life for as many people as possible.” [4]

However, why does the idea of an afterlife render the Good Life as the Bad Life? Harris marked the Bad Life as the Good Life in regards to the ultimate life – afterlife added to earthly life – but continued to mark the absurdity of the Bad Life as the Good Life in regards to particular life (earthly life).

  • UL (Ultimate Life) = afterlife + earthly life; PL (Particular Life) = earthly life; G = good; B = bad.
  • Harris seemingly asserted: If UL is G and PL is B, then in order for UL to always be G, PL must be B, which is absurd.

The Bad Life as the Good Life, however, is not absurd given the universality of life considered. The concept of UL provides an extended measurement, which allows for the rendering G; but Harris then measures the outcome of UL by measuring it according to the limited measurement of PL. He extends the possible limitations of life, which thus extends the determined valuation of life, and then retracts the limitations and renders the life with extended limitations as absurd. His resulting obligation of engineering maximal Bad Life is not a necessary obligation given the extended limitations of life into the idea of an afterlife. Simply because it is possible for the earthly Bad Life to be considered the Good Life when considered ultimately, such a possibility does not, therefore, necessitate that the earthly Bad Life is the Good Life when considered ultimately. Surely, it is just as possible for the earthly Good Life to be within the ultimate Good Life. The essential difference is that the idea of the afterlife extends one’s valuation of life as good or bad beyond temporal and earthly circumstances, and that such earthly and particular circumstances do not determine one’s ultimate value of life. Therefore, just as the earthly Good Life does not determine the ultimate Good Life, the earthly Bad Life does not determine the ultimate Good Life. The proposition can be expressed as such:

  • (A) The idea of the afterlife extends one’s valuation of life as good or bad beyond temporal and earthly circumstances.
  • (B) Therefore, the earthly Good Life does not determine the ultimate Good Life.
  • (C) Therefore, the earthly Bad Life does not determine the ultimate Good Life.

Harris failed to recognize that the idea of the afterlife (A) equally supports both B and C, whereby pursuing an earthly Bad Life is as inconsequential in determining the ultimate Good Life as pursuing an earthly Good Life. Therefore, Harris’ claim that the idea of an afterlife morally obligates mankind “to engineer an appropriately pious Bad Life for as many people as possible” is misleading and utterly incorrect.

Therefore, for the coming months, there appears two practical preparations necessary for the Christian’s preaching on the afterlife:

  1. Firmly ground the preaching of the afterlife in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Do not pronounce the end without the means.
  2. Be prepared to stand firm and demolish the prevalent ethical objections to the general concept of the afterlife.

[1] Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of Faith, 4th ed., ed. K. Scott Oliphint (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Pub, 2008), 88.

[2] Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (New York: Free Press, 2010), 18.

[3] Ibid., 18.

[4] Ibid., 18.

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