Afterlife and Meaning

One of January’s feature articles was "Death is not an Event in
Life
" by James Still. Let me begin by saying how truly sorry I am that Mr.
Still lost his father. I
too have had loved-ones die. It can be very difficult to deal with and I’m sure
he misses his father immensely. This feedback is in no way to belittle Mr.
Still’s feelings. I hope only for his comfort and peace in this difficult loss.

There were, however, several remarks he made in his article which were
obviously intended to strongly criticize those who feel both epistemologically
and ethically justified in believing in an eternal afterlife. I would like to
make some suggestions of my own with regard to several of his points. To begin
on a more agreeable note, like Mr. Still I often hear the phrase "God
called her home" or "God took him home" uttered by well-meaning
people in the wake of death. And like Mr. Still, I believe such conclusions are
misguided (though, again, those who make them mean well and are usually only
repeating what they’ve heard before). I do not believe God "takes"
anyone (suicides alone counter such an idea in my estimation). No, while we will
all indeed die, I don’t have any reason to believe God causes our deaths. (The
question as to why we die if God exists is another matter entirely and worthy of
a separate discussion).

But here is where my concurrence with Mr. Still’s article ends. For, next he
begins a philosophical assault on any notion of life after death by saying it
robs life of its poignancy, even going so far as calling "eternal bliss in
the Kingdom of God" the "ultimate insult" to a well-lived life.
He further asserts that the desire to believe in heaven is "greedy"
and one that denies the very purpose of death as well as the value of this life.

Is this correct? Well, to be sure there are some Christians out there who
emphasize beliefs of heaven to the exclusion of this life and the meaning of
death; I have met some of them. But the truth is, those Christians have not
grown very deep in their faith or their understanding and their lives are
usually marked with other emotional problems (another subject worthy of
discussion elsewhere). Actually, there is a plethora of theistic philosophers
out there who have written a great deal about the value of this life and the
meaning of death. One idea in particular (which, by the way, is not opposed to
biblical teaching) that has had great fecundity among philosophers and
theologians hinges on the notion that this life is a means by which we build our
character, a character that will carry on after death. We learn, grow, make
choices, mature through good times and bad, etc., so that what we do or don’t do
with our lives will indeed make a difference in some way as to how we will
experience eternity (i.e., the well-lived life does matter). In such case, there
is not some "magical transformation" that takes place when we die so
that we all become blissful clones whereby our earthly lives no longer matter.
Rather, we would take with us what we have become.

Now there is much here that I
am leaving undone about this idea, but merely the option alone (without getting
into logistic details) is enough to answer Mr. Still’s assertion. Such an
explanation would mean that it is not an irrational or insulting belief to hold
that one’s life matters both in how it is carried on in the hearts of those we
leave behind as well as with us in the life to come. This is because such a
belief would only encourage me to make this life count all the more. With the
"soul-making" understanding of earthly life, no longer would eternity
overshadow the importance of this life; no longer would this life be seen as
only an "annoying preface" to "eternal bliss".

But what of Mr. Still’s charge that belief in the afterlife will make one
"inevitably fail to appreciate just how priceless is this life here and
now"? Frankly, and I write this with all respect and sincerity, my heart
just about broke with such an indictment. I believe in the afterlife, but I can
tell you from the depths of my soul that every time I talk with my parents or
hold my precious sons in my arms I am reminded of just how precious life is –
mine and theirs. Mr. Still has made at least one grave error in his article if
he supposes that those who believe in heaven "inevitably fail" to
appreciate just how priceless this life is. Indeed, even the Bible makes it
clear that life is precious and sweet and should never be taken for granted.

In a somewhat abbreviated point, Mr. Still asks a rhetorical logic-based
question "How can one live after death?" and then answers it
"Death is the very cessation of living…". While his answer really
doesn’t provide a very powerful argument against belief in the afterlife, his
question does deserve an alternative response. Death is indeed the cessation of
life as we know it; of that we can be certain. But the fact that death ends our
current physical life says nothing about the possibility of living again later
if some agent were capable of resurrecting us from the dead. After all, there
was a time when I did not exist, now I exist, and when I die I will once again
cease to exist for all practical purposes. But who’s to say that I cannot exist
again? If I myself believe that when I die that I’m truly dead, why is it
irrational to believe that God is able to bring me back to life one day? While
this belief may not square with someone else’s belief metaphysically speaking,
there is nothing illogical about it that I can see.

Finally, I would like to make note of Mr. Still’s honesty regarding the
logical ends of the atheistic worldview when it comes to life and death. Indeed
for the atheist this life has no inherent purpose and death is the end of all
things. Of course, I fail to see how nihilism could ever be encouraging or
joyful, but Mr. Still takes a good crack at it. He suggests that such a life
devoid of any preexisting purposes or expectations allows us to be truly
"free (perhaps even obligated) to fill the void with meaning." In
response let me say that life as we know it does indeed both give us freedom and
mantle us with obligation, but since obligation carries with it a certain sense
of bondage, none of us are truly and wholly free no matter what our metaphysical
stance. Pure freedom has no outside limits or persuasions, but our choices are
framed by consequences that persuade us in this direction or that, they are
limited by our finitude and shaped to some degree by our circumstances and
backgrounds, like it or not. Truly, the atheist has no more free agency in his
"void" world than the theist does in his world founded on divine
purpose. Further, it is a misrepresentation of Christianity to suggest that
Christians do not believe in filling their lives with as much meaning as
possible. Just because a Christian may believe God has an overall purpose for
life, death and the afterlife by no means entails that she is not free (perhaps
even obligated) to fill her life with additional meaningful things.

In conclusion, I am glad Mr. Still finds joy and happiness in this life. I
truly wish him nothing less. But speaking as a believer in God, I can honestly
say that I too have found joy and meaning in life. The difference is that in one
case personal joy and meaning is snuffed out by the grave, but in the other, if
true, not even death can take it away. As for me, I’ll choose the latter.