Talking about the afterlife

I have long felt that what people really want to believe in is an afterlife, not in a god so much. Belief in a god serves as a gateway to belief in an afterlife but if you asked people which they would prefer (a god but no afterlife or an afterlife and no god) I suspect that they would choose the latter by a landslide. (I explained my reasoning back in 2010.)

Robert Siegel, co-host of NPR’s All Things Considered, said on the air that he is skeptical about the existence of the afterlife. He got some feedback on that and as a result he has started a series of discussions on the topic. Here is the first one with an evangelical pastor.

In the interview, Siegel asks the kinds of concrete questions that should be asked, such as “If we still possess, say, racial characteristics in heaven are we corporeal beings, do you think? Do we have to eat? Do we have to drink? Are we with our loved ones? How much like life do you think the afterlife is?”

The preacher answers in the affirmative. Of course, if you think that people eat and drink in heaven, then you have to postulate a food growth and distribution system, not to mention sewage and other waste disposal system. If you think about it for a bit, you realize that the afterlife can get complicated pretty quickly.

Siegel also asks another good question.

Let me ask you a little bit about what befalls those who are evil. There are behaviors that in their day were considered sinful and are not today, or that were considered normal and today are rejected. Slavery was once tolerated by religious authority even. Interracial marriage was once regarded as sinful by believers. Can there be a hell in the afterlife that we can understand if, indeed, our own appreciation of sin has changed so much over time?

At this point, the preacher starts making stuff up, which is the usual result when you probe them deeply on such matters.

If people really believed in an afterlife, they would have thought things through about what it is like more clearly. What they seem to really want is that they will still be around, in some form, forever.


  1. says

    “Can there be a hell in the afterlife that we can understand if, indeed, our own appreciation of sin has changed so much over time?”

    That is a very, very interesting question. I will have to remember that one (insert evil grin here.)

  2. invivoMark says

    I think the appeal in an afterlife is not necessarily all about preserving oneself. After all, “nothing happens” isn’t that terrifying an outcome. (Or maybe I’m just unusual in being able to accept that prospect without experiencing all kinds of existential horror.)

    Rather, I think what drives people to buy into an afterlife is when our friends and family die. We want to have justice for their loss; we want them to watch us succeed; we want to catch up with them over tea or a beer at some later time. Living beings have a mechanism for dying, but relationships don’t. We want to maintain those relationships beyond death.

    But the conceptions of an afterlife almost always involves punishment of those who aren’t “worthy”, and that invariably means that someone you really like will end up punished (often for eternity). And that’s something that most people can’t rationally process (otherwise every Christian would spend their entire life doing everything they could to convert non-Christians). I suspect that nearly everyone who believes in an afterlife has contradicting personal views about it.

    It isn’t that people don’t really believe in an afterlife. It’s that they hold the belief without ever subjecting it to honest scrutiny.

  3. Al Dente says

    The popular versions of afterlifes are quite obviously figments of the imagination. The Christian afterlife was invented by people who were fascinated by church rituals. Who else would think singing hymns of praise to a god forever would be enjoyable? The Muslim afterlife was invented by a fifteen year old male virgin, or by someone who hadn’t matured past 15. The Norse afterlife is fighting and carousing, at least until Ragnarok occurs, by people who thought fighting and carousing was the best thing they could think about.

    None of these afterlifes are places where I’d want to spend more than a few minutes, let alone eternity.

  4. Frank says

    Thanks for posting this. I saw this story on the ATC podcast this morning and skipped it, assuming it would be like the pablum that Barbra Bradley Hagerty usually produces for NPR. I was wrong.

    I like Mr Siegel’s gentle but probing interview style and am looking forward to the rest of the series.

  5. doublereed says

    Honestly, I always found the idea of an afterlife so cartoonish that I can’t really take any questions about it seriously.

    In fact, it wasn’t until my late teens that I found out that there are adults that believe in the afterlife. I figured it was something that people just grew out of.

  6. Jeffrey Johnson says

    What they seem to really want is that they will still be around, in some form, forever.

    Which is an incredible thing to want. As much as I value and enjoy my life, the thought of suicide has ocurred to me, and even seemed like a delicious possibility to have that absolute relief from the repetitiveness and inevitable drudgery of daily existence. I enjoy eating, but sometimes the need, the responsibility, the procurement and preparation and cost seem too relentless in their unceasing demands. It seems a great promise of relief knowing that one day it will all end, even though I don’t want that end any time soon.

    Who wants to get on a merry-go-round knowing you could never get off?

    So death, as a pure cessation of being, of thinking, feeling, needing, and wanting, as the absolute restfulness of nothingness, seems really quite welcome. It is only the pain of the process of dying that is frightening, and we know that is finite in duration, we know it must end, which limits its fearfulness.

    How long would it take to be utterly bored with eternity? 20,000 years? 20 million? 500 Trillion years? At some point any human mind, with the knowledge and memories and limitations that our minds have, would be begging for the relief of a final death, of an exit from the endless demand to be. And if our minds were nothing like the ones we have now, that notion of reuniting with your fondly remembered loved ones becomes rather meaningless.

    Christopher Hitchens talked of life as a party, and of death as having to leave the party. In speaking of his own death he said the only thing worse than being forced to leave the party just when it’s really getting good, is to go to a party that one can never ever leave.

  7. Matt G says

    Wait, there’s beer in heaven? Sign me up – I finally have an incentive to be good! And here I’ve devoted my entire life to evil because I don’t believe in an afterlife.

  8. DsylexicHippo says

    There is no difference between how the life of a potted plant ends versus ours except that the potted plant does not have gigantic ego, insecurity and fears that need carrot and stick validation. A never ending series of validation which persists into the afterlife in terms of imaginary constructs like heaven and hell.

    Why is it that one never hears about afterlife for other animals? Let me guess – because they have no souls? How convenient. But humans are at the top off the chain in the same animal kingdom! Is it just me or does anybody else have an issue with how the sky daddy operates this exclusive afterlife club?

  9. Jeffrey Johnson says

    I agree that the distinction between human and animal is way exaggerated by the religious mind. It seems to even fear the idea that humans might not be in a metaphysically distinct category. Some people do imagine heaven for their pet animals, but overall the human ego is so desperate for validation, as you say, that it leads people to be unable to accept the fact that we are very smart, relatively hairless apes. No matter how strong the difference, we differ by degrees, not in kind, so to speak, using the word “kind” in its generic sense, not in any creationist sense of the word.

    On the other hand, that human ego is perhaps the price of our intelligence, creativity, and ingenuity to some extent. That ego exists because we are able to think about ourselves abstractly and ask questions about who we are and how we got here. And a good deal of that inquisitiveness is responsible for our scientific achievements. And in some sense wild animals are probably in varying degrees pure unconscious unexamined ego, dedicated to self-interest without any intellectual mechanisms to question or doubt it. It is because of our ego that we can consider humility, and consider sacrifice, and consider service. Consciousness of ego allows us to form strategies and methods to blunt its dominance.

    That exaggerated sense of self-importance humans insist on is a weakness, but perhaps a symptom of some strengths. We are better off in the long run to deemphasize the religious notion that we are a uniquely blessed exception, without denying our most definitely advanced intelligence, and to celebrate the kinship we share with other species through evolution. Of course some slippery slope paranoid moral guardian of the religious mindset will immediately fear that such an idea implies beastiality, which it most certainly does not, but that is just par for the course when it comes to irrational fear. Rather it implies a humility for humans, and more humane treatment of animals.

  10. ImaginesABeach says

    I heard the interview on NPR yesterday afternoon. It sounded to me as if the preacher’s god is a moral relativist, which is a pretty surprising thing to hear from an evangelical, since evangelicals usually present their god as unchanging. But the preacher either had to say that his god has changed his mind about slavery (used to be ok, now it’s not) so slave owners from the past are welcome in heaven, or that his god hasn’t changed his mind about slavery so slavery should still be ok, or that the Bible was wrong and slavery was always wrong.

  11. left0ver1under says

    The talk of an “afterlife” – any aftelife – is a return to how religion started out: the ignorant and desperately afraid making up answers to comfort themselves when they didn’t have any real answers. That’s how primitive societies explained eclipses, earthquakes, floods, droughts, whatever – they didn’t have answers, so they made some up (“god” or whatever) just to have one and not admit ignorance.

  12. Pierce R. Butler says

    The usual gotcha question in such cases: will we have free will in heaven?

    That pits one poorly defined dogma against another, but puts the issues right up front – either we will have the potential to rebel, and thus for all the reasons give above sooner or later will; or we will be mind-controlled ectoplasmic robots, and so not really us.

    The endless pleasure garden scenario might be make tolerable by provision of very limited memory capacity.

  13. Chiroptera says

    …or we will be mind-controlled ectoplasmic robots….

    Which is a contradiction that exists in another traditional evangelical dogma.

    The classical reason given for why God would allow sin when he knows that the vast majority of humanity would be doomed to eternal torture is that he wanted people to have free will, not mindless robots.

    Except, that seems to be what he ends up with anyway — Heaven populated by mindless robots forever. Unless it is possible for free-willed beings to remain eternally sinless, in which case he could have originally created humanity that way.

    (Maybe that’s exactly the point you were making — if so, sorry for the repetition.)

  14. invivoMark says

    Yes, but all they have is Coors Light. You gotta go to Valhalla to get the craft stuff.

  15. Jeffrey Johnson says

    Interesting point about free will in heaven. That raises the question, of course, as to whether heaven has it’s own sub-hell. Could one be booted from heaven for exercising free will in a sinful manner?

    Nice way to render the promise of reward incoherent. This is just one more paradox of infinite regress in religious dogma. The prime mover is one. If the universe needed a creator, why not also God? If God needed no creator, why not then the universe as well? Another is the soul. If the soul is needed to provide consciousness to the body, what provides consciousness to the soul? And if the soul needs no source of consciousness, why then should the body require a dualistic source of consciousness?

  16. Pierce R. Butler says

    Your tangent doesn’t step on my digression at all.

    My thoughts mostly involved comparing the hypothetical satisfied denizen of Heaven to the stories of lab rats whose brains’ pleasure centers were wired by researchers, spending all the rest of their lives frantically pulling the lever which gave them their fix.

    Which sounds to me like an awful way to spend eternity, but a much nicer reward than anything imagined by the Yahweh character in those old stories.

  17. Glenn says

    I believe in life after death.

    Only a solipsist could believe that after one dies all other life ceases to exist.

    (Solipsism is a theory in philosophy that your own existence is the only thing that is real or that can be known.)

  18. says

    Well… we do continue to exist, just not… not as ourselves. We are made of stardust, and we return to stardust as we are recycled as food for insects and bacteria and plant life. It’s all very circle-of-life.

    I can understand the desire for, not necessarily even an afterlife, but a place where everything is perfect and there’s no strife or suffering or illness or death and we all just go on for eternity, like Avalon, or Fairyland.

    What I don’t get is why, why we can’t work to bring even a small bit of that dream to life in the here and now? Why can’t we work to alleviate (if not eradicate) hunger and poverty? Why can’t we keep advancing science, and create “miracles” through medicine and technology?

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