Teaching the Greeks and Critical Thinking - Part 11: Does the Belief in an Afterlife Affect One's View of this Life?

Teacher: So far, we've been discussing how the Greeks viewed this life given their view of the afterlife. What I'd like to explore now is whether the belief in the afterlife today affects one's view of this life, and, secondly, if you didn't believe in an afterlife, would you view this life the same as someone who did? Take a minute to gather your thoughts. [Long silence]

Student: I'm sure that some of us think that there is an afterlife, some who don't, and still others who aren't quite sure, right? [General agreement] Let's say that you did believe in an afterlife. In that case, I can't see how you could look at this life the same way as someone who didn't. If you believe in Heaven and Hell, for instance, you'd have to view this world as a testing place for the next. If you're a good person, then you'll hopefully go to Heaven, and, if not, to Hell! Not that this would always be uppermost in your mind, but it would be there in the background. If, on the other hand, you thought that this life was all there was, you'd have to look at this life much differently.

Student: I'm not sure what I believe, but if I did believe in an afterlife, I don't think that this would change my view of this life at all. I'd just continue living my life as it comes and wouldn't even bother thinking about the hereafter. If there's a heaven, fine, but I can't see how it would affect my life in the least. Whatever happens after this life, I guess I'd find out after I died. I have friends who do and others who don't believe in the afterlife, but, as far as I can tell, we all look at life the same way.

Student: Well, I think it definitely would color how you'd look at this life. If there's no afterlife, what's even the point of living? When you die, that's it? I don't think so! It just wouldn't make sense! Life wouldn't have any meaning or purpose and would be just one big cruel joke if everything ended in the grave! I think there has to be something after death, otherwise life wouldn't be bearable.

Student: I understand what you're saying, but, for me, living for something that supposedly happens after you die takes away from this life, demeans it somehow, especially when the afterlife may not even exist. It makes it seem as if this life has no value at all, except as a preparation for the next. This, to me, doesn't make sense. If, on the other hand, you think that there's nothing after death and that this life is all there is, then you'd have to love this life more than someone who does believe in an afterlife because this life is all you'd have, so, of course, you'd see this life differently. In fact, a believer and unbeliever would inhabit two different mental worlds and realities and have totally different psychologies.

Student: But how could you even bear living if there weren't an afterlife? Life wouldn't have any meaning or purpose since, when you died, there wouldn't be anything.

Student: But it would have a meaning - the meaning you gave it while you were alive! What other meaning could it have? You lived and enjoyed living because that was the only meaning you needed. Living life or, rather, living your life deeply is its purpose. And, besides, who'd want to live forever? I can't think of a more horrible fate! The beauty of life is that it does have an end. It's what makes life so precious and the reason why you'd love it all the more deeply.

Student: But how could your life have meaning if you didn't continue in the afterlife? You'd have to go on forever for your life to make sense.

Student: Why? If I've lived a full life that's all the meaning I'd need, and nothing could take that from me.

Student: Well, in that case, we'd be no more than animals, which don't have an afterlife.

Student: Maybe we are, but why would that matter? [Silence]

Teacher: I'd like you now to role-play someone who believes in the afterlife and tell us how you see this life. Then we'll move on to someone who doesn't.

Student: This life prepares me for the next. Life's only purpose is that it's a test, a trial, and a preparation for the hereafter, but I don't see this as devaluing this life in any way. In fact, it increases its value because the way you live will determine how you'll spend your afterlife. I don't devalue this life because I hope to achieve something beyond it by spending it wisely. I enjoy this life while I have it, immerse myself in it because it's interesting and exciting, and, if I try to lead a good life, I'll have a better life in the next! It's a win - win situation.

Student: Absolutely! You don't have to love this life as a materialist, who thinks that this is the only life there is, but as someone who appreciates its beauty, uses it properly, and takes advantage of its opportunities to become a better person. You feel as alive in this life as someone who thinks that this life is all there is. You don't hate or turn your back on it precisely because it is helping you toward the afterlife!

Student: You don't have to be all doom and gloom just because you believe in the hereafter. You can be as joyful and as fun-loving as anyone else. The difference is that you don't get lost in this world, but raise your sights to the next and what will happen to you after you die. You can do anything that anyone else does, and when things get tough, you simply hang on in the knowledge that the bad times will pass. The afterlife is your North Star, your guide through all the temptations of life.

Student: The afterlife gives me instant perspective and a road map about life's true purpose because everything that happens to me has a divine purpose. I know that God will give me the strength to endure whatever he sends me. It may not be easy, but I have absolute certainty and a profound sense of peace that I'm doing his Will, which I accept without reservation. Nothing can happen to me because I'm like those three young men in the fiery furnace and will come out unscathed.

Student: Outwardly, you're the same person as anyone else, but inwardly you have different motivations altogether. You're eternity-oriented. You try to lead a good life by not hurting anyone and not getting caught up in this world. You're in this world, but not of it. This life isn't your home because you're a pilgrim who's just passing through. [Silence]

Teacher: How would you see this life if you didn't believe in an afterlife?

Student: I'd have no eternal backdrop against which to live this life, but accept it as all there was - period. There is no big picture, nothing beyond this world to give my life value. Anything that claims to give my life value implies that, without it, I'd have no value at all, a claim I reject because nothing can give me value except myself. My life's meaning isn't a preparation for anything because there isn't anything else. Living itself is its own meaning and purpose.

Student: I make my peace with this world alone because this is the only world that exists, and its beauty is its brevity. This is why this life is important as an end in itself and not as a preparation for some Beyond. I'm happy and fulfilled in this life alone, knowing that when I die, I'll simply cease to exist.

Student: I wouldn't be torn between two worlds, but completely rooted in this world alone and judge everything solely in terms of it, with no expectation of later reward or punishment. It's like what Walt Whitman says in his poem, "I Think I Could Turn and Live with Animals," which we read last year in American Lit. There'd be no wishful thinking about the universe, because the universe doesn't have to conform to my wishes.

Student: There's no cushion to soften life's suffering. I might like to think there's an afterlife to ease the pain of this world, but I'd know that this was just a comforting dream. Suffering has no meaning or purpose apart from what I give it, and I'd bear it because I had no other choice. It would make me more sympathetic to the suffering of others and realize that all of us share the same fate and should live in solidarity with one another. Keats said that the troubles of life are necessary to become a person because they teach us to feel and suffer and experience what it means to be a full human being. Life is hard and supposed to be hard, and wisdom consists in finding the strength to endure it in oneself and one's family.

Student: I'd have a greater sense of urgency in ridding this world of social injustice. If I believed in an afterlife, on the other hand, I wouldn't be all riled up about the suffering of others because I'd know that it was all part of God's plan, and so wouldn't feel the need to improve the world as someone would who thought that this was the only world there was. I'd be radicalized to clean up this world because I'd see that the idea of "God's Will" was just an excuse to do nothing since those suffering injustice would receive their reward in the next world.

Student: I disagree entirely. If I believed in an afterlife, I'd have even more incentive to rid this world of injustice because so many would be suffering unless I and others tried to improve things at once. I wouldn't want their suffering on my conscience, but would do all in my power to improve this world lest these people despair and stop trying to lead good lives. If I didn't, I couldn't live with myself.

Student: Then why didn't those who believed in an afterlife in the past try to improve this world?

Student: They did, at least to the extent they were able, since they too were trying to survive. The only ones who could change things were the kings, queens, and aristocracy, who didn't want to and thereby brought on the French and Russian Revolutions. Religious leaders did as much as they could with charity works, hospitals, and preaching to the powerful to soften their conscience. Plus, they didn't have the technology back then to organize with instant communications to embarrass government officials and focus public opinion on their letting these crimes go unpunished. There's more awareness now, but still fierce resistance among the rich and the powerful. [Silence]

Teacher: I want to move on now that we've resolved that question [General laughter], and deal with our last question for today. As you know, we never resolve the questions we discuss as that's your job. Many of these problems have been around for centuries and some for thousands of years. For now, I just want you to know that these problems exist and begin thinking about them.

Now for our last question. Can you be a good person if you don't believe in an afterlife?

To be continued -