Life after Death

PETER KREEFT

Pie in the sky bye and bye — that's what you Christians believe.

C. S. Lewis in The Problem of Pain answers:

We are afraid of the jeer about "pie in the sky"... But either there is "pie in the sky" or there is not.  If there is not, then Christianity is false, for this doctrine is woven into its whole fabric.  If there is, then this truth, like any other, must be faced, whether it is useful at political meetings or not. 

But isn't it true that the essence of Christ's teachings is about how to live in this world?  Can't you drop your concern for the next world and still be Christians? 

That's like saying you can drop hope for a communist revolution and a classless society and still be a communist. 

But hope for heaven diverts you from making earth a better place to live in.  You Christians are really traitors to the earth. 

No.  Throughout history it has been precisely those who believed most strongly in the next world who did the most to improve this one.  That's what you would expect.  If you believe the road you're on goes nowhere, you don't take it too seriously.  If you believe it goes to somewhere important, you keep it up.  If a pregnant woman thinks her baby will be born dead, she does not take much care of it.  If she hopes it will have life after birth, she takes care of her pregnancy.

But concern for the next world is escapism.

Who talks the most against "escapism"?  Jailers.  Think about it.

But heaven is just wishful thinking.  Belief in life after death can be explained away so easily that way.  Is belief in hell wishful thinking too?  We believe in both because Christ taught them, and we believe in him.  Long ago, Lucretius, the ancient Roman materialist philosopher, let the cat out of the bag when he said that we should stop believing in life after death because then we don't have to be afraid of hell.  That's wishful thinking. 

Then why is it that mainly the poor believe?  Isn't it a suspicious coincidence that those who have the hardest time in this world believe most readily in the next? 

It isn't the poor but the rich who have the hardest time being happy in this world, as is evidenced by comparing suicide rates.  The poor believe not because they are blinded by their poverty but because they are not blinded by riches.  (Jesus said some shockingly strong things about the dangers of riches, you remember.)

But the motive for believing in life after death is the same kind of thing as the deceptive desire for riches.  It's mercenary.  If I'm good now, I'll get the goods later.  That's not honesty and love and a true heart.  Life after death corrupts your motive.  You should love God and your neighbor for their sakes, not for your sake or the sake of your heavenly reward, to pile up Brownie points.  It's a bribe. 

Our motive for believing it is that Jesus taught it.  Would he hold out a bribe to us?  No selfish soul really wants heaven because what you do in heaven is give yourself away in self-forgetful love forever.  Heaven is not the external reward tacked onto a life of love and selflessness; it is that life itself, consummated.  Heaven is no more a bribe or a mercenary reward than marriage is.

But aren't the pictures we have in our minds of heaven suspiciously earthly?  Doesn't it look like wish fulfillment — meeting the dear departed dead on the other shore and all that? 

Those are only our pictures.  In reality, "eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor has it entered into the heart of man, the things God has prepared for those who love him."

Then it's too unearthly.  I wouldn't feel comfortable with angels. 

Jesus assures us he is preparing our apartments ("mansions") for us in heaven.  He's got to be better than any earthly hotel manager.  The one who designed us can certainly arrange a heaven that fit us.

You've answered my objections but you haven't given any proof of your belief.  Prove life after death.

How?  Scientifically?  If that could be done, no one would disbelieve, and there would be no free choice and no merit in trusting and believing.

Then it's blind faith?  A leap in the dark? 

No, a leap in the light.  There are reasons for believing.  Here are seven.  The word of God, for one: both Jesus and Scripture are called that, and both teach about heaven.  The nature of God as all-loving and all-powerful, for another thing.  If even your love wants to save your loved ones from death, does God love us any less?  But he can do whatever he wills.  A third reason is long-range justice, which is not accomplished in this life.  "Nice guys finish last", and the meek do not yet inherit the earth.  If death ends all, "all" is a pretty bad story.  Here's a fourth reason: the intrinsic value and indispensability of a person, which is a truth seen by the eyes of unselfish love.  If death ends everything, then the indispensable is dispensed with like diapers: then persons are treated like things.  Then God does exactly what He commands us not to do.  And a fifth reason: the image of God in us, the soul, the self, the I — that's not a thing or object or it.  That's not a bodily organ.  It's not a thing that can be killed by a bullet or a cancer.  It's my soul, my personhood.  I am not just a body because I have my body.  The possessor is more than the possessed.  Sixth, there is the testimony of seers, saints, mystics, and resuscitated patients who have touched the next world in near-death experiences.  They know.  But my solidest reason for believing in life after death is the Resurrection of Jesus.  The Church has been witnessing to that for twenty centuries.  It's no theory; it's fact.


The Church teaches that there's a hell too, though.  That's a barbaric doctrine, a horrible stick to hit people over the head with.  Hell shows that the Church is based on fear. 

We believe in hell because Jesus taught it, and Jesus was not one to use fear instead of love when he didn't have to.  Hell is horrible.  Some things on earth are horrible too; that doesn't mean they aren't real.

Didn't Jesus preach a simple gospel of love and compassion?  Wasn't hell the later emphasis of the Church or Saint Paul? 

Almost the opposite.  No one talked more about hell than Jesus.  If anything, Saint Paul softened his message.  In a few texts he seems to hold out a dim hope that all may be saved.

But hell absolutely contradicts God's love.

No it doesn't.  It manifests God's love.  God's love created us free, not robots, and our free choice of evil is the only thing that makes hell.

But if God is all-powerful, why can't he arrange for no one to go to hell? 

Against their will?  Freedom, once again.  What if they insist on saying no? 

But is it just to punish people eternally for sins committed in time?  Isn't infinite punishment for finite sins unjust? 

We're in a great battle. We walk on a razor edge.

It's not math; it's love.  Decline a lover's invitation, and you remain loveless; it's as simple as that.  Decline infinite love and you experience infinite lovelessness.  The God-shaped hole in our heart is already infinite, in a sense: it can be filled only by infinite love.  If we refuse, it remains unfilled infinitely. 

How could a sane person prefer hell to heaven?  And if it takes insanity to make that choice, how can anyone be blamed for it? 

The same argument "proves" there's no sin on earth either.  All sin is insanity: preferring self without God to God.  All sin is a little souvenir from hell.  It is crazy.  But it's real.

How could God accept you into heaven if your only motive is fear of hell?  Isn't that low and mercenary? 

Love stoops to conquer.  And it's not mercenary because hell is not only punishment for sin but sin itself, brought to consummation; just as heaven is not just reward for goodness, it's goodness itself consummated.  If you don't like goodness, you wouldn't like heaven. 

Are you saying hell and heaven are right here in life? 

Their seeds are.  Wheat and tares grow up together here (see Mt 13).  That's what every choice in life is: to help the heavenly wheat grow or the hellish tares.  That's the relevance of this "escapist" doctrine to everyday life.  We're in a great battle.  We walk on a razor edge.

And your eyes are glued to the fires of hell in fear? 

No, to the eyes of God in love.

 

 



ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Kreeft, Peter. "Life After Death." Chapter 10 in Fundamentals of the Faith. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988), 69-73.

Reprinted by permission of Ignatius Press. All rights reserved. Fundamentals of the Faith - ISBN 0-89870-202-X.

THE AUTHOR

Peter Kreeft, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy at Boston College. He is an alumnus of Calvin College (AB 1959) and Fordham University (MA 1961, Ph.D., 1965). He taught at Villanova University from 1962-1965, and has been at Boston College since 1965.

He is the author of numerous books (over forty and counting) including: The Snakebite Letters, The Philosophy of Jesus, The Journey: A Spiritual Roadmap for Modern Pilgrims, Prayer: The Great Conversation: Straight Answers to Tough Questions About Prayer, How to Win the Culture War: A Christian Battle Plan for a Society in Crisis, Love Is Stronger Than Death, Philosophy 101 by Socrates: An Introduction to Philosophy Via Plato's Apology, A Pocket Guide to the Meaning of Life, and Before I Go: Letters to Our Children About What Really Matters. Peter Kreeft in on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 2010 Peter Kreeft




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