July 18, 2010

A Mansion Over the Hilltop?

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      My friend insisted that a religion not promising an afterlife serves a mighty thin broth! I took this to mean that he thought the primary purpose of religion is to reassure believers their consciousness will survive death. He added: there is so much pain, suffering, and sorrow in this life that people look to God to “balance the books” in the hereafter. For all their trials and troubles in life faithful believers expect “a mansion just over the hilltop in a bright land where we will never grow old.”

     The difficulty with this idea is that nothing can assure anyone about the hereafter. No reliable data exist to provide us a better than even chance that “life” continues in some form—it may and it may not! Many Christians, however, feel that their faith absolutely assures them of a future life—the expectations range broadly: some think their physical bodies will be resuscitated and hence they will overcome death. Others think they will rise with a “spiritual body”; or that only their spirits will rise, leave behind everything material and mortal, and pass into the afterlife. Others think the prospect of personal consciousness in an afterlife is an uncertain hope at best. Nevertheless, although they lack the confidence of a true believer, they still continue to live a religiously oriented life—apparently finding worth in their religious practices, ethics, and values. Still others continue to participate in religious communities even after they have completely given up hope for existence in the hereafter.

     The reason for these different views lies in unexamined teachings of youth, in how the natural world is viewed, and in a naive view of the Bible. Some focus on verses in the gospels where the body of Jesus was missing from the tomb and argue that his appearances after the resurrection prove that his body was flesh. Others agree with Paul that the resurrection cannot be physical: believers will rise but only with a “spiritual body” (however one may construe such a thing). Others are taken by what they think are Paul’s more reflective moments when he speaks of “resurrection” as a hope (1 Corinthians 15:19), as do other writers in the New Testament (viz., Titus 3:7). Still others, who are more to be reckoned as children of the Enlightenment than the ancient Hellenistic Age, believe that the spirit (i.e., one’s spark of life) returns to God, from whence it came, while the body goes irrevocably to the earth.

     These expectations appear in the ancient world in the following ways. The earliest uncontestable record of a belief in the resurrection of the flesh emerges in the first century B. C. in the book of Second Maccabees chapter 7, where the Jewish martyrs clearly expect their physical bodies to be resuscitated in the end time. Paul’s idea of a spiritual body (1 Corinthians 15) appears to be unique to Paul, while belief in the ascent of the human spirit/soul at death appears to be ubiquitous in late antiquity.

     The primary purpose of religion is surely not to assure believers a future existence. Religions have not always done so, and many who recognize that no earthly authority can give assurances about the hereafter remain in the church anyway, for they find value in what the church has to offer for life in this world. A religion at bottom is about shared ethical values, community, lifestyle, and to some extent shared ideas. But don’t be deceived; a great diversity of viewpoints on virtually every subject exists in every Christian congregation even on the basics—in spite of creeds, hymns, and confessions. In the final analysis what holds a congregation together is not a common religious belief but shared community. Religions must have relevance for the here and now—they must relate to life in this world! A religion that focuses on promising a blessed future existence to the “faithful,” and scares the hell out of “the others” with threats of damnation but neglects its service to humanity in the present world serves an even thinner broth! The afterlife, if such there be, lies in God’s un-bribable hands.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Posted by Charles Hedrick at 11:38am


      Thanks for your response to the question about the purpose of religion. Of course, I agree with you. You could have said much more, but since you restrained yourself, I will take the occasion to add a few comments.

      All religions are culturally conditioned, more deeply than we are aware. In the case of the dominant type of popular Christianity in this country, the influence of individualism has been remarkable. The query you received reflected that very common tendency to condense the entire purpose of religion as insuring a nice afterlife, or of "getting to heaven." Although there is great variation in ideas of an afterlife in the Bible, and in just the New Testament, the culture of the Old and New Testaments is much more corporate in mentality than individualistic. And it is much more focused on God's purposes than ours. And the popular view is remarkably presumptuous: if I can claim even a remote connection to the Christian community, or at least some "belief" in Jesus, I will surely pass right through the pearly gates. I think we would be better off if we completely rid ourselves of any notion of an afterlife, at least for a few decades or maybe centuries, because it so violently distorts Christianity and diminishes serious discipleship.

     You mention that the first mention of resurrection is in an apocryphal book, 2 Maccabees; the first occurence within the Protestant or Jewish Bible is in Daniel 12:2-3. But the fact that it occurs in these first century B.C. books does not mean that it was an idea that everyone immediately affirmed. Apparently, it was still a controversial idea in Jesus' day (Mark 12:18-27), since Pharisees accepted the idea of resurrection while the Sadducees denied it. The idea of resurrection is rare in the Dead Sea Scrolls too. Moreover, Mark 12:18-27 is rather disappointing for those who hope to be re-united with their dead partners, since those who are resurrected "neither marry nor are united in marriage." But at least the text talks about resurrection. The story about the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31 has a quite different idea of the afterlife. And John 11:25-26 seems to say that the resurrection is a now kind of thing, not just a post-death thing. So there are all kinds of ideas of "life after death," to use the odd language that is often used.

     The fact that the Bible, including the New Testament, do not have a single, clear picture of what happens after death is not, in my view, the main issue anyway. If we are in it for the reward, we are in it for the wrong reason.

Posted by Arland Jacobson on 7/16/2010 at 9:26pm