Is Modern Christianity Too Egotistically Focused on the Afterlife?

Now, some might find that statement strange, but that is precisely because for many today, religion is by definition about an afterlife, to such an extent that it is simply unimaginable for them that there could be religion that is not focused on life after death.

Many of my students are surprised when they learn that that has not always been the case, and that within the Bible itself, most of the Old Testament/Jewish Bible has no interest in or evidence of belief in an afterlife.

One of the best examples is the Book of Amos. Amos is one of the closest examples we find in the Bible to the stereotypical “fire and brimstone” preacher. And yet note what he does not say. He warns the nation of judgment that is coming because of unrighteousness, but that judgment is never hell or some other notion of punishment in an afterlife. What he predicts is always disaster that will strike within history. Punishment in an afterlife simply was not on his radar. It was not part of his religious thinking, as far as we can tell.

In fact, the rise of belief in an afterlife in Judaism probably had more to do with the problem of evil than narcissism. The development of belief in God raising the dead to reward and punish first appears in the Book of Daniel, and thus seems to have been connected with the crisis the Jewish people faced during the reign of the Syrian king Antiochus IV. Antiochus outlawed observance of the Jewish Law, and this brought the classic problem of evil to an unprecedented peak. Now those who were considered righteous were not merely prone to suffer just as they unrighteous are – they were being singled out for harassment and even execution.

In response to this, belief in an afterlife was developed, out of the conviction that God is just, and so it cannot be the case that the wicked can exterminate the righteous and get away with it forever. Justice will be done, it was suggested, even if it means God raising the dead back to life again in order to accomplish that.

Today, as the caricature in the image above highlights, belief in an afterlife has taken on a different sort of character, and sometimes it even seems to work in a manner directly opposite to the reason the belief developed in the first place. Rather than being a solution for the problem of evil, it can exacerbate it. I remember in my younger days being in a church setting in which the view of this life was that “there is no point in polishing the china on the Titanic.” This world is passing away, I was told, and what matters is a world to come. And so belief in an afterlife has come to be used not as an effort to make sense of injustice, but to justify ignoring it. Why make the world a better place, when the world to come is what matters?

Surely this stance ought to trouble us.

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