An Atheist Explores the Afterlife 21 January 2015

Kile Jones reflects on various religious views of the afterlife, and what this might mean for a skeptic.

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Back in 2007, when I was working on my first Masters degree at Boston University, I was thrilled to learn that because of the Boston Theological Institute (a consortium of religion/theology schools in Boston), I could take classes at Harvard. Jumping at the chance, I signed up for an introduction to Zoroastrianism, taught by Dr. Prods Oktor Skjaervo. Being interested in studying the world’s religions, this class seemed like a nice fit—especially since it relates to Islam, Christianity, and Manichaeism. While taking the class, I realised that what intrigued me most about Zoroastrianism was its notion of “end times” (eschatology). The elaborate depictions of the Bridge of the Separator (Chinvat Bridge), the rich imagery of mountains flowing with molten lava, the large scales that weigh your thoughts, words, and deeds, and the idea of meeting an ethical personification of your self (your daena) while soaring up to the place of judgment not only revealed to me the fantastic imagination of these early Zoroastrians, but also their moral and theological positions. In this article, I address the different ways that non-believers can view various afterlives—how they represent human desires for justice and love, and many times, fear—along with how they stand up under ethical evaluation. I also discuss some reasons why atheists, like myself, can be interested and fascinated by notions of the afterlife.

We are all probably aware of the Christian ideas of Heaven and Hell, in part because of the large influence Christianity has had in the world. Dante’s famous Inferno, the seminal arch-type of Puritan preaching in Jonathan Edwards’ Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, and the Westminster Confession of Faith that says “the wicked shall be cast into eternal torments” remind us of this Christian eschatological legacy. However, as students of religion come to find out, many traditions have very different ways of imagining the afterlife. Catholics have their purgatory (Lt. “to purge”), the Eastern Orthodox have their theosis (humans melting into the life of God), and Norse mythology, Buddhism, and Islam have their versions of the afterlife.

In Norse mythology, for instance, Ragnarök is spoken of in the Poetic Edda (an important written source of Norse mythology) as an ominous future event: “It sates itself on the life-blood of fated men, paints red the powers’ homes with crimson gore. Black become the sun’s beams in the summers that follow, weathers all treacherous.” In the famous Norse myth Gylfaginning, Gangleri asks what will happen after this great battle of gods and men comes to pass: “what will be after heaven and earth and the whole world are burned? All the gods will be dead, together with the Einherjar and the whole of mankind. Didn’t you say earlier that each person will live in some world throughout all ages?” He is answered that two humans, Líf and Lífþrasir, will repopulate the planet.

In the Mahayana Sutras of Buddhism there are depictions of cold hells and hot hells that rival the gore of Dante’s Inferno. For instance: “Offenders may go to a hell in which their tongues are stretched out and plowed through by cattle; or to a hell in which their hearts are pulled out and eaten by yakshas; or to a hell in which their bodies are cooked in cauldrons of boiling oil; or to a hell in which they are forced to embrace red-hot copper pillars; or to a hell in which they are burned by a fire that constantly pursues them,” etc. This is a far cry from the lofty images of upward reincarnation. In fear-inducing fashion, the accumulation of negative karma can send you to a Naraka (Sanskrit for “hell”) named “Crushing,” “Moaning,” or “Burning.” We must remember, however, that Mahayana is only one forms of Buddhism, and is not representative of all Buddhist thought and practice. The variety of early Hindu and Buddhist thought can be seen in both Zen and Cārvāka philosophy.

Or, on a more serene and sublime tone, consider the notion of paradise in Islam. Sitting by a quiet river in tranquil peace, under the shade cast by a lush tree: “The parable of the Garden which the righteous are promised! Beneath it flow rivers: perpetual is the enjoyment thereof and the shade therein: such is the end of the Righteous.” But then, to make a sterling contrast, the Surah (chapter) finishes with “and the end of Unbelievers in the Fire” (Surah 13.035). Similarly, the Qur’an mentions “canopies of fire” (39:16), “an enduring punishment” (39:40), and “gates of Hell” (39:42), in reference to an abode for disbelievers.

As a nonbeliever, I see these stories as nothing more than projects of human imagination, often riddled with calls for justice and set-up to frighten people into good works and correct beliefs. So when I see a God—Calvin’s God for instance—damning people to an eternal torment, I cannot help but cringe at the lunacy and sadism of the whole idea. I am less disturbed by purgatory, universalism, and reincarnation. I have also come to realize that non-believers can do ethical work with various afterlives. We can 1) see the desire for justice in them, 2) see what the author imagined and constructed for various reasons, 3) see how a community reformulates and appropriates them, and 4) provide moral criticism of them. Basically, we can do anthropology.

Not to be overly psychoanalytic, but there seems to be a common notion in afterlives that evils must be burned off. Fire, for example, is the primal element of punishment. Either people are to be burned as punishment, or their sins are to be burned off in order to enter Heaven. Take for instance this passage from the Bunhahishn (compilation of Zoroastrian texts) about the Final Restoration (Frashokereti): “Afterwards, the fire and halo melt the metal of Shahrewar, in the hills and mountains, and it remains on this earth like a river. Then all men will pass into that melted metal and will become pure; when one is righteous, then it seems to him just as though he walks continually in warm milk; but when wicked, then it seems to him in such manner as though, in the world, he walks continually in melted metal” (chapter XXX). Here we see that it will be painful to cross this molten river when you have amassed guilt; however, the river will purify you, and eventually you will make it to Heaven. This may be not the same as Jesus saying, “If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned” (John 15:6) because once these branches are burned, I am not sure there is an implication that any part of them remain.

One of the main criticisms of the afterlife made by nonbelievers is not just that there is no evidence for such a place but that the idea of an afterlife causes people to act immorally. A common critique is that it turns minds away from this Earth—with it’s poverty, rights abuses, and suffering—to an ethereal nether-realm. Likewise, it seems unethical to do things in order to be rewarded with Heaven or escape the fire. As the famed Sufi mystic Rabia once said, “O God! If I worship you for fear of Hell, burn me in Hell, and if I worship you in hope of Paradise, exclude me from Paradise.” Ideas of eternal punishments and rewards have prompted certain individuals to abuse themselves and self-flagellate like the Inquisitors of Old. Many have also heard the adage “an evil God makes an evil man,” or something similar to it, and I qualify it here as “an evil afterlife can make an evil person.” For instance, let’s examine this passage from Tertullian and see how it makes him seem evil: “At that greatest of all spectacles, that last and eternal judgment how shall I admire, how laugh, how rejoice, how exult, when I behold so many proud monarchs groaning in the lowest abyss of darkness; so many magistrates liquefying in fiercer flames than they ever kindled against the Christians; so many sages philosophers blushing in red-hot fires with their deluded pupils; so many tragedians more tuneful in the expression of their own sufferings; so many dancers tripping more nimbly from anguish then ever before from applause.”

The human desires to see whom you despise suffer and whom you cherish rewarded lie at the heart of Heaven and Hell. Ironically, even though they emphasize the spiritual aspects of the afterlife, various religions present them as the zenith of punitive and corporeal punishment. So imagine you are an early Christian who has fled home and livelihood for fear of Roman persecution. Romans have killed your family members, the world seems unjust, and there is nothing earthly you can do about it. Well, how about an afterlife where they are punished? They may not believe in it or worry about it, but it will come nevertheless. I assume this thought would provide you some comfort.

On the flip side, imagine you are power-hungry and political. What better way to rally troops than present the world in a manner of “reward vs. punishment”? You can imagine a leader saying, “join me and our cause and heaven will be your reward.” This very call aided in the decisions of innumerable Crusaders to kill in a bloody struggle. Or maybe you are a politician who is not a military leader, but one who simply wants to maintain order and conformity. The afterlife would work for you as well. Eternal punishment is meant for those who disobey your rules and eternal reward is given to those who follow your instructions.

There is only one problem with this: obedience out of fear does not make moral people, it makes subservient people. And although there are times when you reap what you sow, I cannot imagine a time when making a decision based on a worry for your eternal well-being is moral. It’s rather peculiar that while certain religious viewpoints call for altruism and concern for others, a motive for many of their decisions rests on concern for their individual soul. If they were truly altruistic, they would have no concern for their soul. It is this irony—that many religious people are expected to be principled but are actually consequentialist about their souls—which I must highlight. To imagine a God, who praised someone’s intentions for always acting in a way to secure reward and avoid punishment, is beyond me. Dangling the carrots of Hell and Heaven before a rabbit does not make the farmer or the rabbit moral.

As a skeptic, it seems to me that the afterlife is really a projection of the issues we face in this life. We are always searching for love and justice, but they are often fleeting and continually deferred. We long for them, look for them, and want them to arrive. In the afterlife, they do. There is a surety that everything will be all right, that evils will be corrected, that your life will have subjectively eternal import. It can be a radically frightening notion that all we have is this one life. This tumultuous, fickle, and confusing existence can be hard to bear. It beats us down and spits us out. So there must be some place of comfort beyond this present darkness, right?

I don’t believe so. And as has been pointed out, notions of the afterlife have as many problems as this life. This is probably because they are fantastical copies of this life. As a humanist, I encourage all of us to face our ethical dilemmas in the here and now, and not project them onto somewhere else. Let’s not throw our hands up in apathy and wait for someone to fix them in the afterlife. Let’s not do things for the sake of where our souls go after we die. Let’s do our best here and realize that Hell and Heaven are reflections of humanity. Reflections we can learn from.

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About Kile Jones

Kile Jones holds two Masters degrees from Boston University and is the founder of Claremont Journal of Religion and Interview an Atheist at Church Day.  He is an atheist who does interfaith work and currently lives in San Diego.

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