September 23, 2013
The Importance of the Afterlife. Seriously.
You don’t find an article headline like that in USA Today; it won’t be the lead story on Entertainment Tonight; to read beneath a lead like that requires that you’re holding Christianity Today… or, the New York Times Sunday Review. It was the NY Times who gave Cal Berkeley philosopher Samuel Scheffler the space to summarize his scholarly book, Death and the Afterlife (Oxford University Press; 2013).
The opening lines draw you in: “I believe in life after death. No, I don’t think I will live on as a conscious being after my earthly demise. I’m firmly convinced that death marks the unqualified and irreversible end of our lives…” Given that summation, what else is there to say on the subject?
His argument – two pages in the Times, 220 pages in his book – is that life finds meaning, not because of the hope to be somewhere next, but because there will be people on the planet after our demise who will be around to take advantage of the works we leave behind. If you knew the earth would be devastated by a meteor strike 30 days after your death, would you spend your last days as a scientist finding a cure for cancer? Confidence in the extended horizon of mankind’s existence on the planet is enough, according to Scheffler, to motivate the continuing advancement of one’s life mission, despite the personal countdown clock that marks every person’s End of Days.
Scheffler’s premise gives necessary propulsion to environmentalism. Protecting the planet’s ability to sustain life is an obvious underpinning to the meaning of life for the person who must invest their limited time and creative energy in bettering a place that must continue to exist for the benefit of the generations who will follow. If this is all there is… you have to ensure that it will always be.
Fisherman-turned-philosopher Simon Peter wrote the counterpoint to Scheffler:
“Above all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. They will say, ‘Where is this “coming” he promised? Ever since our ancestors died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.’ But they deliberately forget that long ago by God’s word the heavens came into being and the earth was formed out of water and by water. By these waters also the world of that time was deluged and destroyed. By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly.
But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.
But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare. Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells.” (2 Peter 3:3-13)
Peter could have crafted a headline for his essay: The Importance of the Afterlife. Seriously.
If you trust human intuition, you must embrace Scheffler’s essay to maintain the incentive to be anything but a cynical, self-serving fatalist. Simon Peter spent 1000 days with Jesus, who claimed to be the only one who had ever come from heaven to earth to inform Earthlings about what was to come (John 3:13-14). Peter knew what he was talking about; he witnessed the testimony of Jesus.
There is an Afterlife. Scheffling argues meaning-in-life through affecting future lives, on Earth. Peter argues meaning-in-life through affecting present lives for the future, in Heaven.
One of them is right…