I attended the funeral of a former pastor this week. He was of the traditional Baptist school of pastors. Hell-fire and Damnation. Could (and would) preach at the drop of a hat. Golfed. Sang not great, but loud. A little menacing.
I had the chance to see many people I haven’t seen in more years than I care to really think about. What impressed me about the funeral was the upbeat tempo. Everyone was so happy (only a few tears) about how they would see him again in Heaven. How he was waiting for the rest of the family and friends to join him. How he was getting reacquainted with those who had gone on before.
I must admit feeling that in this regard, Christianity has naturalism beat. Hands down. It felt so pleasant—this exuberant permeation of hope. This claim that eventually we will all get together again.
My college was out of state, so I flew back and forth. In college I gained the closest friend I had ever had. Each year we would look forward to the next, when we could get back together. After each break the other person was the first one we sought out when we arrived.
I remember flying out, after my graduation, and standing there in the airport, she began to cry. “For the first time, I do not have a date when I know we will see each other again.” There was a loss of hope. The unknown.
The concept of an afterlife re-introduces this hope. That “someday” we will all get together. And once together we will be side-by-side forever and ever and ever. It makes a funeral more than bearable; it makes it only a momentary “good-bye” with an expectant “hello” around the corner.
As I watched the participants in this service, I completely understood why naturalism or atheism depicts a “loss of hope” and a “meaningless, drab life” to them. They are clinging on to this idea of someday seeing their loved one, and feel that without that idea, their entire worldview would come crashing down—that a world without an afterlife is a world without hope.
Don’t get me wrong. I love the idea of a Utopia. It would be fantastic to live in a world where I could see with and be with all my friends and family. Where we could laugh, and play sports (perhaps even with young bodies, and not injury-prone, out-of-shape, overweight ones we are currently saddled with!) No more sickness. No more separation. No more economic struggles. No bad news on T.V. No worrying where one’s children are. A new Monty Python Movie every week.
As I sat there and thought about it—it really IS too good to be true. Shouldn’t all our skepticism antennas go up, thinking about how it is wonderful, and great, and neat, and every single trouble is removed—when there isn’t a lick of proof of this place?
Imagine I told you that if you provided me with just one dollar, I will return to you One Hundred Billion dollars in ten years. But there are a few catches. First you have to actually provide me with the dollar. Despite all my good intentions, and love, and desire to give you One Hundred Billion dollars, and despite the fact I have pocketfuls of dollars, you MUST give me that one dollar. Otherwise—you get nothing.
Further, you have to give me the right dollar. It has to be the right year, the right denomination, and the right country. Now, I know what that is, and I even know how you could access it, but that takes all the fun out of it, so I will give you some clues, but you are left to guess out the rest on your own. But if you deliver the correct type of dollar, at the correct time, to the correct address—man, oh, man you will have it made!
Sounds too good to be true, right? Yet that is exactly what the “bet” is with heaven.
I looked about me at people all worried about their current economic trouble, yet each assuredly happy they had paid the right dollar to the right address. Each knowing that the fact the mortgage payment was late, and the car engine was knocking wouldn’t make a difference. Because someday--someday they were going to get One Hundred Billion dollars. And because of their one dollar investment, this was only a time of trouble, soon to be forgotten
I must confess that I felt even a bit guilty, sitting at the funeral. Who am I to take all this away from Christians? Who am I to point out that the fact we have no proof of an afterlife? Who am I to take away this hope? Even if the hope is in something completely imaginary—is it harmful? Should I leave them to this Hope—as wrong as it is? Nuts, it is like appearing in a Kindergarten and dispelling the myth of Santa Claus. How cruel is that?
If it was just that, I could leave Christianity alone. But this hope comes at a terrible price. See, in order for the crowd I was in to be happy about reuniting with their loved ones and a God of Love, they also require a God of Justice. One that exacts a terrible retribution for not providing the correct dollar to the right address. For them, this is of no consequence. They will be in heaven. Their friends will be in heaven. God will somehow wipe their memory of all the people in Hell.
They will be enjoying the benefits of heaven, founded on my eternally burning body.
And is it a good thing to instill hope on a false premise? What if I told my kids that once they turned 21, they would be rich beyond their wildest dreams? Don’t worry about school. Don’t worry about jobs. Don’t worry about anything, ‘cause someday they will be rich. They may be the happiest kids in the world. Until the world comes crashing down with the realization of the opportunities lost, relying upon this false hope.
We may be inclined to excuse this belief, as it is based upon events after death. In that example, my children would be left with a harsh reality, and a long life of problems—but belief in an afterlife does not affect one’s life. If there is no afterlife—what’s the harm?
The harm is that it is not the truth. And that element of falsehood is multiplying in divisions, and acrimony, and ostracism, and exclusion, and threats and war. While people at this funeral were smiling, thinking of re-uniting with Pastor; Muslims were laughing, thinking of flying planes into buildings. Both were counting on an afterlife. Both were equally assured they had deposited the “right” dollars.
The harm is that we must live this life as if it is the only one we have. Not some “warm-up” or “test run” for an eventual Utopia. I do not have the luxury of hoping some day wars will end. I must be actively involved in eliminating them now.
I enjoy life immensely. I will be sad to let it go, but it does not give me less hope for my future, the future of my children, and the future of those about me. It is similar to attending a great party, or watching an engaging movie. As much as we enjoy the moment, we recognize that part of reality is we will reach a point of saying good-bye, or that the credits will roll. It does not lessen the enjoyment.
I hope that my funeral will be a group of people getting together, saying, “Wow, he enjoyed life.” Hopefully a few jokes, a celebration of some good times, and then a recognition that the credits rolled.
But today…deep down…I feel a little bit guilty arguing against that hope of a utopian afterlife. Today…it seems cruel. Like the moment one has to admit Santa Claus is not real. How does the person take it? Who am I to take away that hope?