Someone who signs himself only as “Drew” left a comment on this thread which hits several of the most powerful questions that we all—Christian, atheist, other—must face. I’m not going to attempt to make any kind of complete reply to all of these, but I do have a few observations, and then I’d like to sort of open the floor for everyone who wants to, believer or non-believer, to describe and explain their own views: how you deal with the instinctive demand of your soul for meaning, how you cope with the problem of suffering, and all the rest. Here’s what Drew said:
As a former Christian who has recently witnessed a friend die from cancer (27 years old with wife and 2 kids) I am really struggling with this subject right now.
While I fully understand that a belief in heaven and eternal life is tremendously comforting thing to have in light of death, I can't help but realize that that human need for this comfort is part and parcel with the belief and makes me all the more suspicious of its truth.
I mean maybe we all just die......that is a possibility....do any of us remember anything from 200 years ago....what makes us so sure we will be conscious 200 years from now?
I guess in some ways that makes an atheist’s beliefs more credible, an atheist isn't necessarily excited about their own annihilation, but at least they're courageous enough to accept its greater likelihood than trusting in a comforting ancient myth story.
in contrast what Christian doesn't think they're destined for eternal bliss?
We all see right through that with Jihadists and their 72 virgins.
I think at the very least death should make us appreciate being alive at this moment and appreciate the ones we love. And we should never presuppose that this life is just a stepping stone to the next, because if this is not true, than to live in such a way is truly tragic.
First, about that first point, the death of a young husband and father. Everyone knows a story like this. A while back a friend, a non-believer, was telling me about someone she knew, a delightful woman with two young children and a rich and full life, now paralyzed and helpless as the result of an auto accident. Why?! Why?!
Everyone knows a story like this, and many have lived one. I don’t generally go in for very personal confessions here, but I think I’ll tell something just by way of—I hate to say this—sort of establishing my right to discuss these questions on the basis of personal experience. There is a story very much like Drew’s in my past, only it was the mother who died at the age of 27. It was 1952, I was the child, and I was a little over three years old.
Now, I don’t remember this at all. No doubt my mother would be/was/is grieved (if she is in the next life, what is her relationship to our time?) that I have absolutely no memory of her. Recently someone gave me an ancient scrapbook that included a newspaper clipping about her death: “Popular 27-Year-Old Dies” (it was a small town, so lots of people knew her). It’s just a couple of paragraphs, the kind of thing that we see and immediately forget in the news every day. But it was a major part of several life stories. Though I don’t remember her, I’m certain that the loss marked my life in many ways, both inwardly and outwardly. I do think about it from time to time. I reflect on questions such as the fact that I’m now more than twice as old as she was when she died, and that I’ve had vastly more experience of the world than she ever did, including having children and seeing them grow from infancy to adulthood.
And of course I try to make sense of it; one can’t help trying to. And at times I think I may have a glimpse of how it might all somehow be for the best.
But here’s my main point: this is my situation, these are my questions and my answers. I find that usually when I think of my own life and problems of whatever sort, I don’t really worry about that general cosmic Why?, but rather focus on what the situation means for me, how I can make the best of it—how I can take an active role in fulfilling St. Paul’s assertion that All things work together for good for them that love God.
What I’m getting at is that the cosmic Why? is really not necessarily the most important question. When we look at the world at large and the suffering it contains, we’re overwhelmed, we want to rage at God, if we believe in him, or simply at the world, that all this can be permitted. But when we look at any individual situation from the inside, we find it possible to discern a way of accepting, and perhaps even partly understanding. We find that we are presented with a challenge, and that it is up to us whether we will accept this challenge gracefully or not. Why this particular challenge was presented to oneself, and not to someone else, becomes irrelevant. Life is a test—that’s an idea that’s common to most religions, and I think is believed on some level by many who are non religious. And this—whatever is happening to one—is the form the test is taking for oneself.
I think this attitude is possible for both the believer and the non-believer. But a Christian does have some advantages: not only confidence that the suffering has meaning, but the example of God himself, who entered the same world of suffering that we inhabit and accepted pain and death in solidarity with us.
The essential matter, the one that lies at the root of all debates about belief vs. non-belief, eternal life vs. eternal death, is a very fundamental choice: do I believe the world has meaning, or not? There is no definitive answer for that in abstract logic or in any amount of research and study. There is ultimately either a yes or no at the absolute center of one’s being. Many years ago I answered yes, and so say with Job: Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him. (Though I find that I amend those words for myself: my attitude is maybe closer to Though he slay me, yet will I praise him.; trust is more difficult.)
I think most Christians would agree with Drew that one of the appropriate responses to the knowledge of death—not the only one, but an important one—is to appreciate being alive and to appreciate the ones we love. The suicidal jihadist sort of view has its counterpart in early Christian fanatics who would seize a stranger and demand that he kill them so that they could go to heaven. There is a certain logic to this, but it’s the logic of madness, and the Church has generally considered it pathological.
Whether it is psychologically easier to love what is good in this life if one believes in an afterlife is not clear. It could go either way: one could argue that the Christian might cherish life in greater peace because of his belief that it is not ultimately lost, or that he might disdain it because it’s only a shadow of things to come. You can find both in Christian thought, actually, and the correct view encompasses both, I think. One thing, however, that seems to be a common misunderstanding of Christian belief in life after death is that it renders this life unimportant. But on the contrary, since it is this life that prepares us for what happens next, this life is of ultimate importance—not because it is the ultimate thing, but because it prepares us for the ultimate thing. Life is a test.
As for wishful thinking—well, again, that can go either way. Is it wishful thinking to believe that life has no meaning and ends at death? That has some attractions; among other things it means one is not ultimately accountable for anything one does. Is it wishful thinking to believe that life does have a meaning and does not end at death? Well, perhaps, but that can also be a disturbing thought, because in that case one may be accountable.
Well, these are a few hasty thoughts. Yours?