Biblical Belief in the Afterlife: a Foundation for our Society
How important is biblical belief for the good of our society? In the 18th century, one of the greatest philosophers of all time, though not a Christian, put forth arguments that still have great force. Immanual Kant argued that three beliefs were important to a society if it was to produce a humane and lawful social order. They were: God, freedom and immortality.
Kant argued that it is obvious that human beings do not always get their just desserts in this life. Sometimes the wicked prosper and the righteous are defrauded and suffer terrible injustice. This undercuts our motivation for moral behavior. Kant said that only the belief in an afterlife, where God rewarded righteous behavior and punished evil behavior, could provide an answer to the dilemma.
We also have to believe that we are responsible and accountable for our choices. This can only be defended if we are free creatures that can choose good or evil. I think Kant was absolutely right. Psalm 73 gives the same answer. Indeed, many of the founding fathers of the United States agreed with Kant. John Adams argued this most forcefully and held that Christian belief was necessary to a democratic republic. Only then would the people have sufficient self control and integrity.
On the other hand, it is true that in the name of religion great evil has been done. The cultural establishment in past societies has used religion to convince people to act in a way that maintains their position and power. People are told they will receive their heavenly reward only by maintaining the social order. Marx thus called religion the opiate of the people.
Contrary to political correctness, all religions are not created equal, but are vastly different in values. This leads to very different societies. Most societies have affirmed the belief in an afterlife where good actions are rewarded and bad actions are punished. The key is how good and evil are defined. Good and evil are defined in reference to the concept of God or the nature of the unseen reality that is the ground of our world. These concepts may be right or wrong. Therefore religious beliefs can have huge implications. Though there is some ethical commonality among all civilizations, there is also great ethical diversity.
Today atheism and agnosticism assert that an ethical and humane society can be produced without reference to God or an afterlife. I firmly disagree on the basis of the evidence in history. If we do not believe in the sacred value of every human being, a humane ethical order will not survive. This belief can only be maintained with reference to God and His creating man in His own image. We should have learned from Hitler and Stalin. Atheism in communist lands produced barbarous behavior.
Societies, Religion, and the Afterlife: Three Religions
Let us look at three religions that show great contrast in how their conception of the after-life influences behavior.
In Hinduism and other ancient eastern religions, righteousness is based on maintaining the established order of society. Hinduism has many gods, but one ultimate god, Brahmin, who is vaguely defined. The afterlife is reincarnation. One’s state in reincarnation is according to one’s righteous or evil deeds. After eons of reincarnations, a soul can be purified and escape the wheel of birth and death and attain unity with Brahmin. The soul’s bliss in eternity is also vaguely defined. Hinduism is a great force for oppression since the lowest casts of society deserve to be in their wretched state. The belief that the lower castes suffer so as to escape their current lot is unrighteous.
In Islam, righteousness is ultimately defined by acting in every way to spread Islam and to dominate the world. Violent acts in the name of Islam are defined as good. The infidel is to be killed if he will not convert. Jews and Christians can be allowed to live if they submit to Islamic rule with all the deprivations that are part of this subjection. However, at the end of this age, they too will be killed if they do not convert to Islam. Freedom of conscience and the worth of the individual are not taught. The deprivation of women is tragic. The reward of the afterlife is for those who are good Muslims. There is no emphasis on the worth of individuals who are not Muslims.
The contrast in biblical faith (Christianity and Judaism) could not be clearer. Yes, there have been dark chapters, but the teaching of the Bible is the foundation of a just and humane social order. All human beings are created in the image of God. The Samaritan is singled out for praise in the parable of Yeshua. Love for the stranger, the foreigner, care for the poor, and provision for the widow are all commanded. In the teaching of Yeshua, love for the enemy, doing unto all others as we would have them do to us, brings us to a height of ethical idealism. Because all men and women are in the image of God, all are to be treated with dignity, compassion, and justice. The Ten Commandments clearly define righteous behavior. The value of the individual gives rise to human rights and can provide support for a democratic governmental order.
Biblical faith has even given rise to peace denominations that eschew the sword completely, such as the Mennonites. One can not say that the Mennonites have ever done violence in the name of religion; so here is one case where the claim of the cynic just does not hold true. All religions are not created equal.
God’s favor in the afterlife is accorded to those who adhere to these standards. In the New Covenant Scriptures, embracing the salvation of Yeshua is the foundation for the rewards of the afterlife. Yeshua is our pattern for godly behavior. He lays down His life for others. God is defined in clear terms as revealed in the person of Yeshua. The afterlife is not a vague concept, but is resurrection life in glorified bodies where there is fellowship among peoples.
A Battle for World Views and Cultures
The battle today is over world views; a clash of civilizations. Israel is at the center of this clash because the battle over Israel is ultimately the battle over which religion or which world view is true. It is a battle over the sovereignty of God. Is there a God, and what kind of behavior really pleases God? The contrast between the Muslim view and the Bible is stark. In this battle, God will gain victory over all the false “isms” in the world. Israel will embrace Yeshua and the world will finally embrace biblical faith.
The battle with Islam is now the cutting edge of the battle against God’s Word. At the same time, this battle provides us with a great opportunity for harvest in Israel and among the nations.