After reading Marcus Borg's comments on the afterlife in his blog on the Newsweek/Washington Post "On Faith" web site, I am once again amazed to discover that I am not so alone in my thinking on a major theological question. I have said in this blog that I am an agnostic on the question of the afterlife; so does Marcus Borg. Borg says, in fact,
I think that conventional Christianity’s emphasis on the afterlife for many centuries is one of its negative features. I have often said that if I were to make a list of Christianity’s ten worst contributions to religion, it would be its emphasis on an afterlife, for more than one reason.I have so often objected to this focus on the afterlife within much of Christian orthodoxy. I believe firmly in the idea of religion being about our relationship with the Sacred in this life, not about some reward in the next one. In this blog I have mentioned the time I was visited at my Colorado apartment years ago by a pair of evangelical proselytizers, whose first question to me after I opened the door was whether I knew if I was going to heaven. How I objected to the very premise behind using that question as a proselytizing tool! I have also talked about how, as a child in the emergency room after an accident involving my bike and a car, I cried and told my mother that I was worried about going to hell. This is how such notions of an afterlife can poison a child's mind.
Borg gives several examples of why he objects so strongly to the idea of emphasizing the afterlife in Christian faith. For example:
When the afterlife is emphasized, it almost inevitable that Christianity becomes a religion of requirements and rewards. If there is a blessed afterlife, it seems unfair to most people that everyone gets one, regardless of how they have lived. So there must be something that differentiates those who get to go to heaven from those who don’t – and that something must be something we do, either believing or behaving or some combination of both. And this counters the central Christian claim that salvation is by grace, not by meeting requirements.The exception to this idea that some people get to heaven and others don't is, of course, Christian Universalism. But I think Borg is right that many people think it is "unfair" that everyone would be granted access to God's grace in the afterlife. But it is also worth pointing out that Christian views on the afterlife were never based on ordinary concepts of fairness anyway. According to the Protestant fundamentalist theology I was taught as a kid, if even the most heinous mass murderer accepted Christ as his personal savior right before he died, God's grace (thanks to Jesus dying for our sins) would wipe his years of sin clean and he had a ticket to heaven. This is a view of Divine justice that is based on belief rather than actions, and as such it is a half-assed view of Divine grace, but it does undermine the premise of human justice that would require a "fair" meting out of justice in the afterlife based on the sum of our lives on earth. Once you've gone down that road, then "fair" has nothing to do with it.
Another problem: the division between those who “measure up” and those who don’t leads to further distinctions: between the righteous and the unrighteous, the saved and the unsaved.
I am not one of those people who thinks that universal Divine grace is unfair. How it would be carried out in practice, assuming there is an afterlife, is anyone's guess, and certainly not something I would venture to say. Still, in practice, it is true that much of Christian orthodoxy hinges on the notion that personal outcomes in the afterlife are not the same for everyone. A powerful argument for being a Christian according to this view is to make sure you are one of the ones who get the good outcome. But, as Borg points out, any focus on how different outcomes will be meted out in the afterlife takes our focus away from God's grace. I think that the problem in this case isn't thus belief in an afterlife per se, but rather belief in a notion of different types of an afterlife for different people, which ultimately doesn't just take the focus away from, but can effectively contradict the very essence of the notion of Divine grace. That's where you get into trouble. Take away this concern about who gets in and who doesn't, and you are free to focus instead on your relationship with God--for its own sake. The religious life becomes its own reward, and by taking away any division between the "ins" and the "outs" you can apply the concept of God's gracious and radical inclusiveness and hospitality to everyone in your everyday life.
Borg makes another important point:
Another problem: an emphasis on the afterlife focuses our attention on the next world rather than on this world. Most of the Bible, on the other hand, focuses our attention on our lives in this world and the transformation of this world. At the heart of the Lord’s Prayer is the petition for the coming of God’s kingdom on earth: your kingdom come on earth, as it already is in heaven. There is nothing in the Lord’s Prayer asking that God take us to heaven when we die.A classic criticism that has been made against religion is the notion that hope for an afterlife has been used historically as a way of keeping people in their place and accepting injustice in this life. Obviously, not all Christians who believe in an afterlife have taken this point of view--some of the most courageous proponents of social justice have been Christians who believe in life after death. But there is also no question that, in the course of Christian history, this reasoning has been used by the privileged and powerful to keep people down.
More to the point, I believe that social justice was absolutely fundamental to the religion of Jesus. I think that the emphasis on an afterlife turns our focus away from what Jesus referred to as the Kingdom of God--which Dominic Crossan defines as what the world would look like if God rather than Caesar were in charge. Jesus was very much focused on the world he lived in, a world controlled by a powerful Empire that was in collusion with the religious authorities of his time--and Jesus identified with the outcasts in that world. Jesus proclaimed a big party, and everyone was invited--which was a direct slap in the face of the class system ideology and theocratic gate keeping of his time. Jesus's message of God's radically inclusive welcome was a radical message that sought to change the world in which he lived.
Building a better world is part and parcel of what religion means to me. I prefer to let the afterlife take care of itself.