What would happen if everyone believed that this is the only life they had? No future or past lives. No afterlife with a heaven or hell. Just this life you are living now. Would this change how you live your life?
Most people seem to believe in some kind of afterlife, be it in heaven, an alternate plane or reincarnation. I think this belief profoundly affects how people look at life and how they live it.
This belief probably doesn’t have much effect when good things happen. But when bad things happen, to them or to others, the response usually takes one of two forms.
The first is the form of afterlife that most of us are familiar with. If you believe in heaven, you are likely to see calamities such as poverty, illness and death as transient events and believe that you or the people affected will be rewarded in the next life. Jesus’ beatitudes are a perfect example of this kind of thinking:
“Blessed are the poor for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blesses are those who are weeping for they will laugh.
Blessed are the hungry for they will be satisfied.”
These are comforting words, but the serve to inure us to the real horror and pain of suffering. By believing that those who suffer now will somehow be compensated for it in a nebulous afterlife allows us to try to minimize the suffering and our reaction to it.
The second form is that of those who believe that real suffering is caused by sins committed in past lives and therefore those who suffer are merely getting what they deserve.
Either way, real suffering is made to be less terrible that it really is. We comfort ourselves that those who suffer, even if it is ourselves, either are paying for past sins or will be rewarded and comforted in a life to come.
But it isn’t just our reaction to suffering that is affected by this kind of thinking. It is our entire response to life in general. If you believe that there is an afterlife waiting for you, especially a pleasant one since most of us believe ourselves to be good, what things in this life are you willing to ignore or put off?
If I believe that I’ll have everything I want in heaven, then it is easier for me to accept less from this life than what I, and what we all, deserve. I’m not talking about material things, but things like love, a career that I enjoy, opportunities to better myself and my life.
If I am unhappy with my life, thinking that I’ll be compensated in the afterlife could lead me to accept being unhappy in the belief that I’ll be happy in the next life. But, if I believe there is no next life, then I’m much more motivated to do what I have to do to find happiness in this one.
This isn’t a selfish idea either. If I’m unhappy, it is very likely that those around me, those that I love, are not very happy either because of it. My unhappiness, even though I believe I will someday have happiness in the next life, still affects me, and those around me, in negative ways.
Another result of not believing in an afterlife is that you tend to try to live every day for all its worth. The old saying of living every day as if it is your last has much more effect and reality if you believe that there is nothing else after this life. It makes you cherish every moment and causes you value your life on earth more than you might otherwise.
It also makes you value the lives of others more as well. When you read or hear or think of someone else dying too soon, if you believe that this life is all there is, you feel an intense sense of loss and horror that this poor person with hopes and dreams and the people who they loved and who loved them has lost all of this in the blink of an eye. Murder and death from war and famine, preventable diseases and hunger become intensely horrific when you realize that millions of lives are cut short senselessly and that their existence is obliterated forever.
Without the idea of an afterlife, we are forced to either callously ignore this horror, which is much harder than if we are able to rationalize it away with the idea of a better life for them yet to come, or we must accept the true reality of the horror before us. By accepting the true horror we are compelled to act, to fight against the senseless loss of hopes, dreams and lives of millions of our fellow human begins. The moral imperative to mitigate this awful reality becomes paramount when faced with the fact that all these lives, these individual human essences, are snuffed out and gone forever.
I would love to believe that this life I live isn’t all there is for me, but I can’t rationally accept this as the evidence for it is almost nonexistent and the evidence against it is powerful and convincing. So, having accepted this view I find myself being much more aware of the horror of the suffering of others and I try to do what I can to help alleviate this. But I also am more aware of the beauty of the universe we live in and of the love of those I love and it makes me cherish every single moment in a way I never did before I gave up my superstitious beliefs.
As for the evidence for and against an afterlife that I memtioned before, I won’t go into it here; perhaps in a latter entry. If you are interested in whetting your appetite for this subject, I suggest that you start here: http://www.skeptic.com/reading_room/the-great-afterlife-debate/ .
So if you do believe in an afterlife, you might want to consider the reality of this belief and seek the evidence for and against it. Even if you aren’t willing or able to do this, then at least try to imagine life without an afterlife for a few moments and think how you might think and act differently if it were true.
If you just can’t abide the idea of no afterlife, then try to take that old saying, live today as if it were your last, seriously every day of your life. It just might make you a happier and better person.