June 30, 2009 at 9:32 pm (Christianity, God)

One of the things I am really unsure about in religion is the afterlife.

When I was into Christianity, I was much more focused on this life than the next. In fact when my husband, in our early days, mentioned to me something about enduring hardship and thinking of the reward, it kind of blew me away. I was so used to thinking about God acting in this life, so fixated on God bringing about heaven on earth, that I had somehow forgotten about the afterlife somewhere along the way.

Perhaps surprisingly, this is a consequence of the doctrine of redemption.

In the Christian view, when Adam and Eve committed the first sin by eating the forbidden fruit in the garden of Eden, a chasm opened up between God and mankind. The eating of that fruit effected a change in human nature – they became aware that they were naked and covered themselves with leaves. They suddenly knew right from wrong and, according to Paulian theology, they – and we – are fundamentally incapable of doing right. We are programmed to sin. We shot ourselves in the foot by eating that fruit because since we now know right from wrong, we are held to account for our actions, which is a problem as we cannot live up to the moral code that is written in our hearts.

This paves the way for salvation and redemption. It fascinates me that every religion or spiritual philosophy seems to have some notion of mankind falling short of what it could be, and provides some kind of remedy for that. In New Testament Christianity, the remedy is the atoning sacrifice of Jesus on the cross – the death and punishment of a sinless man in our place. In Paul’s philosophy, it goes further than him merely dying for our forgiveness. He is brought back to life, thereby overcoming death and evil for us too. And in some mystical sense, that event bridged the gulf between mankind and God and allowed us to be redeemed, not just forgiven. Belief in Christ is said to fill one with the Holy Spirit and to reform one’s nature.

So doing good deeds and being a good person – what Christianity calls “works” – are a consequence of salvation, not a means of salvation. The means of salvation is faith.

I hope by now you get some idea of why Christians believe heaven begins here on earth.

The difficulty with this is that you expect to see perfection, and of course you don’t. You worry about your own imperfections, even though there’s supposed to be no guilt, no compulsion to do good works. You worry that you are not “bearing fruit” as Paul puts it, and that therefore, your faith musn’t be strong enough. You grow disappointed with the world around you and pray for God to bring revival so you can see heaven on earth. You become disillusioned when the people in church around you show signs of being severely flawed, despite convincing first impressions to the contrary. This impacts your faith in a way that it wouldn’t in another religion, because your faith is centred on the idea of redemption, which starts to look on shaky ground.

Confusingly, Christianity also has notions of striving to avoid sin, fleeing temptation and so on. Faith in Christ does not make one immune to sin. How you reconcile this with redemption, I’m really not sure.

I remember years ago discussing salvation with himself, in connection with the five pillars of Islam. My perspective was that the good works represented by the five pillars would come naturally from a person with a clean heart. He countered this by saying, “don’t you think that doing these things can help make someone’s heart clean?” I was dumbfounded, because yes, Christianity has that concept too. I was struggling to make a case that faith in Christ was either necessary OR sufficient for redemption.

I have more to think about in terms of the afterlife and salvation, but I’ll stop there and keep this post to a reasonable length. 😉



  1. Jasmine said,

    I think it’s al metaphor and allegory personally: we try, as human beings that exist in the physcial world – to make everything phsyical. If we tried to explain something non-physical, like an emotion for example, we use physical things to explain in: “my heart sank”, “butterflies in my stomach”, “lump in my throat”, “burning passion” and so on – because physical things are the only things that we all will understand. So, when it comes to afterlife, heaven, hell etc – I believe these are descriptions of sensations and feelings, ways of being rather than actual physical things.

    I know that when I am trying to explain to someone how they will feel once they have…I dunno…run the marathon lets say…I may say: “feels like flying” – when…hold on a minute…how do I know what flying feels like? When you consider how impossible it is to describe the non-physical to physical beings – you realise how depended on explanation and expression words like “burning” and “garden” become. The words act as a representation, rather than a physical thing.

    In regards to hell for example – burning happens to a body, and our bodies return to earth which means the soul is now without a body and is no longer physical. Fire needs oxygen to burn – all physical again…so that leads me to conclude that “hellfire” is a methaphor for “the worst sensations one can possbly feel” and “flowing streams and rivers” as one of the best.

    I think upon death you turn into something between a constant emotion and a form of energy which we will never understand. What defines that turn is the energy that is already in you. Youknow what? I’m gonna post on it right now!

    I don’t think I have successfully made my point, but I hope you can find it somewhere in there!

    • Sarah said,

      Jasmine, I too think the descriptions of the afterlife are probably allegorical.

      “I think upon death you turn into something between a constant emotion and a form of energy which we will never understand. What defines that turn is the energy that is already in you.”
      Interesting. I have often thought that “eternity” is actually a state outside of time, so rather than being an infinite amount of time, it cannot be measured on a timescale and time is not experienced as passing in the same way.

  2. Lisa said,

    This post actually pushed me closer to Islam because I’ve always been a little afraid of Islamic Jannah. I picture a pearl and a husband on that pearl who I’m not jealous to see with his other wives and houri’s. But, if we think of heaven and hell les literally it really does help me.

    I also loved you final sentence:

    I think upon death you turn into something between a constant emotion and a form of energy which we will never understand. What defines that turn is the energy that is already in you.

    I wonder like Jasmine if we ca transcend time and space as well. Love you lots.

  3. caraboska said,

    Redemption is something I am just not seeing in the Qur’an. There doesn’t seem to be any mechanism for it, or even any discussion of it.

  4. Sarah said,

    There certainly isn’t a parallel of the Christian redemption doctrine. But here is an example of prayer inducing an improvement in the heart:
    “…be constant in prayer: for, behold, prayer restrains [man] from loathsome deeds…” (29:45)

    I always feel nervous when Christians come to my blog because of posts like this. 😳 Please know that I don’t mean any offense or hurt.

  5. caraboska said,

    Umm, let’s see. You get nervous about Christians who wear hijab and at least try to pray 5 times a day (using, among other things, al-Fatiha, no less)? I confess I’m a bit mystified 😉

    There is much to be said for purposely focusing on something else (e.g. God – which is presumably Who we are concentrating on when we pray) to keep our minds off of sinful thoughts (which as we know can lead to sinful deeds). But no, it isn’t parallel to Christian redemption.

    Very much agree with the idea of heaven beginning here. The thing is, if that’s really true, then at least in that part of our life that is eternal, there is no division between ‘now’ and ‘the afterlife’. The nearest expression image one can paint of it in our timebound language is that it’s all ‘now’. So I admit to not really getting the exclusion of thoughts about the afterlife, on the basis that heaven begins here.

    What I wonder about is whether that has to mean we start worrying about our imperfections. Yeah, we still have that mortal side while we are here. We deal with it. But let me tell you a secret: I used to be wracked by doubts about salvation. Was my faith good enough? Finally I learned to short-circuit it by taking the appearance of such doubting and accusing thoughts in my mind as my cue to think about how good God is.

    I would be careful about thinking that any particular action of ours can give us a pure heart. Either God is the only Savior, or He isn’t. Even the Qur’an teaches (though most people are not aware of this) that if we do any good deed, or even believe in God at all, it is only by God’s leave. I hope I am not repeating myself here, I believe we have discussed some angle of this matter elsewhere.

    The nearest equivalent I can see in the Qur’an to putting one’s trust in ‘the finished work of Jesus Christ’, as it is commonly known in the conservative Presbyterian circles I used to travel in, is the idea of putting one’s trust in what God says about Himself in the Qur’an – that He is Compassionate and Merciful. And certainly from a Biblical standpoint, there is much good in the idea of putting one’s trust in what God says about Himself in the Bible.

    Where I begin to have reservations, in the case of the Qur’an, is that the picture appears to be ‘because of God’s mercy, what goes around will not come around after all,’ while the Bible’s picture appears to be, ‘because of God’s mercy, what goes around will come around, because it must to be in line with God’s justice – and it will come around on the person of Jesus Christ.’

    So from a Biblical standpoint, the Qur’anic view could represent a defective view of God’s justice. It’s a very serious problem, one that as long as it continues to appear the way it does would prevent me from being a Muslim. Or, to put the matter more positively, it’s at moments like this that I think, ‘Now I understand that much better why I am still a Christian….’

  6. Sarah said,

    I mean I get nervous incase I cause any offense or get into arguments over my basically doubting Christianity. I’m sensitive like that. I like a good debate though. 😉

    Yes, I agree, everything is by God’s leave. I can only decide to pray or do anything by God’s leave. This cannot mean I don’t have responsibility for my actions, so I take the responsibility to make choices, and still attribute any good ultimately to God. He gave me the choice and if I make a good choice, it’s because he allowed me to see that it was good.

    My understanding of God’s mercy is that he gave us choice and allows us to see the good choice – i.e. worshipping him. There is that guidance for anyone that avails themselves of it. Not just in scripture, but in our own reason.

    When we repent, the slate is wiped clean. That is mercy too. I am always moved by stories of judges giving reformed criminals another chance in society having turned their lives around. The sentence can be shortened. It is such an appealing concept.

    I guess I see reward and punishment as reaping the natural consequences of what we sow in life, but we can dig out the bad we’ve sown at any point by repenting and planting good seeds. Not that repenting is at all trivial or superficial. And it becomes harder the longer the seeds have been left to grow!

    I will leave it there as I’m supposed to be giving my brain a rest 😉

  7. caraboska said,

    Ah, yes. something about excessive rumination. I don’t know, rumination is supposed to be one of the signs of a kosher animal – that and cloven hooves (you’ve been reading LK’s blog, right?) 😉 But I suppose that in a pinch it will do if you have both fins AND scales 🙂 No rumination required there.

    All joking aside… You ever looked at someone, and suddenly become aware that it is no longer two looks, but one look? Or have you ever thought of what would happen if we tried to divide a baby in half and say that the left side is Dad’s doing, and the right side is Mom’s doing? Or on the fact that the head and the tail of a coin are not the same, but they also are the same? These for me are all pictures of oneness with God, of the relationship that… exists? or should exist? between His will and ours.

    Another question: when we repent – who does the digging up of the bad seeds: we or God?

    Interesting you mention prison convicts. I remember meeting once upon a time at a Bible study a certain older gentleman. I guess in his late 50s or so. All I knew about this gentleman was that he was a… gentle, wise, mature practitioner of his faith.

    Then we were at Sunday school at church one day, and we were studying the Sermon on the Mount. We were working on the verses about turning the other cheek, etc., and the question came up of whether these verses were relevant in deciding whether the death penalty is acceptable in a Christian worldview.

    And then he dropped the bomb on us. He said, ‘I used to be a hitman for the Mafia. I managed to kill seven people before they caught me. I ended up on Death Row. But then someone came there and preached the gospel to me. It changed my life. Eventually the governor found out about this and pardoned me. But to this day, I live every day knowing I deserved to die for what I did. It is only God’s mercy that I am a free man today.’

  8. Sarah said,

    Amen to that last part!

  9. Achelois said,

    One thing I find truly baffling about Abrahamic religions is their very literal view of Heaven and Hell. Out of the three men: Moses, Jesus and Muhammad, only Muhammad apparently saw Heaven and Hell and yet his view was even more human and literal than the Christan view.

    But God, whom we can’t even imagine, I don’t think would have created something so Earth like, something so black and white. Plus the Islamic view of Paradise is literally quite sexist and aims at pleasing Arab, heterosexual, Muslim men. From the types of food to the women, it is all about men. I know I may be exaggerating here but the descriptions are quite exaggerated too.

  10. caraboska said,

    Achelois, Umm, how to say this? The Bible says that Jesus lived in Heaven before coming to earth. Indeed, it says that before Abrahah was born, Jesus… is. Not was. Is. If you read Exodus 3, you will see that that amounts to a claim that Jesus is no mere man. But it also says that we cannot imagine what heaven will be like.

  11. Wrestling said,

    I never gave heaven and hell much of a thought in terms of how literal they are.

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