In the previous post, I talked about the differences between theists, agnostics, and atheists. I also talked briefly about the thought processes that eventually led me to atheism. In this post, I want to explain why I don’t worry about the possibility of going to Hell, and how I can still find comfort even though I don’t have any confidence in an afterlife.
With my present beliefs, I don’t have the comfort of thinking that I’ll live beyond my physical body, or that I’ll get to spend forever with the people I love. It’s possible that such a thing could happen — I’m open to the idea of spiritual existence, and I’d like to believe it. But I don’t have any solid reasons to think it will happen.
While I hope a place like Heaven exists, I won’t be disappointed if it doesn’t, because I won’t be around to realize it. If there’s no afterlife, then consciousness ends when we die. There’s no way to feel disappointment, regret, or even fear when consciousness has ended. In a way, that would mean that our “eternity” happens while we’re alive. The only time we experience would be during our physical lifetime, so that would be “eternity.” If nothing exists beyond this life, then I will still have spent all my time with the people I love. This life would be the sum of my existence. And I will be a part of my children’s lives for as long as they live. Their memories of me and their faith in who I am will be with them long after I’m gone. So while I hope that a place like Heaven exists for me to spend eternity with all my loved ones, this life is that too, from a certain point of view.
Let me explain it this way: if there is an eternal afterlife, how do you measure it? How do you measure eternity? I would think the only way to value it would be to look at the activities and relationships you experience during it. To say something goes on forever is somewhat meaningless when we’re trying to assign value. An eternity of filing taxes is much worse than 5 days at Disney World. Our physical lives are similar. We all live different lengths of time: some of us become centenarians, some of us die in utero. So the only way to really value life is to look at actions and relationships. In other words, it’s the quality of the life, not the quantity — just like eternity.
Why do we want to live forever? Is it just for the sake of existence? I don’t think so, because if you lived forever but everyone around you didn’t, you’d probably be miserable. So it’s really our relationships with loved ones that we want to experience forever. And since that’s what we really crave, we shouldn’t care too much how long “eternity” really is. In other words, “eternity” comes to mean the sum of our existence, not the sum of all time. If time goes on beyond us, why should we care? It’s only the part we exist in that really impacts us. So the sum of our existence is our “eternity.”
In a recent interview of Penn Jillette by Piers Morgan, Penn (of Penn and Teller fame, by the way) asks Morgan if he’s afraid of the year 1890 (this is around the 2:20 mark). Penn points out that Morgan wasn’t alive then — didn’t exist in any way. So is he afraid of 1890? Morgan is surprised by the question and eventually answers “of course not.” So Penn follows up with “so why is 2090 any worse than that?” I think it’s a good point. We didn’t mind non-existence before we were born; why should we mind non-existence after we die?
Looking at eternity in this way might seem bizarre or shallow. And granted, it’s not as wonderful a concept as a truly eternal afterlife. But if no afterlife exists, why not make the most of what we do have? Why not try to make this life the best it can be?
That brings me to eternal consequences. Do I worry that I could be wrong and wind up in Hell? I actually don’t. When I was a Christian, I didn’t understand how some people (like atheists) could act as though they weren’t concerned about the possibility of going to Hell. But I think I get it now. None of us fears the Egyptian underworld, because we don’t believe it’s real. We aren’t afraid of Greek mythology’s Tartarus, because we don’t believe it’s real. In the same way, I’m confident that if God really wanted us to have a message from him, it wouldn’t contain the kinds of mistakes that are in the Bible, so I don’t worry about its warnings of Hell. Hell isn’t real.
As it is, if God exists, I don’t think he cares much about which version of him we believe. I don’t mean that I think all religions are equal — I don’t think that at all. But I think most people are searching for him. Since he’s hidden himself by not letting us see or hear him, I don’t think he’ll judge too harshly if some of us don’t figure it out. If he’s concerned with anything, I’m more inclined to think it would be how we treat one another.
In the end, I came from a strict enough version of Christianity, that I never found religion all that comforting anyway. To me, God seemed more vengeful than loving. I felt that our beliefs were actually very bleak in that we thought most people who’d ever lived were going to Hell. As a non-believer, I no longer have the possibility of an afterlife to comfort me, but at the same time I have no fear of Hell. And since I still have this life to enjoy, I really don’t feel like I’m missing out on anything. I’m actually quite happy.
So I hope that helps explain my thought process a little bit. I think a lot of religious people wonder how non-believers view things like the afterlife and eternal consequences — I know I did when I was a Christian. There’s still much more to say on this subject, but I try not to make these posts too long. So if something I said didn’t make sense, or if there are some points you’d like to discuss further, feel free to leave some comments.