Envisioning the Afterlife

The Problem with Lazarus
Marco Pino, The Resurrection of Lazarus, ca. 1570 (Yale University Art Gallery)

During Lent, Christians are asked to think much more concretely about our short, precarious lives. We swear off chocolate, alcohol, or, in my case, swearing itself. We spend more time in prayer, usually aiming for some divine help in addressing our sins. We try to be a little more mindful of the struggles of others, while reminding ourselves that our puny carbon-based bodies are destined for decay. This is all meant to be a preparation for Easter, when we celebrate the hope that there is a new, permanent life to come.  

Even when it’s not Lent, we Catholics are meant to be thinking hard about that new life. Every Sunday at Mass we publicly affirm the Nicene Creed, which ends: “I look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” I feel disingenuous every time we get to these lines, because, frankly, I’m not looking forward to the life of the world to come. I love this life.  And the more you delve into theology of the afterlife, the weirder and less exciting it seems. Thomas Aquinas says we can look forward to contemplating God forever. The biblical book of Revelation insists we’ll get to help build the new Jerusalem with gold and jewels. On many Christian accounts, we will get new, unalterable bodies. We may or may not have free will or families. It is strongly suggested that there will be a lot of hymn singing. I want many things for my future: to take a major bike trip, write more philosophy books, and watch another season of Game of Thrones. Singing, city construction, and contemplation? Not currently in my plans. It is unclear that any of the hopes that guide and enrich my life now will be part of this life I am promised.

So is the core commitment of Christianity irrational? Many artistic treatments of the biblical Lazarus wrestle with this question. Lazarus was a friend of Jesus who fell ill suddenly and died. Jesus visited his tomb, wept, and then surprised everyone by bringing Lazarus back. Was Jesus really doing Lazarus a favor? What happened next? In his play Calvary, William Butler Yeats has the recently resurrected Lazarus complain to Christ: “Now you will blind with light the solitude that death has made; you will disturb that corner where I thought I might lie safe forever.” In “Dig, Lazarus, Dig!” Australian rocker Nick Cave imagines immortal Lazarus aimlessly wandering the streets of present-day New York: “He never asked to be raised up from the tomb...I mean, no one ever actually asked him to forsake his dreams.” 

What’s wrong with not caring about, or even refusing, the prospect of new life?

There are all kinds of lives we can’t imagine “from the inside” but we are quite confident are valuable and would be great to have.

To think about the Lazarus Question like a philosopher, we have to consider how our present values and preferences should shape our hopes for the future. And this isn’t just a question for Christians; it’s a question all of us must wrestle with when we realize we may face medical crises, permanent shifts in our jobs or family structures, or other dramatic changes in our current lives.

And our attitudes toward change push us to think about how we should value really different lives. Most of us realize we ought to value differences in others, but when we think of ourselves, we tend to be heavily biased toward what is nearby, similar to the status quo, and under our control. These time biases explain why thirty-somethings like me are unmotivated to put money in a Roth IRA and why nearly all of us have a difficult time creating advanced directives. Evolution has wired us emotionally to pay less attention to the distant future, since options then are inherently riskier and because for much of our species’ history, the most important options we had to consider were happening really soon (i.e. find food now!). 

There are three questions we tend to focus on when we’re trying to decide how to value very different futures for ourselves:

1) How different will the new life be from what presently gives your life value? Call this the difference question. You might think that the more intense the permanent change is, the less reason you have to prefer the new life.

 

2) Would the new life be worthwhile for you while you are in it? Call this the satisfaction question. You might think that your reasons to hope for a new life depend on your confidence that it will be a good one when it happens. 

 

3) Can you accurately imagine now what it will be like in your new life? Call this the imagination question. You might think that you can only reason about the value of a new life if you can adequately envision what it will be like “from the inside.”

Like many people, I get hung up on the difference and imagination questions when I try to think about heaven. But, rationally speaking, the only question that really matters is satisfaction. To see why this is, just consider the analogous decisions we have to make when deciding how to value our lives in the face of the more earthly changes. Suppose you develop a spinal tumor. Your options are to have a surgery that will render you quadriplegic or to let the disease end your life. What should you do?

You might get hung up on the difference question—so much of your life would change if you lost the use of your limbs. But then you discover there is excellent evidence that we are biased when it comes to anticipating the effect of disability on our well-being. There has been considerable work in social psychology on the so-called “disability paradox”—non-disabled people predict a significant decline in their quality of life were they to become disabled, but in fact many who are disabled report a quality of life that is comparable with the non-disabled. For instance, able-bodied individuals tend to be willing to pay more to avoid disability than disabled individuals are willing to pay to regain the relevant function. Various factors have been suggested as explaining these attitudes. Nefarious moral and social associations with disability limit our ability to imagine ourselves with disabled bodies. We tend to focus on some features of a changed state while ignoring others that would be relevant. We underestimate our abilities to adapt. Once we learn that individuals with these disabilities report high quality of life, we are rationally pressured to rethink our biases about the value of living with disability.

In disability scenarios we might likewise focus too much on the imagination question—I just can’t imagine what it would be like to live a different sort of life, so I can’t value that life.  As soon as we formulate the principle we realize the trouble. There are all kinds of lives we can’t imagine “from the inside” but we are quite confident are valuable and would be great to have. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be a champion rock climber, but I am sure that Alex Honnold’s life is valuable. In fact, at many junctures in our own lives we had no idea how it would feel to live in the next chapter (as a married person, as a parent). But we could still tell the next chapter would be valuable, and that value was the basis for our hope.

Admittedly, there is little we can control about whether there is an afterlife. But we should wrestle with the question, and this is a topic where philosophical reasoning can give us back some of our humanity. Having values gives us power: the last shred of agency available to us when faced with catastrophes like death is deciding how we will greet it and why we hope what we do.

Moreover, there is a tendency to think that questions of rational religious belief are in principle unanswerable or significantly more difficult than the planning questions we face on Earth. But the same reasoning that encourages us to overcome our biases and plan better for our lives here also urges us to take an interest in what might come next.

This essay is adapted from the author’s book Time Biases (2018, Oxford University Press).

Published in the May 3, 2019 issue: 

Meghan Sullivan is the Rev. John A. O'Brien Collegiate Chair and Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame.

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