The other day two nice ladies from the Jehovah’s Witnesses came by to give me the good news — God was preparing to create a perfect world, without all the vexations we have to contend with, such as old age, sickness and, of course, death. The Mormons, and others, also come by occasionally with a similar message.
I’m always happy to engage them in conversation, since I typically have a huge reservoir of pent up thoughts on such matters. At first they are polite and even glad that someone is actually willing to talk to them. However, as my speculations and questions become more pointed, they invariably start backing away, with nervous glances at one another, like maybe they’ve stumbled upon a madman.
I almost pursued two hapless gentlemen down the street with demands to know “Where is Jesus, at this very moment?”
The promise of eternal life is a powerful incentive. Nature has programmed us with an overwhelming will to live and to procreate. Every being, down to the most miserable bug, is primarily concerned with survival as a distinct, separate entity. That all evidence points to the fact that this is a losing proposition, only makes this need more urgent.
No wonder then that people take “religion” so seriously — even to the point of giving up everything to follow and promote the hopeful messages of eternal life they have come to believe in.
I read recently that “Jannah,” or Paradise, has become a very popular media topic in Pakistan and some other Islamic countries where economic conditions and terrorism have made things so untenable and hopeless that, for many, the promise of a better life after this one is looking increasingly appealing.
While the stories and dogma surrounding different religious beliefs vary somewhat in detail, the mainstream religions all make the same essential promise — believe what they say is true, behave yourself according to the principles and rules they adhere to, and you’ll have life everlasting. But here’s the rub — you can’t know for sure until after you die, presuming there will even be someone there to “know.”
That such beliefs are wholeheartedly embraced, largely on the basis of hearsay and say-so, by a preponderance of people on the planet, is probably due more to people’s insecurity, along with the authority that the major religions have accumulated over centuries in their respective cultures, rather than any thoughtful analysis of the available data.
Even Buddhists and Hindus, who are, for the most part, non-theistic, still maintain that this life sucks and that it is only through following their recommendations that one can be assured of a better existence through rebirth in a future life — or, if one is really deserving, eternal bliss in Nirvana.
Buddhists are especially creative when it comes to afterlife scenarios. Not only is there the classic carrot and stick, of Heavens (several) and various Hells, there is also potential rebirth as an animal, ghost, titan, god, or, as a human again. It all depends upon “karma,” which is a fancy way of saying that one’s behavior in this life will determine where one is reborn in the next.
Behaving well and doing good under threat of suffering in a future existence presupposes a firm faith in order to be effective. If that faith wavers, or disappears completely, then, the moral imperative wavers and disappears as well, and one is free to behave badly.
I think it would be be better if folks were encouraged to see that good behavior is worthwhile simply because it is good — because it works better for themselves and the rest of the world. I know atheistic humanists who are incredibly moral and compassionate, without the threat of punishment in a future life hanging over them.
Religions that emphasize a better life in a future birth, whether in heaven or in another form of rebirth, all tend to denigrate this present existence, which is considered an unclean vale of suffering and degeneration — merely a stepping stone to a better life somewhere else in the future.
I can’t help but think that this attitude can be self-fulfilling.
Some fundamentalist Christians even appear to be hoping that this world is visited by more catastrophes than it already has been, which will herald the final days when they will ascend to heaven. They might well get their wish if we continue to destroy ourselves and our environment. But whether heaven will be their due is an open question.
Jesus had some interesting things to say about this in Luke 17:20-21 —
“The Kingdom of God cometh not with observation: Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, Lo there! for behold, the Kingdom of God is within you.”
I find the first part of this saying (which is generally overlooked) to be especially significant. The “Kingdom of God” is neither “here,” nor “there,” it cannot be found by “observation.” In other words it doesn’t have a specific location, like a place existing in space. It’s not an external form or phenomena that we can see anywhere — not a future life after the death of this one or rebirth in some distant heaven. It is not anywhere that observation can reach, not even “here,” in what we think of as the present.
But he says “Behold,” so somehow, It can be seen, just not in the usual way, as an object apart from us — but “within.” And not, presumably, just within “you,” but in me and everyone, or, as some say, in everything.
I’d venture to add that not only is the Kingdom of God neither “here” nor “there,” it is also not born or created (like objects and phenomena in the external world). At the same time It is also the very source and ground of all that is born — the entire phenomenal universe of time and space, with all its varied manifestations and beings.
Because it is unborn, it is said to be “eternal.” Because it is shared by all beings it is also spoken of as “oneness.” Yet It transcends all such conceptual categories and comparisons. It can’t even be said to exist or not exist. When it is reasoned about and spoken of, it only creates confusion.
Thus work on the mythical tower in Babylon, which was designed to reach Heaven, broke down in confusion when the builders could no longer understand each others’ words.
The Kingdom of God is not a place existing in space to which directions can be given and which one can arrive at in the usual fashion. But, “behold,” it is always “within” — as close as one’s own face.
To actually behold this mystery is not a matter of intellectual understanding and analysis, of simply reading and reckoning. Instead, it is necessary to strip away all of the conceptualizations and mental habits that have been accumulated — to become as innocent of thought and discrimination as a newborn.
When it does appear, spontaneously and momentarily, it turns out to be surprisingly obvious and ordinary.