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Evangelical Christians Often Ask Me What Happens When We Die?

life after death
Cartoon by Heyokyay

Evangelical Christians often ask me, what happens when we die?  Here’s my answer.

The power of religion rests in the hope it gives people concerning life after death. Remove this from religion, and churches would be shuttered overnight. Hope, along with fear, is the glue that holds most religions together. What would religion be without the fear of Hell and the hope of Heaven?

The problem though is that there is no evidence for the existence of Heaven, Hell, or life beyond the grave.  All we have to go on are the various religious texts that sects, churches, and clerics use to “prove” that there is a Hell and Heaven. No one has ever gone to Heaven or Hell and returned to tell us about it — and that includes the Christian liars who say they went to Heaven or Hell and came back with a message from God. The same goes for any life after death, whether it be reincarnation or Christian resurrection. There is no evidence for life after death. Any belief to the contrary requires faith.

As a skeptic, I rarely appeal to faith. I try to judge matters according to what I can see and know. What does reason tell me about life after death? What do my observations tell me about reality? What do my experiences tell me about the prospects of eternal life beyond my last breath?

When we die, we are dead. That’s it. End of story.  When my heart stops pumping, my lungs stop breathing, and my brain stops functioning, I am dead. Every one of us will come to this end. No one escapes death — not even Jesus. I know of no one who has come back from the dead. I know of no one who is not right where they were planted or scattered after they died. As with God, there is no empirical evidence for Hell, Heaven, or life after death. Since there is no evidence, I must conclude that these things do not exist.

Now, this does not mean I don’t wish it could be otherwise. Heaven, eternal life, a pain-free body, being reunited with my father and mother; all these things appeal to me. But then, so does having magical Harry Potter-like powers. Both are fantasies that have no foundation in fact.

Some day, sooner rather than later, I am going to die. It is unlikely that I will be alive 10 years from now. I hope I am, but my body and its slow, gradual, painful decline tells me that the ugly specter of death is lurking in the shadows, and someday it will come to claim me. Believe me, I want to live. I have no death wish as many Christians do. Take me Jesus, I am ready to go, many a Christian says. Not I. I have no desire to leave on the next boat or any other boat, for that matter. I hope the long black train that’s a-comin’ gets derailed in Hell, Michigan.  I want to live as long as I can. I want to be married for 50 years, see my grandchildren get married, and hold my great-grandchildren. I want to see the Bengals win a Super Bowl, the Reds win another World Series, and a host of other things on my bucket list — and yes, I have one.

You see, we skeptics, atheists, and humanists value life because this is all we have. We know, based on what the evidence tells us, that there is no Hell, Heaven, or life after death. This is it, and because it is, we want to wring as much as we can out of life. We are not content to off-load life to a mythical Sweet-By-and-By. Every day matters because every day lived is one less day we are above ground.

I have lived about 23,546 days/565,104 hours/33,906,204 minutes/2,034,374,400 seconds. What is most important to me is a well-lived life. Have I lived life to its fullest? Have I made a difference? Am I a better person today than I was yesterday? Do the people that matter to me know that I love them? This is enough for me. What more can anyone ask?

Sadly, many Evangelicals view life as something to be endured so that they can get a divine payoff after death. I know this description sounds crude, but it is the essence of Christian belief concerning life after death. Endure! Suffer! Be Patient! As countless Christian songs say, someday it will be worth it all. Someday you will cross the finish line and receive the prize that awaits you, the Apostle Paul says.

I don’t fault Evangelicals for believing in Hell, Heaven, and the afterlife. The Christian Bible certainly says these things are real. The Bible clearly says who will be going to Hell and Heaven. However, as a skeptic, I see no evidence that these beliefs are true. I do not have the requisite faith necessary to suspend reason on these matters. I am unwilling to waste my life in the pursuit of that which, as best I can tell, does not exist.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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9 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Brian

    So, a bunch of atheists are sitting around and this voice asks: What happens after you die?
    A long silence ensues. The atheists go about their business. Of living, of living with questions.
    You want to hear some stories about afterlife? Go to church.

  2. Avatar
    Troy

    Bruce, it is interesting how Christocentric your views are on religion. Christianity is a rarity in promising eternal life for a certain belief. Most religions exist and evolved from people trying to control things right here on the good green Earth. Religion is mostly a form of white magic in an attempt to control the uncontrollable like weather, harvest, disease, etc. Certainly most modern religions address the issue of life after death in various ways, but I think religion would exist even if it was silent on the matter. (It should also be mentioned that modern agriculture, science, and medicine have eliminated a lot of the utility of religion as a tool to control the universe, but not entirely and death will probably never go away.)
    It is incorrect to say there is zero evidence for life after death. The near death experience is universal and may in fact be responsible for some characterstics of religions. That said it isn’t very good evidence and with some analysis can be dismissed. Pilots placed in a centrifuge can be induced to have a near death experience. This fact alone means it is more a characteristic of an oxygen deprived brain rather than the soul glimpsing heaven or hell.

    • Avatar
      August Rode

      The near-death experience is not universal, Troy. A minority of people experience it and even among them, the quality of that experience varies wildly from very pleasant to starkly terrifying. And because it’s a near-death experience and not a death experience, I don’t see how it can even be implied that it might be evidence for life after death.

      In any case, “life after death” is a nonsensical phrase given that death is the cessation of life. The word ‘life’ has real implications, none of which apply in the phrase “life after death.”

    • Avatar
      Kenneth

      I think the “evidence” of life after death comes from much more than a NDE, if one believes such things. Think of all the tribes who’ve developed their own “religion” based on hallucinogenic drugs, for example. LSD, Salvia Divinorum, DMT, etc all have spiritual revelations (or at least the appearance of) that can mold various versions of a religion just based on the impact such drugs have on the human brain. Much like NDE, these experiences are very convincing to be real to the particular individual–when they are really our reaction to a change in consciousness. To me, NDE’s have about as much credibility as an altered state of consciousness.

  3. Avatar
    Angiep

    Bruce, your statement: “The power of religion rests in the hope it gives people concerning life after death. Remove this from religion and churches would be shuttered overnight” is so true. I believe that those who subscribe to Pascal’s Wager, deciding to live their life for God because they might go to hell if they don’t, are taking the greatest of all risks. Because if they are wrong, they wasted their one precious life, and there is nothing else – all in the name of following biblical teachings that are unreliable at best. For myself, I stick to the evidence, which strongly supports my side on Pascal’s Wager. As for the fear element, my prediction is that within the next generation or two, religion (at least in America) will veer far away from it and will become a positive, feel-good entity. People want to go to church and experience a sense of community, sing uplifiting songs and talk about issues and how to live a better life. Those needs won’t go away, but I truly believe the fundamentalist approach of threatening future punishment will die off – or the churches themselves will die off. Recent polls suggest that the number of “nones” is growing, but people still identify themselves as “spiritual.” That is my hope for the future, anyway.

  4. Avatar
    Kenneth

    From an evolutionary standpoint, death is scary to humans and we evolved that way by our willingness to survive. It was built into humans as a means for survival, much like with most other animals. Fearing death is normal, but some find more comfort in wishfully thinking we won’t cease to exist when we die. Unfortunately, that means some humans are willing to sacrifice fact with faith in order to believe death isn’t the end. But then they go a step further in thinking this life doesn’t matter as much as if their we’re no eternal “reward”.

  5. Avatar
    dale m.

    You’re pretty safe in regarding a religious afterlife as a fake afterlife. However. Science is an entirely different matter. The problem is that we aren’t advanced enough technologically to “raise our dead”. More properly “connect with the once living in an alternate Space-Time. There are many scientific routes still to explore. Either way religion would “shutter their doors overnight”. No one is going to convince most religious people that there is no afterlife. But if science finds a way to a true afterlife, then and only then will religion be buried forever. But Nature must allow it.

  6. Avatar
    MJ Lisbeth

    If the promise of Heaven is so wonderful, why do Christians who believe they are living righteously still fear death?

    I am about the same age as Bruce. As I am in better health, I might have more years left than he has. Still, I want to stay as long as I can because I value life–mine, and life with capital L. That, and not any fear of death–or hope of an afterlife better than this one–is why I want to live.

  7. Avatar
    ObstacleChick

    Life means so much more to me now that I don’t believe in an afterlife, and now that my life is mine instead of something to be devoted to the desires of a deity (that is, if I were able to determine the desires of said deity). I am not looking to die right now, but I am not afraid of it and the Jumbotron Great White Throne Judgment either. A lot of Christians I know fear death and the afterlife, though they give lip service to having a mansion and looking like Miss America in the afterlife….

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Bruce Gerencser