Tag Archive: Afterlife

I May Burn in Hell, But Until That Day Comes. . .

homosexuality hell

I am often contacted by Evangelical zealots who purportedly are concerned over my lack of belief and my indifference towards their threats of judgment and hell. Bruce, aren’t you worried that you might be wrong? Evangelicals ask. And right after they ask this question, they follow it up with an appeal to Pascal’s Wager (the number one apologetical argument used by defenders of Christianity). Evangelicals use Pascal’s Wager to attack the agnostic aspect of atheism. Since no one can be absolutely certain that God doesn’t exist, it is better to be safe than sorry. Of course, GOD in this equation is the Christian God. Evangelicals have deemed all other Gods false, even though they themselves can’t be certain these Gods do not exist. If Evangelicals were honest with themselves, they would do what they ask of atheists: embrace ALL other Gods just in case one of them might be the one true God. Better to be safe than sorry, right?

As an agnostic atheist, I can’t be certain a deity of some sort doesn’t exist. Of course, I can’t be certain that life on planet earth isn’t some sort of alien experiment or game. Perhaps, life on planet earth is more Westworld-like than we think. How can we know otherwise? Assuming that we are not AIs in a multilevel game, how, then, should rational beings deal with the God question? All any of us can do is look at the extant evidence and decide accordingly. I am confident that the Christian God of the Bible is no God at all. I don’t worry one bit over being wrong. Now, there’s .000000001 percent chance that I might be wrong, but do I really want to spend my life chasing after a deity that is infinitesimally unlikely to be real? I think not. Now, if I am asked whether I think a deistic God of some sort exists, that’s a different question. Not one, by the way, that changes how I live my life. The deistic God is the divine creator, a being who set everything into motion and said, there ya go, do with it what you will. This deity wants nothing from us, and is quite indifferent to the plight of the human race. Whether this God exists really doesn’t matter. She is little more than a thought exercise, an attempt to answer the “first cause” question.

Is it possible that I am wrong about the God question, and that after I die I am going to land in Hell? Life is all about probabilities, so yes anything is possible. However, when governing one’s life, our focus should be on what is likely, not on what might be possible. And what is likely is that there is no God, and it is up to us to make the world a better place to live. Evangelicals look to the Eastern Sky, hoping that Jesus soon returns to earth — thus validating their beliefs. This other-worldliness makes Evangelicals indifferent to things such as suffering, war, and global climate change. Jesus is Coming Soon, Evangelicals say. Fuck everything else! As an atheist, I live in the present, doing what I can to make a better tomorrow. I dare not ignore war and global warming because the future of my children and grandchildren is at stake. I want them to have a better tomorrow, knowing that all of us have only one shot at what we call “life.” It is irresponsible to spend time pining for a mythical God to come and rescue you. First century Christians believed Jesus was returning to earth in their lifetime. They all died believing that the second coming of Jesus was nigh. And for two thousand years, the followers of Jesus Christ have continued to believe that their Savior will come in their lifetimes to rescue them from pain, suffering, and death. Listen up, Christians. Jesus is dead, and he ain’t coming back.

I may land in hell someday, but until I do I plan to enjoy life. I plan to love those that matter to me and do what I can make this world a better place to live. I have no time for mythical religions and judgmental deities. I am sure some readers are wondering how I can live this way without knowing for certain that nothing lies beyond the grave. None of us knows everything. Those who say they are certain about this or that or know the absolute “truth” are arrogant fools. What any of us actually “knows” is quite small when compared to the vast expanse of inquiry and knowledge that lies before us. I know more today than I did yesterday, but that only means I learned that McDonald’s has added new menu items and the Cincinnati Bengals aren’t as good as I thought they were. Life is winding down for me, so my focus on family and friends. Well, that and photography and writing. One day, death will come for us, one and all, and what we will find out on that day is that most of what we thought mattered, didn’t. Perhaps, we should ponder this truth while we are among the living, allowing us to then focus on the few things that really matter. For me personally, God and the afterlife doesn’t make the list.

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 61, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 40 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve 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. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

Bruce is a local photography business owner, operating Defiance County Photo out of his home. If you live in Northwest Ohio and would like to hire Bruce, please email him.

Thank you for reading this post. Please share your thoughts in the comment section. If you are a first-time commenter, please read the commenting policy before wowing readers with your words. All first-time comments are moderated. If you would like to contact Bruce directly, please use the contact form to do so.

Donations are always appreciated. Donations on a monthly basis can be made through Patreon. One-time donations can be made through PayPal.

Dear Bruce, Did You Feel “Sad” After Losing Your Belief in the Afterlife?

calvin and hobbes death

Recently, a reader sent me the following question:

My question is this: after you became an atheist, did you feel “sad” (using sad for a lack of a better word) with your new belief that there is no hope of the afterlife, specifically the hope to see deceased loved ones again?

This is an excellent question, one that I hope I can answer adequately and honestly.

Deconversion — the losing of one’s religious faith — brings with it all sorts of emotions. It’s not uncommon for Christians-turned-atheists/agnostics to feel a deep sense of loss. This is especially true for people who spent years in the Christian church. I spent almost fifty years in the Christian church. Twenty-five of those years were spent pastoring Evangelical churches. Christianity and the ministry were the sum of my existence. Yes, I had a beautiful wife and six wonderful children, but they were not as important to me as God and the work I believed he called me to do. My life was consumed day after day, week after week, year after year, with evangelizing the lost, preaching the Word of God, and ministering to the needs of congregants. I had a large network of ministry colleagues, and I was very close to my wife’s family, of whom three were Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) pastors, along with an evangelist and a missionary. From early morning to late at night, my life revolved around Jesus, the church, and the Bible. And then one day in November 2008, all of this was gone. Everything that gave my life purpose, meaning, and direction was gone. The men I counted as dear friends no longer spoke to me, and my wife’s family treated me as if I had some sort of dreaded disease. All I was left with, ironically, was all that really mattered: Polly, Jason, Nathan, Jaime, Bethany, Laura, Josiah and their spouses and children. It’s too bad that it took me much of my adult life to figure this out.

Ten years ago, I told family, friends, and former parishioners that I was no longer a Christian. For a time, I believed in the existence of some sort of deistic God, but over time I slid farther down the slippery slope of skepticism and reason until I realized that I was, in fact, an atheist (though technically I am an agnostic and an atheist). And once I realized I was an atheist, my next thought was, now what? (See Dear Family, Friends, and Former ParishionersDear Friend, and  the series From Evangelicalism to Atheism.)

I remember many a sleepless night after I deconverted, my mind filled with fear, doubt, and sadness. I wondered, Bruce, what if you are wrong? What if the Christian God really does exist? Man, you are so going to burn in Hell. I worried about my wife’s increasing agnosticism, concerned that God would hold me accountable for her loss of faith if I was wrong. I often had thoughts about death and the meaning of life. Having lost all my social connections, I often wondered if I would ever have friends again. And so, for months, my thoughts focused on what I had lost, and not what I had gained. I conversed with several Evangelical-turned-atheist acquaintances, telling them about my restless thoughts. I was told, give it time. Things will, I promise, get better. And sure enough, they were right. As months turned into years, thoughts about God vanished, and in their place came thoughts of making the most of what years I had left. I lamented the fact that I had wasted most of my life chasing a phantasm, pursuing promises that would never be fulfilled. But lamenting that which I lost did nothing for the present. I had before me a wide-open path upon which to walk. No God stood in my way. Where I took my life post-Jesus was all up to me.

These days, the only time I have thoughts about God is when I am writing a post for this blog. God is now, for me, an academic exercise, as is the Bible. I know I have been given a great responsibility to be a help to people who are trying to extricate themselves from the pernicious vice-like grip of Evangelical Christianity. I have received countless emails over the years from people who need help freeing themselves from Evangelicalism. Sometimes, people are so ensnared that it is hard to see for them a clear path to faithlessness that doesn’t first cause great heartache. I have wept over emails detailing marriages that ended in divorce over a husband or wife sharing with their spouse their loss of faith, only to be told, if you ask me to choose between you and Jesus, I am going to choose Jesus. I have also wept over stories from people who were ostracized by their families over their atheism/agnosticism; sons and daughters who were told they were no longer welcome in their parents’ home or no longer invited to family holiday gatherings.

Walking away from Evangelicalism and embracing atheism/agnosticism can be costly. (See Count the Cost Before You Say I Am an Atheist.) Not only a must new atheist face social and familial fall-out from the deconversion, he or she must also wrestle with the implications of new-found beliefs. One such wrestling match is the loss of belief in the afterlife. The power of Christianity rests in its ability to convince people that everyone is a sinner, there is life after death, and the church is the sole salesman of the ticket required to gain entrance into Heaven. Remove the afterlife from the equation — threats of Hell and promises of Heaven — and Christian churches would empty out overnight.

My Dad died at the age of forty-nine. Mom killed herself at age fifty-four. My Dad’s parents died in the early 1960s. My Mom’s dad died in the early 2000s — good riddance, and my favorite grandmother died in 1995. I dearly miss my parents and my one grandmother. I so wish I could, at this juncture in my life, sit down with them and talk about life, past and present. But wishing doesn’t change the fact that they are dead and I will never see them again. Polly’s parents are in their eighties. Every time the phone rings, we wonder, is this someone calling to tell us Mom or Dad is dead? I have a younger brother and sister, neither of whom is in good health.

I have my own battles with chronic pain and illness. I know that most of my life is in the rear-view mirror. Over the weekend, I was setting up a new LED studio light in my upstairs photography studio. Polly was helping me. As I was working on the light, I decided to sit in my wheelchair. I started to sit down, only to have the wheelchair kick out from under me. I hit the floor, much to Polly’s horror, with a big thud. Fortunately, I didn’t break anything, but days later I am still dealing with the physical consequences of my fall. Polly and I both know that death could come at any moment. Until October of last year, Polly was a picture of good health. That picture quickly changed one morning when Polly woke me up, telling me that her heart was beating really fast. I checked her blood pressure, and sure enough her resting pulse rate was 180. Off to the emergency room we went. Polly was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation. If that wasn’t enough to deal with, three months later she developed a bleeding problem that required surgery.

In recent months, both of us have talked about losing the other, trying to imagine how life would be without the other one. We make jokes, of course, because that’s what Gerencsers do. It is though humor we embrace the reality that someday, be it tonight or twenty years from now, the ugly specter of death is going to come knocking at our door. As realists, we know that only in this life will we have each other. One day, our hearts will break as one of us says goodbye to the other. We know that we shall never see each other again; that the only things that will remain are the memories we have of one another.

So, to answer the question posed at the start of this post, yes, there are times I feel sad about the permanence of death. Who among us hasn’t had thoughts of what it will be like when the light of your life turns dark. Just the other day, I was thinking about death and how it brings an immediate cessation of life. I know, not a deep thought. But, it got me thinking about how much time I waste doing things that really don’t matter or have little value. If the battery in the clock of my life is slowly running out, what is it that I want to do with what life I have left? My death will certainly cause sadness for my family and friends, but if, while I am alive, I do all I can to love them and enter into their lives in meaningful ways, then perhaps their sadness will be lessened.

It’s impossible to escape sadness and heartache in this life. If atheism has taught me anything, it has taught me life can be harsh, cruel, and unfair. This site’s ABOUT page leaves readers with the following advice:

You have one life. There is no heaven or hell. There is no afterlife. You have one life, it’s yours, and what you do with it is what matters most. Love and forgive those who matter to you and ignore those who add nothing to your life. Life is too short to spend time trying to make nice with those who will never make nice with you. Determine who are the people in your life that matter and give your time and devotion to them. Live each and every day to its fullest. You never know when death might come calling. Don’t waste time trying to be a jack of all trades, master of none. Find one or two things you like to do and do them well. Too many people spend way too much time doing things they will never be good at.

Here’s the conclusion of the matter. It’s your life and you best get to living it. Someday, sooner than you think, it will be over. Don’t let your dying days be ones of regret over what might have been.

I hope I have, to some degree, answered the aforementioned question. If you are an atheist or an agnostic, how do you deal with thoughts about the finality of death, and the sadness that comes when thinking about never seeing your loved ones again? Please share your thoughts in the comment section.

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 61, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 40 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve 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. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

Bruce is a local photography business owner, operating Defiance County Photo out of his home. If you live in Northwest Ohio and would like to hire Bruce, please email him.

Thank you for reading this post. Please share your thoughts in the comment section. If you are a first-time commenter, please read the commenting policy before wowing readers with your words. All first-time comments are moderated. If you would like to contact Bruce directly, please use the contact form to do so.

Donations are always appreciated. Donations on a monthly basis can be made through Patreon. One-time donations can be made through PayPal.

Death and the Afterlife: Things Christians Say That Aren’t in the Bible 

heaven and hell

One thing the religious have in common with non-believers is the fact that they will someday die. Death is the great equalizer. No matter our wealth and status, or lack thereof, there will come a day when each of us will draw his or her last breath. No second chances, no do-overs. All of us, at one time or the other, have pondered our mortality. The older we get, the more we think about death.

It should come as no surprise then that most people turn to religion to find answers about death and the possibility of an afterlife. All the major religions of the world teach that there is life after death, be it in a resurrected or reincarnated form. Being the rational creatures we are, we can’t bear thoughts of no longer existing. Countless Evangelicals have asked me, surely you believe that there is SOMETHING after this life? Other Evangelicals have told me that they would have no reason to live if there weren’t life after death.

Sunday after Sunday, millions of Americans gather in church buildings to worship a God that purportedly not only forgives their sins, but gives them eternal life in heaven after they die. If religious belief was only of value in this life and paid out no after-death benefits, I suspect many of the people pledging fealty and devotion to the Christian God on Sundays would instead spend the first day of the week engaging in recreation, working in their yards, or relaxing. Remove sin, fear, judgment, and eternal life from the script and I have no doubt that most churches would find themselves not only without congregants, but without preachers too.

Generally, the orthodox Christian belief about the afterlife goes something like this: each of us dies, physically remains in the grave until judgment Day, at which time God will bodily resurrect the just and unjust from the dead, judge them, and either send them to God’s eternal kingdom (Heaven) or the Lake of Fire (Hell) for eternity. The former is a blissful place where there is no sin, pain, suffering, or death, whereas the latter is a dark place where its inhabitants face horrific pain and suffering. Both the just (saved) and unjust (lost) will be fitted with new bodies (creations) that never die, and for those cast in the Lake of Fire, their bodies will be able to withstand never-ending torture and torment.

Now, seek out one hundred Evangelicals and ask them about death and the afterlife, and they will tell you something like this: after death, Christians go to Heaven, and non-Christians go to hell.  Does what I have written here remotely sound like what I wrote in the previous paragraph? Nope. Most Christians believe that the moment after they close their eyes in death, they will awake in Heaven and be in the presence of God. The Bible, supposedly the final authority on all matter pertaining to life, death, and the afterlife, does not teach that Christians go to Heaven the moment they die. Neither does it teach that non-Christians go to hell after death. Every person who has ever died presently lies rotting in the grave, awaiting the resurrection of the dead.

It’s not so sexy to tell people that their reserved rooms in Heaven and Hell will remain empty until Resurrection Day.  Peter? James? Judas? Moses? David? Abraham? Isaac? Jacob? Adam? Eve?  John, Paul, George, and Ringo? Your parents, grandparents? None of them is or will be in Heaven or Hell until the trumpet of God sounds and Jesus returns to earth to judge the living and the dead.

Yet, every Sunday, Christian preachers remind congregants of what awaits them after death: Heaven for the saved, and Hell for the lost. Unsaved people are implored to get saved lest they die and split hell wide open. Christians are encouraged to work hard for Jesus and promised great rewards in Heaven if they do so.  Preachers tell wonderful stories about Heaven and horrific stories about Hell, reminding people that the sum of life is knowing Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

Attend Christian funerals and you will often hear preachers outright lie about the afterlife. I have yet to hear a preacher say that the dearly departed went to hell. In every instance, preachers found some sliver of faith/belief to hang on to, thus justifying their preaching the subject of their funeral sermon into heaven. Worse yet, preachers and family members will speak of Granny running around Heaven or Mom, Dad, and Rover too looking down from Heaven watching their loved ones. I have heard countless Christians say that some close family member of theirs was “with them” as they did this or that. None of these hopeful ideas is supported by the teachings of the Bible. Granny isn’t running in Heaven. Her bodies lies in the grave, awaiting the Resurrection. As nice as it sounds, and the warm, fuzzy feelings such thoughts give, no one is watching us from Pearly Gates.

Of course, as an atheist, I am firmly persuaded that death is the end-all. To misquote Hebrews 9:27And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this … nothing. I have one life to live and it is quickly passing by. It seems like yesterday that my wife and I, ages nineteen and twenty-one, were standing at the front of the Newark Baptist Temple altar, reciting our wedding vows to one another. Youthful in body and ready to take on the world, we had no thoughts of growing old. Yet, here we are, soon celebrating our thirty-ninth wedding anniversary, and in less than a month I will turn sixty. Now our thoughts turn to end-of-life matters: retirement, healthcare, and what to do with the few years we have left.  My older readers know exactly what I am talking about. Who among us hasn’t lain in bed listening to the beat of our heart or the ticking of the clock. We know that each beat and each tick take us one moment closer to our last day among the living.

Bruce, if you don’t think there is life after death, why then did you spend most of this post talking about what Christians believe about death and the afterlife? This post is a plea to preachers to tell people the truth about life after death. First, preachers should tell people that they cannot know for certain whether there is life after death; that all that Christians have to go on is what is written in the Bible; that the belief that people live on after death is solely a matter of faith; that there is no evidence for claims that people live on in eternity after they die. Second, preachers should stop telling people lies about what happens the moment after someone dies. Stop with the whimsical stories about what dead people are doing in Heaven. Tell the truth: Granny lies rotting in the grave until Jesus comes to get her. If preachers are going to tell mythical stories about the afterlife, the least they can do is accurately state what the Bible says on the matter. Of course, doing so might cause people to lose hope, but Christians need to know that there is NOT an immediate payoff after death.

Let me conclude this post with an excerpt from a Time Magazine interview of Christian theologian N.T. Wright:

TIME: At one point you call the common view of heaven a “distortion and serious diminution of Christian hope.”

Wright: It really is. I’ve often heard people say, “I’m going to heaven soon, and I won’t need this stupid body there, thank goodness.’ That’s a very damaging distortion, all the more so for being unintentional.

TIME: How so? It seems like a typical sentiment.

Wright: There are several important respects in which it’s unsupported by the New Testament. First, the timing. In the Bible we are told that you die, and enter an intermediate state. St. Paul is very clear that Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead already, but that nobody else has yet. Secondly, our physical state. The New Testament says that when Christ does return, the dead will experience a whole new life: not just our soul, but our bodies. And finally, the location. At no point do the resurrection narratives in the four Gospels say, “Jesus has been raised, therefore we are all going to heaven.” It says that Christ is coming here, to join together the heavens and the Earth in an act of new creation.

TIME: Is there anything more in the Bible about the period between death and the resurrection of the dead?

Wright: We know that we will be with God and with Christ, resting and being refreshed. Paul writes that it will be conscious, but compared with being bodily alive, it will be like being asleep. The Wisdom of Solomon, a Jewish text from about the same time as Jesus, says “the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God,” and that seems like a poetic way to put the Christian understanding, as well.

TIME: But it’s not where the real action is, so to speak?

Wright: No. Our culture is very interested in life after death, but the New Testament is much more interested in what I’ve called the life after life after death — in the ultimate resurrection into the new heavens and the new Earth. Jesus’ resurrection marks the beginning of a restoration that he will complete upon his return. Part of this will be the resurrection of all the dead, who will “awake,” be embodied and participate in the renewal. John Polkinghorne, a physicist and a priest, has put it this way: “God will download our software onto his hardware until the time he gives us new hardware to run the software again for ourselves.” That gets to two things nicely: that the period after death is a period when we are in God’s presence but not active in our own bodies, and also that the more important transformation will be when we are again embodied and administering Christ’s kingdom.

Wright: Never at any point do the Gospels or Paul say Jesus has been raised, therefore we are we are all going to heaven. They all say, Jesus is raised, therefore the new creation has begun, and we have a job to do.

TIME: That sounds a lot like… work.

Wright: It’s more exciting than hanging around listening to nice music. In Revelation and Paul’s letters we are told that God’s people will actually be running the new world on God’s behalf. The idea of our participation in the new creation goes back to Genesis, when humans are supposed to be running the Garden and looking after the animals. If you transpose that all the way through, it’s a picture like the one that you get at the end of Revelation.

TIME: And it ties into what you’ve written about this all having a moral dimension.

Wright: Both that, and the idea of bodily resurrection that people deny when they talk about their “souls going to Heaven.” If people think “my physical body doesn’t matter very much,” then who cares what I do with it? And if people think that our world, our cosmos, doesn’t matter much, who cares what we do with that? Much of “traditional” Christianity gives the impression that God has these rather arbitrary rules about how you have to behave, and if you disobey them you go to hell, rather than to heaven. What the New Testament really says is God wants you to be a renewed human being helping him to renew his creation, and his resurrection was the opening bell. And when he returns to fulfil the plan, you won’t be going up there to him, he’ll be coming down here.

TIME: That’s very different from, say, the vision put out in the Left Behind books.

Wright: Yes. If there’s going to be an Armageddon, and we’ll all be in heaven already or raptured up just in time, it really doesn’t matter if you have acid rain or greenhouse gases prior to that. Or, for that matter, whether you bombed civilians in Iraq. All that really matters is saving souls for that disembodied heaven.

TIME: Has anyone you’ve talked to expressed disappointment at the loss of the old view?

Wright: Yes, you might get disappointment in the case where somebody has recently gone through the death of somebody they love and they are wanting simply to be with them. And I’d say that’s understandable. But the end of Revelation describes a marvelous human participation in God’s plan. And in almost all cases, when I’ve explained this to people, there’s a sense of excitement and a sense of, “Why haven’t we been told this before?”

What are some of the other things that Christians say about death, heaven, and hell that either aren’t in the Bible or are distorted by preachers? Please share them in the comment section.