Suspending the Concept of an Afterlife - Blog Post Featured Image

Let us suppose that gatekeepers of the transcendental world, our imperfect gods, are interested in inviting new members from Earth, making them immortal. They do not need anything from humans; they are not omnipotent or omniscient but self-sufficient. Their only concern is admitting the wrong person; they must live together for millennia. Their simplified selection criteria are the following: are you someone we want to invite to our world?

How Would Higher Beings Assess Humans?

To assess the true nature of humans, they want to understand motives. In particular, they want people who do good because they see beauty in goodness and persons. However, they realize that limited humans have a mixture of motivations to different degrees, so they do not demand perfection. They decided to use the concept of an afterlife and appearance to determine those who act morally, primarily for prudential reasons. They are interested in the following: Would they act morally regardless of the concept of an afterlife or social reward? If not, they judge the person as having corrupt motivation. In the hypothetical transcendental world, only those who act good for the sake of goodness will be evaluated favorably. They evaluate who you have become at the point of death, not who you have been overall.1 Don’t worry. Unselected persons are not punished; they merely cease to exist.

This scenario sounds like a human perspective, but this is because I can only possess human cognition. But the essence of the question is the following: if we were gatekeepers in a self-sufficient world, who would we let in?

Suppose two persons live identical moral lives (with indistinguishable minor differences). But one is a theist, and another is an atheist. My claim is that the moral atheist will have a better chance of invitation to the transcendental world than the moral theist concerning afterlife motivation because theists tend to have a closer relation to the concept of an afterlife. But, it does not preclude moral theist from entering this hypothetical world; it may depend on their relation to the concept of an afterlife. Similarly, an atheist can have corrupt motivation to act morally. There is something odd about acting good for the wrong reason, whether one is an atheist or a theist.

But ultimately, looking for reasons to believe in the afterlife is morally ill-founded. The concept of an afterlife is unnecessary for believing in God or acting morally. I would like to point out that this argument sets aside the claims of existing scriptures and alleged revelations of major religions. I assume that there is insufficient evidence to warrant belief in any specific revelation.

Now, let’s check out Pascal’s wager.

What is Pascal’s Wager?

Pascal’s Wager was named after its originator, the 17th-century French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal. The wager posits a unique approach to the question of God’s existence and the concept of an afterlife. Rather than arguing for or against the presence of God based on evidence or logic, Pascal’s Wager asks individuals to consider the potential costs and benefits of belief and disbelief. Essentially, he provides practical reasons to believe in some form of an afterlife.

Pascal’s Wager is a gamble at its core. Assuming that faith is required to be saved, it suggests that belief in God is the most rational choice, even without definitive proof of His existence, because the potential benefits of believing far outweigh the possible losses.

Pascal’s Wager is often presented as a simple matrix or decision chart. On one axis, you have the possibility of God’s existence or non-existence. Conversely, you have the choice to believe or not to believe. The outcomes, then, are fourfold:

  • if God exists and you believe, you gain ‘infinite’ happiness (heaven);
  • if God exists and you do not believe, you suffer ‘infinite’ loss (hell);
  • if God does not exist and you believe, you lose nothing;
  • if God does not exist and you do not believe, you gain nothing.

The logic of the wager is straightforward. Given the potential for ‘infinite’ gain, the rational choice is to bet on God’s existence, even if the probability of God’s presence is uncertain or low. This is because, in Pascal’s words, “We have an infinity of risk and are thus compelled to play.”

Supporters of Pascal’s Wager often focus on its practicality. The wager sidesteps the intricate debates about the evidence for or against God’s existence by focusing on the potential consequences of belief and disbelief. This approach appeals to many because it acknowledges the uncertainty inherent in questions of faith while providing a simple, pragmatic way to navigate that uncertainty.

Pascal’s Wager: A Dangerous Bet?

Pascal’s Wager has implications for morality. If belief in God is the most rational choice, as the wager suggests, then this belief can serve as a foundation for moral behavior. The prospect of heaven and hell, reward and punishment, can motivate individuals to lead moral lives. However, such motivation is not required to be moral.

Moreover, critics argue that morality based on self-interest or fear of punishment is not true morality. They suggest that ethical behavior should be motivated by empathy, compassion, and a sense of justice, not by the potential for reward or punishment. One may argue that the players of Pascal’s wager are missing the point of morality.

Don’t forget: My example is about an imperfect higher being; if an omnipotent God exists, it knows everyone’s motivation.

Critics also argue that Pascal’s Wager oversimplifies the potential costs of belief. The wager suggests that if God does not exist, believers lose nothing. However, critics point out that belief often requires significant sacrifices—time, resources, and opportunities. Your behavior may change depending on your beliefs and strengths. These losses, they argue, must be factored into the wager.

One common critique is the so-called “many gods” objection. This objection indicates that the wager assumes a binary choice between belief in the Christian God and disbelief. However, one could wager on many possible gods and religious beliefs. How does one choose which god or religion to believe in?

How Should We Live?

If there is cosmic justice, this will motivate us to act according to what cosmic justice demands. However, my hunch is that cosmic justice cares about intentions. Still, if we know about cosmic justice and the evaluative criteria, it seems to corrupt our motivation by trying to game the system. This is a problem.

Some argue that faith cannot be motivated by fear or self-interest—it must come from conviction and sincerity. When faith is driven by the concept of an afterlife—heaven as a reward or hell as a punishment—it can create a system where belief is transactional rather than genuine.

This belief may be a mental obstacle or a tool to dishonestly attract people into one’s religion. Not only does this system attract individuals through the emotional triggers of fear and reward, but it can also serve to retain them by offering a sense of relief or “salvation” after the initial fear has been instilled. This transactional nature of religion undermines the potential for an authentic relationship with faith or divinity, reducing the spiritual journey to a marketplace of existential anxieties.

The argument here is not for selfless martyrdom or servile obedience but for authenticity and consistency in one’s moral behavior. Indeed, being moral often comes with practical benefits, which is perfectly acceptable (Expecting others to be moral without any satisfaction is tantamount to forced labor in a moral, physical, and emotional sense). The real question is whether one should be moral solely for those benefits or because one sees inherent value in morality—either because of its conceptual beauty or because it elevates our relationships with loved ones and enriches the human community.

One should be moral, perhaps, because morality is beautiful or sublime. One should be moral because your friends, loved ones, and fellow humans are valuable. Actions matter, but having the right motivation shows that you value conceptual beauty, persons, and what is sublime.

What if you consciously do moral things for the afterlife as a transaction? In other words, you are sincere and authentic in the context of afterlife beliefs. By definition, God must have inherent value; therefore, following God must not be transactional. Pascal’s wager is inconsistent with the concept of God.

Furthermore, I claim that the virtue of authenticity presupposes morality, and intentions inform one’s character. Someone who behaves morally for prudential reasons alone seems to lack moral worth in their behavior. Of course, you can deny all of this and become a consequentialist or a pragmatist concerning beliefs.

Potential Solutions to the Concept of an Afterlife

Since we are mortals, it is impossible to completely shun the concept of an afterlife, but we can shift our attention as much as possible.

Reimagining Spiritual Discourse

A possible way forward is to diminish the role of the afterlife in our moral and spiritual dialogues. For theists, this means valuing the concept of God or the Divine for its own intrinsic worth rather than for any potential rewards or punishments in an afterlife.

The Human Connection

Whether one believes in God or not, the focus can also be shifted toward enhancing our relationships with others and contributing positively to the community—not for the sake of saving one’s soul, but because these actions have inherent value.

The Complexity of Belief

It’s worth acknowledging that many theists do not derive their moral compass solely from the concept of an afterlife. However, it remains difficult to determine what proportion of believers are genuinely indifferent to the idea of an afterlife. For those who believe in God, the aim should be to value God for God’s sake while refraining from preaching about heaven and hell.

A potential objection:

Some may say that belief in the afterlife can provide comfort and meaning to people, thereby positively impacting their moral behavior.

First, the concept of an afterlife is unnecessary for comfort and meaning in life; there are many atheists who live a happy life. The idea that we need the concept of an afterlife is merely an illusion due to the historical prevalence of religion. Due to the prevalence, we are more biased toward valuing the concept of an afterlife and fail to see that it is unnecessary. Additionally, even if one shows moral behavior, it still can remain that their motivations were corrupt.

Second, determining our beliefs based on practical benefits has fallbacks in terms of practical benefits, and it is intuitively odd to suggest that we ought to believe in what benefits us instead of truth simpliciter. But why is it odd? I believe that we are free when we possess truth or knowledge about the external world. When operating under too many false beliefs, we fail to relate correctly to the world. Moreover, an extreme pragmatist must be comfortable living in a matrix as long as the being is happy. Thought experiments like Nozick’s “experience machine” question whether an untruthful but content existence is preferable to a truthful but potentially less happy life.

But consider the individual who is overwhelmed by a fear of death. If the belief in an afterlife can lessen this fear and enable them to lead a normal life, then it could be argued that it’s entirely rational for this person to develop a belief that produces this outcome. However, this is a special case that requires intervention; it does not mean that most people should believe in an afterlife.2

Concluding Thought

While no one can claim to know the true nature of God, it is reasonable to posit that an omnipotent and benevolent being would be more interested in the sincerity and quality of our motivations rather than the mere act of obedience. In this context, striving to be the best version of oneself gains a spiritual dimension, which is not necessarily tied to any notions of an afterlife. It is also, at least, reasonable to believe in God without believing in the afterlife. There is no logical reason to deny that a God can exist without an afterlife for humans. Therefore, I think that looking for reasons to believe in the afterlife is ill-founded.

Am I playing another version of Pascal’s wager? In other words, one must be good and suspend the concept of an afterlife to have an afterlife (Paradoxically, this may be the case)? No, since I genuinely do not believe in an afterlife. My claim is to be moral independently of afterlife thoughts for yourself and your friends. Because it is beautiful, and if we were gatekeepers, we would invite persons who share in that beauty. It is also problematic to disbelieve in the afterlife in order to seek salvation; it remains motivationally corrupt. Thus, my conclusion is to suspend afterlife thoughts and simply be good for yourself, others, and the world. While many theists have a harder time escaping this concept, they can minimize the talk of an afterlife as a motivation; instead, for instance, they can focus on serving God for the sake of serving God.

Finally, what if the world is actually like this?

*Disclaimer: This article is a creative interpretation and synthesis work, drawing inspiration from multiple sources. While efforts have been made to ensure the accuracy of the interpretation or information presented, readers are encouraged to consult the source material for a comprehensive understanding.

**I reserve the right to edit this page at my convenience.

  1. The obvious difficulty is how does someone judge between persons of different ages? Someone older seems to have a longer time for moral development. Every individual must be evaluated holistically, considering external circumstances that are out of one’s control. However, the higher beings in the scenario are only interested in inviting persons at the point of their death. Let us side-step the above difficulties for this discussion. ↩︎
  2. While I think there is a duty to seek true beliefs, it is a prima facie duty at best. In other words, other duties or reasons may override the preceding demand. However, this article is not a general claim about beliefs but about afterlife beliefs. Given that the truth value of an afterlife is unknown (may be we should be agnostic about an afterlife), the argument from moral authenticity must prima facie provide strong reasons to suspend the talk of an afterlife. ↩︎