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Is belief in an afterlife a 'malignant delusion'?

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Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker posted on Facebook, “Belief in an afterlife is a malignant delusion, since it devalues actual lives and discourages action that would make them longer, safer, and happier.” I can see why a secularist would think this if such belief would focus him on the future to the neglect of the present.

However, for Christians, the opposite is actually the case.

Jesus clearly believed in an afterlife (cf. Luke 23:46), but he clearly valued actual lives and encouraged action that “would make them longer, safer, and happier.” He launched his public ministry by “teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people” (Matthew 4:23). He commissioned his first followers to “heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons” (Matthew 10:8).

Early Christians were so generous that “there was not a needy person among them” (Acts 4:34). They were passionate about healing bodies (cf. Acts 3:1–10) and souls (vv. 11–26). In the centuries that followed, Christians were on the forefront of hospitals and healthcare, especially in times of plague and other pandemics. They built the earliest universities in the medieval world; in fact, “almost every university and college founded in the US and Europe until the mid-19th century—and many afterwards—was founded by some religious organization.”

Why living for heaven changes lives on earth

Contradicting Dr. Pinker, C. S. Lewis noted that “Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next.” 

Why is this so?

One reason is that thinking of the next world reminds us of divine judgment and the consequent urgency of ministering to those in need. Jesus told us that when we stand before him one day, he will reward our service to others as service to himself (Matthew 25:40).

Critics will accuse such motivation of being mercenary, but a doctor who is paid for her service can be just as compassionate as one who is not.

Jesus wanted us to know that he values our ministry to those he loves so much that he rewards such service forever. However, he also knows our hearts (John 2:24), and others will see through self-serving motivation as well. If we help them only for personal gain in heaven, we are unlikely to be of much help on earth. As a result, we lose our reward in heaven.

Conversely, when we focus on paradise, we are drawn closer to the One who is enthroned there (cf. Revelation 4:1–11). The Holy Spirit then uses such communion with our Lord to make us more like our Savior (cf. Romans 8:29). He manifests the “fruit of the Spirit,” the first of which is “love” (Galatians 5:22).

And our Savior’s heart for hurting people becomes ours.

“His steadfast love endures forever”

The holiday we call Thanksgiving is done, but every day can be a holy day when we “give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever!” (Psalm 107:1, my emphasis). And when we love others with the sacrificial grace we have received from our Lord, we give them reason for thanksgiving as well.

As usual, Henri Nouwen makes my point better than I can:

“I am deeply convinced that we can only work for the liberation of the people if we love them deeply. And we can only love them deeply when we recognize their gift to us. I am deeply convinced of the importance of social change and of the necessity to work hard to bring about a just and peaceful society. But I also feel that this task can only be done in a spirit of gratitude and joy.

“That is why I am more and more convinced of the importance to live in the Spirit of the Risen Christ. Christ is the God who entered into solidarity with our struggles and became truly a God-with-us. It was this solidarity that led him to the cross by which he overcame death and evil. Believing in the Risen Lord means believing that in and through Christ the evil one has been overcome and that death no longer is the final word.

“Working for social change, to me, means to make visible in time and place that which has already been accomplished in principle by God himself. This makes it possible to struggle for a better world not out of frustration, resentment, anger, or self-righteousness, but out of care, love, forgiveness, and gratitude.”

Who will give thanks for such gifts from you today?

Originally posted at denisonforum.org

Adapted from Dr. Jim Denison’s daily cultural commentary at www.denisonforum.org. Jim Denison, Ph.D., is a cultural apologist, building a bridge between faith and culture by engaging contemporary issues with biblical truth. He founded the Denison Forum on Truth and Culture in February 2009 and is the author of seven books, including “Radical Islam: What You Need to Know.” For more information on the Denison Forum, visit www.denisonforum.org. To connect with Dr. Denison in social media, visit www.twitter.com/jimdenison or www.facebook.com/denisonforum. Original source: www.denisonforum.org.

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