The Big “What’s Next”
“I’ve been studying religion for years, and I’m still not confident I know what happens after we die.” This rueful admission comes from Dr. Henry McCord, the husband of Téa Leoni’s eponymous character on her recently concluded TV series Madam Secretary.
That show has been the only one in my experience to feature a professor of Christianity in a major role. Over its half-dozen seasons, it often had Henry draw from his studies in religion to offer wisdom on the crisis de jour facing his wife and the Dalton presidential administration (a blessed escape from the current political scene down there). But this admission of his, late in the series, was disappointing.
Henry McCord, Ph.D., for all his learning and practice of Christianity, doesn’t know for sure whether there’s a heaven and a hell awaiting us all?
Biblical scholar, bestselling author, and professional ex-evangelical Bart Ehrman continues his scholarly stroll through the doctrinal syllabus as he presents a new book on heaven and hell. Whatever one makes of his conclusions—and I suggest readers will find more help in Richard Middleton’s A New Heaven and a New Earth—we can affirm his choice of subject matter. Deciding what the Bible says, and what one believes, about life after death constantly crops up as crucial to the way we live life before death.
Blaise Pascal’s famous wager urged the prudent person to practice Christianity with the prospect of gaining eternal life rather than maximize pleasure in this life and risk hell—or nothingness. But I have never been entirely persuaded by Pascal’s logic. A life seriously lived according to Christian values would mean giving up a lot of goodies in the hope of a pay-off after death (Matthew 6:19-20). With considerable sacrifices required either way, it’s a big wager indeed.
Friedrich Nietzsche argued exactly the opposite. Because he was sure there was no life beyond this one, he strenuously urged his readers to grab all that life has to offer here and now. Christianity, he growled, was an ethic for sheep, a reversal of good sense that keeps them docile and compliant. The strong and talented should harvest all the wisdom and beauty and joy they can from this world, including shearing those sheep.
I think of Christian people whose lives aren’t turning out the way they had hoped. One tends a spouse who is slowly, slowly, slowly succumbing to Alzheimer’s. Another spends the days protecting and comforting a severely autistic child. Still another summons up the fortitude to withstand a fresh round of chemotherapy. And many face years ahead of enduring a mental illness, a frustrating career, a friction-filled marriage, or a disappointing physique.
What great hope can be theirs to carry on faithfully if they are convinced that an everlasting life is to follow, a life for which the struggles of this life prepare us to enjoy that one. What great despair would be theirs if they conclude that this misery is all they are getting—unless they can somehow escape and walk a radically different path.
Maybe Henry and Elizabeth McCord should keep trying to do the right thing because it will produce a better world for their children. But do we want people with such great cultural and political and financial power using it only or even chiefly to benefit their progeny?
Maybe they should keep trying to do the right thing because they love some abstract sense of the good as found in the Christian tradition in which they were raised. But when the next Secretary of State comes along and doesn’t love the good, but prefers security, or wealth, or fame, on what grounds could anyone plausibly disagree?
Sticking it out, honouring your vows, expending your time and talent and treasure on the needy, compromising your happiness for the sake of others in your care—this all makes perfect sense if Pascal is right.
But if Nietzsche is right, and conventional morality is just sheepish nonsense, what then? If Dr. McCord is right and we just can’t know, what then?
It matters in the present what we think about what is to come. Major policy decisions are being made today about both quantity and quality of life, and it matters very much whether decision-makers believe eternal life (or death) is available.
Henry McCord’s diffident agnosticism, while honest, is also disquieting. He needs to make up his mind about the world to come in order to make the right decisions about the world here and now.
So do we all.