NPR’s Afterlife Series: Public Opinion and The Philosopher

Oct 10, 2013

Previous post: The Evangelical and the Muslim

The next two parts of NPR’s series are up - well, sort of. The first one is a public opinion poll - responses posted on NPR’s website or various social media sites. But it warranted an article on NPR’s website, so I’ll run through some of my favorites. The fourth part of the series is a secular philosopher’s perspective, from a professor at New York University. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. =)

The Public

Here’s the article.

And here’s the prompt:

Responses poured in via social media and comments on the website. Most of them were fairly standard. Several people responded with “Nothing” - after death, we simply cease to exist. Eternal bliss was a common theme. One person said “we meet [Jesus], to be judged on whether we trusted Him or not,” citing Hebrews 9:27. But there were a couple unique takes worth mentioning.

Commentor EC Duncan says that there is no money in the afterlife. It’s almost like he perceives consumerism as the Great Evil of our age. And I think he’s got a valid point. Still, it’s less a commentary on the afterlife than on society today.

From Facebook, Chrystine Julian proposes a novel theory: “What if the term afterlife is a misnomer? What if we existed before this life and this experience is a sabbatical for further education? Perhaps the next life would be back-to-life rather than an afterlife.” Chrystine, like a lot of people, seems to have the idea that the afterlife is free range for speculation, since we can’t discern truth about it through science. Since science is the only way to discover truth about anything, it follows that we can’t know anything about the afterlife, right?

Well, naturally I disagree with that premise. Science is not the only way to discover truth. God has given us special knowledge about this life and the life to come in His Word. But what’s striking is that so many people believe in an afterlife without any evidence for it at all. People intuitively know, at a fundamental level, that life continues after death. They just don’t know (or don’t want to face) the truth about it. Who’s going to tell them?

The Philosopher

Here’s the interview.

One of the things that always strikes me about people who reject the notion of life after death is how hard they have to strain to avoid falling completely into nihilism - which, really, is the logical conclusion of that belief. Samuel Scheffler is no exception. A philosopher from New York University, Scheffler has written a number of books, including a collection of lectures entitled “Death and the Afterlife.” It would seem that, if anyone could come up with a reasonable explanation, it would be a professor of philosophy at a major university, right?

As a secular philosopher, Scheffler necessarily believes that there is no life (properly speaking) after death. Instead, he describes the “afterlife” as the legacy we leave behind, the value that we contribute to generations to come. This is where he derives meaning from life: the knowledge that his legacy will continue. By ensuring that the human race continues, we prolong our own afterlife, “living on” in our descendants as it were.

The problem that Scheffler avoids is this: If there is no life after death, why not maximize one’s own happiness at the expense of the future? What good is a “meaningful life” if you don’t get to benefit from its meaning?

This is really a question that no atheist or secular philosopher has a good answer for. They might personally prefer to leave a legacy, because the idea gives them warm fuzzy feelings, but they have no objective reason that leaving a legacy is better (for me) than seeking my own happiness. Without an objective basis, Scheffler’s “afterlife” reduces to a subjective personal preference rather than any kind of general philosophy of life.

This kind of objective basis can only come from God. There is no other source for moral absolutes, or for any true meaning in life outside of ourselves. He gives purpose to all of existence - to glorify Him. That’s why we were created; that’s why we live, that’s why we die, and that’s why we are resurrected in the afterlife. His glory is the ultimate end of all things.

If you take that out of a worldview, then nothing has any ultimate end, or any ultimate meaning. We’re left with nothing but the fabrications that we spin for ourselves to give ourselves an illusion of purpose. That is the tragedy of secularism.

I’m looking forward to the next installments in the series - I’m assuming there will be at least two more. Siegel said during this segment that an interview with a rabbi is coming up, and I expect he’ll interview someone who believes in some form of reincarnation as well. In the mean time, though, I’d love to hear your thoughts, either on NPR’s series or on my little counter-series. Post your comments below!