MEGHAN SULLIVAN. Envisioning the Afterlife. The problem with Lazarus.

During Lent, Christians are asked to think much more concretely about our short, precarious lives. We swear off chocolate, alcohol, or, in my case, swearing itself.

We spend more time in prayer, usually aiming for some divine help in addressing our sins.

We try to be a little more mindful of the struggles of others, while reminding ourselves that our puny carbon-based bodies are destined for decay.

This is all meant to be a preparation for Easter, when we celebrate the hope that there is a new, permanent life to come.

Even when it’s not Lent, we Catholics are meant to be thinking hard about that new life.

Every Sunday at Mass we publicly affirm the Nicene Creed, which ends: “I look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.”

I feel disingenuous every time we get to these lines, because, frankly, I’m not looking forward to the life of the world to come. I love this life. And the more you delve into theology of the afterlife, the weirder and less exciting it seems.

Thomas Aquinas says we can look forward to contemplating God forever.

The biblical book of Revelation insists we’ll get to help build the new Jerusalem with gold and jewels. On many Christian accounts, we will get new, unalterable bodies. We may or may not have free will or families. It is strongly suggested that there will be a lot of hymn singing.

I want many things for my future: to take a major bike trip, write more philosophy books, and watch another season of Game of Thrones.

Singing, city construction, and contemplation? Not currently in my plans. It is unclear that any of the hopes that guide and enrich my life now will be part of this life I am promised.

So is the core commitment of Christianity irrational? Many artistic treatments of the biblical Lazarus wrestle with this question.

Lazarus was a friend of Jesus who fell ill suddenly and died. Jesus visited his tomb, wept, and then surprised everyone by bringing Lazarus back. Was Jesus really doing Lazarus a favor? What happened next?

In his play Calvary, William Butler Yeats has the recently resurrected Lazarus complain to Christ: “Now you will blind with light the solitude that death has made; you will disturb that corner where I thought I might lie safe forever.” In “Dig, Lazarus, Dig!”

Australian rocker Nick Cave imagines immortal Lazarus aimlessly wandering the streets of present-day New York: “He never asked to be raised up from the tomb…I mean, no one ever actually asked him to forsake his dreams.”

The prospect of new life

What’s wrong with not caring about, or even refusing, the prospect of new life?

To think about the Lazarus Question like a philosopher, we have to consider how our present values and preferences should shape our hopes for the future. And this isn’t just a question for Christians; it’s a question all of us must wrestle with when we realize we may face medical crises, permanent shifts in our jobs or family structures, or other dramatic changes in our current lives.

And our attitudes toward change push us to think about how we should value really different lives. Most of us realize we ought to value differences in others, but when we think of ourselves, we tend to be heavily biased toward what is nearby, similar to the status quo, and under our control.

These time biases explain why thirty-somethings like me are unmotivated to put money in a Roth IRA and why nearly all of us have a difficult time creating advanced directives.

Evolution has wired us emotionally to pay less attention to the distant future, since options then are inherently riskier and because for much of our species’ history, the most important options we had to consider were happening really soon (i.e. find food now!).

There are three questions we tend to focus on when we’re trying to decide how to value very different futures for ourselves:

1) How different will the new life be from what presently gives your life value? Call this the difference question. You might think that the more intense the permanent change is, the less reason you have to prefer the new life.

2) Would the new life be worthwhile for you while you are in it? Call this the satisfaction question. You might think that your reasons to hope for a new life depend on your confidence that it will be a good one when it happens.

3) Can you accurately imagine now what it will be like in your new life? Call this the imagination question. You might think that you can only reason about the value of a new life if you can adequately envision what it will be like “from the inside.”

Like many people, I get hung up on the difference and imagination questions when I try to think about heaven. But, rationally speaking, the only question that really matters is satisfaction.

To see why this is, just consider the analogous decisions we have to make when deciding how to value our lives in the face of the more earthly changes.

Suppose you develop a spinal tumor. Your options are to have a surgery that will render you quadriplegic or to let the disease end your life. What should you do?

How to greet death

You might get hung up on the difference question—so much of your life would change if you lost the use of your limbs. But then you discover there is excellent evidence that we are biased when it comes to anticipating the effect of disability on our well-being.

There has been considerable work in social psychology on the so-called “disability paradox”—non-disabled people predict a significant decline in their quality of life were they to become disabled, but in fact many who are disabled report a quality of life that is comparable with the non-disabled.

For instance, able-bodied individuals tend to be willing to pay more to avoid disability than disabled individuals are willing to pay to regain the relevant function.

Various factors have been suggested as explaining these attitudes. Nefarious moral and social associations with disability limit our ability to imagine ourselves with disabled bodies.

We tend to focus on some features of a changed state while ignoring others that would be relevant. We underestimate our abilities to adapt.

Once we learn that individuals with these disabilities report high quality of life, we are rationally pressured to rethink our biases about the value of living with disability.

In disability scenarios we might likewise focus too much on the imagination question—I just can’t imagine what it would be like to live a different sort of life, so I can’t value that life.

As soon as we formulate the principle we realize the trouble. There are all kinds of lives we can’t imagine “from the inside” but we are quite confident are valuable and would be great to have.

I can’t imagine what it would be like to be a champion rock climber, but I am sure that Alex Honnold’s life is valuable.

In fact, at many junctures in our own lives we had no idea how it would feel to live in the next chapter (as a married person, as a parent). But we could still tell the next chapter would be valuable, and that value was the basis for our hope.

Admittedly, there is little we can control about whether there is an afterlife. But we should wrestle with the question, and this is a topic where philosophical reasoning can give us back some of our humanity.

Having values gives us power: the last shred of agency available to us when faced with catastrophes like death is deciding how we will greet it and why we hope what we do.

Moreover, there is a tendency to think that questions of rational religious belief are in principle unanswerable or significantly more difficult than the planning questions we face on Earth.

But the same reasoning that encourages us to overcome our biases and plan better for our lives here also urges us to take an interest in what might come next.

This essay is adapted from the author’s book Time Biases (2018, Oxford University Press).

Meghan Sullivan is the Rev. John A. O’Brien Collegiate Chair and Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame.

The article first appeared in Commonweal Magazineand on published in La Croix InternationalApril 13, 2019.



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4 Responses to MEGHAN SULLIVAN. Envisioning the Afterlife. The problem with Lazarus.

  1. J Knight says:

    It might be argued that Lazarus is the most famous early “Near Death Experience” recorded.

    Most NDE are reported as being something reassuring and life changing and are often associated with a foretaste of the peace that only God can give.

    It’s important to note that Lazarus, the widow’s son and the daughter of Jarius weren’t resurrected, but, brought back to their previous state. Perhaps in the same way that Moses and Elijah were, at the Transfiguration, not necessarily resurrected, but not just mere visions either?

    The point is that Jesus is Lord of the living so, here or in heaven, we will have life in him if we submit to His name and authority and live in his love, seek his mercy, and accept his justice.

  2. Kien Choong says:

    Hi, as I understand it, when 1st century Jews debated whether there would be a “resurrection”, what they had in mind was “coming back to life”, not “life after death”.

    “Life after death” was a fairly old idea which (I understand) appeared in many cultures including the Egyptians. But “coming back to life” is different. No one really thought that it was possible to come back to life, and to the extent people did consider this possibility, it would be an event that takes place at the end of history.

    Following Jesus’s death, a small group of Jews came to believe that Jesus had indeed come back to life. This was based on reports by some of Jesus’s disciples that they had seen and spoken to Jesus. For these Jews, Jesus’s resurrection is evidence that “coming back to life” is not some myth, but a reality.

    Somehow, over the centuries, the idea of resurrection among Christians seem to have morphed back to the older idea of “life after death”. The radical idea of “coming back to life” seems to have weakened, and even disappeared. I have the impression that most evangelical Christians think their final state will be eternal life in heaven, not “life of the world to come”.

    Whereas I suspect that by “life of the world to come” the authors meant life in this world when everyone is brought back to life. It’s not a different world that is coming, but a renewed world that is coming. Just my view!

    I personally don’t mind whether I come back to life or not, but if I do, I understand that the type of body I will have will be a “spiritual body” (not a “spirit body”) – so it will be a real tangible body, but free of weaknesses whether psychological (such as biases, prejudice, fear, tribalism) or physical (such as disease and morbidity). So when I look forward to life in the world to come, it’s a good life and a good world that I look forward to!

  3. Rosemary O'Grady says:

    What I read here is: ego, ego, ego…
    Three different questions: Between Palm Sunday this week how much (if you are an Income-Earner) cash did you dispense to the untaxdeductable panhandlers on the streets of our cities pock-marked with homeless-persons?
    How would your family react if you told them there would be no Easter sweets or treats this year? Or yourself for that matter?
    Where inside your own career power-structures have you directed a critical letter/statement – this Easter/Pesach – admonishing your own society for failures in moral committment?
    As they say this week in the Ile St Louis: plus ca change…

  4. carey burke says:

    Meghan Sullivan brings into focus a real and present concern for Christians: the next life. It is an integral component of the message and forms a conscious part of everyday Christian life – affirmed in sections of the Lord’s Prayer and in the Marian “Hail Mary,” in addition to the Sunday Mass recitation of the Nicene Creed.

    Meghan’s reflection has as her point of departure the Creed’s belief “…in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” In this regard, she is following a well trodden track, described by Anselm (1033-1109) as faith seeking understanding. A process where reasoning seeks to to tease into plain relief the human hesitations and reactions to central elements of Christian belief.

    A hundred years later Aquinas interposes a substantive qualification to this process of faith seeking understanding. In his Summa Theologica, First Part, Question 1, he adds, “It was therefore necessary that, beside philosophical science built on Reason, there should be a sacred science learned through Revelation.

    Standing, as we are, at the portal of the Easter Triduum, it is perhaps more appropriate to set aside our usual preoccupation with wrestling with questions, positions and counter positions that are the inevitable parts of intellectual exchange and take a reflective walk through the moments which consitute substantial sections of the Nicene Creed.

    I am reminded of the words of old priest said some forty years ago. At a time when priests, doctors and undertakers often arrived at the home of a dying person within an hour of one another. It was frequently in the early hours of the morning when the phone would sound the alarm that a death was imminent. Returning from such a journey I was surprised by this old priest waiting with a coffee brewed and a message to impart.

    He asked briefly “how it went” and then added something borne out of decades of similar journeys. He said that I should not be too surprised or upset if some deaths were truly difficult: – where the person dying experienced extreme panic and almost unrelieved horror. And further, he had encountered this bottomless distress among some nuns, brothers and priests.

    Simply, he said, “This is the first time in their lives they have encountered the need to believe – so much of their lives were absorbed doing religious acts and feeling safe by doing them. Now, its happening and they are caught in the depths of doubt – and the fear that feeds more doubt.”

    Meghan’s questions have most of the year to be addressed, now is the time to take the advice of an extraordinary scripture scholar, Ernst Kasemann, when he recommend that Christians should stand at the foot of the cross as their recall the first Good Friday. Just stand, and allow the mysterious presence of a suffering and redemptive act that becomes the gateway to all that is proclaimed as Christian continue its revelatory action.

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