Response to a Reader’s Question: Atheism & the Afterlife

Dear Friends,

Today I’ll be answering another question from a reader.  As always, the name of the person who asked the question will be kept confidential.  This one is  bit longer – but only because this reader raises more than one issue.  I’ll try to be as concise as I can without watering down the answer.  Here’s the question:

I have a question that’s been bothering me for a couple months.  How do we know there really is an after life?  Some people in my family are atheist and been talking to me a lot, and I guess I’m just worried that what if this is really all that we have?  Is this life?  I’ve kind of fallen into a depression about this.  And it goes deeper, how do I know there really is a God, that Jesus was really who the Bible says?  And it’s not just in our heads?  I was raised a Mormon and a couple years ago found out it was false, and it completely crushed me. Now I’m afraid of being “brainwashed” again.  If you don’t want to write about this on your blog that’s ok, but I’d really like an answer.

Great set of questions.  Let me start out by affirming your struggle.  That may sound strange, but struggle is always a necessary precursor for spiritual growth and development.  Like anything else in life, getting to the next level often requires more than you’re used to giving.  In your case, you’re dealing with tougher questions than you’ve ever faced, and in order for you to persevere, you’ll have to face these questions and search out the answers in a diligent and committed fashion.

With regard to your atheist family members, there are a few things you need to understand.  First, atheism is a self-refuting worldview.  For one to assert that there is no God, one must claim access to all available knowledge in the world.  Otherwise, one wouldn’t be able to say that there was no possibility of a God.  However, claiming such universal knowledge makes one out to be…God.  Therefore, atheism is not an intellectually honest position simply because no one can claim the absolute knowledge necessary to assert, with certainty, that there is no God.  Second, atheism is predicated upon two philosophical worldviews that have serious problems: the first is naturalism, and the other is empiricism.

The first, naturalism, suggests that the physical world is all that there is.  The second, empiricism, says that we can only have knowledge of things that can be perceived via the five senses.  Naturalism has many problems, but one of its most recent critiques revolves around the discovery that the universe had a beginning.  In other words, time and space came into existence.  This means that time and space have not always existed.  If they haven’t, there must be a different order in the universe besides times and space.  If this is true, the primary pillar of naturalism is false.  That means naturalism is false.

Empiricism suggests that we can only know things that are perceived with the senses.  However, we know many things to be true that can’t be perceived with the senses.  For example, radio waves are neither touched, seen, smelled, tasted or heard – but we know they’re real.  If that example doesn’t work for you, take the existence of mathematical truths.  It is intuitively obvious that 2 + 2 = 4, but this truth cannot be known by sensory experience – but we know it to be true nonetheless.

Most of the time, I find that people who are either committed atheists (or are toying with the idea) have, without realizing it, accepted the philosophical assumptions of naturalism and/or empiricism.  Usually when the problems associated with these two views, both of which are essential to intellectually honest atheism, are exposed, people realize that atheism is not as rational as its proponents would have you believe.

One more thought on atheism before I move on.  If you’re really interested in seeing which position is more defensible – atheism or theism – I would encourage you to watch a debate between well-respected proponents of each position.  Here’s a link to such a debate at Biola University in Los Angeles.  In it, you’ll see that while there are many good reasons for believing God exists (and you don’t need the Bible to demonstrate this), there seem to be no good arguments for believing that He doesn’t.

Now, regarding your question about life after death – I think that’s a great one, and it’s probably on the minds of more people than you realize.  In our culture, we may come off as if death is no big deal and as if we’re not really thinking about it – but let me assure you – many people are.  As a pastor, I see this quite a bit.

To answer your question, there are a few basic reasons that we believe there is life after death.  The first reason is that the Bible says there is.  Now obviously if you don’t take the Bible to be credible, this isn’t much of a reason.  That being said, I would point you to the overwhelming amount of literature that has been written for the past 2,000 years that speaks to the issue of Scriptural legitimacy.  I would also point you to the Resurrection of Christ – the most important event in history, which also happens to be one of the most historically well-attested events in the ancient world.  If it’s true that 1) the Bible is what it claims to be and 2) Jesus was who He said He was – and that His identity was verified by his defeat of death and subsequent resurrection from the dead – then we have good reason to believe in life after death.

If the Bible answer doesn’t work for you, I would point you to some of the more scientifically scrutinized reports of near-death experiences.  One of the best compilations I have seen of such accounts can be found in the book, Beyond Death, by J.P. Moreland and Gary Habermas.  If you’d like to read something on a more popular level, checkout the book, Heaven is for Real.

Now, you also mentioned that you had been burned by finding out that the LDS religion was false, and that you don’t want to be “brainwashed” again.  I understand your concern, but I would point out that I don’t think most Mormons have much ill-intent.  In other words, I think they are decent folks who love their families just like I love mine, and I honestly don’t think they “mean” to deceive anyone.  Honestly, I just think they don’t have all the facts, and they’re doing the best they can with what they have.  I’ve met many people who were raised in the LDS church and have left because, after some basic research, found out things about their founder, their faith, and their doctrine that were either 1) kept from them when they were young and/or 2) just didn’t seem quite right.  When they’ve approached their LDS authorities, they have been told either to 1) just have faith, or that 2) their questions were not “faith-building questions.”  That said, you must understand that the Mormon faith is a faith based primarily on subjective experience.  In other words, the way a Mormon “knows the church to be true” is due to his or her own experience of the “burning in the bosom” that they believe accompanied their reading and praying for guidance regarding the Book of Mormon.  Because they had such a personal experience, they view that as God’s affirmation of Mormon truth claims.  Such an experience cannot be verified or refuted because it exists within the confines of an individual’s mind – that’s why it’s a “subjective experience.”

So to summarize, Mormons believe their faith is the one true faith because God showed them – not be reason – but by experience.  This is where historic, orthodox Christianity is different from Mormonism.  Christianity suggests that, yes, one should have a personal religious experience that initiates a life of faith.  However, Christianity does not stop there.  Rather, it suggests that one’s subjective experience should be in line with, and therefore not contrary to, reason itself.  In other words, true Christianity is not afraid of tough questions.  Why?  Because if something is really true, it should welcome any honest and open-hearted questions.  In the classical Christian view, a faith that cannot be tested cannot be trusted, and this is why Mormonism is so radically different from biblical Christianity.

Now, how does that play out practically?  Well, let’s say you have an experience where you believe God has shown you that Joseph Smith is a prophet, that the Mormon church is the only true church, and every other church (such as the one in which I was raised) is false – which is exactly what LDS doctrine teaches.  After you have your experience, I might ask what objective reasons we have for believing such claims.  If your claims are true, then I should find some evidence that the Book of Mormon is a genuine history, that Joseph Smith was a Christ-like man of God in the same spirit of other New Testament leaders, and that there was absolutely no manifestation of true Christianity for 1,700 years before Joseph Smith came along.  The problem?  No such evidence exists.  As a matter of fact, much evidence to the contrary exists.  When faced with such evidence, one is forced to stand solely on his/her own subjective experience in order to affirm the truth claims of his/her religion.  On the other hand, orthodox Christianity offers scores of affirmations about the historicity and rationality of its doctrines.  Archaeology, history, philosophy, and even science have shown that there are good reasons to believe that an experience of faith that is in line with Scripture may be rational after all.

So to summarize, both Mormons and Christians have subjective religious experiences.  However, Mormons have very little in the way of objective data to confirm that viability of their experience – and many LDS leaders even discourage the seeking after of such affirmations, suggesting that faith and reason are somehow incompatible.  Bible-believing Christians, on the other hand, can point to a variety of facts in the publicly-accessible world to demonstrate that their faith is not contradicted by what is known about reason, history, and even nature.  How does this relate to you?  As a Christian, you are encouraged to ask whatever questions you have and to study until you find your answers.  You’ll never be told to stay away from this question or that author.  Why?  All truth is God’s truth, and if you do your research, you’ll see what multiplied millions of people have seen for thousands of years – that faith in Christ is not only a wonderfully transforming subjective experience, but also one that is in harmony with robust reasoning and real facts.  It’s not just true “for me.”  It’s simply “true.”

I hope you’ll continue your search, and I’m confident that you’ll find God in the struggle.  If you are really committed to studying, here are a few basic resources that will help get you started (in addition to the ones I mentioned above).

The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict by Josh McDowell

Reasonable Faith by William Lane Craig

Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis

The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel

The Case for Faith by Lee Strobel

The Case for a Creator by Lee Strobel

The Reason for God by Tim Keller

Love Your God with All Your Mind by J.P. Moreland

Christian Apologetics by Doug Groothius

I hope this helps – God’s best to you as you continue to seek Him.  Before I sign off, I would encourage you to always deal charitably and respectfully with atheists, Mormons, and anyone else with whom you may disagree.  I firmly believe that while God calls us to be passionately convicted about those truths that we affirm, He also calls us to passionately love those with whom we disagree.  Never let religion, or lack thereof, be a reason for you to shun, neglect or mistreat others.  Respectful and even heated dialogue about such things are the hallmark of a free society, but in the end, we’re all neighbors – and if we can’t agree on the nature of faith, we can at least all agree to love, support and respect each other.