As far as I can tell, the popular Islamic conception of the afterlife is unbelievably crass, a form of what might be called 'spiritual materialism.' You get to do there, in a quasi-physical world behind the scenes, what you are forbidden to do here, for example, disport with virgins, in quantity and at length. And presumably they are not wrapped up, head-to-foot, like the nuns of the 1950s. You can play the satyr with their nubility for all eternity without ever being sated. But first you have to pilot some jumbo jets into some skyscrapers for the greater glory of Allah the Merciful.
That the afterlife is a garden of sensuous delights, a world of goodies with none of the bad stuff endemic to our sublunary sphere, is a puerile conception. It is a conception entertained not only by
Muslims but also by many Christians. And even if many do not think of it in crassly hedonistic terms, they think of it as a prolongation of the petty concerns of this life. This, however, is not what it is on a sophisticated conception:
. . . the eternal life promised by Christianity is a new life into
which the Christian is reborn by a direct contact between his own
personality and the divine Spirit, not a prolongation of the
'natural' life, with all its interests, into an indefinitely
extended future. There must always be something 'unworldly' in the
Christian's hopes for his destiny after death, as there must be
something unworldly in his present attitude to the life that now
is. (A. E. Taylor, The Christian Hope for Immortality, Macmillan
1947, p. 64, emphasis in original)
The epitaph on Frank Sinatra's tombstone reads, "The best is yet to come." That may well be, but it won't be booze and broads, glitz and glamour, and the satisfaction of worldly ambitions that were frustrated this side of the grave. So the believer must sincerely ask himself: would I really want eternal life?
At funerals one hears pious claptrap about the dearly departed going off to be with the Lord. In many
cases, this provokes a smile. Why should one who has spent his whole life on the make be eager to meet his Maker? Why the sudden interest in the Lord when, in the bloom of life, one gave him no thought? If you have loved the things of this world as if they were ultimate realities, then perhaps you ought to hope that death is annihilation.
In any case, it is the puerile conception with which somemortalists and atheists want to saddle sophisticated theists. (A mortalist is not the same as an atheist, but most of the one are the other.) But is there a non-puerile, a sophisticated conception of the afterlife that a thinking man could embrace? The whole trick, of course, is to work out a conception that is sophisticated but not unto
utter vacuity. This is a hard task, and I am not quite up to it. But it is worth a try.
Our opponents want to saddle us with puerile conceptions: things on the order of irate lunar unicorns, celestial teapots, flying spaghetti monsters, God as cosmic candy man, and so on; but when we protest that that is not what we believe in, then they accuse us of believing in something vacuous. They would saddle us with a dilemma: you either embrace some unbelievable because crassly materialistic conception of God and the afterlife or you embrace nothing at all. I explore this at length in Dennett on the Deformation of the God Concept.
Self-professed mortalist and former Jesuit Peter Heinegg writes, "It was and is impossible to conceive of an afterlife except as an improved version of this life (harps, houris, etc.), which doesn't get one very far." (Mortalism, Prometheus 2003, p. 11) Granted, the harps-and-houris conception is a nonstarter. But is it really impossible to conceive of an afterlife except as an improved version of this life?
Suppose that a bunch of young adolescents were to claim that it is impossible to conceive of adulthood except as an improved version of adolescence. These boys and girls imagine adulthood to be adolescence
but with the negative removed: no pimples, no powerlessness, no pestering parents, no pecuniary problems, no paucity of facial hair or mammary deficiency, etc. They simply cannot conceive of anything
beyond the adolescent level. If you were to try to convince them that their horizon is limited and that there is more to life than adolescent concerns you would not get through to them. For what they need is not words and arguments; they need to grow up. The notion of growing up, though it entails persisting in time, is distinct from it: it involves the further notion of maturation. They need to shed false beliefs and values and acquire true ones.
In this life, we adults are like adolescents: confused, unsure of what we really want, easily led astray. We have put away many childish things only to lust after adult things, for example, so-called 'adult
entertainment.' We don't read comic books, we ready trashy novels. We don't watch cartoons, we watch The Sopranos and Sex in the City. We are obviously in a bad state. In religious terms, our condition is
'fallen.' We are not the way we ought to be, and we know it. It is also clear that we lack the ability to help ourselves. We can make minor improvements here and there, but our basic fallen condition cannot be ameliorated by human effort whether individual or collective. These, I claim, are just facts. If you won't admit them, then I suggest you lack moral discernment. (I am not however claiming that eternal life is a fact: it is a matter of belief that goes beyond what we can claim to know. It is not rationally provable, but I think it can be shown to be rationally acceptable.)
Contrary to what Heinegg says is impossible, I am able, employing analogies such as the foregoing, to conceive of a radical change that transforms us from the wretched beings that we presently are into beings who are genuinely and wholly good. (I concede, though, that conceivability is no sure guide to real possibility; but the issue at the moment is conceivability.) What is difficult and perhaps impossible is to conceive the details of how exactly this might come about. As I said, it can't be achieved by our own effort alone. It requires a divine initiative and our cooperation with it.
It won't occur in this life: I must pass beyond the portal of death, and I must somehow retain my personal identity through the passage. Much will have to be sloughed off, perhaps most of what I now consider integral to my selfhood. As noted, the transition is a transformation and purification, not a mere prolongation. Will anything be left after this sloughing off? I suggest that unless one is a materialist, one has reason to hope that the core of the self survives.
And this brings us back to what Schopenhauer called the 'world-knot,' the mind-body problem. If materialism could be demonstrated, then the foregoing speculations would be mere fancies. But materialism, though it can be assumed, cannot be demonstrated: it faces insuperable difficulties. The existence of these difficulties makes it reasonable to entertain the hope of eternal life.