According to Gallup, as of May 2007, 81% of Americans believe in heaven, and 69% of people believe in hell (http://www.gallup.com/poll/1690/Religion.aspx#2). Which is to say, the vast majority of Americans believe that, when they die, they will nevertheless continue and be conscious. It’s probably not too much to assume, either, that most of them believe that their memories and personality will, for the most part, continue on. Some transformation may occur, but the person that goes up (or down), and the person who’s acting on this side of things, will be one and the same. Such a belief system, as one might expect, has strong implications for how one should live and act. As I am most familiar with the Christian understanding of the afterlife, I will be exploring that aspect of it, but much of what is said here can likely be applied to other religions and their conceptions as well.
Put simply, belief in an eternal afterlife pushes death-related choices and actions to the extreme. Except for purgatory (which, admittedly, I am not familiar with in all its complexity), there are only two possibilities for one’s eternal destination: a place of maximal pain/separation/destruction (hell), and a place of maximal pleasure/communion/creativity (heaven). Both of these definitions are quite broad, and should not be taken as standard for any one portion of Christianity; heaven and hell have been treated quite differently throughout history, and a large variety of understandings and definitions persist. Nevertheless, in general terms, hell is ‘infinitely bad,’ and heaven is ‘infinitely good.’ Regardless of whether or not one claims that the content from moment to moment of either locale is infinite, they are both infinite insofar as they are eternal. Even the most miniscule discomfort, if carried on through eternity with no justifying or overwhelming respective good, is infinite.
The next relevant portion of one’s understanding of the afterlife concerns the ability of an individual to affect the eternal location of another individual. Those areas of Christianity that affirm the free will of the individual (the vast majority, as far as I can tell, though Calvinists and Arminians would mean very different things by the phrase ‘free will’) place the responsibility for salvation squarely upon the shoulders of the individual, and those individuals surrounding her who may minister to her and instruct her in the way of salvation. In this way, it is possible that a person is denied a chance for salvation solely because a particular Christian, who had the opportunity, did not tell her about it. Responsibility is in one sense squarely on the shoulders of the unsaved individual, and in another sense squarely on the shoulders of the Christian who did not inform her. One who believes in an afterlife and recognizes the command to evangelize runs a terrible risk if they do not, at all times, preach the gospel. It is surprising that, in a country as Christian as America (in terms of the general population, not its government), street evangelism is not more commonplace.
Further, unless one understands God to be meticulously sovereign, human beings have the curious and terrible power to ‘lock in’ a person’s salvation status. Suppose an unsaved man is mugged and murdered tomorrow evening. Suppose this same man, if the mugging had never occurred and he had lived another year, would have been ‘saved’ (whatever that means and however that works for whichever view of soteriology one approaches this story with). The mugger, in a sense, ‘locked in’ the salvation status of the mugged man. By a direct consequence of the action of the mugger, the man suffers eternal torment. Were it not for this mugger, or his mugging and murdering, the man would enjoy eternal bliss. Not only is the power to kill, in itself, terrible, but the power to solidify one’s salvation status is potentially far more terrible, and should give pause for any and all acts of killing. How can, for example, a Christian soldier justify killing a single member of the Taliban knowing that, in all likelihood, that person will experience eternal suffering? Is there not the slightest chance he will convert? How can a Christian condone the death penalty? Even simple things, like driving faster than 40 MPH (past which a head-on collision may well be fatal) are called into question; while it is quite rare for a person to collide with another person resulting in death, that sort of risk simply cannot be taken in light of the infinite and eternal stakes.
But most jarring of all, what of children? Many Christians believe that children (or handicapped adults) who die before they are able to appreciate the gravity of the choice of salvation are granted immediate salvation status by God, who then whisks them into heaven. With this in mind, and with the knowledge that any child, upon growing up, might very well leave the faith (as I have done), is it not justifiable for a Christian parent to kill her child before they run the risk of ‘choosing hell’? Is it not better that a fetus be aborted than for that fetus to grow into an adult that might abandon the faith? And, if it is claimed that the command against sin cannot be pre-empted even for the sake of another’s eternal destiny, then mustn’t the Christian choose not to procreate at all?
There’s a lot of territory alongside many of these questions that complicates them. For example, it might be argued that, if all Christians chose not to procreate, then Christianity would lose its influence (since many Christians are produced inside of Christian homes) and even more would go to hell than would otherwise. There’s room to argue here. It’s also worth pointing out that Christians should not be thoroughly blamed for how little their belief in the afterlife tends to affect their actions. Every mature adult recognizes that they are going to die, but this rarely affects the way a person lives as much as it should. Some Christians recognize the implications of their beliefs and act accordingly. Many do not.
Most of these implications of a traditional view of Christian afterlife are absurd. I imagine it is absurdities like these that are driving an increasing number of Christians to abandon the ‘traditional’ view of the afterlife in favor of universalism or annihilationism or what-have-you. Each of these respective beliefs, themselves, have implications worth working out, but none so drastic as the ‘traditional’ view.