The belief in the afterlife as a reward for our life’s actions can have devastating real-world consequences. Contemporary evidence of this can be found in the case of the 9/11 hijackers, in which the overriding motivation for their acts of terrorism was the promise of paradise. But this is not an isolated incident. Historically, the promise of heaven, paradise, etc. for a ‘life well lived’ has motivated countless heinous acts. In other cases, the promise has motivated us to do the opposite – to live decently and to treat one another with love and respect. So if the promise of heaven as a ‘reward after death’ can lead us to behave badly just as much as it can lead us to behave well, it seems that the belief in such an afterlife is neither inherently dangerous nor is it inherently good; the value or lack thereof is entirely up to us.
The reward after death is DANGEROUS
But there are other ways that the belief in a ‘reward after death’ can be dangerous. Besides the obvious potential for harm i.e. religious extremism, there is also the danger that this belief can be used to control and manipulate the masses. This is precisely what Karl Marx meant, that religion is ‘the opiate of the masses.’
The promise of an afterlife is a powerful idea. It can motivate people not only to act ‘badly’ or ‘well’ but also to accept the substandard living conditions imposed upon it by a particular government or regime. The promise of heaven can allow us to endure a life otherwise unendurable.
The question at hand is more complex than ‘does “heaven as a reward” cause people to behave badly?’ It’s about a deeper issue; do we wish to live our lives with reference to the afterlife? Or should we act out of concern for what is going on in this life? Should our missionaries convert or simply feed the people? For those of us who believe that the afterlife is a myth the answer is obvious; feed them! The hungry don’t need religion; they need food.
If heaven is a myth, then it is certainly a dangerous one when it leads us to ignore the life we are currently living. But if you do believe in heaven – that your actions now are reflected in the afterlife – it does not necessarily follow that this belief is a dangerous one. If you believe that your role is to love others in this life, then you’re doing just fine- regardless of what you think happens in the hereafter.