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Ethics and Religion Talk: Is a belief in an afterlife required in your faith?

I'd like to know from the writers how much of an emphasis is put on afterlife reward/punishment in their faiths. Would disbelieving in such a concept rule out membership in the religion?

What is Ethics and Religion Talk?

“Ethics and Religion Talk,” answers questions of ethics or religion from a multi-faith perspective. Each post contains three or four responses to a reader question from a panel of nine diverse clergy from different religious perspectives, all based in the Grand Rapids area. It is the only column of its kind. No other news site, religious or otherwise, publishes a similar column.

The first five years of columns, published in the Grand Rapids Press and MLive, are archived at More recent columns can be found on by searching for the tag “ethics and religion talk.”

For more resources on interfaith dialogue and understanding, see the Kaufman Interfaith Institute page and their weekly Interfaith Insight column at

As a Protestant who has attended many churches of various denominations, I have noticed that the idea of an afterlife is so very important to some communities, while in others it is virtually never mentioned in sermons other than at funerals. I'd like to know from the writers how much of an emphasis is put on afterlife reward/punishment in their faiths. Would disbelieving in such a concept rule out membership in the religion?

Rev. Ray Lanning, a retired minister of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, responds:

For Presbyterian and Reformed Christians, faith in the “afterlife” stands at the heart of all we believe and teach. With the apostle Paul we hold that, “The wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life, through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 6:23). Eternal death in the torments of hell is indeed the reward of all our folly and sin. What else can you expect if you have lived all your days without God and without Christ, doing things you should not and leaving undone things which you should do? The gospel or “good news” of Christ is there is another way! God holds forth the promise of pardon from all sin, and eternal life, in and through His Son, Jesus Christ. It is God’s gift to you! But eternal life begins in the here and now of Christian experience, as the same grace of God that opens heaven to receive us begins to work in us, quickening those who were dead in trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:4-6). There is continuity for the Christian: “I am continually with Thee, O LORD: Thou hast holden me by my right hand. Thou shalt guide me with Thy counsel, and afterward receive me up to glory” (Psalm 73:23, 24). While we live on earth, we are upheld and guided, “kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation” (I Peter 1:5); the glorious life of heaven is only a continuation and expansion of that earthly experience of God’s grace and power.

The Reverend Colleen Squires, minister at All Souls Community Church of West Michigan, a Unitarian Universalist Congregation, responds:

It is fair to say that a very large number of Unitarian Universalists do not believe in an afterlife. Therefore it would not be a common topic for a sermon or mentioned during a memorial service and certainly not a requirement for membership. Very little [to] no emphasis is put on reward and punishment or sin. 

Fred Stella, the Pracharak (Outreach Minister) for the West Michigan Hindu Temple, responds:

It has been my displeasure to have had to sit through so many funeral services that are just excuses to build membership. The eulogies are thinly disguised altar calls, as the speaker extols the virtues of the deceased and assures us that they are now in Paradise. Then the question is posed, “Will you be enjoying that same good fortune after your passing?” 

In the Hindu concept of afterlife, there is little to no emphasis put on punishment. Yes, we all have to rectify our lower inclinations, but that is certainly different from eternal perdition. While we do have rather elaborate doctrines on the spiritual journey of the soul that takes place over multiple lifetimes, I am quite confident that you could go to 50 Hindu funerals and hear virtually nothing about all of that. Traditional Hindu funerals wouldn’t even include a eulogy, but in the West it has become a part of the ceremony. But the priest would not deliver them. That is left to family and friends.

My response:

Judaism as a religious system is unlike Christianity, which is defined by belief. Judaism is a tribal religion whose content is largely behavioral. In fact, within Judaism, there are no beliefs that members of the community are required to hold. While belief in one God is central to Judaism, a member of the Jewish community who denied the existence of God in any way, shape or form would still be part of the Jewish community. A teaching from a second century Rabbinic work called the Mishnah suggests that all Jews have a share in the world to come except those who deny resurrection of the dead, which may be a way of saying something like if you don’t believe in a life following this one, your life will end with your death. So the only consequence of not believing in an afterlife is not going to the afterlife, which is unlikely to bother someone who doesn’t believe in the afterlife!


Ethics and Religion Talk is coming to an end. For reasons that I’ll explain in the final columns, after almost 13 years and over 600 columns, it is time to retire the column. Beginning July 8, each columnist will be given a chance to write about a favorite column and how being a part of this conversation has affected them.


This column answers questions of Ethics and Religion by submitting them to a multi-faith panel of spiritual leaders in the Grand Rapids area.

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