I’m smack in the middle of a lot of computer issues lately, but I couldn’t help but carve out a few minutes to mention something I’ve been seeing among Christians of late in RL and in social media: asking non-believers “What would you do if you died and discovered that everything I’ve been saying is totally true?”
I’ve noticed this question half-a-dozen times on my Facebook feed alone in the last couple days–in both posts and shared memes–and non-Christian friends are also reporting hearing it. So let’s talk about it.
The blatant fearmongering behind this question is not new, of course; Christians have been using this tactic for many years, likely even before Blaise Pascal came up with the “wager” that bears his name. It’s a cheap and easy strategy that we’ve roundly criticized in this space already.
But the way this specific fearmongering is being deployed seems a little different to me. Instead of making a statement about the sucker bet that is Pascal’s Wager, the Christian is pushing the fear out to others by asking others to put themselves into a headspace where something absolutely not proven to be a danger is suddenly a danger. And for some reason it’s caught on in the Christosphere. Did Ray Comfort use it in a program or Ken Ham talk about it in a Creationism post or something? It’s a little weird how often I’ve been encountering it lately.
This question isn’t a whole lot different from asking “What would you do if you woke up one morning and the molecules of oxygen in your room had all become banana spiders?” Or “What would you do if you were giving a presentation and your clothes simply vanished in the middle of your speech?” It asks the other person to envision this weird surreal alternate universe where something completely ludicrous not only becomes plausible but actually happens.
Sometimes it’s a lot of fun to speculate about such a question. One of my favorite books in the whole world, Ariel, engages in exactly this speculation: what if people woke up one day and magic worked but almost all technology had just stopped working for whatever reason? What would someone do in that situation? What if unicorns and dragons were real?
Ariel is hardly the only book like that though. Twilight asks what would happen if vampires were real. The Hunger Games asks what would happen if society became so degenerate it actually accepted the idea of children hunting and killing each other for people’s amusement. In fantasy fiction, this kind of question can spark a whole series of books that grab people’s attention and make their minds flex and stretch.
In gaming, especially fantasy role-playing, this kind of speculation fuels many a great campaign. After a lifetime spent in gaming and around gamers, I strongly suspect that the dynamics of tabletop gaming especially lead many gamers to learn to be resourceful and quick-witted, which are qualities that serve us well in many areas of life. If I may digress a bit, I’m still very proud of one situation I resolved by thinking outside the box: I had a low-level mage (who really should have been nicknamed “Goo Smear” for her general resilience and sturdiness) who ran into a hippogriff on a random encounter. I only had very low-level spells, which aren’t usually very effective against ginormous, super-powerful beasts like hippogriffs. But I did remember that hippogriffs like eating horses, and the mage did have a little spell for summoning mounts. She cast it, a magical horse came to her, and the hippogriff decided that it looked tastier than my mage did. While the hippogriff chased the horse, the mage escaped. Okay, it wasn’t awesome for the magical horse, but the mage survived to fight again another day.
Vampires are not real. Baby unicorns won’t ever limp out of the underbrush and demand peppermint candies from anybody. Hopefully we’ll never live in the dystopian nightmare that Katniss inhabits. And even if hippogriffs existed, I would like to think that I wouldn’t subject even magical horses to their predation just to save my own skin. But when we suspend our disbelief and work with these scenarios, we’re busy learning how to think–how to apply ourselves–how to use whatever resources we have at hand to fix a problem–how to make strategies and work around contingencies.
And these fantasy situations become safe stand-ins for real-life situations. I’ll never have to fight a giant scorpion, but I have had to deal with a tire blowing out on me on the freeway. I’ve never discovered that my mercenary’s employer was trying to poison me, but I’ve had to deal with workplace harassment. Just as small children do, we wrestle with these fantasy problems and discover that the bare bone skeletons of the solutions we create work with a variety of real-world problems.
The question being asked of us by Christians, however, is not a question designed to spark actual knowledge or help us prepare mentally for situations that might not crop up in real life but which may resemble, at least in mechanics, situations that any one of us deals with in our everyday lives. It’s just meant to frighten us into considering their propositions. There’s only one answer to this question that is satisfactory to that Christian: humiliating despair and begging for mercy from the god suddenly unveiled and a sense of being “a sinner in the hands of an angry God,” as the old saying goes. It’s meant to make the target envision the Christian mythos as true for just a few minutes and contemplate what that means for eternity.
If we do engage by answering this question, then the Christian can feel exultant that he or she actually got non-believers to briefly consider the horrific nature of the Christian religion, though judging by the answers that these Christians get, I don’t think they’re really thinking this thing through. Only that one answer I mentioned is acceptable; trying to logic the god into relenting, saying flippant or angry things, or trying to make a case for having been a decent person in life, which are the main responses I’ve personally seen, don’t work, though really the only reason they don’t is that the Christian asking the question has a very specific scenario to railroad the target through. There’s no real reason why any of those things couldn’t work just as easily, but they don’t play into the Christian fantasy quite as well: this idea of the afterlife as a game show where the contestant just chose the wrong box (and where the Christian obviously chose the right one).
You get NOTHING!
If we don’t engage, of course, then the Christian accuses us of being close-minded and intellectually dishonest–funny, hmm? Worst of all, if we ask the question back at the Christian, as in “What if you died and discovered that none of this was true?” then the Christian gets to shrug and grin and say “Well, at least I lived a good moral life and all!” as if that’s the only conceivable “shortcoming” of living an evangelical Christian lifestyle.
Here’s why I’m not really impressed with this new tactic:
First, let’s remember that Christians have no evidence whatsoever that there’s even a supernatural world interfacing with this one. Not a single bit. Before they get into “What if you died and…” there’s a whole range of implications and suppositions in that question that they need to address. In order to engage with this question, then, one has to buy into a lot of unverified claims.
Second, the question assumes that the target of the question is discovering an afterlife that fits the conceptualization of the questioner. But there are millions of Christians in the world, tens of thousands of denominations, and thousands of non-Christian religions besides. They can’t all possibly be true. There’s no reason to think that this one take on the afterlife out of so many thousands of takes is the accurate one. Even if someone learned post-death that Christianity was true, which version of it are we talking about? Being a member of one church and subscribing to one doctrine may categorically push you out of eligibility for Heaven with all the others. It seems to me that there’s a much bigger chance, just going by numbers alone, that both the Christian and the person being served the question would discover after death that they are both equally wrong about what the afterlife looks like.
Third, if Christianity were true, then we wouldn’t need to wait until death to figure this out. Christianity makes a number of claims about how the world works and what people should reasonably expect to see and experience should its claims be true: prayer would work, miracles would be documented events, and so forth. There’s absolutely no way that there could be a “personal god” of the nature Christians insist exists and us not see evidence of that god everywhere around us in the real world. But we do not have that evidence anywhere–only the purely subjective, untestable sort that Christians now insist is “evidence.” Every time Christians make a truth claim that can actually be tested and we test it, it turns out to be objectively false. For Christianity to be true, then a whole lot of things about our current reality would have to look different. (And that’s why the entire field of apologetics even exists–Christians need to explain why reality doesn’t look a damned thing like their religion says it should.)
Of course, as with Pascal’s Wager, if the Christian addresses the flipside of that question, what if he or she died and discovered that only sweet oblivion or else some other religious reality awaited, then usually the serious costs of following that kind of Christianity–the kind comfortable with making such wild suppositions and asking such poorly-conceived questions of people to manipulate their fears–are not addressed. I remember being very uncomfortable with that question when it was asked of me when I was a Christian. In church sermons, preachers would often proactively talk about it and make being Christian sound like this jolly lark that anybody sensible would pursue even if they had reservations about the existence of the Christian god or weren’t sure about the validity of our fundamentalist denomination’s claims. Christians were living clean and moral lives and doing charity and being nice to people and all that, they said, so obviously even if it wasn’t true then living that way was a good thing for absolutely everybody. This was very much the party line response to the question. (And it is also the rationalization I’ve often heard for why fundagelicals are trying so hard to force everybody to live the way they think people should live.)
Even in my most fervent stage of belief I knew that this ringing endorsement was nothing but hollow words. Even then I knew I was missing out on a lot of fun times and opportunities, putting up with huge social injustices, alienating friends and loved ones, and generally keeping humanity from progressing into liberal ideas like LGBTQ rights and feminism by following this particular religion’s teachings. It seemed very clear to me even at the time that non-Christians were having a much easier time navigating this life than Christians tended to have, and that their life satisfaction seemed perfectly fine. And, too, I was learning that non-Christians could be moral people without a god’s command and–though I’d never have said this aloud–I was starting to suspect that I had no right whatsoever to tell other people how to live their lives even if they were doing things I didn’t personally approve of them doing.
No, I lived as a Christian and did Christian things because I was convinced at the time that this was what Jesus wanted. I wasn’t expecting to have a fun and awesome life following Jesus, though I hoped that my obedience would get me those things. If I’d been able to be honest when asked this question, my answer would have been “I’d be absolutely furious that I’d lived a lie my entire life.” Indeed, one night toward the tail end of my time as a Christian, a preacher answered his question with the party line, and I suddenly felt a prick of tears in my eyes as I realized what my own answer would look like if I were being honest with myself. I don’t mean to say that every single Christian who flippantly answers using the party line is being dishonest, but I do mean to say that any Christian who says that there is no downside to being one is either deceiving him- or herself or hasn’t thought about this thing very much (or is so progressive that such a question never be asked in the first place).
Ultimately, this question is asked in hopes that nobody will realize that it is a cover for a total lack of evidence. It’s a shame that Christians pony up such manipulations rather than produce some very good reason to believe what they believe. Any time I hear someone going for emotional manipulation rather than actual content, I start to wonder what’s really happening here. Fearmongering is not producing evidence. All this question is doing is trying to make a target scared. People make bad decisions when they’re acting from a place of fear and apprehension. Frightened people can be persuaded much more easily to make decisions that go against their best interests. (Hello, Republican Party of America!)
It’s strange that a religion based around love and forgiveness would need to do that to gain converts, but I don’t seriously think most of modern Christianity is about either one of those things anymore, if it ever was. That fearmongering is such a frequent strategy for toxic Christians speaks to their own lack of love: people tend to use methods of persuasion that are compelling to themselves. If someone’s using fear to motivate a target, then you can be sure that fear motivates that person as well.
As for my own answer to this question–“What would I do if I died and discovered that Christianity was true?”–I wouldn’t play manipulative fear-games with people to advance my agenda when simple facts didn’t do the trick. I’ve got to believe that any truly good deity would respect my need to see evidence and would not penalize me for constructing my moral code and making my life decisions based on the evidence I have available. Any deity that was not like that would not be worth anybody worship in this world and in this life.
I have no reason whatsoever to fear whatever comes after this life. Until someone comes up with some reasonable reason to worry about it, I’ll spend my time on questions that actually have a chance of being possible, like unicorns wanting candy from me.
We’ll come back to identity construction, I promise, once the computer’s back together again and I can do proper research. This was just on my mind today.
* One atheist’s answer to this question.