Image from the History Channel’s “Life After People”
The United States is one of the most religious countries in the world and is second to none in the total amount of wealth it possesses. Some might see our wealth as a blessing that is in some way connected to our religiosity, but something is deeply wrong with our prevailing religious beliefs and practices when they support social, political, and economic systems that have led to one of the least accessible healthcare systems in the industrialized world, the highest incarceration rate on the planet, deeply embedded and systemic racism, high poverty rates and extreme income inequality, a disintegrating public education system, a crumbling public infrastructure, an entrenched military industrial complex, unprecedented gun violence, high rates of scientific illiteracy, and the highest levels of climate science denial in the world. Within the United States, the more religious the state, the more likely the poverty rates and incarceration rates are high, environmental protection is lax, and access to quality healthcare and education is low.
Religious organizations and religious persons who ignore these challenges are betraying both people and the planet; and for persons in theistic traditions, this is also a betrayal of God and God’s creation. In the Christian tradition, Matthew 25 calls on Christians to feed the hungry, provide drink for the thirsty, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, care for the sick, and visit those in prison. In contrast, much of Christianity in the United States is supporting systems and structures that are contributing to more hunger, less protection of clean water, more poverty, more hostility to the stranger, less access to healthcare, more people in prison, catastrophic climate change, and the sixth great extinction on the planet. That can’t be anything close to what Matthew’s Jesus was teaching.
There is an otherworldly focus in much of American Christianity that lifts up the importance of life after death over how we are treating each other and the earth in this life. The challenges of hunger, access to clean water, incarceration, immigration, healthcare, education, violence, and environmental protection are left to the economics and politics of this world, while religion focuses primarily on the next. The result is that our religious obsession with another world is contributing to the creation of a hell on this one.
In addition to a focus on life after death rather than life before death, many religious persons in the United States (41% according to a 2010 Pew Research poll) believe that the end of the world as we know it will happen before 2050. It is difficult to be motivated to take on systematic efforts to make life better in this world when one truly believes it is all coming to an end within the next 33 years. Worse yet, many not only believe that the world is going to end soon, but some look forward to it so much that they are actively attempting to expedite the process of that event occurring. For our society to make the turn it must take to save this world and not just save our souls for the next, we will need to take life in this world at least as seriously as we do life in the next, or risk humanity losing this world forever. No matter what one believes about life after death or the possibility of another world beyond this one, let us not create a hell on earth for heaven’s sake.