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Ethics and Religion Talk: Does your faith depend on an afterlife?

If you were suddenly convinced that there was no afterlife, how would that affect your work in your tradition?

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.”

We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up on the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

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

The Rev. Sandra Nikkel, head pastor of Conklin Reformed Church, responds:

I would serve God and love Him even if there was no heaven. Knowing Him has made me the person who I am today. He has healed my heart and His love has transformed my life. I learned to love myself and love others because He first loved me. My choices have changed and I desire to do what is right to please him, not because I fear Him but because I love Him. As a result, an overwhelming peace and joy has filled my life.

These two things cannot be bought with money. They cannot be earned. They cannot be worked up into our livesno matter how many self-help books I read and different meditation techniques I practice. It's His presence that has brought me peace. It's His Lordship that has set me free from the bondage of Self. And it's His acceptance and compassion that has allowed me to believe that if God is with me, all be well and all will be well! "May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer." (Psalm 19:14) 

Linda Knieriemen, a retired pastor of the Presbyterian Church (USA), responds:

This is freeing! Hyper-focus on the afterlife, which is the trap many faith leaders and followers fall into, is a distraction from the teachings of Jesus which are about living today: loving self and one another, (including the stranger), feeding the hungry, caring for the sick and vulnerable and… enjoying God! I increasingly believe that at death, we all remain in the presence of God regardless of our faith tradition, our acceptance of a savior, or our ‘goodness’.  Passing out of this life need not be troubling to any who believe that the One who created them will not abandon them—ever. Such a conviction allows church leadership and their flock to focus on faith in action TODAY.

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

This is one of those hypothetical situations that is challenging to predict a guaranteed response. I can say only what I hope I would do. The daily spiritual practices with which I engage are quite valuable to me. They enhance my life. I’ve studied enough science to learn that Hatha Yoga, meditation, community, a code of ethics and many other elements can provide us with physical, mental and emotional good health. At this moment in time, I expect that I would maintain much of this regimen. 

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

All Christians unite in affirming our faith in “the life everlasting” (Apostles’ Creed, Article XII). I cannot conceive of how I would ever be “convinced that there was no afterlife,” since the evidence we have points in the opposite direction. Such a conclusion is antithetical to the gospel of Christ and His promise of eternal life to all who believe in Him: “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me: and I give unto them eternal life” (John 10:27, 28). If I could be disabused of this truth, I would have no gospel to preach, and hence no proper work left to do. It is no part of the work of a minister of the Word to conduct empty rituals or spout meaningless cliches, much less teach doctrines that we know or believe to be false. 

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

As Unitarian Universalists, we have many who do not believe there is an afterlife. For most of us, we believe this one life is it, there is no great beyond, therefore we try to live our best lives here and now. We try to be good people, not for some reward in heaven but because it is the right thing to do. 

My response:

Whether or not there is or is not an afterlife has no effect on my Jewish practice or most of my work as a rabbi. The existence or non-existence of a World to Come is almost completely irrelevant to the vast majority of my sermons and to basic Jewish practices such as kashrut (dietary laws), Shabbat observance, tzedaka (charitable giving) and prayer.

The only place where I could see it would make a difference is in some of the language and liturgy around funerals. Currently, such language reflects a belief in a positive judgement, ascent to heaven and reunification with loved one following death, as well as the idea that our loved ones live in in the actions of those who remember them. Were there no afterlife, the liturgy and my language would reflect only the latter idea.


This column answers questions of Ethics and Religion by submitting them to a multi-faith panel of spiritual leaders in the Grand Rapids area. We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up in the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

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