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I have seen people resort to arguments such as "if there is no afterlife, why be good (or religious)?". Counterarguments to living in sin during this life include final judgment and the infinite duration of eternity (which also form the basis of Pascal's Wager), which I find compelling, but are there more reasons to be good than these?

What Christian denominations advance an argument that is persuasive in favor of doing good in this life even if one thinks there is no afterlife, and what are those arguments?

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  • This is a deep question! If there is no afterlife, then you should be yourself (whoever yourself might be). But as it turns out, being yourself is a foolproof way of becoming perfect.
    – Fomalhaut
    Jan 29 at 20:14
  • Is there a Christian denomination that does not believe in any kind of afterlife, even for the faithful? This question seems aimed at Christian Atheism. Jan 30 at 12:32
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    @MikeBorden "Christian Atheism" being a contradiction in terms!
    – Anne
    Jan 30 at 13:21
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    The question, if I'm reading it right, is seeking after Christian arguments for doing good in the absence of belief in an afterlife. Who are these Christians with no belief in the afterlife? Jan 30 at 19:52
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    @MikeBorden Indeed, that's what some call themselves, to their own satisfaction. But when I see a purple plum, I don't call it a yellow plum. Smiles.
    – Anne
    Jan 31 at 10:17

5 Answers 5

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Only an unrighteous person would think they are, or could aspire to be, righteous. Yet the question wants to know how a person who does not believe in any life after physical death could view this matter of why "choose" to be righteous. As my thinking is inclined to be back-to-front, I quickly spot back-to-front questions.

Only in light of eternity at God's enabling can God's view of righteousness be seen. This means that all persons disbelieving either God's sovereign existence, or that everlasting life is in store, can have no idea of what righteousness, goodness, or doing good is, in view of eternity.

This only leaves such persons with their own view of what righteousness, goodness, or doing good amounts to, so they will judge the matter entirely on their own (or other's) opinions. Given what God has had recorded here about those matters, it should be instantly obvious that there is an impassible gulf between what God says on the matter, and what the godless think about the matter:

"We have before proved both Jews and Gentiles, that they are all under sin. As it is written, [in Micah 7:9] There is none righteous, no, not one... there is none that doeth good, no, not one... There is no fear of God before their eyes. Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; even the righteousness of God by faith of Jesus Christ unto all them that believe: for there is no difference: for all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus." Romans 3:9-24 K.J.

Belief in God and in his righteousness, shown in Jesus Christ, necessitates faith in Jesus Christ, who was resurrected from the dead, and who promises life eternal in glory to all who believe. This rules out any disbelievers in God, or in Jesus Christ risen from the dead (and hence, those who disbelieve in any afterlife). Such ones cannot have a clue as to what God's righteousness is. They can only spout on about what they judge to be good, let alone what constitutes righteousness. And they have no fear of God, no goodness, nor any righteousness of their own. They remain under sin and condemned by God as sinners, as the text quoted above states.

Until the immensity of God's point of view on the matter horrifies a person, they will think of themselves as jolly good fellows (compared with murderers and the likes), supposing that they can accumulate some merit, so that (if there is a God and an afterlife) this God will wink at their sin because they've done some things other sinners view a being good (or even righteous!) They will think in terms of Islamic or some Christian group's thinking, that they might tip the divine scales of justice in their favour if they do a bit more good than bad. What kind of a god do they think this is? One who they have brought down to their level of humanistic thinking (which is sinful?) Pascal did not promote even a hint of that kind of warped thinking.

When the Day of Resurrection and Judgment begins, then the truth will hit home (too late for disbelievers) "that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God." Only those whose names are found written in the Lamb's book of Life, on that Day, will be secure for eternity, having already passed over from judgment to life by faith in the Son of God - Revelation 20:6-15; Romans 14:9-12.

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The optimal policy to prepare for eternity is exactly the same as the optimal policy for living a good life here and now.

Russell M. Nelson, the prophet and president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, recently taught:

Here is the great news of God’s plan: the very things that will make your mortal life the best it can be are exactly the same things that will make your life throughout all eternity the best it can be!

(Think Celestial! October 2023 General Conference)

In the same talk, he says:

Far too many people live as though this life is all there is.

If we take the shortsighted view, we might assume this not to be true (because he appeals both to the idea that taking an eternal view is optimal and stating that one can live one's true best life now, and that these are equivalent and mutually satisfiable), but in reality there is no contradiction. The difference is made in one's perspective and the consequences that follow from taking "the long view" rather than thinking only of today.

One's policy choices can either discount the reality of tomorrow, or they can take tomorrow into account. More generally, we can regard the future--including the next few moments or hours--or we can choose not to think of it. The differences of perspective here lead to very different choices and outcomes. The realization that taking an eternal view in fact results in the best and most personally rewarding policy choices today is emergent from experience, and has even been recognized from purely mathematical and secular perspectives.

This is well illustrated in the classic mathematical problem known as the Prisoners' Dilemma. A video explanation of the problem can be found here. In the usual initial statement of the problem, it is apparently rationally ideal for the two prisoners to betray each other, because neither one is certain of the other's choice. However, the actual ideal for everyone is to choose virtuous cooperation. This becomes more evident as the experiment is repeated through a series of successive trials or engagements. Note that it is not necessary for eternity to be accepted as reality or even to be a reality for this finding to hold; rather, it is a sufficient condition for the emergence of perfectly rational cooperation as the provably optimal policy when the test is of a finite duration only involving multiple encounters. This becomes even more strongly the case when the duration is not known in advance.

None of the participants in this dilemma even needs to know that there is a tomorrow, but when all participants act as though there is a tomorrow, and treat future outcomes as at least somewhat relevant to today, it results in optimal choices today.

This dilemma is also explored in a video by Veritasium, in which it is revealed by professors who studied the phenomenon further that an emergent, perfectly rational and optimal policy for such encounters includes five foundational virtues:

  1. Kindness (not giving the first offense, see Alma 48:14)
  2. [Measured] Retaliation or Restitution ("an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth", Exodus 21:22-24, see also Alma 43:47)
  3. Forgiveness (Matthew 6:14-15, etc.)
  4. Clarity (Scripture clearly spells out concrete examples of one's own policy in the form of commandments and the Beatitudes)
  5. Generosity (this accounts for noise or incorrect perceptions, including notably the precept of "innocent until proven guilty beyond all reasonable doubt"; see Deuteronomy 19:15, John 8:7, etc.)

All of these principles are founded in and taught by Christianity, but they are not exclusive to a belief system that includes eternity and final judgment.

(Note that in the video, the professor erroneously states that the optimal policy "isn't Christianity", because it isn't "turn the other cheek", making it a "pushover" that is easily taken advantage of. However, this conveys a misunderstanding of what Christianity is; the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament are one and the same, and His religion includes elements both of retaliatory justice through boundaries and of kindness, forgiveness and generosity. Christianity is also the oldest religion, being taught to Adam and Eve. "Turn the other cheek" can also be thought of as a generous policy, which they outline as another latent rationally optimal choice that is necessary to temper the role of misperception in an otherwise suboptimal scenario of escalatory retaliation).

While the exact tuning and appropriate application of these parameters will depend in some degree upon the kind of company one is surrounded by, the principles must remain in order for the policy to be robust against manipulation. Doctrine and Covenants section 98 spells out a policy that includes all of these elements of kindness, forgiveness, retaliation, and generosity, in a very clear and enumerated fashion.

Scripture teaches that even in the moment,

Wickedness never was happiness. (Alma 41:10)

In summary, the mathematically proven optimal policy for living your best life and obtaining the best outcomes today is already included in the teachings of Jesus Christ, and even mathematicians agree that taking only the conditions of mortal life into account, these virtuous principles form the basis of all the best policies and result in superior outcomes to more limited, shortsighted and unkind policies.

all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets (Matthew 7:12)

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  • + 1 a good answer from a particular denominational perspective. Jan 30 at 1:31
  • "The optimal policy to prepare for eternity is exactly the same as the optimal policy for living a good life here and now." Strong disagree. You must be born again to even see, let alone enter, the kingdom of God. Feb 1 at 13:42
  • @MikeBorden Being born again leads to the companionship of the Holy Spirit, Which fills us with the fruits of the Spirit, including love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, all of which make for a much better life now than could be had otherwise. Being born again does not make us into miserable creatures. It makes us a new creature in Christ, happy, able to do right, innocent, and having the potential for perfection.
    – pygosceles
    Feb 1 at 16:03
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Christian denominations can turn to social science for measurable proof that being righteous produces positive results in the here and now. "Doing good is its own reward" may sound trite, but objective studies have shown that it also true. From Seven Studies Show That Virtue Truly Is Its Own Reward in Psychology Today, Aug. 2017:

  • Generous actions attract potential mates and sexual partners. A 2016 study, entitled "Altruism predicts mating success in humans," indicated that generosity was positively correlated with having a lifetime sexual partner, as well as greater success in dating.

  • Generous behavior will make you happier. Studies have shown that spending money on others leads to more happiness than spending money on yourself. Researchers also found that even small acts of generosity produced the "warm glow" of happiness.

  • Good deeds give you “the helper’s high.” Your good deeds instantly flood your brain with endorphins, measurable feel-good chemicals that give you a natural high.

  • Being righteous also boosts your happiness level. In a 2004 study, researchers asked college students to perform five random acts of kindness per week over six weeks. The “random acts” group received a boost in feelings of happiness, while the control group actually experienced a decrease in happiness.

  • Having a sense of righteous purpose in life helps prevent insomnia. In study of 823 seniors, those who had a purpose in life were 63% less likely to have sleep apnea and 52% less likely to have restless legs syndrome.

  • Practicing gratitude will also increase happiness and other positive emotions. Activities such as writing a letter of thanks and delivering it in person have been shown in numerous studies to be reliable happiness boosters. In addition, the practice of gratitude increases other positive emotions, blocks negative emotions like envy and resentment, and leads to a more optimistic attitude.

  • Volunteering is linked to longer life, less depression, higher sense of control, and higher rates of self-esteem and happiness. Many studies have demonstrated that volunteering lights up the path to happiness. According to the Harvard Help Guide, older people who help and support others live longer than those who do not.

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Dostoyevsky This famous and erudite Russian author attempted to tackle this important issue in hid book, The Brothers Karazamov. His famous quote was:

Without God and the future Judgment (after life), all things are permissible.

Without a view to accountability for one's actions, there is no restraint or governor to his (her) conduct. Evil tends to increase in the heart of man. And if others live by the same codeless principle, then there is unchecked chaos...that can only be stopped by dictatorial government.

But there is then the possibility that the autocratic ruler will himself be, or become, oppressive and suppressive! Evil multiplies by leaps and bounds. And life becomes unbearable. Societies crumble under the weight of selfish living. Crushed by self will.

French Philosophers This idea of life without God and eternal life, and no guiding principles to live by (with accountability), is broached by the French philosophers Sarte and Camus. According to their philosophical insight, there is NO EXIT from a meaningless life, a purposeless universe, a humanity bent on chaos! With no exit there is no hope. Just endless dispair.

It is then beneficial to himself as an individual, and to society at large, to live righteously---if not by the Christian ethics, then by a code of behavior conceived by a philosopher or guru of sorts. (e.g. Confucianism, Humanism, Stoicism).

Ability The problem remains, though, that deals with the ability to live righteously without the empowerment of the Holy Spirit to purify the darkened hearts of man! Even C.S. Lewis (and Benjamin Franklin) recognized this dilemma. Each knew what was good, but to be able to live up to it was another thing. Fallen Human Nature got in the way.

Righteousness is a prerequisite for domestic tranquility. But it also remains that God's mercy and Holy spirit are a prerequisite for Righteousness.

{Corollary Perhaps a corollary to this discussion is the fact that we are admonished to pray for those rulers who are in power. Even though they may not be Christian and may not believe in the after-life, God can providentially temper their personalities and restrain their evil tendencies, so that they conduct themselves in a quasi-righteous manner, for the good of society. One may argue that the ruler is not choosing to be righteous, but the ameliorating effect is the same as if he were Christian choosing to be so in his conduct!}

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Why does selfishness get to be the default? What moral intuition has ever told you this? What logical reasoning has ever concluded this? What person has ever hoped to be small and wicked and disgusting, and not great-hearted and brave?

The previous answers suggest that good often brings benefits to the doer. It is true but I don't see the importance. Sometimes good brings you benefits. Sometimes it brings you loss, hardship, solitude, torture, slavery, ignominy, and death. "Do good when good is your best strategy for personal gain, which is often!" is good advice, but I do not think it is a viable Christian answer. Righteousness in Christianity is not just self-beneficial goodness. It is also to shoulder your own privation - the instrument of your own brutal execution, if necessary - and follow the example of the one who left Heaven itself to suffer and die as a man for no personal gain.

I do not know if there are any particular denominations which emphasize any of the below reasons, and only a few are specifically Christian, but I think they are all in keeping with mainstream Christian doctrine.

Do good because you love your family, your friends, your country, humanity. Do good because you want future generations to inherit a world that is just a little less dark.

Do good because gratitude demands it in return for the good gifts you have received from the living and from the generations already dead.

Only virtue, by definition, is a good in itself. If logical reasoning can give anything the presumption of being the default position, surely it is virtuousness, not selfishness. Do good because it is rational.

Do good because evil is an abomination upon the world, and to truly perceive evil is to feel your soul cry out to oppose it.

Do good because our enemy is Death, evil is his instrument, and good is how humanity endures.

Do good to fill the few short days you have been given with kindness and valor, not cowardice and greed.

Do good because the Lord takes pleasure in those who fear him, those who hope in his steadfast love. Do good in imitation of Christ.

Why should any of these be less important than your own fleeting pleasure? Pleasure, too, is dust in the wind.

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