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Staging the world’s largest cornucopia: Is “belief in an afterlife” a “malignant delusion”?

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Cornucopia on a black background
© Dar1930/stock.adobe.com

Americans spend $800 million a year on Thanksgiving turkeys, according to Forbes. Eighty million of us watched NFL games yesterday as well. However, it takes an estimated nine hours for a 180-pound adult to walk off an average three thousand-calorie Thanksgiving meal.

In other words, we will do well to do more than watch television today.

We could bake cookies to give to essential workers, following the example of two dads in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, who have now delivered fifteen thousand cookies since April. We could provide discipleship materials to Christians in Pakistan, joining a thirty-five-member church in Indiana which has made Henry Blackaby’s Experiencing God available in the Urdu language for twenty-two pastors and Sunday school teachers in that Muslim country.

We could stage a holiday display for the benefit of our community like a Baptist church in Washington, Iowa, which recently debuted the world’s largest cornucopia. Or we could join Christian evangelists who are using video game platforms to share the gospel.

Now that the holiday of Thanksgiving is over, how can we help the people we know share the life-changing experience of thanksgiving? 

By giving them a reason to be thankful for us.

Thomas Merton noted: “The real reason why so few men believe in God is that they have ceased to believe that even a God can love them.” 

So, let’s love them, for their sake and for ours as well.

Is “belief in an afterlife” a “malignant delusion”?

Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker posted on Facebook, “Belief in an afterlife is a malignant delusion, since it devalues actual lives and discourages action that would make them longer, safer, and happier.” I can see why a secularist would think this if such belief would focus him on the future to the neglect of the present.

However, for Christians, the opposite is actually the case.

Jesus clearly believed in an afterlife (cf. Luke 23:46), but he clearly valued actual lives and encouraged action that “would make them longer, safer, and happier.” He launched his public ministry by “teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people” (Matthew 4:23). He commissioned his first followers to “heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons” (Matthew 10:8).

Early Christians were so generous that “there was not a needy person among them” (Acts 4:34). They were passionate about healing bodies (cf. Acts 3:1–10) and souls (vv. 11–26). In the centuries that followed, Christians were on the forefront of hospitals and healthcare, especially in times of plague and other pandemics. They built the earliest universities in the medieval world; in fact, “almost every university and college founded in the US and Europe until the mid-19th century—and many afterwards—was founded by some religious organization.”

Why living for heaven changes lives on earth

Contradicting Dr. Pinker, C. S. Lewis noted that “Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next.” 

Why is this so?

One reason is that thinking of the next world reminds us of divine judgment and the consequent urgency of ministering to those in need. Jesus told us that when we stand before him one day, he will reward our service to others as service to himself (Matthew 25:40).

Critics will accuse such motivation of being mercenary, but a doctor who is paid for her service can be just as compassionate as one who is not.

Jesus wanted us to know that he values our ministry to those he loves so much that he rewards such service forever. However, he also knows our hearts (John 2:24), and others will see through self-serving motivation as well. If we help them only for personal gain in heaven, we are unlikely to be of much help on earth. As a result, we lose our reward in heaven.

Conversely, when we focus on paradise, we are drawn closer to the One who is enthroned there (cf. Revelation 4:1–11). The Holy Spirit then uses such communion with our Lord to make us more like our Savior (cf. Romans 8:29). He manifests the “fruit of the Spirit,” the first of which is “love” (Galatians 5:22).

And our Savior’s heart for hurting people becomes ours.

“His steadfast love endures forever”

The holiday we call Thanksgiving is done, but every day can be a holy day when we “give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever!” (Psalm 107:1, my emphasis). And when we love others with the sacrificial grace we have received from our Lord, we give them reason for thanksgiving as well.

As usual, Henri Nouwen makes my point better than I can:

“I am deeply convinced that we can only work for the liberation of the people if we love them deeply. And we can only love them deeply when we recognize their gift to us. I am deeply convinced of the importance of social change and of the necessity to work hard to bring about a just and peaceful society. But I also feel that this task can only be done in a spirit of gratitude and joy.

“That is why I am more and more convinced of the importance to live in the Spirit of the Risen Christ. Christ is the God who entered into solidarity with our struggles and became truly a God-with-us. It was this solidarity that led him to the cross by which he overcame death and evil. Believing in the Risen Lord means believing that in and through Christ the evil one has been overcome and that death no longer is the final word.

“Working for social change, to me, means to make visible in time and place that which has already been accomplished in principle by God himself. This makes it possible to struggle for a better world not out of frustration, resentment, anger, or self-righteousness, but out of care, love, forgiveness, and gratitude.”

Who will give thanks for such gifts from you today?

NOTE: If you’re looking for gifts for the discerning Christians in your life, I’d like to humbly suggest that you browse our currently discounted books. For a minimum donation of $5, you may request The Greater Work, Empowered, 7 Deadly Sins, or Making Sense of Suffering. This is a limited-time event, so please request any—or all—of these books today, for yourself, or for a family member or friend.