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The Resurrection and Nietzsche’s Wager

The basic point of Christianity is to get saved. And the point of getting saved is to get into heaven when you die. That was the Gospel according to the denominations I first encountered.

But if the point of Christianity doesn’t happen till you die—and suicide is wrong—I began to wonder what God wanted us to do between converting and dying. Nietzsche had hated Christianity because he thought it was Platonic: a life-negating devotion to death.1 And the eschatology I experienced as a young Christian bore out Nietzsche’s claim.

But since I was raised to know my Bible, I also knew that Jesus came to give us life—life more abundant (John 10:10). And I knew that and living happens now. I also discovered the Anabaptist tradition, which reads the Bible outward from the Sermon on the Mount, instead of backward from the book of Revelation.

“So, enough of personal and cosmic eschatology,” I thought. “Let’s focus on living as Christ’s followers, and deal with the eschaton when we get to it. Confucius had it right: there’s no point worrying about the next life till we get this one right.” And with this decision I could please Nietzsche too: Christianity could be a religion of life, just like he wanted.2

And I like to think Nietzsche would have liked a Christianity focused on discipleship more than the Christianity he found in 19th century Germany. But if I had been paying more attention to Nietzsche, I would have realized that it was impossible to leave the afterlife behind. One of Nietzsche’s most famous “doctrines” should have told me that. But I missed it.

Nietzsche’s Doctrine

The doctrine in question is called “the eternal return (or recurrence) of the same.” Nietzsche presents it as a kind of thought experiment. Imagine that you discovered that you would have to relive your life an infinite number of times in the future, exactly as you are choosing to live it now. How would you choose differently in light of your discovery?3

To understand what Nietzsche is getting at, we can start from the idea of karma and reincarnation. Your choices in this life will have consequences in the next, on the karmic reincarnation view. But in Nietzsche’s eternal return, your choices in this life are your next life, and your next, and your next, on to infinity. How you choose to live now sets the pattern which you will repeat exactly in your next life, and every life thereafter.

On this view, every choice has infinite weight. You’re not simply deciding what to wear or eat today. You are deciding what to wear or eat for an infinite number of days in the future—one day in each of the infinite future repetitions of this life. So, for every choice you have to ask yourself, “Would I be content repeating this choice over and over again, forever?”

Nietzsche’s Wager

Why ought we to take this as anything more than a thought experiment? Think of it like Pascal’s Wager. Pascal said each of us has to choose whether to live a life committed to God or not. If we live a life committed to God, but there is no God, we don’t lose much. But if we live a life committed to God and there is a God, we get an infinite reward. So, when choosing between a small loss and an infinite gain, it’s smartest to place your bets on God.4

Though Nietzsche doesn’t put it like this (as far as I recall), we could use the same kind of argument for the eternal return. If the eternal return is not true, then whether or not you choose to live by it only affects your current, finite life. But if it is true, then whether you or not choose to live by it will have infinite consequences. If it is not true, you stand to lose little by accepting it; if it is true, you stand to gain infinitely if you accept it. So, the smart money will be on the eternal return.

What this should have taught me is that how you live now is determined by your view of the afterlife. It is because you and I do not believe in the eternal return that we think there are unimportant choices and weightless moments. It is because we implicitly believe we will not have to repeat our current lives an infinite number of times that we take so much so lightly.

Two Versions of the Christian Hope

Reflecting on all of this now, I see that the seminar I took on Nietzsche back in grad school should have got me wondering: “How do Christian views of the afterlife determine how we live?” If you don’t mind, therefore, I’d like to make up for lost time and consider that question with you.

The most popular Christian view of the afterlife is that when you die, you go to heaven or hell—depending on whether or not you’ve accepted Christ. And you stay there forever. Or perhaps love wins, and you get to move from hell to heaven eventually. But what matters is that you move from a finite physical state to an unending non-physical one.

The minority position, in contrast, is that heaven is at most a temporary holding ground for our souls between death and resurrection. The point of Christianity is not to get into heaven and avoid hell; it’s to start living a renewed life now that will eventually come into its own on a renewed earth. We live a physical life that is redeemed now, and will pick it up again (fully renewed) after a relatively brief non-physical interlude.

The resurrection (the resumption of a redeemed and improved physical life on a redeemed and improved earth) makes the “forever a disembodied soul in nonphysical heaven” view untenable. And yet the latter view is the one that most people (even Christians) still think of when they think about Christianity. It is the one that helps to determine how most Christians live right now.

But what effect do these two views of the afterlife have on how we live?

Two Ways of Living the First Hope

If what happens next is that we move on to nonphysical heaven for eternity, your current life is all you’ve got to get done most of what you need to get done. The sports you want to play, the dishes you need to wash, the books you want to read and write, the gardens you need to weed, the art you want to create, the ecosystems you want to study—you have to get it done before you die. After death, you’ll be living in a nonphysical realm where it’s difficult to imagine how writing, gardening, painting, science, and so forth could work.

There are two possible reactions to this. Some will feel it means that very little they do in this life can make a lasting difference. Others will hold that it is precisely life’s finitude that gives it urgency, and hence importance. In one case, you will live your life as if most of it doesn’t matter, while in the other you will live it urgently, driven by the fear of missing out. That is, the best you will be able to do is either apathy or controlled hecticity (a word I shall coin to mean, “the state of living hectically”).

Two Ways of Living the Second Hope

But what if, in contrast, you believe we will spend forever as re-embodied beings on a renewed earth? That is, what if you think you have an eternity of physical (though improved) life ahead of you? How might you feel about all the art, science, cleaning, and growing you need to get done?

Again, there are two options. One would be a kind of relaxed procrastination. You’ve got forever to get it all done, so why rush? In fact, why do anything right now? You can always work on it next century. This is like the, “very little ultimately matters,” response some people have to the shortness of physical life. But it lacks the air of despair.

The other option would be to see the infinite future as opening infinite possibilities for unhurried, though consistent, activity. I may not finish a book before I die, but I can pick it up again after the resurrection. You may not perfect your garden now, but you can practice your skills and be ready for really doing the job right when earth is remade. You’ve got time for everything, and don’t have to rush or cut anything out. Life is no longer an either/or proposition; it’s both/and. This is like the purpose-filled response some people have to the shortness of physical life. But it lacks the fear of missing out.

The Real Issue

Of the two possible views of the afterlife, the resurrection view is the one that makes Jesus’ command to “take no thought for tomorrow” (see Matthew 6:25-34)—as well as his advice to Martha (Luke 10:40-42)—actually feel reasonable. But you may argue that the resurrection view I have presented is unbiblical, so we need a bit more precision.

The real issue is not whether you think we’ll spend eternity in heaven, or whether you focus on the resurrection. The real issue is the amount of continuity you believe there will be between our current lives and the life to come. There are passages in scripture that make it seem like there will be a serious break. I’m thinking particularly of Isaiah 65:17,5 the Gospel passages on marriage and the resurrection (Matthew 22:30 / Mark 12:25 / Luke 20:35), and Paul’s discussion of the “spiritual body” we will obtain in the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:35-58). But I, of course, have theories about all of those, and there’s no need to go into them here.

The point is that you and I at this very moment are living as we do, making the choices we are making, because we have a more or less implicit view of the amount of (dis)continuity between our present lives and the life to come. And if you’re like me, you haven’t spent nearly enough time examining and evaluating those views and their foundations. I first read Nietzsche a dozen years ago, and should have started working on this then. But better late than never, right? And there may or may not be any rush.

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Micah Tillman

Micah Tillman

Micah is the host of the Top 40 Philosophy podcast. He has a B.A. in computer science (Messiah College), an M.A. in philosophy (West Chester University of Pennsylvania), and a Ph.D. in philosophy (The Catholic University of America). He taught philosophy at universities in the Washington, DC area for 9.5 years, and is now on what he thinks of as a sabbatical.

  • Kenneth O’Shaughnessy

    My primary issue with Paschal’s Wager (and by extension apparently, Nietzsche) is that St Paul disagrees. In the Pauline view, either the Gospel is true and that’s all that matters, or we’re miserable wretches. In light of that, then, how do we view the afterlife as Christians? I would argue, that there is no “afterlife” – there’s life in Christ, and there’s life without him. The choice between them is today.

    • Sarah Rhein

      In the same vein, as Kenneth’s statement above (“there is no “afterlife” – there’s life in Christ, and there’s life without him”), I would hold with the Athanasian creed that “the reasonable soul and the flesh are one man.” So when I say that I believe that I myself will spend eternity in the presence of the Lord, I conceive of doing so in my body of flesh – resurrected imperishable, perfected, made new, but at the same time not new in the sense that I do not believe that I will be given a different body as I would put on a different set of clothes. I tend to think that, like Christ, my resurrected body will bear the scars of this life, that rather than arriving in heaven as a blank slate of holiness, I will arrive as a redeemed union of body and soul who carries with her in mind, heart and body a unique personal history and a memory, and a personality with unique habits and tendencies that have finally been entirely sanctified in the resurrection.

      Because of this view, I understand that the things I do with my body, mind, and mouth have long-term effects on my immortal person. The resurrection is for this reason a comfort and a hope to me, not a license to poor self-control, freneticism, or apathy.

  • Pingback: The Resurrection and Nietzsche’s Wager — Conciliar Post | Talmidimblogging()

  • Thanks for this essay. I’m be curious to hear from Matthew Bryan, as he has raised some similar questions (about salvation and “fear of damnation”) in a recent article (Catholic-Lutheran Dialogue, Part IV).

    As for myself, I fall into this category: “Others will hold that it is precisely life’s finitude that gives it urgency, and hence importance.” The choices we make determine who we are, and thus I think Nietzsche’s lens has much to teach us since it highlights the permanent and self-actualizing nature of free will. Of course, free will isn’t the whole story, because we can’t count on ourselves to make the best choices without help. This is where the will to power ultimately must melt before and become open to the love that humbles, that makes low in order to make high (Mary’s Magnificat).

    The other point I’d like to add is that there is a tension between your “First Hope” and “Second Hope,” but it’s a tension that authors throughout Catholic Tradition have tried to resolve (e.g. what *is* the role of the body in the beatific state). I think you can find continuity between this life and the next in most of the Church Doctors. Caroline Walker Bynum has a great text called The Resurrection of the Body that I’d recommend for learning more about these issues