Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Afterlife Demographics

In addition to Neil Carter, I count several of the blog moderators over at Godless in Dixie among my friends. Yeah, I'm name-dropping. People know me. Deal with it. Anyway, one of those mods is an ex-Christian who goes by the handle Thought2Much. His name, of course, is a reference to the reason why he deconverted. Now, before you get in a huff, thinking Christian, don't assume that this in any way implies that I'm saying Christians don't or can't think. You are unlikely to ever hear me say that I think all Christians are stupid or incapable of deep thought and reflection. After all, my last stop on the faith train was hardly a brand of anti-intellectual Christianity.

What I am referring to is thinking too much about certain doctrines or propositions found within Christianity that, when brought to conclusion, lend themselves to some silly things that often make one sit up, give pause, and question the validity of the entire scheme. There are plenty of these we could look at, but this time around I'd like to focus on what happens when we combine some standard Christian assumptions about the afterlife and view the end result.

Most versions of Christianity will acknowledge the existence of an afterlife. The popular versions, particularly in my neck of the woods, will posit that all human beings have souls that will continue to have conscious existence in the afterlife into perpetuity. Most will even grant that those souls will one day be reunited with bodies and that both body and soul will continue in existence (usually either in a state of eternal bliss or a state of eternal torment). Now, some versions are annihilationist, and they will grant that while all human beings have souls, some of those souls will face the cessation of conscious existence while others will go on forever. I want to examine how the afterlife is populated and with whom within these paradigms.

First, some assumptions for this thought experiment. Let's assume that "human being" means any entity that these kinds of Christians would typically define as having personhood or possessing the Imgao Dei. As such, this would include human life at any stage of development, including zygotes. This is arguably both a standard Protestant and Catholic position on this, and is the foundational religious objection to things like early-term abortion and embryonic stem cell research. If you disagree with the scriptural arguments for "ensoulment" at conception put forward in those links, you're less likely to be subject to much of the absurdity that is to follow. Some of the mainline Protestants can probably check out here, but I'd be curious to know when exactly they think a human being acquires a soul that will one day find itself in the afterlife.

OK, having applied our parameters and defined our assumptions, let's proceed by asking a question. Given these assumptions, what kinds of human beings would we expect to populate the afterlife? According to the National Institutes of Health, around half of all human embryos die spontaneously. Half. So right out of the gate half of all human beings who have ever existed never made it out of the womb. Keep in mind this has only been measurable of late and among studies done on women within the developed world. Who knows what that number used to be? We can probably suppose that prior to the Industrial Age it was even greater than 50%. Perhaps much greater.

Next, let's look at infant mortality. This would be human beings that die within one year of birth. Prior to 1900, infant mortality rates (expressed as a ratio of the number of infants who die per one thousand live births) were between two and three hundred. This varies throughout human history and among different cultures and geographic regions, but most anthropologists will call two hundred a really good year for any civilization prior to a hundred years ago. What this means is that prior to 1900, at least 25% of those less-than-half of human beings that survived long enough to be born also died within a year. That number saw steady decline in the 20th century and is now down below 5% worldwide.

We could go on to look at the under-5 mortality rate both historically and currently, but I don't feel that's necessary for our little thought experiment. We've already established that well over half of all human beings die before they ever experience any conscious existence whatsoever. Think about that. Well over half of all human beings have no memories, no real conscious existence to speak of. None whatsoever. Over half. Understand? The majority of human beings. Ever. And this is the divine plan that God set in motion. This is the backdrop of the redemption story. These are necessary, collateral human beings. And they outnumber the rest of humanity. Really?
This is how God planned it. Totally.

So what does this do to how we split our afterlife demographics? Well, that depends on how you go about deciding whether people end up in smoking or non-smoking (or somewhere in-between). One thing remains, of course. In any non-annihilationist paradigm, most of it's inhabitants never experienced life on this side of things. In annihilationist paradigms, it ends up being the vast, overwhelming majority of those in the afterlife, since all the bad people who in other systems would go on to populate hell, merely get extinguished instead. In other words, shrink that blue part of the pie down considerably for them.

Let's start our heaven/hell breakdown by looking at the good ol' ad hoc "age of accountability." This is probably the most popular system of dealing with non-adult deaths in evangelicalism, despite the Bible being bereft of passages that even come close to spelling it out. Under this view well over a majority of human beings die and go to heaven automatically, having never heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Well, hallelujah! I guess. I mean, divine redemption was an awful lot of trouble to go through when the default position for the majority of humanity ends up being a positive afterlife and they never even had to know about it. I suppose that means the majority of humanity gets to heaven and then learns of God and hears about what Jesus did for them? You know, in saving them from their sin so they could go to heaven, even though they never did a damned thing wrong in the first place. "Uh. Thanks, Jesus?"  This sets up a scenario where God spares the majority of humanity from hell even though they were never given a choice in the matter. What happened to all that ado about free will? Turns out that stuff doesn't even apply to most human beings. That's kind of ironic since one of the features of the whole age of accountability doctrine is trying to preserve that whole free will thing to begin with.

And what of the folks in hell? Well, guess what, suckers. You were the unlucky zygotes that were in the minority that successfully implanted, survived birth, survived infancy, survived childhood and were given the glorious privilege of exercising your free will so you could rebel against God and suffer eternity in hell. Sucks to be you. Well, to whom much is given, much is required, I suppose. Oh, something additional of note that I forgot to mention about historic infant mortality: females were more likely to survive than males. This means that males more frequently got an automatic ticket to heaven, while more females got to run the risk of misusing their free will to reject God. Lucky them. If being able to live a conscious existence and freely choose God is so great, why did God set up a system in which most people don't get to do that?

Catholics have a couple of "speculative" options here. One is limbo. Take this option and you're still putting well over half of humanity in there. The implication being that God created humans knowing he'd be sending over half of them to some kind of eternal containment unit. Hopefully Walter Peck doesn't come around with a court order and shut down the grid. Seems a bit wasteful, though, don't you think? The other is that unbaptized infants attain heaven much like in the evangelical paradigm of "age of accountability" discussed above. The Catholic Church is not dogmatic about either position, so choose whichever silly scenario you prefer. Better yet, come up with your own! Whatever makes you feel better about God.
"Now you either show me what is down there, St. Peter, or I come back with a court order."

Now to the Reformed position. When it comes to the question of the smoking or non-smoking sections for this sea of humanity that never experienced conscious existence this side of eternity, the position can actually be pretty agnostic. "Elect infants dying in infancy" are saved. The rest are damned. What does that mean? Well, if the little zygote was elect, he gets a pleasant afterlife. If not, it's eternal torture. How do we know which ones are elect? Well, some will say the "covenant children" of the visible, professing members of the church are likely safe here. As for everyone else, who the hell knows? That's one of the "secret" things of God. I mean, it has huge implications for the majority of all the human beings that have ever lived, but Yahweh's keeping this one to himself.

Honestly, I doubt most Calvinists will have a problem with this. They're already crypto-maltheists who've acknowledged in their theology that God is a giant prick (by any reasonable human standard of what it means to be a giant prick, at least). They just don't dare call him that to his face. "Praise him for his glorious wrath!" Amirite? Their General Zod god could toss a bag full of kittens off the Empire State Building, swoop down and rescue one of them at the last second and they would sing of his marvelous grace and talk of how the whole bag surely deserved to perish. The real mystery is not why he chose to toss the bag of kittens off the building in the first place (they probably rebelled against his authority and kept wandering around mewing instead of worshiping him); it's why he ever chose to save even one. Besides, they were his kittens to do with as he pleased. Also, who are you, O puny earthman, to question Zod?
You're already hearing his voice in your head. That's the sensus divinitatis.
I digress. The point is, framed in any of the preceeding ways, we are left to suppose that the main purpose of conscious existence this side of heaven is to serve as an incredibly complicated way for God to populate eternity with a majority of beings who never developed personalities, have no memories, know nothing of love or loss or failure or ecstasy or regret or even redemption, and will have no experience of this life whatsoever. This raises questions like, is there some kind of second-class majority citizenry in the afterlife with no rewards to speak of because they never got to really live? How does any of this make any sense at all? I don't know. Maybe you can make it make sense? Get to it, imaginative theologians.

This is but one example of the sorts of things you begin to ponder when you stop trusting in the LORD with all your heart and leaning not on your own understanding. Or, you know. Thinking too much.


  1. An interesting possibility would be if all the people who didn't get to choose God got reincarnated until they did. In that view, human souls do have free will, as they can keep rejecting God and getting reincarnated as long as they liked. But it would make God seem like less of a jerk, as he'd keep offering the chance to get to Heaven no matter what you did. I don't think this position has any Biblical basis or that there is any version of Christianity that believes anything like this. But it does seem to solve most of the moral problems of the Christian depiction of the afterlife.

    1. That's an interesting hypothetical, but I'm wondering how God would go about bringing that scenario to a close. It seems there would have to come a point at which everyone on earth was both freely choosing God and living long enough to do so. Otherwise the reincarnation process would never end. It certainly would make God appear like less of a jerk, though.

      I think perhaps a better way would be to use his divine foreknowledge, which can predict who will and who won't reject him, and instead of actualizing a world in which the people he knows will reject him exist with souls, he simply makes them mindless robots that are programmed to act in exactly the same way they would in a world in which they were humans with free choice. Similarly, those that never reach an "age of accountability" are merely programmed automatons as well. They all only appear to be fully human to the ones that will freely choose God and these folks are none the wiser.

      Now, this would make God a liar in both setting up these conditions and claiming he never lies, but wouldn't he have morally sufficient reasons for telling these lies? After all, he'd be actualizing a world in which all his free creatures will freely choose him. He gets what he supposedly wants (a world in which his free creatures freely choose him) without having to punish anyone for rejecting him.

      Of course, that would make me a mindless automaton and I certainly don't feel like one. But then again, that's exactly what I'd be programmed to say, isn't it?

  2. I never thought that omniscience was a good trait for anyone to have, as it precludes any sort of choice for anyone. And I do believe that choice is a great good, even if it's used in harmful ways sometimes. But if you assume a god with omniscience, no one has the ability to make any choices, including that god. Everything has to be fixed, otherwise the omniscient god would be uncertain about something.
    Also, that makes the whole idea of robots acting in the way they would if they were humans with free choice absurd, as if they had choice, there could act differently than whatever they were programmed to do. Of course, that's not to say robots without free will couldn't act believably like human beings.
    And as for bringing the scenario to a close, who needs it? World without end, right? Every new soul would make it to God eventually, but more souls could always be created.
    Though it could indeed come to an end eventually, as there is a greater than non-zero chance that everyone would be freely choosing God and living long enough to do so. But again, there is nothing wrong with the process not necessarily ending. God could always start a new universe to keep it going for as long as desired. And in this case, God would not even have to lie or really do anything immoral. People get to stay away from God as long as they choose, but their only sufferings are the sufferings of this world, not some eternal torment.
    The whole thing reminds me a little of the play "The Last Days of Judas Iscariot," which discusses a lot of the weird things about dogmatic Christian views of the afterlife. It's a hilarious play, and thought-provoking to read.
    SPOILER ALERT (relevant for this discussion, though)
    Toward the end of the play, Satan basically says that anyone can be forgiven and walk out of hell, even if they were sent there after they died. So, kind of like the reincarnation speculation, no one is tormented eternally, but only for as long as they choose to be tormented.

    1. Well, you'll get disagreement from theologians (and some philosophers) about whether or not omniscience precludes libertarian free will. I was just trying to play within the bounds of one popular paradigm, namely Molinism. Personally I have difficulty making sense of the concepts of libertarian free will and omniscience exclusive of each other, much less when they appear together.

      I think you might be misunderstanding the robot idea, or perhaps I did not explain it well enough, but I won't belabor that one. I was being fanciful and flippant, as it seemed you were as well. The whole notion is absurd to me. If God can lie, he's not trustworthy in any regard, including in expressing concern for us.

      As for your infinite (or perhaps just really, really long) reincarnation scenario, I'm not seeing how it avoids making the god of the Bible out to be a liar. Additionally, while producing temporal suffering is much less morally problematic than eternal suffering, that still seems like a scenario in which a good deal of unnecessary suffering may be going on. IOW, that god appears to be much less evil, but still arguably a bit evil, or at least somewhat incompetent. Certainly preferable to the traditional view, however.

      But regardless, since those views aren't exactly orthodox ones in most Christian systems, that's all fairly trivial to me. I'd rather argue about whether or not Anakin Skywalker and Darth Vader can be rightly viewed as different people.

    2. Well, I figured that since the post said "Get to it, imaginative theologians," that I might as well come up with some imaginative theology.
      I get confused by how some Christians define free will so that they can still believe in an omniscient god. I have a friend whose said that its not a contradiction, because were allowed to act according to our own desires. But that's a different thing than being able to choose between two or more options. Being able to choose only one thing isn't really a choice.
      And as for temporal suffering, if we actually have the ability to make choices, there will be a greater than non-zero probability that we will make whichever choice is more harmful. Even that could be construed as suffering, using a broad enough definition. Where there is choice, there is also the potential for the choice to be the 'wrong' one.
      The Garden of Eden story reads in very different ways depending on whether one assumes omniscience or free will (I do like your earlier post about that story, by the way). Adam and Eve always had the option of eating its fruit (making a harmful choice). Now, if God is omniscient, he would know exactly when Eve would eat the fruit. But that wouldn't mean God can choose to stop that, necessarily, as God must also know exactly what he will do. And none of this can be changed, because that would mean God would be incorrect about something, or not omniscient. If Adam and Eve had free will, though, they had a greater than non-zero probability of eating the fruit at any given time. Since they're just hanging out in the garden for eternity, it doesn't matter how low the probability is that they'll make that choice, as long as the probability is zero, they'll make the choice to eat the fruit eventually.
      I hope all of this was coherent and relevant, and I apologize if it wasn't. I do enjoy reading your post here, so please update more often :).

    3. I have a friend whose said that its not a contradiction, because were allowed to act according to our own desires. But that's a different thing than being able to choose between two or more options. Being able to choose only one thing isn't really a choice.

      Let me ask you something, though. How do you go about choosing between two or more options? You choose according to what you desire, correct? From whence comes that desire?

      To use your Edenic example, I'm not so sure the probability has to ever rise above zero. If conditions are such that Adam and Eve never have the desire to eat the fruit, they never will. Desire to perform the action is a necessary condition. So how do they acquire that desire? It won't do to simply say that it springs forth from their "free will" at random. It seems there must be a causal chain of some kind that generated that desire. The fruit had to be pleasing to the eye, desired to make one wise, etc. They had to at least suspect Yahweh was lying to them and that the risk was worth the reward. What led them to distrust what Yahweh said? What led them to believe the serpent? Was it a lack of faith? How did their faith then become insufficient to keep them obedient?

      All those those cognitive processes become necessary conditions. The things that set off those cognitive processes had to originate from somewhere. What caused them? Wasn't it the conditions set up by the originator of the entire sequence of events? So at what point in the causal chain does free will of the kind you seem to be positing come into play?

      Even if we grant some sort of non-physical mind with a will that somehow overrides these cognitive processes, that still doesn't answer the question of why it does whatever it is that it does to impact the decision-making. This is what I meant when I said I have trouble making sense of this concept. It leads me to suspect that people often use "free will" as a kind of placeholder because they feel acknowledging some form of determinism means that agents cannot rightly be held accountable for their actions.

    4. If there are multiple possibilities with non-zero probabilities of happening, it does completely deny the assumption that there is a causal chain of events. Saying that there is a causal chain of events is an assumption not supported by the most popular model of quantum mechanics, the Copenhagen interpretation, anyway, as in that model of the world we live in, all outcomes are modeled as probabilities. In such a worldview, free will means that there isn't a direct causal link between reasons for the thing happening and the thing happening. All of the reasons simply increase the probability of one thing happening, they don't actually cause it to happen.
      In such a worldview, free will practically acts like a truly random number generator. It decides between various options that could happen, and brings one of them into being. It is ultimately probability based, not deterministic.
      I completely agree that many people use "free will" as a placeholder, though. Many people are uncomfortable with the world being deterministic, but are also uncomfortable with things happening "at random". Even Einstein had theological problems with the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics. He apparently dismissed it be saying "God does not play dice with the universe", according to wikipedia. People are uncomfortable with both worldviews, so they come up with a kind of "free will" that is deterministic, and then pretend like it isn't.

    5. OK. I assumed we were looking strictly at non-physical explanations. What you seem to be proposing is a physical one that, as I understand it anyway, equates free will with randomness. I suspect you are correct that many folks, including most Christians, would not be comfortable with the randomness of a "dice rolling" god (or universe).

    6. I used a physical explanation, but one could assume people have a non-physical random probability picker if one wished. The point is that a certain outcome is either already determined (100% chance of happening), or it's not (<100% chance of it happening). One could mix these in a theology or worldview, saying some things are determined while others aren't, but an individual outcome must either have a 100% probability of happening, or a less than 100% probability of happening. I am equating the second one with the word "choice", and the first one with the word "determinism". Of course people can, and frequently do, redefine words, but that is how I used them in this discussion. Thank you for taking you time to have such a thoughtful discussion with me; I look forward to commenting on more posts in the future.

  3. Hi Apostate, just read your blog post on Neil's blog so I thought I'd check yours out... Its an interesting read. How do you feel about Near Death literature and that sort or stuff? For me (its not for everyone and I can appreciate that) when talk of prebirth souls comes up its always framed in a context where we have the choice to incarnate and it's not at the whim of some guy in the sky with a beard pulling strings. Not sure if that's a conversation for here though.

    1. I haven't read that much about the accounts of NDEs outside of the context of neurobiology and how the brain may generate those. In other words, I don't know much about the common "mythos" shared in the literature.

      I'm not sure I follow what you are suggesting, but it doesn't seem like whatever it is fits within the standard Christian view of souls and the afterlife, and that's what I'm focusing on in this post. I'm not completely averse to tangental discussions, however, as the comments preceding yours should illustrate :-)

  4. Hello Apostate! I landed here after reading your article about Presuppositions Atheism on Godless in Dixie.

    I really enjoyed this article. I've never thought about the afterlife in these terms. Great job!

    1. Thank you. I appreciate the feedback, especially when it's positive and complementary.

  5. I have always wondered what those Christian couples, who have a miscarriage, expect when they say things like 'I know we will be reunited in heaven with our precious child.'
    Sooo, you expect to meet a 20 week old fetus in heaven? With the body of a 20 week old fetus? Who has never met you, won't know you, and has never experienced life? AND, you expect that this will be a pleasant encounter....?

    1. Well, according to Colton Burpo's later descriptions of the vision of heaven he had as a three-year-old, the kid grows up. Burpo claims to have met the miscarried sister that his parents say they never told him about (although his father admits they had told his living sister).

      I think I had at one time reasoned that everyone would have the body of a 33 year old regardless of how old they were then they died since that's how old Jesus was when he was crucified and raised.

    2. Burpo and his family are not to be confused with that other liar for Jesus Alex Malarky who just recanted.