The Christian version of the afterlife is unique in two respects. It is so unlike our present existence that the Bible says that it can only be seen dimly and is best expressed in images. But it is very much like our present existence in that our present self will be preserved and will have attributes and levels of flourishing which depend upon our virtue in this life.
In other words, there is the motivation for something far beyond what we presently experience while simultaneously giving meaning to those present experiences. Not only so, but your self is not lost in the Christian afterlife, but enhanced.
The New Testament makes these points frequently, here are two representative examples:
- …what we will be has not yet been made known, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him [Christ] for we shall see him as he is. (1 John 3:2)
- …in the Lord, your labor [good deeds] is not in vain. (1 Corinthians 15:58)
Below are the observations of a professor of medieval literature, a theologian, and a social scientist about the relationship between the Christian view of hope and earthly eu-civic behavior.
In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis comments on the nature of Christian hope and how it leads one to work harder in the here and now because of the height of aspiration it offers as well as the role the present life plays in one’s enjoyment of the next:
“Hope is one of the Theological virtues. This means that a continual looking forward to the eternal world is not (as some modern people think) a form of escapism or wishful thinking, but one of the things a Christian is meant to do. It does not mean that we are to leave the present world as it is. If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next. The Apostles themselves, who set on foot the conversion of the Roman Empire, the great men who built up the Middle Ages, the English Evangelicals who abolished the Slave Trade, all left their mark on Earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with Heaven. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this. Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’: aim at earth and you will get neither. It seems a strange rule, but something like it can be seen at work in other matters.”
David Bentley Hart
In an essay describing American civic religion and religious sentiment in America generally, David Bentley Hart laments the death of Christendom in Europe. In so doing, he makes similarly psychological points about the nature of Christian hope it’s motivating power. I recommend the entire essay, not just these portions:
“A culture–a civilization–is only as great as the religious ideas that animate it; the magnitude of a people’s cultural achievements is determined by the height of its spiritual aspirations. One need only turn one’s gaze back to the frozen mires and fetid marshes of modern Europe, where once the greatest of human civilizations resided, to grasp how devastating and omnivorous a power metaphysical boredom is. The eye of faith presumes to see something miraculous within the ordinariness of the moment, mysterious hints of an intelligible order calling out for translation into artifacts, institutions, ideas, and great deeds, but boredom’s disenchantment renders the imagination inert and desire torpid.”
And two paragraphs later:
“Europe may now be its own mausoleum, but once, under the golden canopy of an infinite aspiration–the God-man–the noblest of human worlds took shape: Hagia Sophia, Chartres, Rouen, and il Duomo; Giotto and Michelangelo; Palestrina and Bach; Dante and Shakespeare; Ronsard and Herbert; institutions that endured, economies that prospered, laws that worked justice, hypocrisies but also a cultural conscience that never forgot to hate them; and the elevation of charity above all other virtues.”
Finally, Rodney Stark makes the point that the Christian belief in a God who himself believes in human progress allowed for civilization on a vast scale to envision new vistas of ethics, knowledge, and technology and make them happen by studying the world God had made. The rest of the book is his substantiation of the claims below:
“The Christian image of God is that of a rational being who believes in human progress, more fully revealing himself as humans gain the capacity to better understand. Moreover, because God is a rational being and the universe is his personal creation, it necessarily has a rational, lawful, stable structure, awaiting increased human comprehension. This was the key to many intellectual undertakings, among them the rise of science.”
Of course, what would Christian historians, theologians, and literature professors have to say about the workings of the mind on such a broad scale? Well, more than one might imagine.
For instance, in Homo Prospectus, several psychologists attempt to explain the future orientation of human beings and how that orientation makes us what we are. They use the word prospection to refer to any consideration of future possibilities for present action. In the chapter on collective prospection, Roy Baumeister observes that:
Religion has been a powerful cultural construction, and it served vital functions in facilitating large- scale cooperation, long before law enforcement was up to the task. It enabled people to work together for mutual benefit in large social groups and networks. Sharing a god as a common ancestor or parent, indeed a god who watched people constantly and set rules for morally proper behavior, facilitated the trust needed for such cooperation. It would hardly have been possible without prospection, however. Part of the power of religion was that it could explain the entire time span of the universe, from its origins to its end. Big gods made sure that each individual’s role in that universal saga would involve moral judgment, with immense rewards or punishments awaiting each individual on the basis of how morally virtuous his or her actions were.
In other words, one of the functions of a religion which offers a future hope dependent upon present action is that it provides a future orientation that imbues seemingly mundane and boring daily activities with meaning for an infinite future. Not only so, but the rules for the future judgment provide a singular goal for the thousands of competing goals in a civilization and the dozens of competing goals in the life of a single family. Such a vision of the good life, particularly if based on the God revealed in Jesus Christ, helps one to develop even the most difficult virtues in the face of the most horrifying sufferings:
For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:17-18 ESV)
 C. S. Lewis. Mere Christianity (HarperCollins, 2007), 134.
 David Bentley Hart, “Religion in America Ancient and Modern,” in In the Aftermath: Provocations and Laments (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2008), 59-60.
 Rodney Stark, The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success (Random House of Canada, 2005), 11.
 Martin E. P. Seligman, Homo Prospectus (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 152.