One day, several months ago, I was having lunch with popular newspaper columnist and TV talk-show host Gawaya Tegule in downtown Kampala.

We conversed about many things, and eventually the topic of religion came up. He told me why he believed in ‘God’, and I told him why I didn’t. It was a friendly exchange. It so happened that sitting right opposite me was a Jehovah’s Witness, and as I was walking out of the restaurant, he asked to speak to me briefly. He talked to me about the wonders of ‘God’ and why I should believe, and asked me if I’d like to meet him and his friend to discuss religion further over some roasted pork on Saturday. I gladly accepted the offer. He had me at roasted pork. I love roasted pork.

Saturday came and I met James (that is his name) and Walter at Bamboo Nest, Bugolobi (in the outskirts of Kampala) and we began a lively debate on the ‘God’ question. Being Jehovah’s Witnesses, they had some very interesting things to say about the afterlife.

It went something like this: basically when Jesus ‘returns’, Jehovah will choose (has chosen?) 144,000 humans to rule with him in heaven with Jesus and the angels. The rest that have been good ‘Witnesses’ get to come back to life when Jesus returns, and live for eternity in paradise here on Earth. You’ve seen the imagery, I’m sure:

Paradise

Naturally, I asked..

So what happens to those of us who didn’t do what Jehovah said we were supposed to do? You know, like non-believers?

Their answer was..

You don’t get resurrected to enjoy eternal life on Earth in Paradise. In other words, you remain dead.

‘Will we go to hell?’ I queried.

Walter responded..

No, no.. the concept of hell is simply a metaphor. Many Christians have misinterpreted the context of the passages that refer to a ‘hell’. There is no literal ‘lake of fire’. What will actually happen is that once you die, that will be the end for you. No resurrection and life of happiness for eternity!

My next response to them shocked them completely. I said:

Well, if what you say is true, then that’s perfectly fine with me.

They couldn’t believe their ears.

‘Wha..wha..what do mean? DON’T YOU WANT TO LIVE FOREVER?’ they pleaded.

They really couldn’t understand why a person wouldn’t want to live in bliss for eternity. These guys really thought there was something wrong with me. Who wouldn’t want to live forever?

‘Nope,’ I said, and continued..

It would be perfectly fine for me to just live my live to the fullest here on earth and for it to all end here. I honestly find the idea of eternal life nauseating.

Both of them shook their heads in disbelief. We moved on to discussing other topics before eventually bidding each other farewell – but not before them giving me two booklets, and no less than three Watchtower magazines for me to ‘study’ (man, these guys definitely don’t play around).

Religious people often protest when non-believers accuse them of holding on to their faiths because they are afraid of death, or are anxious about what they think might follow after death. While such an accusation might seem at first like an over-generalisation, it certainly cannot be denied that the desire to ‘beat’ death is one of the strongest motivating factors for choosing to be religious, or spiritual. It was partly the case for me as well, when I was still a born-again Christian 18 years ago.

Going to heaven was a prospect that I not only took very seriously at the time, but one I was actively looking forward to. I couldn’t wait to get to heaven – I remember. ‘What am i still doing around in this sinful, evil, filthy world?’ I kept asking myself. ‘The sooner I died the quicker I’ll get there,’ I thought.

Stair_Way_To_Heaven

I remember telling my friends that I would be willing die for Jesus if it were required of me to do so.  I remember imagining myself in suicide-bomber-5heaven, living a blissful, happy life – forever – after I had been killed while preaching the gospel (or something like that).  It didn’t occur to me then that half-way across the world, many youths in parts of the Arab world were also quite willing to die a ‘glorious death’ for the sake of their faith, because they believed a ‘better’ life awaited them in heaven.

Indeed, in light of all that is promised in the next life by various religious traditions, to me at the time, focusing on this life seemed so trivial. I was constantly frustrated that Jesus was taking his time with the rapture. I really wanted to get into heaven to begin my ‘eternal’ life in paradise with Jesus. My life here on earth truly struck me as being rather pointless, and I couldn’t wait for it to be over.

Wow.

Of course, as I progressed into an atheist, I began to see things differently.

Gradually, the idea of an eternal life actually started sounding cheap to me. The whole thing is simple, really – we ascribe value to things that are rare. The winner of a lottery marvels because it is not everyday that one wins a lottery. Chances are that he or she will never win it again, after winning it once – and as such, he feels humbled by the experience. We value gold, diamonds, and other precious stones because they are scarce items. The world mourned the loss of Michael Jackson because we knew there would never be another Michael Jackson – he was one of a kind..

All of us, are one of a kind, and that is why each one of us is special. We also won’t always be around.

I began to value my life on Earth because I realised that this life was the one and only life I will ever live. This realisation is what now motivates me to try to live the best life I can – every single day. It also motivates me to strive to help others so that they, too, can live the best life they possibly can – every single day.  

"When I got untethered from the comfort of religion, it wasn’t a loss of faith for me, it was a discovery of self. I had faith that I’m capable enough to handle any situation. There’s peace in understanding that I have only one life, here and now, and I’m responsible."

Brad Pitt (Source: Parade 10/07/2007)

I couldn’t agree more with Brad Pitt. We are all responsible, so let’s try to fix this world…NOW. It’s all we’ve got.

Life is something to be treasured precisely because it will not last forever. Every minute counts. Every second counts..

Don’t waste it.

Continued in: Pondering the ‘Afterlife’ (Part 2 – The Fear of Hell and Pascal’s Wager)