Good deeds: For now, or after?

For an ongoing project, I recently interviewed Ayann Hirsi Ali — she who would “reform“ Islam, even at risk to her personal safety. She points to Islam’s excessive reliance on an “afterlife” as severely impeding its capacity for modernity and reform.

It got me to thinking.  Why isn’t it worthwhile to believe in an afterlife, or a World To Come — for Jews, Olam Habbah?  As long as a commitment to the idea is not abused, why is it troublesome to believe that, after death, there exists reward (“benefit” or “incentive” or certainly “deferred compensation” are far too mundane)  for having lived a good life?  Isn’t there spiritual value in hoping for — perhaps aspiring to receive —   reward, in another place and time? After all, we often don’t receive reward for our good deeds in the here and now – even if we do them selflessly, and without expectation of some quid pro quo.  Indeed, the three great monotheistic religions affirmatively preach the existence of an afterlife, typically an incorporeal one, which provides that very “hope.”

Some, though, say “no” — and those are not only non-believers. They see no need to believe in being rewarded when life is over. Doing good, for them, is its own reward – the pristine, totally untainted, beauty of simply doing something good. Meaning, they don’t look for a Divine Being to promise sublime existence after this life ends, even if they believe in a Divine Being. They simply relish their personal capacity “to do good” in the here and now. That is, the warmth that embraces them for having gone out of their way to help an old lady cross the street; for having visited an all-alone sick person whom they barely know; for literally having risked their lives pulling a child back away from an oncoming car. It is somewhat akin to the Maimonidean  concept of tzedakah (charity), whose finest form exists when the donor and recipient both remain anonymous – with no potentiality or perception of strings attached to the gift or the giver.

For some, though, maybe that warmth or smile or feel-good moment simply doesn’t amount to anything for them.  It doesn’t suffice; it isn’t adequate. Perhaps they need more, whether or not they believe in God and a World To Come. Organized religions probably recognized that reality a long time ago. Maybe their “founders” realized that to promote good behavior, religion itself must provide the “promise” of such a reward given that a tangible reward in this lifetime may not be within reach, or simply may not exist.

Now, if one were to ask observant people if they believe in the afterlife, they would typically say yes. After all, their religion provides for — indeed, assures —  it.  Does that necessarily mean that these individuals don’t find reward, here and now, for good deeds? Surely, not. It may depend on the individuals, and how they choose to live their lives.  Some simply find enjoyment in doing good. Some do good because their religion teaches it, or their religious observance requires it, regardless of reward in the afterlife.  Some look to that future reward.  Some do good for all these and other reasons; some for none.

So, let’s consider non-believers who affirmatively disclaim an afterlife, or are at least agnostic to it. One supposes that if they believe in some form of an afterlife at all, they would ideally hope for an afterlife where there is reward for earthly good deeds — that is, even if they don’t believe in God.  Who wouldn’t want a personally uplifting and later existence that would lack the potential pain and suffering of an earthly life?

But think about a committed atheist who has traveled life doing extraordinary good but who doesn’t operate under a belief that there will be a reward when he or she is dead and buried. In an ideal world where an afterlife does indeed exist, shouldn’t the greatest reward lie for that individual? After all, he’s not looking for anything in exchange for doing good.

Doesn’t that make one stop and think?  Don’t those who don’t affirmatively subscribe to any organized religion and respectfully disavow the existence of a post-life reward for a life of good deeds — akin, say, to those saintly deeds done by the likes of a Mother Theresa — deserve more than does anyone eternal blessing in heaven? If there is one, at least as we like to understand it.

Where does God stand on this question?

About the Author
Joel Cohen is a white-collar criminal defense lawyer at Stroock in New York and previously a prosecutor. He speaks and writes on law, ethics and policy (NY Law Journal, The Hill and Law & Crime). He teaches a course on "How Judges Decide" at Fordham Law School and Cardozo Law School. He has published “Truth Be Veiled,” “Blindfolds Off: Judges on How They Decide” and his latest book, "I Swear: The Meaning of an Oath," as well as works of Biblical fiction including “Moses: A Memoir.” Dale J. Degenshein assists in preparing the articles on this blog.The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Stroock firm or its lawyers.
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