John Locke, that doyen of empiricism, stated that: "Our first and chiefest interest is how we may get to heaven." Locke brought his utilitarian outlook to all things, especially the one great thing, what happens to us after death. Even though his expression is crass and reduces a great tradition, he reflects a majority concern of Christians in the seventeen hundreds. Indeed it seems as though the preoccupation was central to Christianity; witness Calvin and his doctrine of double predestination that sowed despair in the hearts of those who followed him. Since it was determined before the beginning of time wether you were destined to heaven or hell, there was nothing you could do in this life to change that destiny. You only have to look at the façade of a medieval cathedral or at the mosaics on the ceiling of a baptistery to realise the centrality of heaven and hell in Christian belief.
I suspect that in the popular imagination it is still thought to be the central message of Christianity. This is often expressed as crassly as in Locke in the Pentecostal and fundamentalist movement who insist that all you have to do is to accept Jesus as your personal saviour and you will be saved. Salvation for heaven after death is in our power; a simple mental decision will do the trick once and for all. We will henceforth be "saved". This does not help the credibility of the faith. An imagined threat is removed by a mental event. All the action takes place on our side.
A study in Britain in 2012 found that 49% surveyed believed in life after death while only 31% believed in God. This means that belief in life after death is not necessarily connected with religious assent. This phenomenon may be as simple as being unable to imagine personal extinction. However, in my experience of the Anglican and the Uniting Church in Australia I have never heard or preached a sermon connecting life after death with faith in Jesus. While I cannot vouch for Catholic worship I do know that contemporary Catholic theologians are not exercised by the question. The old days of moralising sermons featuring hell-fire and brimstone or the promise of heaven seemed to have faded from most Christian denominations.
This must be a bit of a shock to those who have not experienced the church in our times but who believe, like John Locke, that the whole point is getting to heaven. It is interesting that I cannot name a single work of theology that traces the decline in emphasis. It seems to me that we in the mainline churches are a bit embarrassed by the question of the survival of death even though many of our hymns that we sing lustily each Sunday make it plain. These are left over from a different age of piety. There is pastoral sensitivity at stake. One does not preach about this because we do want to alienate those persons who have been in church all their lives and still cling to the hope that they will be reunited with loved ones in a cloudy heaven.
At the level of theology the change in emphasis has been brought about by the realization that the gospel does point to a world to come but to a world that exists in this one. That is, the gospel points towards the coming of the kingdom of God/heaven as a social reality now seen in part but always glimmering on the horizon. The church is the essential harbinger of this reality as the body of Christ, the extension of the incarnation, that is, even now bringing about a new reality.
At the level of popular belief the shift away from believing that we survive death is tied to the shift from the soul/body problem to that of the mind/brain. We are aware, as never before, that the mind subsists within the meat of the brain and we suspect that consciousness has a material basis. The general move towards a thoroughgoing materialism excludes the existence of an immaterial and immortal soul. Locke had Descartes to back up the distinction between body and mind. We, on the other hand have Oliver Sachs to tell us of the unique connection.
The waters are muddied by our tendency to convert what is essentially a theological argument into one of natural science. Thus the argument is changed from its original emphasis on the indestructible relationship with God to whether consciousness can survive the death of the body. Neuroscience has given an emphatic "no" to the latter.
The conversion of the question from the theological realm to that of natural science is part of the ongoing trend for nature to dominate our thinking since the seventeenth century and the rise of natural science. In order to think about the theological we have to cleanse ourselves of naturalistic thinking.
For example, in the Gospel of John we find the words "Jesus said to her, I am the resurrection and the life: Those who believe in me, though they die, yet will live, and whosoever lives and believes in me shall never die." (John 11:25,26.) At first glance this would seem to confirm the magical thinking of our more enthusiastic colleagues. However, the verse is couched in paradox: those who die will live. The paradox is defused if dying is not really dying at all but a remove to a place with better furnishings. The dying referred to here is the dying that takes place in baptism, the immersion in the waters of death and the rising to new life in Christ. My argument is that such language is properly theological in that it concerns God and not nature. It is the death that we have to undergo for Christ to be the author of our lives that brings real life and freedom.
As a friend of mine expressed it: there are the living dead ones, those who have died in order to live and there are the dead living ones. There is a deep resonance with this concept that is expressed in the vampire franchise. There are those who walk this earth who are spiritually dead. They live entirely for their own gratification and simply use those around them. Salvation is now understood as being saved from this living death. It is being saved from selfish living that poisons the relationship with those around us.
The great barrier to the life of the soul is what Charles Taylor calls "the buffered self." This is a construction of the self that sees the world only as nature. It is buffered because it is closed to "the things unseen". These are not the spooks and demons of superstition but the things that are inherently of the human condition, especially love and beauty. To the buffered self the world is flat and dull. There is no room for art because it is the function of art to illuminate the beauty of the subject, to reveal the unseen.
The contrast between seeing life as nature in which pleasure and pain are major concerns and seeing life as being directed towards God, is brought sharply in focus when we talk of personal death. Yes, nature says that death is the end of all human possibilities, there is no life outside of the body. We are dead to pleasure and pain. But a life whose meaning is contained in the worship of God and the enjoyment of him forever slips the bonds of the ego. Because we have died in Christ and live only in Him, physical death is a second death and by no means the most important. There is a sense in which everything has happened to us in life, even death, and physical death, while a momentous event, has lost its sting. We can no longer sympathise with Philip Larkin in his Aubade.