If God existed, but there were no afterlife, would anybody obey?



I'm wondering how much religious striving and effort at following God's word is due to the fact that there is usually some sort of eternal carrot and stick waiting for us at our demise? What if we knew:

  1. God, in fact, exists as a supernatural being outside normal space and time and created the world.

  2. God does not intervene in our world, but relies on laws of nature.

  3. When we die, there is no afterlife waiting for us whatsoever.

So, this is basically a deistic type of religion. I'm using it to separate two basic human needs: our desire for meaning, and our desire to survive. In most religions, God supplies both these needs. However, how much of the meaning that God provides based on the fact that we expect to have an eternal place in the cosmic scheme of things (via an afterlife).

What if there were a competing religion that promised a great afterlife but denied that the world has purpose or guidance (our souls are simply artifacts of natural processes). Which would present the stronger case? Meaning without eternity, or eternity without meaning?


Posted 2015-01-07T05:22:19.440


Question was closed 2015-01-10T00:51:30.567

i had to laugh when i read the title ;-) – yamm – 2015-01-07T07:31:41.753

Chances are good people would obey and not obey irregardless of an afterlife. There is a host of reasons why people adhere and do not adhere to a religion. This may just be one of them. – Neil Meyer – 2015-01-07T10:27:14.190

How does "God does not intervene in our world" and "obey" go together? Obeying the sacred scriptures is claimed as essential, because these scriptures are said to be the word of God. If there is a word of God, there is intervention. If there is no intervention - what do you mean by "obeying"? – iphigenie – 2015-01-07T13:37:04.453

@iphigenie yes, there is a bit of circularity there. Several folks have commented about natural laws. I'm simply saying that God set up the properties of nature, like a programmer makes a program, and is simply letting it run. By intervention, I was thinking more along the lines of miracles or "smiting". Without an afterlife, then punishments and rewards in this life are the only hedonistic motivators left. – None – 2015-01-07T15:02:02.917

I get what you're saying, but what rules would believers obey if there was a god who just "programmed" life on earth and didn't leave explicit rules? For the question isn't "would we know of him" but "would we obey him". – iphigenie – 2015-01-07T15:10:06.560



The answer here probably depends on the person you're asking, and the exact features of the world you're talking about.

I see some reasons why people would obey:

  • God made the world, we ought to be thankful
  • It is nice to have a purpose in life

An opponent may say:

  • God has no way of influencing your life anymore, obeying won't pay off in any way

A counterargument could then be:

  • What if it's actually good for a person to do what God suggests

But this argument isn't really sound. if people would follow God merely because what He's asking is good, then in fact they're not following Him, it's just that the behaviour is largely comparable with the case that they would follow Him. It's just a coincidence.

The answer here therefore depends on your idea of loyalty.

On the side: I'm not sure what you mean with that God "relies on the laws of nature". This seems to hint at a deterministic perspective, in which case people can't even choose to obey or not, as they're predetermined.

If you're not looking at this from a deterministic point of view, and if you're saying that the laws of nature don't determine everything, then God being out of space and time wouldn't have to mean he can't communicate with people.

Lastly, I think that the concept of religion is largely based on doubt. You eliminated doubt in your scheme, so one might wonder how good a model exactly this is.


Posted 2015-01-07T05:22:19.440



Most of Jewish history says yes. Large segments of Judaism, including most modern Jews, as I understand it, have no expectation of afterlife and expect no intervention from God except perhaps to warn of future events (and then never in a clear and useful way).

At one extreme they feel that the Scriptural Law gives them a real advantage in living and maintaining community, and that obedience is perhaps owed based on earlier interventions by God, but is now no longer supported by any offer of reward.

At the other extreme, they can consider the laws of nature to be an ongoing act of God, but that means that all those previous apparent miracles were in fact instances of natural law, and not exceptions. So again, your criteria are met, and there are strong adherents in those sects.

There are points in the middle that consider an afterlife and miracles, but those are not central tenets.


Posted 2015-01-07T05:22:19.440



I believe the average person would likely not obey, as many people treat God as a wish giver or punisher. For them, obeying is a transaction; they do it to get the payoff, and without the payoff, there's no reason to obey.

This has been my experience in my own past religious practice, experience with others, and in reading many pop religious works. For instance, I used to be religious because I didn't want to go to hell, wanted to get into heaven, and thought on occasion I may get a bone tossed to me on Earth. If I believed I'd get nothing out of it, I would have dropped my religion instantly. Why go through the privations and prayers if there's nothing in it for me?

In fact, the transactional view of religion is on display everywhere. Look at the message of many of the mega churches. Look at the "Health and Wealth Gospel" (prosperity theology). Look at those people who have a crisis of faith when confronted with a setback or tragedy. All these point to a transactional view of God, and likely the driving (if only) force behind obedience.

So much for the average view.

There is a minority view in which God is seen as fulfillment itself, if one can but get a "glimpse" of God as it were. This is the mystic and contemplative approach. In this view, God need not provide an afterlife or intervene; God simply needs to be, and obedience are the acts required to bring God into view (so to speak). God can be utterly passive in this; God even need not be personal (hence views like pantheism or panentheism).

An analogy with this view is "loving from afar". The romantic view of this love holds that for the lover, simply gazing upon the beloved is fulfillment enough. The beloved need do nothing, need not even be aware of the lover's existence. The lover simply does what is needed to glimpse the beloved when possible.

In fact, some religious works use love analogies for the worship of God, and those seem to point to something other than the transactional view.

R. Barzell

Posted 2015-01-07T05:22:19.440

Reputation: 1 800

Could you expand your answer with an explanation as to why you think the average person wouldn't obey? – None – 2015-01-08T08:17:35.670

@Keelan answer expanded in general, and included some links. Please let me know if I should flesh this out more. – R. Barzell – 2015-01-08T13:32:23.380

@Keelan Thank you. My answer was really bare, and I appreciate that you took the time to inform me, so I could improve it. – R. Barzell – 2015-01-08T13:37:48.307


Clearly you should look at atheists, who mostly behave in an ethical way without anyone asking for obedience and without any threats or promises (and who can't behave in unethical or murderous ways and blame it on some stupid deity).

So you are asking whether the average religious person would behave worse than the average atheist if promise of reward or threat of punishment in afterlife were gone. If that was the case, that would be very sad.


Posted 2015-01-07T05:22:19.440

Reputation: 3 297

Where do you get that atheists would mostly behave ethically? – None – 2015-01-08T08:16:53.627