/ Retirement / Stephen Steele

Retirement: The New Afterlife?

The fastest growing metro area in the United States is called The Villages. It’s a retirement community that takes up eighty square miles of central Florida and is home to one hundred and forty thousand people. It contains nine state-of-the-art hospitals, a dozen sprawling shopping centres, over one hundred bars and restaurants, and more than fifty golf courses.

Retirement is certainly big business. The US has a total GDP of twenty-three trillion dollars, but the assets of all American pension funds are nearly fifty percent larger, making them easily the biggest players in the financial markets. In the words of journalist Sam Kriss, ‘mass consumer pensions have turned our entire adulthood into a preamble to old age. You work for three, four, five decades—all so you can enjoy those few, brief, useless years between retirement and death’. He goes as far as to say that ‘the entire global economy is now a machine for producing satisfied retirees’.

The Villages attempts to sell people the thing they have been working for all their lives – perfect leisure before they die. Sounds ideal? Kriss visited the Villages and says that it’s the worst place he’s ever been to.

So what’s not to like? According to Kriss, the message of The Villages is that ‘the true purpose of human life is to have fun, to drink and play golf, and you can only really experience the true purpose of human life once you’ve retired’.

It used to be that people believed in an afterlife. The Christian hope is that ‘the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us’ (Romans 8:18). But take away the hope of a glorious future beyond this life and we have to try and find it here and now.

The idea of ending our days in a retirement community in Florida might be beyond most of us. But increasingly, people are living for retirement. And yet that hope often disappoints. Some don’t make it that long. Nor is it uncommon to hear of someone retire and then almost immediately be hit with a terminal diagnosis, just as their long-planned future opened up before them. Others live on, but soon become too ill to enjoy it.

Indeed, the precariousness of life in The Villages is the elephant in the room. There are no cemeteries. The ambulances and hearses are unmarked. ‘Nobody talks about the fact that every few weeks, a vaguely familiar face vanishes from the pickleball court’.

Retirement is a very fragile basket to put all our eggs in. And even if someone does hold onto their health, what if the thing they’ve been putting their hope in for so long lets them down? What if the promise of inactivity turns out to be a nightmare? Samuel Johnson once remarked on 'the unhappiness which men who have led a busy life experience, when they retire in expectation of enjoying themselves at ease, and generally languish for want of their habitual occupation, and wish to return to it'.

For many others, it’s not retirement they’re living for, but the weekend. And again, if there’s no afterlife, it makes a certain amount of sense. Indeed, the Apostle Paul could say, ‘If the dead are not raised, let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die’ (1 Corinthians 15:32). If this life is all we have, then any enjoyment we are to have must be found here and now.

So does that mean that those who don’t believe in an afterlife will be happier in this world than those who do? Not necessarily – because that’s a lot of weight to put on the things of this world. Hoping that a relationship will make us happy is a lot of weight to put on another person. It’s the same with our weekends, a holiday or retirement itself.

The Bible doesn’t teach a kind of asceticism in which the good things of this life are to be shunned. Rather, it’s only when God is given his proper place that the good things of this life can be fully enjoyed. Only when we’re not looking to them to bring us ultimate happiness – when we’re not looking to them to do what only God can do – can we properly enjoy them.

The big objection of course is that believing in an afterlife is a pipe dream. But listen to the words of converted atheist C. S. Lewis: ‘If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world’.

Lewis said that while there are all sorts of things in this world that offer to give you what really want, ‘they never quite keep their promise’. Earthly pleasures are simply signposts to something greater.

A version of this article appeared in the Stranraer & Wigtownshire Free Press, 28th September 2023.

Stephen Steele

Stephen Steele

Stephen is minister of Stranraer RP Church in Scotland. He is married to Carla and they have four children. He has an MA from Queen's University Belfast where his focus was on C19th Presbyterianism.

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