Martyrdom and the Marketing of the Afterlife

Imagine trying to sell a product that no one has ever seen – no pictures to put in the brochures, no first-person testimonials from people who enjoyed the experience, no evidence except the marketers’ assurance that the long-term investment in the product will pay even longer-term dividends. You’d need to make those long-term benefits incredibly compelling to even get the customers attention, let alone get them to commit.

Such is the challenge of marketing the afterlife. It ought to be a hard sell, considering it is the ultimate “take it on faith” bargain, yet despite the vagueness of the eventual reward, a Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life survey showed 74 percent of Americans believe in Heaven. The high conversion rate is bolstered by two factors: first, the afterlife gets tremendous buzz marketing, with family and friends and pop culture providing word-of-mouth emphasis for our entire lives; second, given the choice to disappear into the void vs. spend an eternity ensconced in happiness, it’s natural to choose the optimistic possibility. If you’re going to believe in something, it may as well be the best-case scenario.

Most religions offer some form of afterlife program, with varying incentives. In some cases, it’s the carrot-and-stick scenarios of Heaven and Hell: be good and you’ll enjoy a blissful eternity with all of your loved ones; misbehave and spend forever backstroking in a lake of fire. In others, it’s an enlightened Nirvana free of suffering. Then there are the urban myth afterlives, like the supposed 72 virgins that will come as a reward for martyrdom.

From a marketing point of view, the promise of 72 virgins strikes me as the strangest sales pitch. First, it’s thoroughly entwined with earthly passions rather than enlightened ideals, making the afterlife seem a lot like this life, but with a whole lot more sex. More importantly, from a purely logistical angle, if the reward is an eternity of sensual delights with six dozen paramours, would you really want a harem made up entirely of chaste concubines? I understand why a person might want to marry a virgin– it’s easier to seem like the best roller coaster in the county if your fiancée has never been on any other rides — but who would want to be saddled with 72 virgins?

Here’s an analogy: Let’s say you love baseball, and the afterlife promises the opportunity to play baseball all day, every day, and you get to have 72 players on your team. Would you want 72 people who had never thrown a ball before? Who have no idea how to hold a bat? (And who repeatedly refer to the bat as “the stick thingy”.) Sure, a handful of newbies would be nice so you’d get the pleasure of teaching them the game and watching them realize the joys of the sport, but with the other 67… it seems better to have some players.

And not just 67 who play the same positions – the game would be more enjoyable if you had some outfielders who can shag a ball, someone at third base with a tireless arm, and a bullpen of pitchers with an array of curves and sliders; ideally you’d have long-ball hitters to deliver dramatic endings, a few specialists who can lay down a bunt, and even a couple of folks who aren’t all-stars but who are fun to have on the bench cracking jokes and cheering for the folks on the field. Having to get 72 amateurs organized and trained could be as chaotic as an elementary school music class on the day they hand out the recorders.

Another aspect of the 72 virgins marketing plan that perplexes me is the eternity that awaits the female martyr. I’m assuming they aren’t rewarded with 72 virgin males, because frankly, most women have barely enough patience to tolerate the fumbling over-eagerness of even one virgin male, let alone a tour bus full of them. Imagine: 72 baseball players, every one of them eagerly clinging to their bat and waiting for their turn at the plate? To most women, this is more likely a description of Hell than Heaven.

Of course, I’m deconstructing this marketing plan with more skepticism than most customers ever will. Every variation on the afterlife requires a leap of faith, and as I said, that leap may as well be into a bed full of ballplayers rather than a lake of fire. Not that those are the only options, but I confess (and have surely proven,) I’m no religious scholar. I should have paid more attention during catechism when I was a teenager. Trouble is, back then, I wasn’t thinking about anything except baseball.