(This post originally appeared on the now defunct centurybound.com blog on December 22, 2005. It appears here with some major rewrites from the author.)
While surfing the internet, I happened upon the blog of an atheist who was asking the following question of her readers:
“How many people would believe in a god if there were no rewards promised to the self for doing so?”
This rather loaded question is a complicated one. It is actually not meant to be a question, but rather an attack on the principles of Christianity. The atheist is suggesting that the Christian faith is a selfish one and insinuating that if there were no promise of Heaven, there would be few, if any, Christians. There is no chance I could ever answer the question to this particular atheist’s satisfaction because I suspect she believes she already knows the answer. Furthermore, I’m not sure there is a way to know the answer. Since there is a promise of Heaven, I have no idea how many Christians there would be if that promise was ripped out from under us. I suspect, rather sadly, there would be less. Possibly much less, but that is just a guess. I know that in my own experience, Heaven did not enter the equation. I chose to believe in God because I had an encounter with Him that began to make sense to me intellectually. I then chose to believe in Jesus Christ (and the Christian faith) specifically for an abundance of reasons – none of which were Heaven. I sort of see Heaven as the icing on the cake. Don’t get me wrong, I am glad the promise is there; but my faith doesn’t hinge on it.
I believe we can examine this question introspectively in a way that can help us examine our faith. What if today, we pondered the following question?
Would you still follow Jesus Christ if there were suddenly no promise of Heaven?
If our answer to this question is ‘no’, I would suggest that we may be on shaky ground spiritually. I spent the majority of life before Christ creating a particular version of God in my mind and then imposing those values on the real God. For instance, the God I created was all knowing and all powerful. He had created this world and then stepped back to see what would happen. He was a fair God who would allow pretty much anyone into Heaven provided they tried to live a good life (you know … paid their taxes, supported their children, didn’t kill anyone … that sort of thing). It was only when I humbled myself that I realized I had no right to impose my beliefs on God. If God were real, I had to allow Him to teach me about Himself and accept even what I didn’t understand. I had no business trying to invent God in my image. I had to understand and apply the old saying “Father Knows Best.” In other words, if God, in all His wisdom, suddenly decided there should be no Heaven, I would have to accept it – even if I didn’t understand it. I can’t worship God because of what He promises me, rather, I must worship God because He deserves it.
I am so thankful that my God has promised me Heaven. I also believe there is a hell. Hell, in my opinion, is proof that God loves us. How’s that you might ask? Well, if what we really want is a place that is free from the presence and influence of God, he will provide it for us even though it breaks His heart to do so. That place is hell. It’s not God that makes hell such a terrible place … it is the complete absence of God’s influence that makes hell so bad.
Even though I have a concrete belief in Heaven and hell, I can’t make that the focal point of my faith. Why? Well, if all I do is think about the future … someday far in the future … I am ignoring one of Jesus’ most powerful lessons. Jesus taught that the Kingdom of Heaven is near. What did He mean by that? I think He meant that we can experience Heaven right now in our mortal life. If hell is the total absence of God, then Heaven is living in God’s presence. In fact, Heaven is more than just the presence of God – it is a place where God’s Will is done. We can experience God’s presence and live in His will right now. If we spend all of our time looking towards the future, we will miss out on the beauty that is Heaven on Earth.
Think about it … we all know the bitter and depressed Christian who lives a miserable life and constantly talks about Heaven in the future tense. My heart goes out to these people. Thank God they have the promise of eternal life from the One True God to keep them going. I am not suggesting that it would be healthy to totally forget about our promise of Heaven; I just pray that someday we can all experience a shadow of Heaven right now!