what if…

James and I were talking today about all manner of things, and he dropped a little thought bomb that I thought I would share in rough form, before I’ve given it a lot of time to process and make my answer somewhat cogent (though I will no doubt do so soon…)

Proposition: What if God exists, and Jesus comes down, and everything we believe about Christianity remained constant, except there was no promise of eternal reward: i.e. there were no heaven, or at the very least we were not promised that we would go there simply by serving God/believing in Him/insert your own requirements here?

Given the above, here are a few questions:

1. Would you still serve God and attempt to live a “holy” lifestyle?

2. How would that change your view of the “Gospel”?

3. What does your answer to the first two questions tell you about the role that selfishness plays in your own personal decision to follow Christ?

4. If we as Christians are actually doing everything we’re doing ultimately so that we won’t end up in hell, does it mean that we may actually end up “doing all the right things”, yet still end up there anyway because our inward motivation was wrong?

5. How would this conflict with the current goals and ideas of mainstream American Christianity as a whole, and whatever local community of believers you find yourself a part of?

While this question is, in some sense, purely hypothetical, I none the less think it an important question to answer, or to at least think about.

I would be interested in hearing some of your comments on the subject.

8 Replies to “what if…”

  1. Whoa. Talk about thought bomb…

    I’ll be thinking about this for a few days…

    Do you mind if i post it on Jefferson Mastadon Society (even though noone reads that blog anymore 🙁

  2. i dont know what machiavellian is, but it sounds like a really fancy peice of chocolate, with little nuts. I would definately try it.

    i think that this train of thought or motivation breeds legalistic christianity. i know because i’ve been there. The problem is…when we are motivated only by reward, then true love for Christ rarely exists…and people can sense a front.

    But where does the character to just follow and love God without reward come from? That seems a lot like a divine quality to me.

    i don’t know, just my initial 1 a.m. thoughts.

  3. Good questions, think i’ve seen them before.

    1) Would i still serve God and attempt at a holy lifestyle? Wow, i really don’t know. It’s hard to say how “Holy” i’ve been living with all my doubts here and there. i talk to some friends, and i suggest some hypotheses similar to such. The reactions i receive somewhat depress me. THey wonder how i could ever doubt things. Then i suggest that doubts and rethinkings of common thought are rampant… Then they simply don’t get me. And i feel at times i am a heretic. How can a heretic feel holy? When it comes down to this holiness and all that i think it comes down to our decisions. Would we make the same similar decisions? This is wear you insert your own views of what is moral. Would i go out getting plastered? Well i have been drunk a few times only since turning 22 and those few times when i most def have professed to live as a Christian. But i must say i of course was in a sheltered environment where i knew i wouldn’t make mistakes that would be more unforgivable. But why are those moments of drunkeness forgivable? That i cannot say. But when we get down to it, what really divides us on these issues of living life? Well the church today practically loves the idea of greed as long as the church gets a take. i think people do actively pursue money as Christians and no one questions it. IS that wrong? Well you gotta know about what you are seeking. What you seek defines you. i think what we look at with most disdain are those that pursue some kind of self-righteousness and those that pursue sexual desires. And while i’ve personally allowed my sexual life to be on the back burner, i will say that i am a tad self-righteous already. That can be a problem as the competitiveness i feel is part of who i am. But when it comes to the carnal pleasures of hedonism. Would i actively pursue them knowing that their was no punishment? Hard to say. B/c you see society and our friends views would be changing also. It’s not the world being static and just me changing. It’s this whole kind of global change and that usually leads to some upheaval and plenty of room for mistakes (see post-bolshevik revolution Russia). Philosophically i’d like to say i’d be against being promiscuity. i think i’d always be against such. But i think this world with it’s more relative rationalizations might lead me to partake in premarital sex if the conditions were right. Then again the conditions are never right. But are you telling me that if the coolest girl you know that you are crushing on so hard wants to have sex with you in a world of no punishment, that you are going to say no? i mean it’s hard enough in this world with punishment. ANd this marriage construct is so state driven. Many of the states have laws against many of the marriages that would have taken place in the Bible (age of consent). Does this make the people of the Bible wrong? Eh, somewhat in my personal opinion. You can say cultures are cultures, whatevs. i’m just saying we don’t even know for sure what mistakes we are going to make now. And in such a vast changing world, would mistakes even be seen in the same light?

    2) A changing view of the Gospel…hmmmm. Well i think it would be more about the ideals and less about the whole reward/punishment that i think we humans are too reliant on anyways. i think in some ways it would hearten me to take more to task living the ideals of Christ. Why? Well i think without heaven tons of people wouldn’t care anymore. And thus i would move to become even more caring in the ideals. i like that Christ was a friend of the sinner. i like that Christ was known to go to parties and yet withdraw himself. i love that he teaches whether people are receptive or not. And it’s his care to those that have been neglected that helps set him apart. Now the question would turn to the purpose of the Resurrection. i think there would be renewed academia in what purpose such an event would have served. Why would Christ have died and rose? So that we might live up to a Holy ideal? See i can see this train of thought leading to a rejection of all the values of such a system. There must be a purpose in such a tragic event, or we must see that this God perhaps isn’t nearly so good. Just in the fact that we would have been misled by such a horrific ordeal. i mean to crucify oneself and promise oneself something eternal, only to reveal it a hoax? It just doesn’t fly. But again no one rejects how amazing Christ is. So again the ideal. But of course to live the ideal means none of that girlfriend stuff. And so perhaps eventually the ideal is compromised in the fact that we like Christ, but we realize the truth of Plato. That a mate represents a true completion of oneself. Plus it does not deny the fact that we are flesh. And as flesh the biological is purposeful.

    3) Selfishness… i’d like to say that such events and scenes don’t reflect too much of the selfishness. But perhaps that is just b/c i’ve already considered the stated ramifications. Am i selfish? We all are. But am i selfish? Yes. Going back to the whole flesh stuff, why do we get married? Well it’s for love, but is not some of the love selfish? That we want such love is that not selfish? When it comes down to the truth there are aspects of selfishness in all things and processes that we decide to do. The key is being aware of our ownself. By working constantly to know thyself and why we choose what we do, we can make decisions that are the least selfish. Though in some aspects such as choosing a mate or having children, perhaps selfishness is a positive thing. It’s all about knowing the ramifications of yourself and your choices.

    4) Here we bring in the issue and idea of Hell. What is our true motivator, is it fear? Well let’s take the case scenario of one Rev. Carlton Pearson from Tulsa, OK. This guy was at the heart of the Pentecostal revival. He helped bring it into the mainstream and even taught a young T.D. Jakes. The man, an Afro-American, started a church in Southern Tulsa (gasp, Tulsa remains one of the more segregated cities, with the white suburban areas typically being in the South). This church, Higher Dimensions, grew to a congregation of 5000 people. One of the larger megachurches around. So how is this story relevant? Pearson was struggling as he learned more and more about the authorship of the Bible and how it came to existence along with the problems of context versus tradition. He had always had troubles with an idea where you had to bend your theology to get around it. Case in point, how can God be loving if he sentences people that had no way of knowing to Hell? Well as a person believing in compassion, he couldn’t bring himself to worship a God that could not step in with grace and mercy in such a situation. This is like many of us today, including me. So naturally God must be willing to make exceptions to this rule…or we at least leave it up to his judgment and not our own knowing that he is a God of grace. But then we are making exceptions therefore denying absolutes. So we are already in trouble as we are rationalizing. But oh well, we cannot truly understand the uncertainties. Well he looks back at how Christ only references a Gahenna (sp?) which is a Jewish concept, but not necessarily the same hellfire and brimstone that we take to. He was going through all of this and seeing the genocied of Rwanda and how the refugees were being abused in the DRC. And he started to see how we’ve kind of created our own hell here on Earth. He took those ideas and combined himself with this feeling of how can a good God justify eternal torture? i don’t even like what the U.S. is doing at Gitmo personally. But eternal punishment? That’s a huge happening. And something that shouldn’t be glibbed over as needed. Rev. Pearson then started teaching that perhaps there was no hell and that we should be more inclusive in our theology. This of course does not sit well. Over the course of about a year he loses all of his Anglo pastors and 85% of his Anglo congregants. He also loses a good number of his Afro bretheren and several pastors also. He is formally labelled a heretic by the church organization and the congregation goes from 5000 strong to maybe 200. That’s the cost of taking Hell out of teaching, the price for heresy. People i think generally like the idea of hell. We like the idea of having the moral authority of Heaven. We want those that disobey to be punished. We want to see the wrath of God not on ourselves but on others. And we want to be vindicated. We want a certain righteousness that comes from being saved. And i think we can see how such ideals expressed in theology can be bad things to live by. We abandon the ideas of Christ for the sake of being right. Oh how we want to be right. Personally, i think it would be perhaps a good thing to eliminate much of the talk of hell from our preaching and to place the life of Christ in a deeper more analyzed perspective. Now what of motivation? i realize i haven’t answered that question. If fear is our only motivator then have we truly believed? Well who knows what we truly might have believed at times. i can tell you in my life i have avoided things more out of fear than out of a will to do what’s right. My fear serving as an impetus to keep me from screwing up in my youth. i must say that somewhere i ditched the fear realizing that it was detracting from Christ’s message, the one that really mattered. The truth is that we will always be a bit uncertain about God. And so we will all go in different directions. This case as far as motivation goes again comes down to whether the person is ever congizant of the fear motivator. If the person isn’t, then where does God’s grace come in….you see we are in this circular argument that is the problem of the hypothetical.

    5) i think i touched on this earlier. That congregation a spiritual and alive congregation of 5000 dwindled to around 200. Rev. Pearson was a guy that was like a son to Oral Roberts, a father to T.D. Jakes, and a person that met with Bush 41, Clinton, and Bush 43. He was a real mover and shaker. But to drop such an idea on a church is not welcome. What we don’t realize is how full of tradition churches already are. And once a tradition develops we move to justify those tradtions. When he told his congregation he no longer believed in Hell, that was the end of the line for them. i think that if you applied such a model over American Christianity as we know it, that we’d see similar trends, particularly in the South. Why do i say that the South will be worse? You are more likely to be around people that agree with you in the South. Your faith is more likely to be untested here, and generally your theology is more likely to err on the side of conservatism. i think the numbers would be different in more challenging spots for Christianity in this nation. i, also, believe the numbers of those staying with living the Christian ideal would come from churches with more liberal biblical leanings, where they more readily already consider such things. This revelation would also take away the moral highground from Christians. People of course would engage in more activities without the fear of punishment. They would put themselves in more compromising situations to say the least. And without that want to be in Heaven, then why wouldn’t people go crazy and do whatever. When it comes down to it, people very rarely choose Jesus and much more readily choose Heaven.

  4. Here’s some initial responses.

    My friend D. asked a similar but wholly different question: “what would you do if you found out, with out a doubt, that God does not exist:?” I wonder if we had that question versus the proposition above asked, what the difference in responses would be? As far as mainstream Christianity goes, I wonder if the reaction would almost be identical? Replace “no God” or “no Jesus” with “no heaven” and I’m not sure it would be all that different. Is that because we equate Jesus (I will use it interchangeable with God here), who wants to help us follow the path he set before us, with Heaven, the reward at the end of the path?

    I think in today’s world, society is must more concerned with the end than the means. People care about what you have or what you did, not how you got it or did it. Results are key, not the methods to achieve the results. And I wonder if that hasn’t translated into religion. Isn’t it easier to “sell Christ” with ideas such as “there will be great rewards, like a good afterlife, if you join our church and become a christian (and contribute to offering)”. And then the ends over means comes in, when mainstream Christianity can be concerned more with the numbers of people converted, not the quality (and by quality, I don’t mean weak/strong or whatever, but I mean how they came to decide to follow Christ. Was it because of a sales pitch, or was it from relationships and love and revelation?).

    I hate to judge, but I wonder what the effect would be on Christians at Texas A&M. I’m not sure. I try not to judge…I’ve gone through a phase where I was blanket-hating mainstream Christians (i.e. Texas A&M) and these days I don’t let thoughts enter my head (or try not to) involving superficial judgements like that. You can’t make judgements on someone until you know their intentions. So nevermind on that topic.

    I wonder if Heaven did not exist, how our actions would change. Do you think people might just sluff off? Would I? I feel like I’m sluffing off now, imagine how I would be if there was no heaven? Or would it effect me? I don’t feel like I live with the goal of Haven on my mind, but who can be sure? How deep has the environment I’ve grown up in planted the idea to “do this” so you “have a good spot in heaven”? One of the most attractive things I’ve found in Christ is the way of seeing life, of seeing it in a new light, with new purpose. But the purpose for me (at least, consciously) is not that of waiting until the afterlife, but trying to make a difference here, and living in harmony with people and my surroundings. That’s how I have always seen Jesus (well, my current understanding, anyway) – sort of a way of escaping the vicious cycle of human tendencies (at least, I know the path to escaping it…I’m not always successful because I am, of course, human). I hardly ever think about Heaven, really…but perhaps removing Heaven from the equation is something I cannot imagine the effects of without actually experiencing it, you know? It’s sort of like eliminating, say, oxygen. You don’t think about how much you depend on it until you start drowning or suffocating. Perhaps we rely on the idea of the reward-Heaven system that we can’t even fathom what it would be like without it? I’m not sure, this is just all conjecture.

    I think I would still attempt to serve God, for reasons above. To tell you the truth, I don’t even like Heaven that much. Is that weird? It’s the duality of the thing – with heaven, there is hell…and i’m just not a huge fan of hell. I mean, I am told it exists, but my heart/mind resists it. Questions start running, “What about people in , who have never heard of Christ? Where do they go” and those sorts of questions. And people are so quick to condemn, that “I’m correct because and you are wrong. I like the people who agree with me because it’s something I can identify with, and since we are right we are also going to the place where right people go – heaven.” That’s just a real round about way of me saying that I don’t like how Heaven seems to be used sometimes.

    The gospel would certainly be different. I mean, what do most protestant Christians think about most when they think of Jesus? His death…and what comes after death? His accession. That ascension to heaven is an integral piece of the story. Heaven is mentioned over 200 times, or something like that, in the new testament. I difficult for me to imagine what would it be like if this was eliminated. That we get one shot at life, and that we should live it to the fullest and love each other even more, perhaps? Would that thought process occur? Or would we all just get lazy?

    These are just my initial unorganized thoughts.

  5. i’m going to contend that the question “what if you found out for sure that there is no God” is significantly different from the question posed. if heaven (reward) doesn’t exist but God does, then God is still worthy of being worship, simply because He is God. as Anselm’s famous argument would prove, no being that doesn’t exist is worthy of worship – in other words, all “Gods” exist – however many of them there may be.

    in other words, while the results of the two questions might be similar for some people, i think they are very fundamentally different questions.

  6. Oh sure. I guess I should have made that more emphasized. Actually, forget I even said similar…by similar, i was just thinking “it’s another hypothetical”. The reason i brought that in was because I thought it was interesting that results for many could be similiar.

    yeah I should have thought that through more. Oh well. it was late

  7. Jeff –

    I believe that Christianity is not about Heaven. It’s about Christ. If my faith is rooted in or focused on anything other than accepting Jesus exactly as He is and living in an intimate relationship with Him with no thought of what I might get out of it, then I’ve missed the whole point of “Christ”ianity.

    I do believe that Jesus is concerned with getting us into Heaven, but I also believe that He is passionate about getting Heaven into us … today … so that we will live lives full of meaning and significance right now in a way that impacts this world for His glory.

    He taught us to pray “… Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven …” He did not teach us to fantasize about the future. He taught us how to live abundant lives every moment that we are here on this earth.

    Without Jesus, Heaven has no meaning. Without Heaven, Jesus still gives value and purpose and significance to everyone and everything. Heaven or no Heaven, I choose Him!

    Check out the “Imagine” page on stevetoearth. It’s the result of my thoughts on this subject during an afternoon walk a couple of years ago.

    May Jesus be all the Heaven you ever need or desire.

    Steve Dye

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