11/1/12 Amir, Naim 20's
A popular criticism of Christian evangelism is that there is too much emphasis on heaven and hell and not enough concern for the here and now. Many think there is something selfish, even just plain ugly, about a focus on reward or punishment in the life to come. But is it bad to be concerned about our eternal fate and the fate of others? A long conversation with Amir and Naim, two doctoral students from Iran, gave me some insight into this mindset. Both are Muslims, but Naim was more stoic about his beliefs, basically saying that "I don't need the threat of hell or the reward of heaven to be a good person". Amir was more animated, enthusiastically sharing his beliefs from the Shi'a branch of Islam, and curiously asking questions about Christianity. In fact, for the last half hour of our conversation he kept saying "I just have one more question for you!" as he tried to understand how Christianity is different from Islam. So how do Muslims and the vast majority of other religions in the world that believe in a works-based righteousness - including what I'll call "Churchianity" - deal with what seems to me to be the obvious truth that we can't use our good deeds to bribe God into ignoring the just punishment we deserve? From what Amir told me about his own beliefs, it is based on two foundational beliefs. First is the belief that man is basically good in nature, or at least "good enough". Why worry about hell if you are convinced you are going to heaven? "If it ain't broken, don't fix it!" In fact, don't even talk about it or you might spoil a good thing! The second is the belief that to do a good work for selfish reasons - i.e. in order to go to heaven and avoid hell - automatically negates the goodness of the deed. As Amir told me, "It would no longer count for good". So what we end up with is the idea that we deserve heaven because of our good works, but we can't admit it for fear of losing our reward. Which brings me back to my original question - Is it bad to just be honest and admit we want to go to heaven and avoid hell? A quick reading of the four Gospels a few years ago with this question in mind convinced me it is not, because it is a subject that Jesus spoke of frequently. In fact, I was surprised to find out for myself that He warned about hell more than he talked about heaven! For me, it seems even more acceptable to say that my desire is to be with God for eternity and not to be cut off from His presence, rather than to talk of reward and punishment. But for the many unbelievers who are convinced of their own goodness independent of God's intervention - but secretly a slave of their own particular sin - the thought of being with God and in His presence for eternity doesn't seem like their idea of heaven at all. Some think it would be too restrictive and others just boring compared to their sinful lifestyle. I think this is why Jesus often referred to eternity in terms that unbelievers could relate to - the hope of heaven and the warnings of hell - and that is why we must continue to do so in our evangelism efforts today.