One of the things I am really unsure about in religion is the afterlife.
When I was into Christianity, I was much more focused on this life than the next. In fact when my husband, in our early days, mentioned to me something about enduring hardship and thinking of the reward, it kind of blew me away. I was so used to thinking about God acting in this life, so fixated on God bringing about heaven on earth, that I had somehow forgotten about the afterlife somewhere along the way.
Perhaps surprisingly, this is a consequence of the doctrine of redemption.
In the Christian view, when Adam and Eve committed the first sin by eating the forbidden fruit in the garden of Eden, a chasm opened up between God and mankind. The eating of that fruit effected a change in human nature – they became aware that they were naked and covered themselves with leaves. They suddenly knew right from wrong and, according to Paulian theology, they – and we – are fundamentally incapable of doing right. We are programmed to sin. We shot ourselves in the foot by eating that fruit because since we now know right from wrong, we are held to account for our actions, which is a problem as we cannot live up to the moral code that is written in our hearts.
This paves the way for salvation and redemption. It fascinates me that every religion or spiritual philosophy seems to have some notion of mankind falling short of what it could be, and provides some kind of remedy for that. In New Testament Christianity, the remedy is the atoning sacrifice of Jesus on the cross – the death and punishment of a sinless man in our place. In Paul’s philosophy, it goes further than him merely dying for our forgiveness. He is brought back to life, thereby overcoming death and evil for us too. And in some mystical sense, that event bridged the gulf between mankind and God and allowed us to be redeemed, not just forgiven. Belief in Christ is said to fill one with the Holy Spirit and to reform one’s nature.
So doing good deeds and being a good person – what Christianity calls “works” – are a consequence of salvation, not a means of salvation. The means of salvation is faith.
I hope by now you get some idea of why Christians believe heaven begins here on earth.
The difficulty with this is that you expect to see perfection, and of course you don’t. You worry about your own imperfections, even though there’s supposed to be no guilt, no compulsion to do good works. You worry that you are not “bearing fruit” as Paul puts it, and that therefore, your faith musn’t be strong enough. You grow disappointed with the world around you and pray for God to bring revival so you can see heaven on earth. You become disillusioned when the people in church around you show signs of being severely flawed, despite convincing first impressions to the contrary. This impacts your faith in a way that it wouldn’t in another religion, because your faith is centred on the idea of redemption, which starts to look on shaky ground.
Confusingly, Christianity also has notions of striving to avoid sin, fleeing temptation and so on. Faith in Christ does not make one immune to sin. How you reconcile this with redemption, I’m really not sure.
I remember years ago discussing salvation with himself, in connection with the five pillars of Islam. My perspective was that the good works represented by the five pillars would come naturally from a person with a clean heart. He countered this by saying, “don’t you think that doing these things can help make someone’s heart clean?” I was dumbfounded, because yes, Christianity has that concept too. I was struggling to make a case that faith in Christ was either necessary OR sufficient for redemption.
I have more to think about in terms of the afterlife and salvation, but I’ll stop there and keep this post to a reasonable length. 😉