Should we do away with heaven and hell?


(Brian Weeks) #1

During the week of the recent 500th anniversary of the reformation, Matthew Parris - a columnist for The Times newspaper in London - wrote an engaging article on morality. In it, he presents the idea of doing what is good and right merely because it is good and right, without any need for an appeal to additional reward such as heaven, or the avoidance of hell, or even to a transcendent God. Essentially, he argues that we as human beings - Christians included - should not need to be motivated by reward in order to do good, but that we should find doing good alone sufficient enough of a motivator to be morally good. That virtue needs no reward because it is its own reward.

To be clear, Matthew Parris is an atheist. But, he does write some fascinating stuff on religion and Christianity in particular, and this article is no different. I’ll summarize the salient points below. Here’s the link to his original article (free to view with a quick, free registration):

Parris applauds Luther for rescuing the church - and by extension, much of the world - from the idea that good works is what earns our salvation. He writes that Luther believed that while good works should be a fruit of personal faith, it is by faith alone that our reward of salvation from hell and to heaven comes.

But here is Parris’ big question: Why bring reward into it in the first place? Is virtue alone not enough of a reward? He writes:

What Luther failed to question was the need for any selfish reason to lead a moral life or to love God. God, if there is a God, is surely intrinsically and overwhelmingly loveable? Reward, if such reward exists, is surely unnecessary as a reason to be good. If we have a moral sense at all, and we do, being good feels good. Even if this life were all, what further incentive is needed?

Parris goes on to rebuke a particular vicar who wrote him regarding his view on eliminating heaven and hell from Christianity to ask him how he could discourage his parishioners from theft without the ideas of heaven and hell as pending reward and punishment. On this, I’m on the side of Parris. However, Parris then writes that:

The epistemology of salvation and damnation degrades the moral life, cheapens what motivates us, and ignores what stares any sociologist in the face: that from infancy mankind is imbued with a strong grasp of moral reasoning and an instinctive desire to find and cleave to what is right.

Parris concludes by celebrating the goodness of being alive and saying that, for the most part, people live to be good, and that, if Christianity is to survive another 500 years, we need to do away with the ideas of original sin and heaven and hell and, instead, embrace the idea of what he calls “original virtue”.

There’s a lot packed up in his article and multiple directions one could take with a response.

Here are a couple of the many thoughts and questions that Mr. Parris’ article raised for me:

  1. Is heaven our ultimate reward?
  2. Is it true that God motivates us to be good with the reward of heaven and the threat of hell?
  3. What is supposed to motivate us as Christians to do good?

How would you respond to Mr. Parris, if given the chance?

(SeanO) #2

Interesting article.

First off - I would question two key presuppositions held by Parris - “being good feels good” and “an instinctive desire to find and cleave to what is right”. I am actually shocked that someone who considers themselves rational makes these claims. As Ravi Zacharias says, “In some cultures, people love their neighbors, in others, they eat them.” Some cultures condemn behaviors that others celebrate - good is culturally defined. Second - people naturally want to justify themselves and their behavior. That is very different from having an “instinctive desire to cleave to what is right”.

“The depravity of man is at once the most empirically verifiable reality but at the same time the most intellectually resisted fact.” Malcolm Muggeridge

You might be able to make an argument that people have a deep sense of right and wrong, but you also have to acknowledge that more often than not, if that is true, they override it in favor of keeping cultural norms or, as Romans 1 says, because of their evil desires.

(SeanO) #3

1 - Jesus is the ultimate reward. Heaven is not ultimately a place, but a Person.

2 - I think Jesus’ words as he wept over Jerusalem are very helpful in answering this question. As in the story of the Prodigal Son, Heaven is the Father’s house and gehenna is the consequence of never returning to the Father.

I think Heaven is meant as encouragement for the saints, for how can a sinner who is apart from God begin to comprehend the joy of being united with Christ? I think gehenna and hades are a warning for the sinners - just like the words of the prophets against Israel and the nations - that they might repent and be saved.

The threat of judgment is a plea to the sinner to accept God’s open arms and a warning against the proud of heart. The reward of Heaven is encouragement to the saints to endure with patience the hardships of the world.

Matthew 23:37 - Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.

3 - God’s Love - we love because He first loved us

(Helen Tan) #4

Hi @Brian_Weeks, you’ve raised a thought-provoking discussion. My initial reaction to Parris’ points is to look at it from 3 aspects:

  1. Love - Parris sees heaven as a reward to entice us towards God. It was not meant as a reward. It was meant to be the position for man to enjoy the very presence and company of God from the very beginning. God planned everything out of love for us and we rejected that love and yet He made the way back possible and pursued us regardless of the hardness of our hearts. It is not a stick or carrot situation but a loving Father calling us to come home.

  2. Justice - as @Sean_Oesch said, there are no means to define virtue outside of God. There is also no true justice when all ends with this life. Many who suffer unjustly can see no relief nor rightful restoration.

  3. Hope - tied in with love and justice is hope.
    1 Corinthians 2:9: “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man the things which God has prepared for those who love Him.”

Proverbs 13:12: Hope deferred makes the heart sick, But when the desire comes, it is a tree of life.

Parris has got the first part right in that he acknowledged that salvation is by faith and not works. If I read correctly, he then contradicts himself by saying that salvation is a reward. A reward is something given for good done. However, salvation is free, with no performance required. As with many atheistic arguments, he misses the point totally. God is a loving Father calling out to His wayward children and showing them the way home so that they may have pleasures forevermore.

These are my initial thoughts and I look forward to more input on this interesting subject.

(Melvin Greene) #5

That was well said, @Helen_Tan. I like how you answered it from these 3 aspects.

Also, the way I see our good works is that it is a natural result of coming to the realization of what Jesus did for us on the cross. If we truly believe that Jesus took our place and suffered the punishment that we should have received, then the natural reaction would be to want to follow Him and glorify Him through our good works.

I believe heaven is a place where we were originally meant to be, like Adam & Eve in the Garden of Eden. God created us to dwell with Him and have an intimate personal relationship with Him. I believe we all have a sense, or feeling deep down inside of us that things are not the way they should be. Heaven is not a reward. Heaven is where we were meant to be. I like how C.S. Lewis says that we all have a longing for the “far green country”.

(Phillip Walter Coetzee) #6

From what Parris wrote it seems like he is commiting a generalization fallacy in thinking that because some people do what is good, everyone will. This is not the case as Sean_Oesch also pointed out.

The point of people instinctively doing that which is right also raises skeptical eyebrows. Reason being, in what moral framework is instinct preferable? According to instinct we would have more moral issues instead of less, I would say. From what we can observe in nature, instinct within intself doesn’t require discernment. So if we are to cleave to what we find to be instinctively correct, why the option of choice to do so? This brings in problems for the naturalist’s morality. For I reason that if instinct were the only “alternative” choice to do it or to refrain from it would be abscent.
Ravi said something interesting in one of his lectures. He basically said that because people tend to overlook the divine image from God in one another, we violate one another’s sacredness and thus we are in need of a moral law.
Parris begs the question that everyone will always do good, yet reality shows us that “every thought and intent of their heart is wicked” and that “the heart is desperately sick”. Also, selfishness has deep roots in fallen mankind. Doing “good works” humanistically will be very grand, until someone else “does it better” and competition arises as to who can “care the most”. This might be subtle, but this might be the reason good works can’t forster justification apart from Christ. The being is the problem first, then the works, not the other way around.

(Phillip Walter Coetzee) #7

Beautiful quote from CS Lewis, I absolutely agree

(Brian Weeks) #8

I appreciate everyone’s thoughts on this and I agree with much of what has been said by everyone.

What you said here, Helen, stood out to me as well. If heaven doesn’t come as a result from good works, then how can Christians consider it a reward for good works? And I agree with you that it seems that Parris’ article is another instance of the gospel being received as what 1 Corinthians 1:23 refers to as a “stumbling block” and “folly”.

You also mentioned that God, however, does indeed promise us “pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11). You know me well enough to know that I emphatically join you in rejoicing in that truth! And I must commend Parris for not taking his position a step further and saying that we should do good works, including loving others, out of duty alone devoid of the desire to be happy. I think Parris is wise to affirm that reward is part of what motivates us to do good works and I wonder if he knows how close he is to biblical truth regarding this (Hebrews 12:2).

To all:

It seems that Parris has tragically missed that the Christian God doesn’t motivate us with the realities of heaven and hell, among other things, towards himself as a means to the end of getting us to do good works. But rather, he does so with he himself as the end that will fully and finally satisfy our deepest heart longing. If given the chance, I think this is what I’d try to emphasize with Parris the most - that God is the ultimate reward; he is where it’s all going.

Yet, I don’t fault him because, admittedly, the church has arguably done a less than good job of making it clear that the highest good of the good news isn’t heaven, but rather the everlasting enjoyment of God. If I got anything out of Parris’ article it was a reminder of the need to be clear and accurate with our telling of the good news - which includes preaching - and the effects of not doing so.

(Helen Tan) #9

Hi @Brian_Weeks, as usual, thank you for summarising the thoughts presented so succinctly for us. I was also intrigued by the term Parris chose - original virtue. Perhaps more focus could be placed here to see how this has panned out in human history.

He appears to attribute this virtue as being inherent in all humankind and sees the return to it as the reward there is for this life, thereby relegating God and Heaven to being unnecessary for ultimate fulfilment. He sees man capable of doing this, which has been largely disproved in history and certainly by current events. What means does a depraved mind have to aspire and return to “original virtue”? How does one define this virtue to know that we have attained it to true satisfaction? Aside from God and what He did through the Cross there is no possibility of that happening by human efforts unless one waters down the definition of virtue. That is why God in His mercy initiated and provided the only way to His righteousness.

(Jessica Henkaline) #10

Parris focuses on the moral aspect of our lives & the rewards of that & misses, as you pointed out @Brian_Weeks, that our ultimate reward is God himself.

More than that, we read in Rom. 1:21 “For although they knew God they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him but they became futile in their thinking and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.”

Parris has no regard for God’s honor or to give him thanks. This is the whole purpose of God taking a people unto himself in the first place: “for the praise of his glory” Eph 1:3-14.

Morality is futile without the reward of gaining God through Christ. Parris clearly, simply fails to understand what reward he’s losing & what kind of God He is.

(Jessica Henkaline) #11

Also, I’d like to add that morality is our way to honor him & grow in our experience of him. We can get more of God! Eph. 3:14-21