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): https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/heaven-and-hell-have-no-place-in-the-church-75qp2fxqk
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:
- Is heaven our ultimate reward?
- Is it true that God motivates us to be good with the reward of heaven and the threat of hell?
- What is supposed to motivate us as Christians to do good?
How would you respond to Mr. Parris, if given the chance?