St. Paul in Prison by Rembrandt

St. Paul in Prison by Rembrandt

Well, if I ever feel short of material to goad me to write, all I have to do is visit the Atheism vs Christianity (no holds barred) Facebook group for fodder. Of course, in a group like this, at least half of the members are merely trolling for a reaction, but you can get some good questions and interaction going if you want intellectual stimulation.

The key, I’ve found, is to remain calm, mostly ignore people making purposely offensive comments, and post your responses without resorting to insults.

The latest question I got was the title of this post – if heaven is so much better than here, why not off yourself and go there now?

While this question is provocative, it is also insightful – if we are so sure that the life to come is sooo much better, why would we stay? Here, I believe, are the reasons that we stay.

1. We believe, but we do not know

One of the critical distinctions which many people of faith, and especially critics of faith make, is assuming that faith = knowledge. But it is not. Here are the three possible states.

  • I Don’t Know – I have no evidence of any kind
  • I Believe – I have indirect evidence, but no direct evidence. That is, I have to trust someone else’s word, a source whom I have tested in other ways and found reliable.
  • I Know – I have direct observational evidence for something.

This middle position of faith, which relies on reasoned trust (not blind faith) allows us to act surely, though still somewhat tentatively because quite honestly, we don’t know absolutely (admittedly, even with direct observation, we can misunderstand the data, and so need to speak in terms of probability, not 100% surety).

The reality that our convictions are not immediately provable has two dampening effects on our enthusiasm. First, the fact that we don’t have immediate proof means that we need to be humble in our declarations, understanding that we have to earn the trust of others, since they can not evaluate the evidence directly. It also means that we have to admit the possibility that we are wrong, and temper our convictions with patience.

Second, if we believe rather than know, we naturally have a lesser enthusiasm or conviction than if we had actually seen or experienced something directly – and even those of us who HAVE experienced the numinous need to understand that such experiences are highly subjective. There is a place when our spiritual enthusiasm can cross into unhealthy fanaticism driven by the expectation that we are required to express more confidence than we actually have.

I am not against spiritual enthusiasm, and surely, anyone confident enough to preach with gusto to adoring or angry crowds may seem to have a fanatical level of confidence, but again, the comparison is not to the level of confidence the average person would have, but the comparison of our expression to our actual individual confidence level.

2. Death is an unknown and potentially painful process

In chemistry, there is the concept of ‘activation energy,’ or the energy needed up front to start a reaction – like the energy of a match igniting a paper, which will then burn on its own.

Even if the other side of death is desirable, death itself is a fearsome thing, and not taken lightly. The transition may be painless, but yet the pains often associated with death, be they suffocation or chest pains remind us that death is not a kind thing – it is in the same category as pain and sickness.

3. We have a mission here

Sadly, most of us have not obeyed Romans 12:1-2, and developed an inner life with God in order to find our mission in life. And most Christians are not mindful of the mission of God in general. But for those who are mission and evangelism oriented, there is much work to be done here, so like the Bodhisattva of Buddhism, they stay here in this realm of pain in order to help others.

4. Stewardship here results in reward there

Even though we are not to be motivated by rewards, faith in the just and generous rewards of the life to come can motivate us to good deeds, even sacrificial deeds in this life. To some extent, we have this one life to ‘earn wages for eternal life,’ and so as the apostle Paul wrestled:

I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death.

For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know!

I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.~ Philippians 1:20-24

5. Life is enjoyable

Despite the difficulties of this life, there are joys here – though heaven may be incomparably better, this life is not entirely a hell, and a bird in the hand is worth two in heaven.

The point is, we don’t devalue this life based on the better life to come – rather, we spend it freely in love.

6. Risking our lives v. taking them

We are given our lives and person as a stewardship – just like you would care for a child you were given, you must take care of, love, nurture, train and discipline your own soul and body.

Taking your life is selfish and destructive, since no good to anyone but yourself comes out of it, if that. However, having faith in a better life to come, we can RISK our lives in service to others, knowing that our life is hid with Christ:

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.  When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. ~ Colossians 3:1-4

CONCLUSION

The idea that a better life ahead means we should waste this one is a bad one. It ignores good stewardship, concern for others, personal mission, and most of all, it assumes that faith means we know something is true as sure as if we had direct.empirical evidence.

Even if we have direct experience with God, the subjective nature of this makes it suspect, and so the knowing of faith is just not of the same character as knowing from direct sensory input. This does not make faith of no epistemelogical value, it merely understands it as reasoned trust with regards to things we can not yet confirm.

But one day, we will.

Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely. ~ 1 Corinthians 13:12