Just Deserts


Among atheists, Christians have a reputation for consigning people to heaven or hell based on the orthodoxy of their beliefs. You can be a sexual predator who preys on children, but if you confess your sins and accept Jesus as your savior, you have a guaranteed spot in heaven. On the other hand you can be a world-class humanitarian, but if you deny the basic tenets of the Christian faith, you are doomed to hell. To be sure, this is something of a caricature of Christian beliefs, but I think it describes fairly accurately what many Christians believe to be true. However, there is no foundation for this view in the Bible. The Biblical view of judgment in the afterlife is that it is based on deeds. Again and again, both Old and New Testaments stress that all people will be judged according to what they have done, whether it is good or bad. This includes Christians. Nowhere in the Bible is there any mention of people being judged according to their beliefs. Everyone is judged according to their deeds.

Suppose a man believes—as some Muslims reportedly believe—that he will go to heaven if he kills an infidel. Will he be sentenced to jail for such a belief? Will our courts fine him or exact some other punishment for this belief? No. He will go to jail only if he is found guilty of actually killing someone. Are human courts more righteous than God’s? Of course not. Then how can we think that God will condemn people or reward them for what they believe?

Someone may object at this point that there are many Bible verses that also tell us we are saved by faith, that God rewards believers with eternal life in heaven, and that these rewards are not promised to unbelievers. To answer this objection, I need to introduce a distinction in different kinds of believing.

I believe that the earth is round, that the sun is a nearby star, that all life on earth has a common ancestor, that Abraham Lincoln was our 16th President, and that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. Will any of these beliefs save me? No. They will not. Most of them have little or no impact on how I live my life. Even the last one cannot save me if I do nothing about it. It is perfectly possible for me to believe that Jesus is the Son of God and not follow him or do anything that he commands. These are what I think of as propositional beliefs. They are beliefs in certain propositions, statements of fact or opinion. This kind of belief is almost never meant when the Bible talks about faith. James is a notable exception, and if you want to see what the Bible has to say about whether faith or deeds are more important, read James 2:14-26. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

See? James points out that demons believe in God’s existence. Merely believing that there is a God gets you no brownie points with him.

I believe in my children. I believe in my wife. I believe in myself. I believe in Jesus. This is a different kind of belief. This is not an academic assent to certain propositions. This is relational trust. I have confidence in my kids. I have watched them grow into adulthood and take responsibility for themselves. I know they have learned good principles, and I have done my best to set them a good example. I believe in them. Likewise I believe in my wife. She is talented and smart and strong, and she can do what she sets out to do. I trust her. And, yes, I trust Jesus. He has proven himself loving and good in everything I know of him. He encouraged me when I struggled with depression, and he has given me a family to love, enriching me beyond anything I could have hoped for or imagined. This is the belief the Bible talks about, confidence in God’s goodness and love as a father to us all. It is this faith that saves us because we fully entrust ourselves to him, fearlessly doing what we know is right because our souls are at rest in him. By this faith we share with others when we have barely enough for ourselves. By this faith we speak out against injustice. By this faith we continue to proclaim the death and resurrection of Jesus even when we are ridiculed for believing impossible stories.

What we believe matters far less than what we do, but what we do depends a lot on whom we trust.

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