Recently, I saw a young man loudly shouting to the captive audience during the rush hour on the N train. Specifically, he was passionately pontificating on the certain damnation that awaited those who strayed from the Way of the one Jesus Christ, complete with the vivid imagery of fire and brimstone. But the reward if we choose wisely is an eternity with riches in heaven. Accustomed to any and all forms of absurdity, the mix of tired businessmen and women, several young Latina mothers an Orthodox Jewish man and an old Chinese woman with a pushcart of the wares she was vending, seemed rather unimpressed. Afterall, if you ride the subway in Queens, you’ve probably seen it all.
That’s when it struck me. I was quite familiar with the story, as I myself am an evangelical Christian, and remembering being sent to the streets of Portland in middle school to evangelize, complete with a small paper track that described the four-step path to salvation. Granted, our approach was much kinder than the hell and damnation talk we were witnessing this late spring afternoon, when the newly arrived humidity finds itself into the bowels of the city, and into the traincars struggling to air-condition the smell away.
But I was also struck with another thought, a new, perplexing, troubling, thought. Something about the reward of salvation made the whole thing feel a bit self-centered. Salvation was at the center of all Christian theology I was taught. The single most important thing in life was my status as “saved.” The only other thing that mattered was convincing more people to adopt said “saved” status.
While I still identify as an evangelical, my tendency to question has allowed me to grow theologically beyond some of the more common peripheral beliefs of the evangelical movement. It has given the opportunity to hear this language with fresh ears. Upon doing so, salvation-focused theology poses two issues to me.
The first issue dived into the very basis of our morality. As Christians we’re called to live a moral life. Without going into the much larger (and warranted) debate on the nature or morality, morality is most commonly seen as the way one should act to be a good, selfless person. Putting ethical standards above our own wants and needs. However, are we truly selfless in our actions if we are seeking a reward? If I help someone with no desire for a return, then we would assume that’s moral. But if I help someone because I believe next year they’ll give back to be tenfold? It sounds like an investment.
Here lies the challenge of spiritual investment: If we are are only being honest, faithful, loyal and humble for the payment of an eternal mansion in the sky, then are we really being “good people”? If we allow salvation to be our true motive in living moral lives, then I can’t see how we’re not self-serving in the process. Do good, or else.
Which brings me to the second issue, the else. Just as heaven makes a compelling incentive for upright living, hell sure sounds like a scary place. And we can work our way backwards. If my main reason for serving God and living righteously is out of fear of eternal damnation, then how authentic is my devotion?
This is a line of logic that you can take into very murky territory. Is there any good you could do worth risking of your salvation? Today, like everyday, 16,000 children will die of hunger-related causes. Would you risk your salvation to keep them alive? If God would punish you for taking such a risk, is a God worthy of worship? Would you embrace eternal damnation upon yourself to end all human suffering? These hypotheticals should challenge us to ask if we’re really selfless in our daily lives, or just following the rules for the rewards.
This isn’t an argument about how we should look at the concepts of heaven and hell. It’s about motivation. If we let go of whether or not we are saved, or other people are saved, and love as Jesus instructed, perhaps the rest can work itself out. Maybe if we focused on making sacrifice, actual sacrifice from our own comfort for the glory of God in selfless service, rather than shouting at crowd of commuters on the N train, people may actually take notice.
This piece originally appeared here in Huffington Post Religion.