Our discussion on Tuesday night led to an excellent question by Frank. I’m not good at capturing a verbatim of a conversation, but the gist went something like this: If the kingdom of God is the goal of the Christian life and heaven is not, if we no longer have the carrot of heaven and the stick of hell to motivate us, why would anyone choose to work for the kingdom of God? What is the motivation? Why follow Jesus if there is no tangible reward?
(Frank, I hope that this summary is fair to the essence of what you were asking.)
The traditional form of Christianity has obviously been organized around eternal reward and eternal punishment. As we discussed, if eternal punishment is off the table (per Ron Bell), and if a loving God brings everyone to heaven—even non-Christians (universal salvation)—and if we don’t have to do anything or believe anything to qualify, why should our lives be moral? Why should we care about social justice? Why should we do anything about poverty and ecological destruction? Why not just live for ourselves?
We talked a bit about the intangible rewards of working to bring about the kingdom of God. For instance, it was mentioned that in building a Habitat house for someone in need of decent affordable housing, there is a sense of satisfaction from knowing you have helped someone experience a better life. I guess what we are dealing with here is altruism—a selfless concern for the welfare of others. It is the opposite of selfishness. But why not be selfish, if we get to heaven regardless? Many non-Christians are altruistic. What motivates them?
For me the motivation is Jesus. It is found in taking Jesus seriously. It is seeing Jesus not as an instrument whose death and resurrection gets me entry into heaven, but rather as a model of the godly life. Jesus is a model of what it means to be fully human, and I want to be as fully human as I can be.
Frank’s question was excellent and I need to do much more thinking about how to better answer it, because it is essential to progressive Christianity. I’m wondering how others in the group would respond.