When looking at the reasons for why we should critically examine our faith and that of others, there are several good, practical reasons that have a great deal of impact on the lives we live now, but I don’t believe that these are the most important reasons. The most important reason, I believe, is that every religion, omitting Atheism, claims that the belief system we cling to in this life has lasting consequences in the life beyond the grave. Atheism is largely alone in this because it denies the existence of an afterlife and, as a result, all you have is this life. However, all the other major world religions teach that the soul continues after death to a fate primarily determined by the life you lived. Even the smaller faiths, such as Mormonism, or the historical practices going back to ancient Greece or Egypt all understood and taught that death was not the end of the road.
I’ve previously touched on the contradictory concepts of the afterlife in various religions, but at the time I focused on the rewards that one expects or hopes to receive. In addition to those rewards, each religion teaches that there is an opposite destination reserved for those who do not measure up. In Buddhism and Hinduism, that destination is another life and death in the cycle of reincarnation and the social standing you receive is a direct result of what sort of life you lived the time before. As a side note, don’t let westernized and romanticized versions of reincarnation fool you. In the Hindu or Buddhist framework, you’re not even guaranteed to be human in the next life. You could be a sea slug or a dung beetle if you really screwed up.
In comparison, the Abrahamic faiths teach that there is a place of punishment for the wicked in the next life. In Judaism, Christianity and Islam, this is a place commonly referred to as hell and it is usually characterized with images of fire, darkness, sorrow, and torment. In Mormonism, the worst place you can go is Outer Darkness, a place specifically reserved for demons and apostate Mormons. It’s interesting to note that even horrible dictators and genocidal maniacs like Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot do not go to Outer Darkness. They instead go to the lowest level of heaven, the Telestial Kingdom, a place that, according to Mormon tradition, is so beautiful “if we could get one little glimpse [of it] … we would be tempted to commit suicide to get there.”1 If that doesn’t offend your sense of justice, then I don’t know what would.
All of this is to say that choosing the right faith system to follow is not simply about the practical implications of the current life. What we’re really talking about when we talk about the truth value of a religion is the eternal destination of a person who chooses incorrectly. I don’t think this is a particularly controversial statement since it is precisely this concept that drives many people to a form of pluralism in the first place.
The latest statistics I’ve found estimate that some thirty percent of the United States claims to be Christian in some form or another. I highly doubt that number, I suspect instead that true believers number something in the single percentage and the rest are a sort of cultural Christian that only take on the label because they were born in the US and have never made a point of examining what they do or don’t believe. However, for the moment I will use the statistic to make my point. Let’s look at the predicament that an exclusive position on religion faces:
Think about that for a minute. If Christianity as historically understood is true, then a hundred thousand people, enough to fill the LA Coliseum and then some, are sent to a place of eternal punishment and torment with no hope of escape. Every. Single. Day. That’s a hard pill to swallow.
This is not specifically a problem for Christianity, either. Almost every religion claims exclusivity and the numbers are even more staggering for other faiths specifically because they claim fewer adherents. Islam – the second largest religion in the world – must assume that even more people are going to hell every day because, not only do fewer people in the world consider themselves Muslims, but also because Islam provides no guarantee of avoiding hell even for the devout.
We can do two things in response to this information. We can try to formulate a way to soften that blow by positing largely ad hoc explanations of what we think or hope God will do because “he is a God of love”. This may take the form of some sort of annihilationism, universal salvation, post-mortem evangelism, or pluralism. While I respect the empathy that fuels this approach, I believe this is a naïve, untenable and unbiblical position, but I don’t want to delve too deeply into that here. Suffice to say for the moment that people who hold this position tend to overemphasize the love of God and forget that he is also a God of holiness, wrath, and justice. To separate those attributes and focus only on his love is to make a God in your own image rather than to take God as he is.
The other option is to allow the realization to motivate us into action, and this is the approach that the Christian church has taken for two thousand years. Starting with the Apostles going out into the Roman Empire and setting up churches in Philippi, Corinth or Ephesus to modern organizations like Campus Crusade, Youth With A Mission, Samaritan’s Purse, World Vision, InterVarsity, as well as untold thousands of unaffiliated missionaries throughout church history, the goal has always been the same: to bring the good news of Christ to people who need it so they can turn to God and be saved from an eternal fate.
If there is a hell, then the only question that has any true significance in life is how we can avoid going there. Empires rise and fall, presidents are elected and then replaced, technology and toys come and go, wounds heal, and friends and enemies are forgotten, but questions of faith are eternal. Nothing else about this life will matter after a hundred thousand, a million, a billion, or a hundred trillion years beyond the grave. It is for this reason that we need to not only critically examine our own beliefs regardless of how deeply held they are, but also to speak out to those who are in error.
1. Quote comes from a speech by Eldred G. Smith given at BYU in 1964, “The Prophet Joseph Smith told us that if we could get one little glimpse into the telestial glory even, the glory is so great that we would be tempted to commit suicide to get there.” It is questionable if Joseph Smith or any other president of the church ever said this or whether it is something that was once misunderstood and then passed on, but it is a common view among latter-day saints, nonetheless.
Writer, artist, lay theologian, student of comparative religion.