To some outside the church, Christianity (and most religion, for that matter) can be boiled down to: people who are religious only do good things because they expect a reward in heaven. I don’t think that’s a completely unfair read on religion, but I want to offer something of another perspective – or at least, why I continue to identify as a Christian even though I think very little about the afterlife. It goes deeper than that for me.
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“The point is – [I’ve] gotten better! Why should [I] have to go live alone in a boring void because of a messed-up system?” Eleanor Shellstrop asks in Season 2 of The Good Place. “How is that justice?” she snipes as she puts her hands on her hips.
Let’s talk about The Good Place for a second. It’s an excellent sitcom (available on Netflix) created by Mike Schur, the mind behind Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Kristen Bell plays Eleanor Shellstrop, a woman who dies an untimely death and winds up in The Good Place. According to the show, no religion ever quite got their understanding of souls and the universe exactly right – all world religions each were only 5% correct about how the afterlife works, though this one stoner kid in Canada in the 70s got over 90% right when he laid out his afterlife philosophy while he was hopped up on mushrooms. When good people die, they go to The Good Place and live in a perfect utopia for eternity and when bad people die, they go to The Bad Place where they will be tortured by demons for eternity.
But here’s the thing – Eleanor Shellstrop was a terrible person in life. She sold fake medicine to senior citizens and was the top salesperson in her office five years running. She always found loopholes to avoid being the designated driver when she went out with her friends. She looked out for nobody except herself – surely she should have been sent to The Bad Place. But at the start of Season 1, we’re presented with Eleanor’s arrival in The Good Place being sort of a wacky celestial coincidence that screwed up and had her there. Eleanor’s mission is to become a better person in the afterlife so that she can stay. The truth comes out eventually and Eleanor finds herself before a God stand-in, called The Judge, pleading her case to be in The Good Place. The Judge responds to Eleanor’s question.
“I still believe that the only reason that you improved … is because you thought there was a reward at the end of the rainbow. You’re supposed to do good things because you’re good, not because you’re seeking moral desert”
And here we are. Moral desert. I’ve spent about a year outside the Christian bubble now and this is something I’ve learned about what people who are not religious may think of Christianity specifically and religion in general: religious people only do good things because they seek moral desert. Moral desert (this is one of those times “desert” is pronounced like “dessert”) is the philosophical idea that you deserve what you may get following the things you do. I have to say it’s not a completely off-base take on Christianity. You may even see it encouraged in scripture by Jesus in a few places. I’ll cherry pick two from the Sermon on the Mount:
Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you
-Jesus concluding the Beatitudes in Matthew 5:12 NIV
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also
-Jesus in Matthew 6:19-21 NIV
I’m not gonna lie, those verses sit a little weirdly now when I think about moral desert. I’ve been preached Christianity for my entire life and I counseled summer camp at an evangelical camp and graduated from the very evangelical Wheaton College so it is probably difficult for me to definitively say the concept of “identify as a Christian do good things only because you expect to go to heaven when you die” does not apply to my situation at all, but I really don’t think it’s the primary motivator for me.
Belief is hard for me. I’m a pretty skeptical person in general. I will be honest and say there are days that I believe in God and there are days I want to believe in God. It’s never been a “the light switched on and suddenly I believed!1!!!” situation (and I do regret all those years at Christian camp that I preached that narrative to my campers – because I so desperately wanted it to be true for me). Belief is messy. Life is messy. But I’m motivated to continue identifying as a Christian even when my head isn’t there and that boils down to the image of God.
Then God said, ‘let us make mankind in our own image in our likeness, so that they may rule* over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over the creatures that move along the ground. So God created humanity in their own image. Male and female they created them
-Genesis 1:26-27 NIV with gender-neutral pronouns used for God
In the creation story of Genesis 1 and 2 (which I do not believe is a literal account but rather a mythical illustration from which Abrahamic faiths draw meaning), God creates humanity explicitly in their own image. What I take out of this is that for every person that has ever walked this earth, being human is enough to realize they matter and should be handled with care.
This line of thought continues through the life of Jesus. Jesus’ care for others throughout his life and ministry demonstrates he valued others, no matter their status, and saw their worth. Even his contemporary societal outcasts like lepers and prostitutes and tax collectors and people born blind – he was good to all of them. It did not matter what, if anything, he was given in return because the reward was simply in affirming the humanity, the image of God in people he interacted with and his actions followed accordingly. This is why I continue to identify as a Christian. I love the story of Jesus and I want my life to look like his.
I don’t know for sure if there is an afterlife. And there’s definitely no way to prove that God does or does not exist. But I don’t really think I care. I choose to believe in the life and teachings of Jesus anyway. I’m not an evangelical. I don’t think I’ve ever really been one. I had a friend in high school who was a few grades older than me and I think she summed up my beliefs best then with her mantra. She would always say, “I’m a Christian, but I’m not, like, on a mission to glue a bible to your face.” And I think that’s where I find myself lately. I try to affirm the humanity in everyone I meet – people of color, women, LGBTQ folx, men, white people, rich, poor, middle class - everyone is made in the image of God. And maybe that’s naïve and leads people to take advantage of me, but I believe people are good at the core. And that’s why I try to choose to do good things. I don't always succeed, but I try.
If upon death, I open my eyes and walk into an office and there’s some eternal being who looks a lot like Ted Danson inviting me in to tell me everything my religion believed about the afterlife was not quite true, I still won’t regret the time I spent on earth doing my best to model my life holistically after Jesus’. I’m not really thinking about what happens after I die right now, I’m just trying to think about life and humanity here.
*I don’t like that the word “rule” is used here. In my interpretation of this word “rule” (as a non-biblical-scholar), it simply means humanity exists in a different echelon than all the other creatures. I take more of a stewardship approach to care for the environment and believe that climate change is both real and an imminent problem caused by humanity’s lack of care for the environment. We’re being terrible at our God-appointed job.