In her ongoing reflection upon Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s Kosher Jesus, my PJM colleague Rhonda Robinson asserts that “Christians Should Agree with Jews’ Disinterest in Heaven and Hell.” In her quest for inter-faith unity, she drags Christianity back down to Earth.
Boteach explains that “Jews do not follow Judaism for the purpose of reward in the afterlife.” Honestly, neither should Christians. And I would venture to say, most don’t.
It’s easy to see where that is the perception. That’s what most evangelists preach: the infamous knock on the door, followed by “if you die tonight where would you go?” style of evangelism.
Those who honestly seek to follow Christ, do in fact live out what Boteach is trying to say that true Judaism is, by bringing more light into the world. Some of the best schools, hospitals and outreaches have been started and flourished by Christians living out this very principle.
When asked by Christians “Do you know where you’re going?” Boteach’s response is worth noting,
My worship of God is not about me. It’s not about saving myself from hell. I’m not here on this earth to spend my life accruing virtue so I get some divine reward. I don’t worship God so it ultimately benefits me. I do it because I want to be in a relationship with Him. I do it because it’s right. And I do it to make this world a better place. I love God unconditionally and unequivocally. Not because I expect anything in return.
Most Christians I know could have said the very same thing.
How wonderfully pious.
Let us dare to ask some essential questions. Why should anyone worship God? Why should anyone love Him? Why should anyone want to “be in a relationship with Him”? What’s the point? Boteach asserts that he loves God “because it’s right.” But where’s he getting that from? Why is it right? Why would not loving God be wrong?
First we must consider what makes anything right. Regardless of any philosophy we may intellectually ascend to, or any religion we may claim to follow, our life proves to be our standard of value. We do the things we do in order to sustain and enhance our lives. Our life gets us out of bed in the morning. Our life propels us to work. Our life drives us to eat, to build, to save, to share, to love, to join in friendship and form families. Even when one gives their life for another, they do so in service of their own values, in service of what they hold dear. They do it, all things considered, for their own sake.
Though we often defer to arbitrary codes of morality which demand we sacrifice our values, no one does so consistently, and no one could do so consistently without it causing their imminent death. On this Earth, such as we find it, our purpose is life. We may attempt to deny that fact, but cannot persistently act against it. What is objectively right proves to be that which serves our life.
This should not surprise us if we know God. The Creator who made us in his image exists entirely for his own sake. His life and its glory stand alone as his purpose. He made us to bring glory to Himself. Romans 11:36 declares:
For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be glory forever. Amen.
For a Jewish perspective, we can turn to the Book of Isaiah, where the Lord references:
the people whom I formed for Myself that they might declare my praise
Our life’s purpose, to glorify God, winds throughout scripture. As we might expect, fulfilling that purpose sustains and satisfies us.
Pastor John Piper of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis refers to this fulfillment as Christian hedonism. What may sound like an oxymoron makes sense once explained. Piper demonstrates from scripture that “God is most glorified in you when you are most satisfied in Him.” In other words, fulfilling our purpose brings us eternal satisfaction. It’s the ultimate win-win, where obedience results in fulfillment, much the same way a child heeding his father’s guidance fares well. God knows what we need. We need Him. When we surrender to that, we are fulfilled. It is entirely about Him, but nonetheless serves our interests. Despite the deceitful influences of our sinful heart, no conflict exists between what truly fulfills us and what God commands.
When we understand this, the problems with Boteach’s response to the evangelical question of eternal disposition become clear. While worshiping God may not be about us, it certainly involves us and serves our interests as fully as it serves God’s. While our worship does not save us from hell, we certainly ought to seek such salvation. The Bible does not teach that God offers heaven as a reward for virtue points accrued on Earth, and any professing Christian which believes that their works will save them needs to return to the Gospel in search of grace.
That said, let’s be crystal clear. You want to be in heaven. You do not want to be in hell. Christians, Jews, and everybody else better take a profound interest in these eternal destinations, because God’s purpose will be fulfilled one way or the other. We will bring Him glory. The only question is whether we will do so as eternal witnesses to his undeserved grace and loving mercy, or as eternal examples of his perfect justice and holy wrath.
We should never lose interest in heaven and hell. Heaven is our blessed hope, where we will dwell with God and fulfill our purpose. Hell is eternal torment in hopeless separation from God, an infinite and final loss. As surely as we pursue any value here on Earth, we should passionately obsess over eternity.
None of that denies that we should strive to leave the world a better place than we found it. Of course we should bring light into the world. That said, when we know that God has completed a work to save us from sin and fulfill our lives to his glory, what greater light could we shed than that news? What amount of education, medical care, or outreach can undo death? We kind of have a big deal here, a risen Lord, a victor over the grave! Best of all, fulfilling His purpose fulfills ours, as was His design from eternity past.
THAT’s worth worshipping. THAT’s worth loving. THAT’s a relationship I want to be a part of. Don’t give me this arbitrary piety about loving God with no regard for myself. I love God with full regard for myself, as he created me to.
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. – Mark 12:30
Perfected and united with Him in heaven, we will at last fulfill that greatest of commandments. It will be all we want and everything we lack, the eternal climax of our lives.
Let’s conclude where Robinson began, considering a challenging question from her teenage son:
“If there is no heaven, would being a Christian still be worth it?” He went on trying to clarify, “I mean, what if we’re all wrong? What if when we die there is no heaven? Would you be sorry that…”
“Sorry I didn’t have ‘fun’?” I interrupted.
“Well, yeah,” he said sheepishly.
The question proceeds from the assumption that to be a Christian is to deny yourself fun. In some cases, that assumption may prove true. However, weighing fun against consequence is hardly unique to Christianity. Fun, particularly the hormone-fueled teenage variety likely considered by Robinson’s son, can lead to all manner of profoundly un-fun consequences if pursued recklessly. Even among the atheistic or agnostic, maturity brings the wisdom that long-term sustainable joy beats the ups and downs of intense but fleeting fun. Unsurprisingly, what God commands proves best for our lives, even as we fail to acknowledge Him.
The ideal response to this earnest question would correct the notion that Christians behave a certain way in order to get into heaven. Nothing a Christian does secures entry into heaven. We do not strive to obey God’s commandments to maintain heavenly eligibility. We strive to obey God’s commandments because, as our creator, He issues them with authority. He knows how we work. He has the lockdown on best practices. He wrote the book. We thus follow his instruction as we might that of any manufacturer who knows their product best. To his eternal glory, He serves our every interest, even those we work in sin against.