If There Is No Heaven, Why Be Good?

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I.
So Ebay had to make a big decision this week, which involved its loss of an opportunity to make a big commission. A guy was offering to sell his place in heaven to the highest bidder, and the bids had gotten up near the $100,000 range. That’s one way to confirm one’s eternal destiny. Ebay told the gentleman, who by the way is ethnically Jewish and theologically an atheist rejecting the ideas of God and an afterlife, that people can’t sell something intangible on Ebay; nor can they sell, just to be clear and comprehensive, a human being like the person who tried to sell her grandmother on Ebay.  In response, he told Ebay to chill, that it was all a big joke.  The more interesting news story may be about those people who actually made bids on this offering.  What was the smallest bid, and what was the largest?
Most people I know who believe in heaven have some sense that getting there is connected to acceptable behavior in this world–whether that behavior is keeping certain rules or more generally just doing good deeds.  What does the Bible say, though?  Well, I don’t think many of the people who believe in heaven want to hear what the Bible says on the subject.
In the beginning was watery chaos, and then according to the great myths the Creator separated the waters with land, a big flat slab of an island. Above the land was the sky also called heaven, and below the land was the original watery chaos. The land was held up by huge columns that went from the base of the land all the way down to the bottom of the chaos.  And tucked in there immediately below the land was Sheol, the abode of the dead.
An ancient Hebrew thought everyone went to Sheol when her or his sojourn on earth was over. There was no doctrine of heaven in Hebrew Scripture, and no thought of rewards and punishments in Sheol. It was a great equalizer. The only thing you needed to be able to go there was the experience of death.  When you went, by the way, your essence was still kinda sorta you come, but you became a shade or shadow of your earthly self. The ancient Hebrews created strong images about what that shadowy existence was like.  For example, in Psalm 88:10, as the Darby Bible translation has it, we read of one of the psalmists asking God:  “Wilt thou do wonders to the dead? Shall the shades arise and praise thee?”
Many folks who look to the Bible for guidance and inspiration find it odd that there is no teaching on heaven in Hebrew Scripture. That, however, is the case.  At most, some seeds are sewn for what later develops in the Second Testament, Christian Scripture, era.
Jesus, parting from his inherited tradition, definitely believed in a heaven, but as I have said on other occasions he was rather in the theological minority among Jews in his time and place.  Only one established group, the Pharisees, at whom Jesus leveled his most severe criticisms believed in heaven. The most influential Jews in the time of Jesus–the wealthy and the aristocratic and the influential–Sadducees, did not believe in an afterlife.
In the Silverside context, as is true on most issues, we have people all over the continuum of possible beliefs about heaven. We have people who believe in no afterlife at all, and we have people who believe in both a heaven of some sort and a hell of some sort. And then there are people like me who believe in a heaven, but not in hell. Only when I arrived at this theological position did I realize that a significant number of people held it before I joined them.
One of the beloved members of Silverside who can no longer be with us because of severe dementia-related challenges is Dr. Hal Barker.  Hal is one in a group of brilliant Ph.D. chemists in our family, and Hal is certainly liberal in his theological thinking.  Perhaps because of early exposure to traditional biblical teachings in the Church of the Brethren Hal kept up his study of the Bible even when he realized he had become a part of the liberal wing.  What Hal said to me one time on this issue was, “We don’t know enough about it to confirm or deny it since nobody ever went there and came back to tell us about it. So it’s not even worth mentioning!”

II.
The question raised by today’s sermon title, “If there is no heaven, why be good?”, was a question that couldn’t have occurred to the ancient Hebrews for reasons that are now obvious.  They never got tripped up worrying about how they might earn their way to heaven.  Instead, thinking of Sheol as the only possible next-world experience, they believed in rewards and punishments in here and now.  They believed that God didn’t wait until the afterworld to settle up, as it were; instead, according to their belief system, God meted those out, reward or punishment, right here on these earthly shores.  Any unsettled business, was passed on to your children–the good or the bad; so that was a very interesting motivation for doing good.
There are plenty of people who only do what is right because they believe there are some potential reward out there for them–whether it’s heaven or something else like material favors or protection from natural disasters.  I’m sure your heart is torn out for the residents of the Oklahoma City area who can’t get out of the way of killer tornados.
The most chilling news report I read was on CNN online Friday evening:

 

The death and damage wrought by new tornadoes that plowed through Oklahoma won’t be completely known until the sun comes up Saturday morning.  A handful of fresh storms killed at least five people Friday, authorities said, less than two weeks after a monstrous cyclone waylaid the town of Moore, a suburb of Oklahoma City.  At least 71 others were injured statewide.  Two of the victims in Oklahoma died within twenty miles of Moore….Though the tornadoes were not as strong as the EF-5 twister that killed 24 on May 20, fear drove some people into their cars to flee them, some of whom got caught in heavy rains and flash flooding.  A mother and her child were killed when an apparent tornado sucked them out of their vehicle.

 
My dear friends, Oklahoma is the belt buckle of the Bible Belt!  And, as a result, there are tons of people there who believe God has willed these horrors as a punishment to someone or some group.  In the midst of their fear and grieving, plenty of people I can tell you are trying to figure out how to do good in order to get back in God’s graces.  This is its own kind of tragedy, and there are so many problems with this way of thinking one of which is that doing the right thing by no means guarantees some sort of positive reward. One can do the right thing and end up suffering for it.  In fact, that isn’t unusual at all.
The words of our last hymn today, attributed to St. Francis Xavier, are brilliant.  I quoted them a few weeks ago in a different context, but I can’t pass them by for today even though I referred to them so recently.

 

My God, I love Thee;

Not because
I hope for Heav’n thereby,

Nor yet because who love Thee not

May eternally die.
Not for the hope of winning Heaven,

Nor of escaping hell.

Not with the hope of gaining aught,

Nor seeking a reward,

But as Thyself hast lovèd me,

O everlasting Lord!

E’en so I love Thee, and will love,

And in Thy praise will sing,

Solely because Thou art my God,

And my eternal King.

III.
J C Watts has said:  “Character is doing the right thing when nobody’s looking.  There are too many people who think that the only thing that’s right is to get by, and the only thing that’s wrong is to get caught.”  Janice Hardy has one of her characters in The Shifter say the obvious:  “Doing what’s right is seldom easy.”  So, if there’s no heaven or even if there is and we can’t buy or earn our way in, why should we struggle with doing what is right?
I don’t think there’s any really good reason to do the right thing other than that it’s the right thing to do, and if something else pushes us to do the right thing other than fear of punishment it’s kind of hit or miss.  For one example, take the death penalty issue.
His Honor H. Lee Sarokin, former US Court of Appeals Judge, wrote an article a couple of years ago titled, “Is It Time to Execute the Death Penalty?”   This is what he wrote:

 

In my view deterrence plays no part whatsoever. Persons contemplating murder do not sit around the kitchen table and say I won’t commit this murder if I face the death penalty, but I will do it if the penalty is life without parole. I do not believe persons contemplating or committing murder plan to get caught or weigh the consequences. Statistics demonstrate that states without the death penalty have consistently lower murder rates than states with it, but frankly I think those statistics are immaterial and coincidental. Fear of the death penalty may cause a few to hesitate, but certainly not enough to keep it in force…

 
Maybe thinking about HOW to do the right thing will motivate some to do it.  The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics has issued a list of five ways to do what is right.

The Utilitarian Approach
The right thing to do leads to the greatest balance of good over damage. If someone can make a case for “ethical” warfare, which is what Augustine’s “Just War” theory attempted to do, it would have to balance the good that would come from ending terrorism, for example, with harm done through death, injury, and destruction including environmental destruction.  If we do the right thing for this reason, we are always involved in trying to increase the good and decrease the bad.  Putting this into practice requires a great deal of objectivity and selflessness.

The Rights Approach
Some ethicists have said that the right thing to do always protects and respects the moral rights of those impacted by the course of action chosen.  Inherent human worthy and dignity must be affirmed across the board; otherwise, this approach can’t work.  Human beings are not things, numbers, or nameless statistics.  The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights has this statement at its core:  “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.”  If I am going to do the right thing, I must be willing and capable of acting within these parameters.

The Justice Approach
If I’m going to do the right thing I must be willing to acts in ways that enhance justice.  Am I willing to take a salary cut if it means someone not being paid fairly is brought within a proper pay scale?  Do I protest injustice not just with my words but also with my actions?

The Common Good Approach
“This approach suggests that the interlocking relationships of society are the basis of ethical reasoning and that respect and compassion for all others–especially the vulnerable–are requirements of such reasoning.”  Who deserves health care?  What am I willing to do to promote educational opportunities for those, in particular, who are being overlooked?  George Bernard Shaw:

 

I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the community, and as long as I live, it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I live. Life is no “brief candle”to me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for a moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.

The Virtue Approach
Doing the right thing is living by the great principles of humanity at its best.  The motto of my alma mater is:  truth, beauty, goodness.  What about honesty?  Compassion?  Courage?

Common Misunderstandings about “the Right Thing” (ethical behavior).  These are from me, and not the Markkula Center.  It is incorrect to think…

 

  • That doing good results in rewards in the here and/or hereafter.
  • That the right thing will always be the same as a path chosen in response to some other similar challenge.
  • That the right thing is always a clear, obvious option among available choices.
  • That, once we do the right thing, we can take immediate solace in the knowledge that we did what was right.
  • That those who observe us doing the right thing will applaud what we do.
  • That there can be any ultimate reward for doing right other than making the effort to act ethically.

Amen.

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