How are we to cope with the fact that life is unfair? Innocent people are victimized. In many cases, virtue is punished rather than rewarded. Disasters strike without warning. Bad things happen to good people with alarming frequency. In our darkest days, it seems that evil has the upper hand in the cosmic battle.
Not a problem. When we die, the Divine Scorekeeper will sort everything out. The more we sacrifice in this world, the more we will be rewarded in the next.
The “pie in the sky when we die” solution to the problem of evil spawns its own set of dilemmas.
Sacrifice for the sake of impressing God may lead us into new temptations. Early Christians were so eager to gain instant salvation through martyrdom that their efforts were a serious threat to church membership, motivating the leaders of the church to declare that deliberately seeking martyrdom was a sin. Suicide bombers and other would-be heroes who expect to join the blessed elite in the next world do not consider what havoc they are leaving behind in this one.
The Bible makes frequent references to afterlife rewards.
At the same time, Christian doctrine is heavy on the concepts of unselfish love, unlimited grace, and forgiveness from the heart. 1 Corinthians 13, St. Paul’s rhapsody about agape love, is widely quoted. St. John proclaims that God is love. Sacrifice is nothing unless it is motived by sublime love, and love alone. But, how can love be my sole motivation if my eyes are on the ultimate prize of heavenly bliss? If we are controlled by sticks and carrots, we are morally deficient, unable to choose the right thing just because it is right, regardless of consequences. Might become the sole definition of right. If evil triumphs and yesterday’s virtue becomes today’s sin, we will adjust our moral rudder accordingly, without making any serious effort to fight back.
Overconfidence in divine rewards may blind us to the necessity to rectify the wrongs around us.
In the grand scheme of eternity, it doesn’t matter whether our neighbor’s wife is being brutally abused, as long as she’s a good Christian praying for the one who is hurting her. For many years, Christian slave owners were content to save their charges’ souls while exploiting their bodies. Those who were oppressed tried to forgive those who hurt them, knowing that God would ultimately set everything right. Was this forgiveness from the heart? Or were they hoping to have the last laugh in heaven?
“If there is no heaven or hell,” a friend once asked me, “what’s the point of being good?” I thought the answer was self-evident. Virtue, love, and kindness are their own rewards. Every choice we make changes us. What we become as a result of those choices is our gift to ourselves, to the God of our understanding, and to those who share our journey. If we are under duress, we are no longer responsible.
In the Bible, the greatest rewards seem to go to those who act in the most irrational ways. Faith is, after all, irrational. However, if I were given the job of Scorekeeper, I would give big bonus points for responses like these:
ABRAHAM: What do you mean, Lord, do what my wife wants? Isn’t that how Adam got into trouble? I’ll just send Hagar and Ishmael to stay with one of my cousins. Turning them lose the wilderness to die is too extreme. They are just pawns in this game, and none of this is their fault. Yes, I know that You will look out for Ishmael and make him a great nation. All the more reason to treat him fairly. If he grows up hating his brother Isaac, they will be feuding for generations, and who knows where it will end?
JOSHUA: I know you’re sensitive about rejection, Lord, but genocide? That’s overkill. Let’s think of some other options.
JESUS: Dad, I don’t mind going to earth to explain to humans how loving and merciful you are, but I don’t get the part about letting them torture me to death and then claim that you did that to me because your perfect sense of justice demands that I be punished for things I didn’t do. Can you imagine how much guilt and confusion that would cause?