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Is Believing in God Enough?

Updated: Sep 1, 2020

This question really is a strange one, not just because we have to ask, “Enough for what?” but because of the deeper motivations that are driving it. On the one hand you have the big Protestant worry that underneath the question is the Catholic quest to slip salvation by works back into the picture. On the other hand and on the opposite side, you have the concern that sheer laziness is driving the question, that the person asking it is just trying to check off the minimum number of boxes to “get into heaven.” Both of these worries assume that the real question is how to get into heaven. So, let’s start there.

What is heaven, anyway? Well, what we really know other than the metaphors of golden streets and mansions is what it is NOT. It’s not hell. And the real reason most people want to get to heaven is to avoid hell. We are told that hell is consumed by fire and suffering, while heaven is swathed in air conditioning and pleasantness. So, obviously, the goal is to get booked into a nice suite in heaven and avoid the basement, hell. That is how an awful lot of people see the picture. Getting in becomes the main goal, because avoiding hell is the real objective.

Unfortunately for the post-life planning that many people have been banking on, heaven cannot be booked, cannot be snuck into, cannot be “entered” at all, because heaven is far less a place and far more a “who."

Unfortunately for the post-life planning that many people have been banking on, heaven cannot be booked, cannot be snuck into, cannot be “entered” at all, because heaven is far less a place and far more a “who.” Heaven, whatever it ultimately turns out to be by way of temperature and accommodations, is the realm of God and who he is. What differentiates heaven and anywhere else comes down to one thing: our connection to God. All this obsession with places—heaven, hell, purgatory, Nirvana, Gehenna, Lazarus’ Bosom, and even wherever L. Ron Hubbard is supposed to have gone—is total nonsense. Let’s briefly explore why.

The greatest commandment tells us the secret not only to happiness but to human destiny. The only way ever to truly be happy is to love the one who is infinite goodness. How else could you have the “good life”? If you love God, you must love goodness, because he is the good. If you despise and avoid goodness, you wouldn’t want to be anywhere near God. Being within 100 feet of him would cause agonizing pain, because his goodness would sear through you like the rays of the sun up close. So, God allows us to choose whether to love him and what he is, namely pure goodness. Thus, the question isn’t where are you going when you die. The question is with whom will you be when you die. And that question comes down to this one, the real one: are you the sort of person fitted in desire and character to love God or not? Because nobody who doesn’t love God “gets in,” because heaven just is loving who God is. Not place, but person.

Nobody who doesn’t love God “gets in,” because heaven just is loving who God is. Not place, but person.

Once we begin asking that real question, the whole Protestant/Catholic controversy over works vs faith explodes into irrelevance. Why? No one can see God as he is in himself unless God raises him up to it, because God is infinite and we are finite. Plus, our sins set us directly against the love of God. So, only if God does something to raise us up to see and love him as he is in himself can we ever know God. Whatever that something is that God does to raise us up the Church calls Grace. So, for Catholics and Protestants both, without grace, there is no salvation, no seeing and loving God.

According to St. Paul in the rarely read but vitally important chapter four of Romans, God provides different means of this grace at different points in human history. Whatever the means, it is a test of faith, a test of allegiance, a test to determine whether a human being will freely choose to humbly accept the way that God provides to return us back to himself. Abraham was tested with the faith choice to believe God about his future generations. The children of Israel were tested with the serpent lifted up in the wilderness. Gideon was tested to launch his attack on the Midianites with a mere 300 soldiers. Hebrews 11 regales us with these noble tests of faith, and the Old Testament is chock full of them. In broad terms in Romans 4, St. Paul divides human history into three periods: before the Law, during the Law, and after the Law. Abraham is the exemplar of faith before the law, and his faith was counted to him for righteousness, meaning that through his faith, God molded him into rightness, that fittedness of a human soul for the vision of God. David is the exemplar of faith during the law, and his faith, too, was counted to him for rightness, a seriously tested faith due to David’s murder of Uriah. After the Law you have all of us within the Church whose faith is tested through the sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist, two curious practices that Jesus asked us to do and believe in just like Elisha told Naaman to go dip in the Jordan River to be healed. When Naaman trusted Elisha (and Elisha’s God) and when we trust Jesus and fully engage in the offered practices by faith, God counts that to us for rightness too, starting a seed process that ignites within us faith, hope, and love, a love that then grows throughout our life transforming us into people fit to know and love him. The point of faith then is to change you into a really great person.

How could you love goodness and not do good things?

So, the specific content of the faith, whether it be lots of kids, dipping in the Jordan River, baptism, or whatnot is hardly the point. It’s the object of faith that matters, namely God himself. That’s why Faith is called a theological virtue, for it directs us toward God. And what is the result of faith working through hope? Love, a love that seriously alters us. Does love imply that you do good things? Obviously. How could you love goodness and not do good things? Thus, the faith/works controversy is completely stupid. The whole thing erupts over a misreading of St. Paul and St. James. Paul said that a man is justified by faith without works. James said a man is justified not only by his faith but by his works. That looks like a contradiction and everyone then reads their own views into those lines. But neither Paul nor James said anything so simplistic. What Paul really said in Romans is this: no man is justified by the works of the Law. And what James really said in his Epistle is this: we see now that a man is justified not only by faith but by works of love. You see, there is no contradiction. Just following a law code isn’t worth anything if you don’t love the one who gave it. So, punching your “get into heaven free” card isn’t going to work. On the other hand, a faith that doesn’t result in love of your brother is useless, because God wants not just your mind, but all of you, including your will. Love the Lord your God with all of yourself; that is what the greatest commandment says. Thus, faith is for something. What is it for? Your transformation from a self-obsessed shadow who erroneously thinks of heaven and hell as locations on a map into a person who so loves God and his neighbor, that when he dies and passes over to the other side, he suddenly realizes he’s home.

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