Many people who are drawn to religious experience find the task of choosing between so many religious options daunting. Why should I choose to become a Hindu rather than a Muslim? Why isn’t Scientology just as good as becoming a Presbyterian? Why is Catholicism the “true” way as opposed to just worshipping nature? What if we make a mistake and choose the wrong religion? Will God toss us into hell for that?
The answer very simply is no. How do I know that? Because of who God is, what God is up to, and what he has explicitly told us about how he judges people. Let’s take up that latter point first. What is the sole basis for divine judgment according to both the Hebrew Bible (our Old Testament) and the New Testament texts? Let’s look for ourselves in Romans 2:6-13.
He will repay everyone as their deeds deserve. For those who aimed for glory and honor and immortality by persevering in doing good, there will be eternal life; but for those who out of jealousy have taken for their guide not truth but injustice, there will be the fury of retribution. Trouble and distress will come to every human being who does evil—Jews first, but Greeks as well; glory and honor and peace will come to everyone who does good—Jews first, but Greeks as well. There is no favoritism with God. All those who have sinned without the Law will perish without the Law; and those under the Law who have sinned will be judged by the Law. For the ones that God will justify are not those who have heard the Law but those who have kept the Law.
Over and again the Scriptures teach that every man will be judged according to his deeds, whether they were good or evil. Divine judgment falls on our conduct. So, what difference does the correct religion make? Notice what St. Paul said in line 8: the truth matters because it is directly linked to justice and injustice. If we discard the truth about who God is, who we are, and what makes human beings complete, then we will distort our existence so badly, that we will not only love evil, but we will do evil. This is the story of human history that St. Paul outlines in Romans 1, of peoples corrupting their understandings of God and themselves because they love evil. Then, having made those wrong choices, they justify them by further lies about God, their motives, and their satisfaction, leading to a degenerative spiral into misery. The truth really matters.
Over and again the Scriptures teach that every man will be judged according to his deeds, whether they were good or evil.
So, where does religion fit into this? If your religious beliefs fall seriously short of properly describing God and his relationship to human beings, then your conduct will accordingly fall short. But many religious systems get an awful lot right about who God is, what human nature is, what the good of human nature is, and/or what fulfills human beings. Thus does St. Paul say that even though the Jews had a much more accurate understanding of who God was thanks to the revelation of the Law, the Gentiles had sufficient understanding through human nature (he offers us the example of conscience later in Romans 2) to grasp the significance of moral law. St. Paul explains that God judges us for what we properly understood and nevertheless failed to do.
God judges us for what we properly understood and nevertheless failed to do.
Now, you might think that the best plan would then be to keep yourself as ignorant as possible, so that your moral culpability under divine judgment would reduce. However, this brings us to the second point above, namely that who God is and what he is up to lie at the core of divine judgment. Contrary to what many people suppose, God has zero interest in throwing people into the Lake of Fire at the final judgment. In fact, in the Revelation St. John describes that final judgment as a place “prepared for the devil and his angels.” It wasn’t originally designed for human beings at all. God doesn’t want to throw anyone into hell. Jonathan Edwards had it all wrong: God is not holding us by a slim thread over the flames. Jesus is the good shepherd who heads out into the cold, dark night to find even that one lost sheep. God loves us and yearns for us to know and love him, our sole true and complete human good. But for us to be fitted to know and love him, we must love who and what he is, namely Goodness. If we choose evil over good, we have chosen against God. So, divine judgment isn’t arbitrary. It’s not like God can just automatically overwrite what you have made yourself to be, since he made you a free creature, a person. As such, religion really does matter, because religion directs us to the truth about God and ourselves such that we can prepare ourselves for divine love. If we were to deliberately hide from divine knowledge, that choice would itself be an act against who God is, namely our supreme good, the ultimate source of human happiness. And you cannot reject God and be happy.
Contrary to what many people suppose, God has zero interest in throwing people into the Lake of Fire at the final judgment.
Now, you might worry here that some good people do seem to reject God, namely good atheists or good pagans. But C. S. Lewis gives us an intriguing picture on this problem in the final chapters of The Last Battle. As the children are about to leave Narnia at the end of time, those few remaining loyal and good animals (remember that these are talking animals, i.e., persons) are approaching the doorway to heaven. Included in their midst is an enemy of Narnia who rejects Aslan and instead worships a horrible god called Tash. Because the children are shocked at this man’s inclusion in heaven, Aslan points out that in loving the good of Aslan even under the false and dark form of Tash, the Narnian enemy still chose Aslan. Why? Because Aslan isn’t just a term, but a nature, the nature of perfect Goodness. And loving that goodness—even under the incorrect name—is what it meant to love Aslan. You may get the name wrong and mistake some of the cultural color, but if what you love in your god is the Good, then you are loving God.
It follows from this that even an atheist can choose goodness while seeming to reject God. Why “seeming?” Because to truly reject God requires that you reject goodness, but not all atheists have rejected goodness. Sometimes people are drawn to atheism for poor reasons or even for faulty constitutions having nothing to do with themselves. Do you suppose, for example, that God is going to condemn an atheist who chose atheism because he was raped by a priest? Neither do I. So, we have to conclude that God knows what he is doing and he fully understands how complex human beings really are. He actively looks for those elements of our choices that have moved us in his direction even if we don’t recognize that direction ourselves.
Remember, nobody gets “into” heaven who doesn’t love God with all of themselves, for that is what heaven is, the place for people who fully love God.
But we mustn’t conclude from this that minimalism is the way to go in matters of faith, the attitude that asks what is the bare minimum I have to do to “get into heaven.” Remember, nobody gets “into” heaven who doesn’t love God with all of themselves, for that is what heaven is, the place for people who fully love God. And if you truly love human nature, if you truly love goodness, if you truly love who God is, then like any lover, you will be maximally (not minimally) drawn to your beloved. Authentic faith thus seeks the maximum connection of love for God in this life. That kind of life cannot but entail loving one’s neighbor, leading to a life filled with justice and good deeds. And so, we come full circle, God will judge each man according to his deeds, not for what creed he advanced; but what creed he chooses might be chosen for immoral deeds that he would like to do, and, what creed he chooses might influence him in justifying immoral deeds that he has done.