Does Belief in an Afterlife Make People Worse?

Whether or not someone knows very much about Christianity at all, that person is probably aware that one of the characteristic beliefs in the Christian faith is that every human being will spend eternity either in heaven with God or in hell apart from him. Now we naturally know that what a person believes about the future impacts how he or she will live in the present, and for many on the outside of Christianity (and perhaps for some on the inside as well) this raises an interesting question: Does the Christian belief in an afterlife have positive effects on the way people live, or does it create people who treat others and the world poorly? To phrase it another way, does the Christian belief about the future make people worse instead of better?

For many who aren’t affiliated with Christianity, this is a major obstacle to belief. These folks generally recognize the importance and goodness of certain virtues like love, compassion, and generosity but don’t see how the doctrines of heaven and hell can be reconciled with a way of life that’s defined by these characteristics. If you’re a Christian, you need to recognize that this objection isn’t necessarily a trap designed to shut down conversation, but may in fact be a legitimate question that needs to be addressed as someone considers the claims of Jesus and the Bible. And if you’re not a Christian, you need to recognize that Christianity might just involve far more than you realize and that there may in fact be a legitimate answer to this important concern.

Often, this objection takes one of two forms, so I’d like to consider each of them in turn and offer what I hope will be a helpful and faithful response.

1) Belief in hell makes people harsh, violent, and judgmental

This is perhaps the more common version of the objection. Belief in hell, so the logic goes, will inevitably create people who think they’re superior to others, who embody prideful and judgmental attitudes toward those that differ, and who may even feel justified in exercising violence against people who don’t believe as they do. In other words, if you believe that God will punish sin in eternity, you’ll have no problem punishing people right now. Of course, part of the power of this objection is that so often it has accurately described the way people who confess Christianity have treated outsiders. But this isn’t the necessary result of a belief in hell; it’s really a perversion of it.

Far from making people harsh, violent, and judgmental, the Christian doctrine of hell actually has the capacity to make people more compassionate, patient, and merciful. How is that possible? Christians believe that humanity was made to live joyfully with God and that our rebellion against him in favor of other masters and other objects of worship has broken that fellowship and made us deserving of God’s holy anger. We’ve rejected the most beautiful person imaginable, and that’s an incredibly serious offense. What’s significant is that this applies to everyone. So when Christians talk about hell as a place where sin receives the punishment it deserves forever and ever, we’re talking about something that we deserve, too. Christianity forces us to see ourselves for who we really are and to come to terms with the fact that we’ve all earned God’s judgment. The central message of the Bible is that Jesus died on the cross to receive that judgment in the place of wicked people so that all who believe could be restored to life with God. For Christians, the doctrine of hell reminds us of how serious our pride, self-sufficiency, and lack of love are to God, and that creates a remarkable humility. At the same time, Christianity says that the only person able to rescue us from hell is God himself through Jesus Christ, and that creates a remarkable gratitude that’s willing to show compassion to others.

The Christian understanding of hell changes us in another way as well. If you believe that there is no God who will ultimately see to it that perfect justice is done, you’ll be left with two options when faced with personal harm and the evil in the world. You can either choose to not worry about injustice, or you can be the arbiter of justice. You can diminish the importance of justice, reasoning that life’s full of unfairness and pain and that’s that, or you can take justice into your own hands, becoming a vigilante who makes sure that people get what they deserve. But the problem with both of these options is that they inevitably lead to an increase in injustice. The despairing nihilist who gives up on the pursuit of justice contributes to the problem by allowing inequity and abuse to go unchallenged, and the zealot who feels intense personal responsibility for distributing justice contributes to the problem by taking the position of superiority and power to dole out punishment and vengeance according to his or her individual preferences.

If, however, you believe that the God of the Bible is the only one with the right to judge and punish evil and that he will perfectly deal with sin, you can care about justice without taking justice into your own hands. You won’t diminish the importance of justice because justice is important to God, and you won’t become a vigilante who needs to retaliate against wrongdoers because you know that God has promised to exercise justice in wisdom and holiness. Armed with this confidence, Christians can withstand all sorts of unjust persecution, personal attacks, and terrible evils without seeking revenge. We can work in the world to relieve suffering and make societies more just and equitable without pridefully viewing ourselves as the final hope for justice or being blinded to our own tendencies to misuse power. And we can show compassion and grace even to those who directly oppose, slander, and harm us because we’ve received an even greater grace from Jesus and know that God will eventually deal with evil once and for all.

2) Belief in heaven makes people diminish the importance of this world

The main idea behind this form of the objection is that if Christians spend their lives working to get to another world, then they will either ignore the present world as they wait for heaven or they will merely use the world as a means to finally reach heaven, manipulating nature and people in the process. Again, this objection isn’t simply hypothetical; there are in fact camps within Christianity that advocate and live out something very close to what's described here. But again, this fails to embody what, according to the Bible, Christianity is really all about.

First of all, it’s important to point out that Christianity doesn’t teach that people are supposed to work throughout their lives in order to get to heaven. Though that sort of thinking is a popular caricature of Christianity, that’s all it is—a caricature. No one gets to heaven by behaving well enough, keeping enough moral laws, or obeying enough commands. Heaven isn’t the prize for good living. Heaven is a gift of grace that Jesus purchased when he died on the cross for sin and rose from the dead, and the Bible says that it’s the inheritance for all who acknowledge their sin and trust the good news of Christ. So you don’t strive to get to heaven through your own works; you’re given heaven as a gift because of Jesus’ work.

And second, Christianity doesn’t teach that heaven is an escape from this world. Rather, the biblical portrait of heaven is actually that it's the restoration of this world. God created the universe as a place to dwell with humanity; sin corrupted that fellowship and distorted the whole world; and Jesus came to reverse the curse of sin and death that’s on humanity and the entire creation. In the Bible, heaven is referred to as “the new heavens and the new earth” not because it leaves this old world behind but because God will one day renovate this universe and restore it in peace, harmony, and beauty. Heaven is life with God in a renewed world.

When you believe that God sent Jesus so that he could welcome you into a restored world with him, you won’t diminish the importance of this world or callously use it as a means to an end. To the contrary, believing in that kind of heaven has the power to make you love this world more deeply and give your whole life in sacrificial generosity. The doctrine of heaven shows us that God cares about his creation so much that he sent his Son to die in order to make it new. So the people who trust and love God and believe his gospel have an incredible motivation to care about this world, too. They don’t look for the escape hatch to get out of here; they follow in the footsteps of their Heavenly Father in seeking to bring restoration and peace to the world as they live in their identity as children of God.

If you believe this world is all there is, even when you want to show generosity to others, you’ll tend to hedge your bets, protect yourself, and limit how much you’re willing to give so that your way of life isn’t adversely affected. But Christianity promises that all who trust Jesus are guaranteed an eternity of joy with God, a “heavenly inheritance” that’s better than all the riches and power and status the world can offer. And that promise gives an incredible security that enables Christians to give their whole lives and selves in loving generosity to others. There’s no need to protect yourself, no need to limit your mercy in the name of preserving comfort and honor, because what’s of ultimate importance isn’t wrapped up in your possessions or your lifestyle. When you have a future with God as a gift of his grace, you can pour yourself out in difficult and counter-cultural forms of love even when it means making sacrifices that others wouldn’t dare to entertain. Christians are to see all of life as an opportunity to worship God for his generous grace and as a chance to steward the resources God has given as they anticipate the joys of eternity with God. That kind of hope will make you more generous, loving, and willing to sacrifice for the good of others—not less.