“If there were no heaven,” I asked, “would you still be a Christian?”
The small gathering of high school students was quiet for a minute. They were bright, committed young people, most of them grown in the church, choosing to give up their Sunday afternoon to study the bible with me. Maybe they didn’t understand the question.
“If there were no heaven would you still want to be a Christian?”
“Is there still hell?” one student asked.
“Let’s say no,” I said. “No heaven and no hell. Do you still want to be a Christian?”
“There wouldn’t be Christians if there wasn’t heaven or hell,” he said. “Why would Jesus even be born?”
That was eleven years ago and the conversation still corrects me today.
We talked that afternoon about deism – the belief system held by Thomas Jefferson and so many luminaries of the Enlightenment. Deism is the belief that God made the world but is no longer actively involved in it. Deism is often explained using the metaphor of a watchmaker who created a watch, then wound it up and walked away. It ran without him because he designed it to.
The deist believes that God is not running the world but the world is running itself – or the world has been made by God to run without Him. God has put gears in the world that keep it running on its own: Natural laws like gravity. Moral laws given in scripture. Manmade laws like constitutions and house bills.
“…so that whoever believes in him will not perish but have inherit eternal life,” he said. “That’s why Jesus came.”
“Yes, he did. God so loved the world, every one of us, that he offers us eternal life. He loves us now and forever.”
If there were no heaven and no hell I’d like to think I’d still choose to trust God with my life here and now because He loves me. And I need to believe Someone who loves me is in charge of things down here – providing for me, working all things together for good, hearing my prayers, interested and intervening in the details of my little life. Even if it wasn’t an everlasting life. I would be loved while it lasted.
I’d like to think I’d still choose to trust God with my life even if it were finite – if there were no heaven or hell to come after it. But I confess that these days I’ve often lived like a Christian deist. As if God makes no difference in my life today, as if He’s not involved. As if, like the watchmaker, God has walked away, only to be seen again at the end of time. I find myself often talking, behaving, (not) praying as if God isn’t interested or even present. That is until the watch doesn’t seem to be ticking to my advantage and, well, then…
God, forgive me for thinking the world runs itself. Or that I do. Forgive me for forgetting that you offer abundant life along with eternal life. Forgive me for celebrating and weeping without you. Right now, for this moment, I choose to trust you.