Eternal Rewards + Punishments

Growing up I was warned to stick to the business at hand… and NEVER discuss religion, politics or personal beliefs with colleagues. Perhaps that’s good advice. For the record, I have little respect (actually none) for beliefs or subjects deemed too taboo to question. In fact, I encourage everyone to question most, those deemed most unquestionable. That said, in the spirit of harmony… and to not alienate readers, I’ve bowdlerized this post. Yes, showing restraint and hitting the delete key can sometimes be painful : )

Recently, I posted this question on Facebook, “To live a moral life, do people require the promise/threat of eternal rewards or punishments?”

It received many interesting responses… several were sent to me personally. For pantheists, atheists and others, my question posed little challenge. While some religious practitioners suggested eternal rewards and punishments were extra incentives, the majority claimed they would continue living a moral life, regardless of afterlife consequences. While concepts of heaven and hell appear in many religions, I’m limiting my discussion to monotheistic religions of the Abrahamic tradition, since many FB responders identified themselves as such.

I must confess, this subject intrigues me. My grandfathers were evangelical preachers… need I say more? I’ve spent many years discussing theology, studying religion, philosophy… and pondering life. But like Odysseus, I’ve ordered myself tied to the mast as to stay on topic during this post.

If the promise/threat of eternal rewards or punishments have little (if any) influence on people’s moral behavior, why do they exist? In the early Bible, the concept of heaven, hell or Satan didn’t exist. Should someone have referenced these subjects with a Hebrew from the time of Moses, they wouldn’t understand. What changed? Why propose such an idea? No doubt, such questions will generate countless responses. Let me propose one—it explains why those who follow God’s law are sometimes punished on earth while those who don’t, are sometimes rewarded. It offers the promise of retribution. With this belief in place, the just find earthly injustice more tolerable. While a perceived problem is sometimes an unseen solution, the opposite can also be true. The intended and unintended consequences of believing in eternal rewards or punishments is readily evident. Just pick up a history book or turn on the TV.

Some FB responders asked me to define a moral life. For the sake of this discussion, I’ll define it as living one’s life according to the ethic of reciprocity (Golden Rule). In one form or another, this maxim has existed for thousands of years throughout countless cultures, and is foundational to most religions, moral philosophies and healthy societies.

Have you ever noticed how our perceived enemies are demonized… given derogatory labels, portrayed as different from us… presented as a threat, unworthy or evil? This is no accident. It violates the ethic of reciprocity. Take farm animals for example… by labeling pigs “pork bellies” and cows “beef”… and so on, it’s easier to dismiss them as living feeling beings like us. Once dehumanized, labeled as food items, we can better justify the inhumane treatment they receive. In contrast, when loved ones are involved, we focus on our similarities, assign meaningful descriptions and create glowing images of them for ourselves and others to see. We put ourselves in their shoes and by extension, we make connections… we feel their pain and joy. We would do most anything for them. You might say, our moral beliefs and actions can create heaven or hell on earth… we decide.

So what happens to us when we die? I don’t know. Neither does anyone else. What I do know, based on observation, reflection… and FB responses… is that living a moral life, regardless of what happens after we die, resonates with most people. Living a moral life creates more happiness and fulfillment than not living one. Not only for ourselves, but for others, too… including those not yet born. Yes, our afterlife does live on in the hearts and minds of those who survive us. While the ethic of reciprocity provides moral guidance, it also creates awareness and establishes a wonderful litmus test for any society. Imagine if our social, political and business discussions and decisions were centered on the Golden Rule.

Note: Fortunately, I’m still tied to the mast. The Sirens have been luring me with enchanting music… and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to resist. I just deleted several paragraphs of moral anecdotes and philosophical challenges. But as promised, I’m staying on topic to the best of my ability… but be warned, I’m not certain how much longer these ropes can hold me.

So in conclusion, regardless of our beliefs, we are all an inseparable part of an immense whole. It seems most agree, by living a moral life and being accountable for our actions, we do receive just retributions. And if by chance, eternal rewards do await us, to quote Nancy (a FB responder)… it’s like “icing on the cake.”


6 Responses to “Eternal Rewards + Punishments”

  1. Jane Naylor on August 3rd, 2011 1:57 am

    Really interesting comments over on Facebook, Michael.
    I try to live a moral life; I never think about eternal rewards or punishments. Though I was scared by stories of hell when made to attend church up to the age of about 9 I really don’t think it affected my behaviour.
    Do I “do good things” because it makes me feel good (instant reward?) or is that just a happy by-product – I don’t know.
    I don’t believe the threat of hell would affect the behaviour of a sociopath. I do like your idea of the promise of retribution.
    Maybe people are, to varying degrees, born ready “programmed” to live a moral life? I can’t imagine the world without most (?) people living this way.

  2. Michael on August 3rd, 2011 8:30 am

    Thanks, Jane. It seems living one’s live according to the ethic of reciprocity (Golden Rule) is reward enough. According to most responders, living a moral life, is best… regardless of beliefs in afterlife consequences.

    I was raised to believe in heaven and hell—literally. My grandfather(s) were evangelical ministers—fundamentalists. Such beliefs can be terrifying—especially to children with vivid imaginations. What impact, if any, do these childhood lessons still hold? I don’t believe in a literal concept of heaven or hell… afterlife rewards or punishments. These concepts, along with many others, no longer consciously influence my thinking. Such beliefs may physiologically help humans justify the unjustifiable, but they don’t change reality. Arguably, they simply takes our focus off this world and put it elsewhere—heaven, hell, purgatory, the River Styx… wherever.

    Rejecting certain beliefs we are taught growing up can be emotionally painful. But continuing to believe proof-less dogma from those void of any such knowledge is not only fruitless… isn’t it also misleading and deceptive? In my search for truth, much time is devoted to identifying and unlearning such beliefs. Doing so isn’t always easy and my conclusions are often unpopular… but if the truth sets us free, how else does one attain it? The same applies seeking new solutions. “Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore.” Woman, too : ) Letting go of certain beliefs can be difficult.

    As for being born “programmed”… brain imaging is uncovering many mysteries. I’m greatly interest in this subject and keep up with it as best I can… the future holds much promise in this area. Again, Jane, thanks for weighing in.

  3. Nancy Pitsch on August 3rd, 2011 4:58 pm

    I would guess you were exposed to the good ol’ fire & brimstone sermons as a child. My heart aches for that child. I would gather him in my arms, cover his ears, & run from that place. I would tell him of our God, who created the heavens and the earth ( Genesis 1:1) a God who created us in His own image to enjoy the splendor of the earth (Genesis 1:27-30) A God who has redeemed us; who has called us by name (Isaiah 43:1) who calls us precious and honored in his sight and because he loves us will give men in exchange for us (Isaiah 43:4) who fearfully & wonderfully knit us together in our mother’s womb (Psalm 139:13-15) I would speak of a God, our creator, who desires to bless us through a relationship with Him. I could go on & on providing messages of value, encouragement, & truth for that child’s heart. Mike, I am not great at theology; I don’t have all the answers. I do know my faith is not determined by the threat of hell or reward of heaven. (That’s the icing on the cake!) It is the byproduct of humbly recognizing the love of a Father/Creator who is responsible for the very breath I take, who knows I’ll fall short of being anywhere near perfect & loves me regardless, & covers me with grace & complete forgiveness through Jesus Christ. Go ahead & cut the ropes! Fall off the mast & into the arms of a loving God who desires & longs to bless you abundantly!

  4. Roger on August 22nd, 2011 6:58 pm

    There’s a video over on youtube that speaks exactly to this subject:

  5. Kelly Abbott on December 2nd, 2011 10:38 am

    Interesting topic for sure !!!
    I think most of us lead and have led a “moral and immoral ” life . Right and Wrong ! The decision is up to us to make ? The “Free Will ” thing that we all have . I think that one lives their life according to what makes them feel good about themselves ? And mostly at what ” time do they do this” to make themselves feel good ? Like if someone needs help and there’s a lot of other people around ,( which one) of us will step up to help ??? Which one wants to make that person feel good now , or themselves now ? It’s a fine line like you said ~
    I want to believe there is good in all of us until bitten by something bad to change our nature ? Yeng and Yang so to speak ? lol
    For me, I believe there is a “GOD” a force that is much stronger in creativeness , that has forged a path , a journey so to speak for each one to follow in life . Our choice is which path to take or make ?
    This is a hard subject to stay focused on, without drifting into something , of what is or what isn’t ?
    Like this article very much , very interesting .
    Thanks for opening so many’s mind and discussion of this topic !
    I have been in many situations of people asking me about my Faith and how I know there is a GOD ? I just do !
    We are “created ” by design . Bless you for speaking so openly about your journey in life ~

  6. robert mckendrick on March 29th, 2013 2:04 pm

    Interesting subject: eternal rewards + punishment. I have thought a lot about it. But then again I am an evangelical. Sincerely, Robert McKendrick

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