A friend pointed me to a series that NPR (National Public Radio) is running on the Afterlife. As part of their “All Things Considered” radio segment, host Robert Siegel is interviewing representatives from different religious (or non-religious) perspectives to hear their take on the afterlife.
It’s always interesting to me to compare the teachings of other religions to the truth of Christianity, and Siegel’s interview format gives a convenient baseline for each episode in the series. There are two interviews up so far, and I plan to comment on the others as they come out. Up first: The Evangelical.
According to NPR’s website, Rev. Gabriel Salguero is a pastor of The Lamb’s Church in New York City and president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition. His views seem pretty typical for what I know of modern evangelicalism, if not historic Christianity. There are a couple points where the contrast is especially sharp:
Rev. Salguero’s views on the afterlife lack moral authority. The Bible portrays the afterlife as a sharp contrast between good and evil, the holiness of God and His heaven versus the wretchedness of Satan and the hell created for him and those who follow him. Salguero softens the holiness of heaven to “restored relationships,” with God and our fellow men. Rather than an inspiration to holiness, heaven becomes a mere “template for moral relationships” on earth. The threat of hell isn’t even part of the picture for Salguero.
Rev. Salguero’s views on the afterlife are disconnected from the rest of his worldview. Siegel asks him “If there were no eternity, do you think people could still manage a moral order on earth, or is it absolutely necessary for us to live saintly lives?” Salguero’s answer is Yes: “I think the teachings of Jesus would be enough for me. He lived a moral life. He told us, ‘Love our neighbor, forgive our enemies, bless those who persecute you.’ That’s enough.” The Bible’s answer is No: “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (1 Cor 15:19) The Resurrection and the afterlife are non-negotiable to Paul; without them, Christianity is meaningless.
The second interviewee was Mufti Asif Umar, a Muslim scholar and imam of the Islamic Foundation of Greater St. Louis. Islam is particularly interesting to me, because it’s really more like a Christian heresy than a separate religion; many of its doctrines and tenets can trace their origins back to Christianity or Judaism. But, of course, there are substantial differences.
The conditions of the afterlife. There is only one unforgivable sin, says Umar; that is the belief that God has partners (i.e., polytheism.) Those who believe in one true God, whatever their particular religion, may eventually be granted entrance to paradise. Those whose good deeds outweigh their bad get to walk right in; those whose bad deeds outweigh their good go to hell for some period of time, but, he says, “eventually we do believe that it is possible to be removed from the hellfire after serving their punishment.”
The Bible, on the other hand, teaches that entrance into heaven requires perfection; evil cannot dwell in God’s presence. The only way we, as sinners, have a hope of entering heaven is through the perfect righteousness of Christ. The notion of a balance, of weighing one’s good deeds and bad deeds, gives men hope of being able to win their way into heaven through their own merit – a common thread throughout man-made religions, but one completely foreign to the Scriptures. Grace, and grace alone, can purchase our salvation.
The rewards of the afterlife. Umar’s view of paradise offers any pleasures that one desires. This includes the stereotypical virgins, of course, but “any type of desire that one wants to fulfill” as well (even Cardinals games!). You’d be able to spend time with your friends, family, and acquaintances in paradise (presumably assuming they make it there.) This seems to beg the question – what if what you desire is something sinful? I don’t know what a Muslim’s answer would be, but I’d be interested to find out.
The Bible’s picture of heaven’s joys is much grander, on a more fundamental level. Umar says that the Quran teaches that we can’t imagine how beautiful paradise will be, but even so, the Islamic paradise he describes is pleasurable to our physical beings – our carnal pleasures, our relationships with friends and families. What we as Christians look forward to in heaven is the incomparable joy of God’s presence, a concept foreign to the impersonal Allah of Islam. All the mortal pleasures that we can experience here on earth (or in the Quran’s paradise) are nothing in comparison to the wonder of experiencing the presence of a personal God.
I’m sure I haven’t covered everything that could be addressed from these two interviews. If you’ve got something to add, or you’d like to air your disagreement with something I said, post a comment!