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THE ETHICS OF ETERNITY

By Douglas Groothuis


Blaise Pascalóthe seventeenth century French philosopher, scientist, and Christianódwelt deeply and often on matters eternal. The vibrancy of his own intellectual powers was offset by the strain of his frail and fragile body, which would survive but a short thirty-nine years. His last few years were wracked by physical pain and debility; mortality was never far from his view. In this crushing crucible of pain, Pascalís passion for truth was undiminished, even as his strength ebbed away. He took notes on what was to be his "Apology for the Christian Religion." Although he died before finishing the work, the notes or "fragments" were discovered and passed on to posterity. Many of the fragments address the significance of eternity for mortality and morality. Pascal often attacked the indifference of those who through apathy and ignorance refused to take the claims of Christianity seriously. In one arresting fragment, he brings the afterlife to bear on the present life:

The immortality of the soul is something of such vital importance to us, affecting us so deeply, that one must have lost all feeling not to care about knowing the facts of the matter. All our actions and thoughts must follow such different paths, according to whether there is hope of eternal blessing or not, that the only possible way of acting with sense and judgment is to decide our course in the light of this point, which ought to be our ultimate objective.1


Pascal the apologist is prodding the agnostic to sober up and consider his destiny, instead of disposing of Christianity as though it were a trifle If Christianity is true, the ramifications are never-ending and beyond measureófor believer and unbeliever alike. If we are destined only for the grave, this life loses its meaning.2


While aimed primarily at the unbeliever, Pascalís reflections are profitable also for those who know that eternal blessing awaits them through Christ. The Christianís mortality and morality are framed by eternity. "All our actions and thoughts" are affected by our belief in our own immortality. The reality of heaven is rich with ethical insight for daily life.


The Christianís "hope of eternal blessing" removes the ultimate fear of Godís wrath. We must all appear before the throne of the universe, with nothing hidden and without excuse. Despite its unpopularity in contemporary culture and even in some churches, the Final Judgment is a fundamental fact of the future. There come be a Day of ultimate reckoning for all souls (Daniel 12:1-2; Revelation 20:11-15). As Pascal said, "Between heaven and hell is only this life, which is the most fragile thing in the world."3


†The conscience of the non-Christian labors to obscure this truth either by chopping the holiness of God down to a scaleable size while pumping up human goodness, or by denying the reality of a personal and moral God altogetheróas with atheism and pantheism.


Countless thoughts and actions are motivated by anxious attempts at self-justification, the yearning to be good enough when we know we are not good enough. As Paul proclaimed, "no one will be declared righteous in [Godís] sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin" (Romans 3:20). Pride, arrogance, and folly result from attempting to attain righteousness apart from Christ. Richard Lovelace captures the problem of a conscience without roots in the sufficiency of Christ: "Such a conscience is forced to draw back into the relative darkness of self-deception. Either it manufactures a fictitious righteousness in heroic words of ascetic piety, or it redefines sin in shallow terms so that it can lose the consciousness of its presence."4


The Christian can be gloriously free from such folly. We can joyously confess that God is "holy, holy, holy," and that we, in ourselves, are unholy. We can exult that our final destination is to live forever with God and all his saints in a perfected universe, all because of Christís finished work on the cross on our behalf. The truth that believers in Christ are under no condemnation from a holy God (Romans 8:1) ethically liberates us from all efforts at self-justification and allows us to rest in Godís love for us. Because the Christian has been utterly pardoned of all sin and has received the "alien righteousness of Christ" (Luther) as a bestowal of grace, he or she is free to serve God out of gratitude and thanksgiving, without fear of divine judgment. If we are qualified for heaven on account of Christ, we can reckon sin to be sin, know we are forgiven, and seek God for greater conformity to the image of Christ (sanctification). Knowing that we securely live in Godís justifying grace, we can better experience Godís sanctifying graceóa grace that empowers us to follow Godís commandments and exhibit the gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit.


For the heaven-bound saint, Christís command to love God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind, and to love our neighbor as ourselves (Matthew 22:37), is neither an obedience that justifies by works nor an impossible standard that condemns us; it is, rather, but a compass that guides the soul set free. As Jesus promised, "If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed" (John 8:36).


The heaven-ward orientation is sometimes accused of disparaging earthly life, when just the opposite is true. Storing up treasures in heaven (Matthew 7:19-24) means glorifying God on earth in all our affairs (1 Corinthians 10:31), for we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world (Matthew 5:13-14). The Creator owns the universe and has given humans the charge to care for it under his Lordship (Genesis 1:26-28). Our arrival in heaven will disclose the measure of our faithfulness to this charge. There will be no judgment against our sin because Christ alone is our righteousness; however, we will all give an account for what we have done with the time and talents God has given us. This fact lends urgency and gravity to our endeavors. As the Teacher counseled:

Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14).


All our thoughts and activities should be placed before heavenís gaze. The throne room of the universe will disclose everything. Truth will reign without resistance. This is why Paul exhorts us to "be very careful, then, how you liveónot as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil" (Ephesians 5:15).


As a young Christian, I was profoundly affected by Soren Kierkegaardís meditative book, Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing. Kierkegaard can be faulted for his fideistic tendencies, but his devotional writings are often deeply rewarding. The theme of this book is the alignment of oneís will with Godís will in light of "the audit of the Eternal." By this, Kierkegaard means the omniscient audience of God concerning our lives. "Purity of heart" involves consistently pursuing what matters eternally, according to oneís unique endowments.


After reading the book, I discerned some basic patterns of obedience to which God was calling me. I later realized that this obedience also involved teaching. Although I know that all my sin has been atoned for through the work of Christ and that he has equipped me to teach, I also remember Jamesís warning that "Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness." (James 3:1, NRSV). I will give account for the use of my gifts. That Day will disclose it all. Therefore, I strive to honor God in my teaching. This principle applies to whatever gifts anyone has in Christ. Heaven knows and heaven will show. This sobering thought may bring us up short, but we can always flee to the cross and remember Johnís comforting words, "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9).


Lest our zeal for Godís kingdom become a frenzied and restless quest to save the world in our own meager strength (the "messiah complex"), we must remember that apart from Christís strength all our efforts are empty, even if noisy (John 15:1-8). Yet through Christ, even in the midst of our weaknesses, we can do all the things he calls and enables us to do (Philippians 4:13).


Besides lending a sense of peace as well as gravity to our endeavors, an orientation toward our heavenly future can impel us to do what we might otherwise avoid as small or insignificant. While our culture values media celebrity, however short-lived or absurd, the ethics of eternity challenges us do what is godly, no matter how seemingly obscure or unappreciated. Jesus instructed his disciples to give in secret and to pray in the closet before God and for Godís sake, rather than for the praise of people. By so doing, we can be sure of Godís reward (Matthew 6:1-6). The cup of cold water given in Jesusí name may go unnoticed on earth, but it will receive heavenís eternal praise.


Because, as Pascal observed, our view of the afterlife affects our lives so thoroughly, we should labor to lay hold of the truths of heaven and bring their reality down to earth. As Paul declared, "I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 3:14).




ó Endnotes ó


1. Blaise Pascal, Pensees (New York: Penguin, 1966), 427/194, 156.

2. For a discussion of this point in relation to Pascalís ideas, see Thomas Morris, Making Sense of it All: Pascal and the Meaning of Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1992), 47-62.

3. Pascal, 152/213, 81. I have altered the wording slightly to clarify the point.

4. Richard Lovelace, Dynamics of Spiritual Life: An Evangelical Theology of Renewal (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1979), 99.



© 2000. Douglas Groothuis. All rights reserved. Permission kindly granted to Faith and Reason Forum by InterVarsity Press.

Douglas Groothuis (Ph.D., University of Oregon) is associate professor of philosophy at Denver Seminary in Denver, Colorado. A well-known public speaker and writer on apologetics (particularly on the New Age movement), he has published several other books including the Soul in Cyberspace (Baker, 1997) and On Jesus (Wadsworth, 2002).