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
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"
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),
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).