Growing up in a strong Christian-Catholic environment, I was often told to look at everything with the “eternal perspective.” Simply, this means looking at all of our actions, inactions, relationships, etc. through the lens that we will either end up in heaven or hell.
On the one hand, this makes a lot of sense. I want to understand the consequences of my actions in order to better choose. We use this same logic to discuss financial choices: What is the long-term consequence of me spending this money on such-and-such, or investing in such-and-such? Let’s remember that this Christian idea is based in a real belief that life is not over when we are lifted into our graves.
But there’s something in me that finds the idea and phrasing of the “eternal perspective” discomforting. I have to admit that some of has to do with the common issue with preaching this idea: that it seems to be used to give hope to the hopeless, that is gives those whose lives are poor and miserable a bit of meaning. This may not sound too bad. However, it is often argued that the actual preaching of heaven-and-hell and the eternal perspective is used to keep those who are poor, marginalized, and powerless in their same positions. “Blessed are the poor, for the kingdom of God’s is theirs.” Power structures are not prone to change when those outside the system are told that their powerlessness is in fact their greatest strength.
While I don’t doubt that this has been used as such many times, this isn’t the heart of my problem. That the idea has been used incorrectly is no proof for its inherent incorrectness. The idea of heaven-and-hell may lend itself to misuse, but its misuse is not necessary. There is a very positive and healthy approach to the eternal perspective that doesn't partake at all in suppression or oppression; it is simply a reorienting of one’s life in light of the fact that life is longer and more important than most of us treat it.
No, my problem runs a bit deeper. I find that the eternal perspective can sometimes be a rejection of the here-and-now, as if our present life on earth had no real meaning – as if the present is devoid of lasting value, and has no significance apart from its attachment to the end goal: heaven. But isn’t this false? It’s not as if life on earth is essentially illusionary, and once we enter eternity things matter. Aren’t we taking, right now, the beginning steps of eternity?
But to really understand my discomfort, I need to bring up a point I’ve brought up before: the “Rewards/Consequences Version of Christianity.” This is epitomized by a Christian living a good and upright life in order to get to heaven, and for no other reason. I won’t have sex outside marriage, get crazy drunk every weekend, or cheat on my taxes because these aren’t the straightest roads to heaven. It’s not that refraining from sex outside marriage, deciding not to get drunk every weekend, or abstaining from tax evasion are good in-and-of-themselves. They are simply rules followed for their end result: an eternity of bliss.
Camus had this problem with Christianity. He loved most of the tenets the Church preached, and thought it got closest to some of the deepest truths of mankind, such as our responsibility to one another and other like ideas. But he rejected the idea that we should be doing good for and to our brother in order to gain a reward. Now, although I reject Camus on grounds that a Christian isn’t asked to “do good” simply for the reward; but I can’t disregard the fact that there seems to be a lot of Scriptural basis for this interpretation. Doing good should be done for its own sake – and if it happens to lead us to heaven, then so be it. But it’s hard to not separate the ends from the means when the ends are so weighty and potentially glorious.
But shouldn't what is good for us long-term, according to the eternal perspective, be good for us now too? Do I need always to keep in mind what will be leading me to heaven or hell, instead of seeking what is good in the moment, in the here-and-now? (This isn’t a call for “feeling good in the moment,” by the way.) For example, the abstaining from sex outside marriage is not good simply because it helps me get to heaven; it is good because it is a rule that helps me stay physically, psychologically, and spiritually healthy. In fact, it is because of this that it helps me get to heaven.
I understand that a man who thinks the grave is the end and one who thinks there is much more are going to look at individual actions in this life with a different perspective. But does the Christian need always to ground his decisions in the eternal perspective, and not in the simple fact of acting holy in the moment? Is not the eternal grounded in the here-and-now?