Beyond the Basic Answers
I have reviewed several answers on various students’ past exam questions on the influence of Christian beliefs on how they (Christians) live. Here are some reflections on answering a questions on explaining the impact of faith.
A typical question of this type is: “Explain how does a belief in God/Resurrection/Salvation/Heaven/Hell influences the lives of Christians.” The most basic responses include statements such as, “Christians’ believe that there is (pick one of the above) and they want to please God so they won’t go to Hell (or go to Heaven).” Students have gone on to discuss briefly that by being “good people” and “avoiding sin” they can achieve this goal.
While this simplistic approach to the question isn’t “incorrect,” as this equally simplistic approach to the underlying question IS held by some Christians, it does miss out on some key concepts that are at the heart of Christianity.
So let’s remember that “some Christians believe that since there is (pick one of the above) that they need to keep God happy so they can . . . (as above). This means that they will try to live a good life and follow the Bible.” This in itself is a starting point, but needs to move on to deeper explanation that “many Christians believe that this is not enough.”
Being “Good People”
Here is where we need to explore the nature of sin and the relationship with God. “Sin is anything that breaks relationship with God, or one’s neighbours (fellow human beings).” Avoiding sin, therefore is important. But the Bible states in Romans 3:23,”For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” So being a “good person” isn’t as easy as it seems, nor is it “enough.” Romans 6:23 states “For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” It isn’t about being “good,” but being given grace “unmerited favour.”
But then what about the Explanation Question?
Here is where a balanced explanation comes in. “Most” Christians’ lives (and action) are influenced not by “Being good so they can be saved,” but that “since they are saved, they should be good.” One way of phrasing this is that “Christians are not saved by doing good things, but do good things because they are saved.” Ephesians 2:8-9 says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast.”
The Bible teaches that relationship with God was mended through Jesus’ sacrifice. Since the relationship is mended, then Christians are to walk in that relationship (as Adam and Eve did before the Fall [see Genesis]).
Beyond Pascal’s Wager
Some students have tried to address the question by including reference to Blaise Pascal, the 17th Century Christian philosopher.
His “wager” put forward the idea that humans should believe and obey God as it is a rational act. If God doesn’t exist, a person will have only lived their lives with the insignificant loss of some pleasures, or temporal gain. If God does exist, however, a person who follows a faithful life will receive an incredible gain for their efforts (heaven). The inverse is also true, if there is a God, whose ways are not followed, then the rejector of God’s path will face ultimate loss (hell).
This is a useful inclusion into the discussion, but cannot be a stand-alone response. It is a valid “some Christians believe (or act)” example, but is wanting theologically as it can be seen as a more complex form of the “Be good so I can go to Heaven,” approach.
The reason “some other” Christians reject Pascal’s Wager is that it in a sense makes doing “right” a mercenary act, and reduces philanthropic altruism (doing good deeds) to an act of selfishness. The two great commands of the Law – to love God, and to love your neighbour become just calculated strategies for one’s own advancement.
A Christian hymn says “My hope built on nothing less than Jesus’ love and righteousness.” As noted above, scripture says no one can work their way to heaven, nor connive to avoid hell. Salvation is a gift of God. James’ epistle suggests, that believers work because they are saved, not to be saved. They therefore live their lives as acts of thanksgiving and of love.