One often hears complaints from atheists and other critics of religion that believers prove themselves to be selfish or egotistic individualists when they do good or even just behave themselves to earn some reward in the next life. And do we not have to admire the self-forgetfulness — however exaggerated it may seem — of St. Paul and some other great saints who went so far as to claim that they would be willing to be damned or themselves lost if thereby they could save others? At the same time religion has been given a very bad reputation by those who believe, like suicide-bombing Islamic fundamentalists, that by sacrificing themselves to kill “infidels”, that their own “martyrdom” will guarantee them a place in heaven.
Yet I think it goes against reason and nature itself to think that there is something basically wrong to imagine that somehow the idea of a reward or incentive taints or even destroys the value of a good deed or worthwhile action. Think about it: would people bother to eat what they need, or get enough sleep, or even go through all the bother of procreating and raising children if none of these activities were not pleasurable or satisfying? I very much doubt it. So too, if obeying God’s commands, or even just behaving as a good citizen, did not earn us it least the admiration of one’s fellow believers or the respect of one’s fellow citizens, I suspect that society would soon fall apart.
Granted that such concerns for reward or worries about one’s own individual destiny often have an element of self-centeredness. Historians of Western civilization tell us that before the rise of ancient Greece and Rome, most people didn’t think much of their own personal identities, but mostly thought in terms of their clan, tribe, or nation. The most ancient parts of the Old Testament are a good example of this almost exclusively group mentality. In the biblical realm, only some of the later Old Testament books and the New Testament evidence much interest in the fate of the individual. In fact, what seems to have taken place over the past few millennia has been a slow evolution of human self-consciousness, moving from the ancient philosophical interest in what is needed in order to lead a worthwhile life, to the Christian concern to obtain life-everlasting, and finally, nowadays, to what seems to be an excessive contemporary quest for personal happiness and self-satisfaction — often with complete disregard for the well-being of others. So not all of this development has been entirely good and I have some sympathy for those who criticize some contempoary forms of Christian piety or the kind of economic policies that seem or even claim to have been partly inspired by it.
Nevertheless, I think that those who criticize Christianity for its promises of reward — or even fear of punishment — are not thereby exempt themselves from criticism. Or maybe it is just a matter of when one is being rewarded. After all, do not these critics seem to take almost perverse delight in pointing out to us and congratulating themselves that they are not like the mass of believers? As Jesus might say, and indeed did say a number of times (see Matthew 6:2-5), about those who prided themselves on being superior or already having it all now, “Truly I say to you, they have received their reward” — which seems fair enough if they don’t hope for anything better!
R W Kropf 11/3/2011 Rewards.doc