True Religion Does Not Demand that You Believe in Heaven and Hell
True religion does not require you to believe in heaven and hell. This comes on good authority, if you need it–the Bible. Writing around the time of Alexander the Great, long after the Babylonian Captivity and around the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, the author of Ecclesiastes, said very clearly in chapter 3:
Man’s fate is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other.
All have the same breath; man has no advantage over the animal. Everything is meaningless.
All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return.
Who knows if the spirit of man rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?
Hundreds of people were involved in writing the Bible over the centuries, representing different social classes, different political groups within Israel, different scribal schools, followers of different prophetic traditions, different genders, and different ethnic backgrounds. Every voice in the Bible deserves to be heard. To smooth over disagreements between the writers of scripture does violence to the integrity of those writers. This homogenization, this smoothing over, is the agenda of inerrantists, whose cardinal doctrine is not God, Salvation, or Christ, but Inerrancy.
I’m afflicted with a social curse: I am an intellectual. My wife says there is no doctrine or idea so sacred that I won’t take it apart, examine and question it. Her words are “play with it.” So I’m grateful that Ecclesiastes made it into the canon. The book of Ecclesiastes is skeptical, impious, and radical. I have frequently said, “If Ecclesiastes can be in the Bible, then I can be in the church.”
The Bible says, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” This usefulness extends to Ecclesiastes, and the lessons we can discern about the inevitability of major differences among God’s people. Ecclesiastes is an excellent example of Biblical writers answering one another, qualifying one another, to the point of disputing and contradicting one another.
The writers of wisdom literature reflect a spectrum of thought, from the traditionally pious writers of Proverbs, to the the writer who questioned the justice of a good God in the book of Job, to the radical skeptic Qoheleth (teacher, or academician), the author of Ecclesiastes. Had the authors lived in the same period, they may not have gotten along well. Since the canon contains this variety of religious attitudes, the church can contain a similar variety.
But this is not easy, as you know. People can only tolerate so much diversity in their church home. I think Paul would agree with the statement, “Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of your intellectual appetites.” Qoheleth teaches that there is no certainty regarding the nature of the afterlife. Even relatively orthodox belief systems offer a variety of afterlife scenarios, from immediate resurrection to soul sleep. Qoheleth provides another legitimate, more skeptical, belief.
I learned a long time ago that people’s beliefs do not guarantee their personal happiness or ministry effectiveness. I know that the perfect unity and oneness that Jesus and Paul speak of is definitely not uniformity of doctrine. So I don’t usually make an issue of my heterodox beliefs. In chapter 9 Qoheleth said,
The words of the wise in quietness
are better than the shouting of a ruler among fools.
And in Romans 14 Paul said,
So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God.
Blessed are people who does not condemn themselves by what they approve.