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God Squad: Some do good only out of fear of retribution

Q: In your response to good vs. evil, you state there can be no good without evil as there is no sense if how we behave in life has no effect on what happens to us after death. I am always amazed at this religious belief as it completely discounts the benefit of goodness in life. I do not strive for personal goodness in hopes it will afford me access to something better after I die. I strive for goodness because I believe it offers immeasurable benefit to myself while I am alive and in hopes it will benefit others now and after I die. As a mother, I want my children to embrace goodness because I believe it represents the happiest and fullest of life. If they embrace goodness only to please me, to avoid my wrath, or to avoid the consequences of being bad, they will fall short of its true beauty. I do not believe goodness is about risk and reward. Instead, I believe true goodness is the divine.

— From J, vie email

A: Your children are very lucky to have you as their mother. You have understood and you have taught them that goodness is its own reward. The ancient Rabbi Ben Azzai taught, “The reward of a good deed is the good deed itself.” Immanuel Kant, the great moral philosopher, taught that only a deed done with pure motives and no regard for reward is moral. I believe that Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount urging his followers to love their enemies is the same pure moral teaching that is clearly in your heart. However, let me try to help you to understand the moral value of hell to the moral education of those so much less evolved than you.

It all comes down to the cop in the car with the speed gun waiting for speeders on the highway. The drivers all know the posted speed limits are wise and good because the faster you drive, the less control you have over your car. Driving sensibly and according to the law is good in and of itself, but you know and we all know that some of the drivers obeying the speed limit are not doing so because it is right and good and safe. They are doing so because they know that if they drive like banshees (how do banshees drive?) they might get caught by the cop and then they will have to pay a fine and pay higher auto insurance and perhaps even go to jail. It would be better if they drove safely because it is right, but it is just fine with me if they drive safely because of the fear of retribution. These drivers need cops for exactly the same reason that sinners need hell. You don’t need it, but they do. You are too good for the world. Other people are not good enough.

Q: A close friend of mine had the opportunity to volunteer sitting with dying patients at a hospice. He asked what kind of counseling he should give them. They of course said there’s no standard approach, just be with people and try as best you can to comfort them. So he told them that we all swim in a big sea of life, and that after death we are all submerged into the stream from which we were born, and that new lives are constantly being born from that stream. He reported to me that this message was overwhelmingly received positively, and was seen by them as being a better version of the life to come than the Christian version they had been taught.

— From M via email in North Carolina

A: I deeply admire your friend’s willingness to do the painful work of helping people to die well. I believe people like this are angels sent by God, but not necessarily theologians sent by God. Your friend’s idea that we are just absorbed and annihilated like a drop of water in the ocean is not a part of my beliefs nor the beliefs of every major world faith I know. They all concur that, in some way that cannot be fully described nor understood while we are alive, our souls or our consciousness or our personal identity remain intact after death. In this way the soul can complete its journey to deeper wisdom and then, depending on the religion, be reincarnated into a new person, or live a blessed existence near God. The post-mortem existence of our soul/consciousness also makes sense because it is not material and therefore not perishable.

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