The Obligation to Save

To finish talking about the idea of conversion, I wanted to bring up an issue that has bothered me about the implications of eternity. The last church I was attending started, after exploring a sort of postmodern, Emerging Church facade (candles, conversation around tables, etc.), to return to its charismatic and fundamentalist roots. One of the things this meant was the affirmation of a real heaven and hell. The hell was the stereotypical one you’re thinking of, with flames and torment and endless thirst. Because I’d never had to affirm this in writing before, it was particularly problematic, and I was “progressive” enough at that point that I couldn’t in good conscience sign it.  My version of hell was some amorphous realm that kept the soul separated from God for eternity (which is still pretty final). I suppose in my most conscientious moments I just told myself that I didn’t have to worry about it because God had it all figured out. That response works for any question.

I’ve embraced quite a few positions on the afterlife, from the black-and-white, “sheep and goats” perspective to the everybody-gets-in universalist approach that precipitated Rob Bell’s exodus from his megachurch. As I mentioned though, this is a big, if not the biggest, selling point of Christianity. When life is hard and bad things happen, you know that this life is small measured against the eternity you get to spend in heaven.

So as a Christian, you have your eternity taken care of, and now it’s time for you to share your belief so that others reap the benefits too. If something has happened to you that changed your life for the better and you know it would help everyone, you’re going to tell them, right? Put another way, if you see someone in danger or doing themselves harm by their actions and you have the power to help them, you should, shouldn’t you?

Here is my quandary. Christians have a mandate to spread the Gospel, to try to bring people into Christianity, or at least to an awareness of it. There are numerous Biblical texts that support this, and the Church has historically been built around proselytization, whether that be to strangers or to one’s family and friends. Further, if these people don’t hear about Christianity, they will not get into heaven, and if they don’t get into heaven, they will go to hell. Why is it, then, that Christians don’t spend every waking moment trying to convert people? If these people are destined to spend an eternity on fire or separated from God, and you have the power to stop it, and you don’t, how can you be fulfilling your obligation as a Christian?

Philosopher Peter Unger wrote a book, Living High and Letting Die, in which he makes the argument, following Peter Singer, that we in the Western world are obligated to give away the majority of our wealth to those who are in need. Singer’s principle is, “If we can prevent something bad without sacrificing anything of comparable significance, we ought to do it.” Unger provided numerous practical scenarios throughout his book to nuance this idea while countering common objections. In one example, you receive an envelope from UNICEF asking you to give $100 so that thirty people don’t die within the next month. If you throw that letter in the trash, your action is wrong. There are of course many objections, none insurmountable. One is that you don’t know where the money is going, but UNICEF is a reliable, third-party validated operation in which the vast majority of funds received go directly to the need, so you know with all practical certainty that your money will go where you send it. You may not think you have enough, but you certainly have worlds more than those who would get the money. For them, it is a life-and-death situation. You might argue that those people are far away, but you won’t give $100 to the local homeless shelter either. Even for those who cringe at this idea, most would agree that, as one scholar puts it, given a high set of standards, those with excess are obligated to help those in dire straits.

Conversion to Christianity, from a Christian perspective, is the most important decision a person could ever make, one that is literally life-and-death with implications for eternity. It would seem there is no excuse, according to Christianity, not to spend every waking moment, or at least the vast majority of your time, trying to “make disciples.” WWJD? For every day that one chooses to do something else with their time, there are people who are dying and destined to spend eternity in hell. Isn’t that problematic?

There are Christians whom this motivates far more than others. One possible reaction is to go on the defense. There are multiple steps of the argument that people could contend. One could, for example, argue that it is ultimately God’s responsibility to “save” these people, but at what point does that meet up with one’s obligation to spread Christianity as outlined in the Gospels? Even if we grant that it is ultimately up to God, we would know that throughout history millions have died as non-Christians and gone to hell. If is the case, regardless of whether it is someone else’s responsibility or not, we are obligated to help. We tend to think, in other circumstances, that bystanders witnessing a terrible crime have a higher obligation to help, obviously, than those who do not know it is taking place. The story of Kitty Genovese, which has prompted numerous sociological studies, is illustrative of that point. The argument that we all fall short of our obligations but should continue to try misdirects the fact that most could put significantly more effort to the task than they do.

Of course, I know of no Christians that fulfill these obligations. It’s terribly impractical. Or we might say that the desire to do other things with our lives overrides the desire to save other peoples’ lives. We could attribute this to several different things. We could argue that people don’t really believe that non-Christians will go to hell, because if they did, they would try to save them. That might be true for many, and if that is the case, they would need to explore just what it is that they believe regarding this point of crucial significance to Christianity. The full commitment to this mission of conversion would essentially mean sacrificing one’s own life for another’s. But what about the vast gray area in between, the space between one’s obligation, the high moral standard, and daily life?

We can easily see the potential improvements that would take place if everyone only gave a small amount to help those in drastic need. In the same way, we could see what a difference it would make for the religion if every Christian spent an hour a day trying to persuade someone else to join Christianity. Why isn’t this done? What function might it have to uphold the standard while consistently failing to live up to it? Or am I reading the obligation incorrectly?

Leave a Reply