Long before I committed to the study of religion in graduate school, I began learning about the stories of the Bible in Sunday school at my local parish outside of Cleveland, Ohio. As I was introduced to the concept of God and his interaction with humans I remember being confused by two contradictory ideas: 1) God has provided his Word, both in the person of Jesus and in the Bible, and 2) there is tremendous religious diversity throughout the world, even within Christianity itself. It just didn’t seem to make much sense to me, if God created such a perfectly clear message to humanity shouldn’t it be clear to everyone? Furthermore, wouldn’t those outside of God’s revelation be unjustly damned for eternity?
This confusion led me to want to know more about the nature of faith, revelation, and religions outside of my own. I trusted that the Word of God was correct, I just needed to understand why others weren’t sold on it. In high school, I became very intrigued by a course in apologetics, the defense of the faith through rational discourse. I become an apologetic bookworm throughout college, fascinated by the modern writings of Peter Kreeft and C.S. Lewis and the historical writings of Aquinas and Augustine. While working toward my M.A. in Theology at Boston College, I thought I had discovered a plausible response to all of my confused queries. Karl Rahner S.J. in his Foundations of Christian Faith explains that people outside of the Church, outside of the revelation of Jesus, and even those who lived before Jesus’ time on Earth could still be saved if they acted with the love the Jesus instructed. This concept is known as Anonymous Christianity. One may not call themselves a Christian or even know anything about Christ, but may still act with charity toward his fellow man and woman. This theological perspective would seem to get God off the hook for unjustly damning the vast majority of humans who have ever lived. Years later, as a teacher in high school, I taught this concept to my students, and felt that it was generally well received and understood. In retrospect, I probably just confused a lot of poor young minds.
One of the problems with Anonymous Christianity, aside from being offensive to many non-Christians (would you want to be called an Anonymous Muslim, Mormon, Hindu, Buddhist, or Rastafarian?), is that it still doesn’t get God off the hook. If Jesus and the Bible are so critically important, why was it not needed before his time or in all parts of the world? Why isn’t God’s revelation presented to all souls equally?
Christianity was not the first and only major world religion to claim some way to live after death. Ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Hebrews, Persians, Hindus, Muslims (the list goes on) all believe they have a way to overcome death in the next life. They absolutely do not agree on how to do it though. In fact, that could be considered the most basic disagreement between any faith believing in an afterlife. There is a sort of a lazy, politically correct, insouciance which amounts to people believing that we all go to a heaven or, at very least, “good” people do. The problem is that you won’t find this idea in any religions’ theological revelations. There is demarcation, frequently quite clear, between those who achieve a blissful afterlife and those who do not.
If you think that your faith is correct, that you have been provided with the special key to heaven, and that a just God has provided this same key equally to all people throughout history, I politely request you investigate religious teachings outside of your own. How credible do you find the claims of other religions? Do you doubt that others believe these claims with an honest and full heart of faith? Could a just God damn them to eternity for their innocent false belief?
The diversity of faiths in the world should certainly make one question why God has evidently not provided equal accessibility to Heaven. The answer, clear to me now after years of study, is that neither God nor the afterlife is real. Take that out of the equation and it becomes perfectly clear why there is a multiplicity of religions each within their own internal confusion of paths to eternity: humanity has created this diversity itself. We have created it in different languages, in different locations, at different times all in response to the particular circumstances of the individual or individuals which produce a particular theological dictum on salvation from eternal death. This explanation erases the muddied water of theological revelation and omnibenevolent justice, allowing us to see the diversity of faith in our world as a reflection of the great multitude of human experiences throughout time and space.
While the assortment of faiths calls into question the validity of their claims, it is ironic that there may actually be an assortment of technological advances to free us from the inevitability of death. For example, it seems quite likely that within the next 10-20 years, scientists will be able to genetically alter the human genome to create radically longer lifespans. It will soon also be possible to replace nearly every part of our body with an artificial replacement, allowing our consciousness to survive without the less desirable effects of aging. We may soon also have the ability to perfectly scan our brains and resurrect our consciousness in a computer, allowing us many new experiences and opportunities without a certain death.
The abundance of technological possibilities to extend human lives does not invalidate any of them. In fact, it makes it all the more likely that radically longer lifespans are possible sooner than many expect. So if you find yourself worried that faith or charitable works might not get you to the other side of death, you may want to stay healthy long enough to survive until science and technology can save you.