For the Son of Man is going to come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and will then repay every man according to his deeds.
– Matthew 16:27
My dad’s an alcoholic. It’s hard for me to deal with. On the good days he can’t remember conversations we’ve had. On the bad days it’s bordering on unbearable.
Part of it is that booze has taken a toll on his mind, body, hygiene and quality of life. Part of it is knowing the person he was and me wondering if that man is still inside him somewhere. The thought of that person being gone forever makes me sad.
Increasingly, he has the slack expression I’ve seen in nursing home patients. His eyes look equally expressionless when considering me or a window or the television. I could be a toaster for all he appears to care.
Folks ask why I put up with it – why I don’t either pour the alcohol down the sink or just walk away and let him stew in his own mess. I admit there are times when I find myself at a loss about why and it makes me ponder one of the great questions I have about the Bible: the balance between deeds and grace when it comes to the afterlife.
As a kid, doing good deeds made a ton of sense to me. People who did bad things went to hell and people who did good things went to Heaven. It was very simple: punishment or reward. In the innocent mind of child there is no difference between deed and intention. Kids typically want to do good and want to love until life starts to jade them.
Ludicrous as it sounds, it’s easy to envision a Heaven in which those who have been marginal get the single-wide trailer and the fridge full of cheap beer, while the saints get the mansion on the hill with the great views and indoor swimming pool. If we do enough good deeds we get all the Jesus Karma and it comes back to us after we die. But as adults our actions start betraying us. Instead of doing it for the sake of doing good it starts becoming about bragging rights.
“Look at my jacuzzi,” I could imagine a Heavenly snob saying. “Too bad you only did enough good to get a plastic bathtub.” And if I believed this jacuzzi theory it would be easier to not get angry when my dad forgets entire conversations we had or when, after a particularly demanding day, he wakes me multiple times during the night for help. I mean, I’d be racking up some serious points. The more I helped him, the fancier my Heaven would be.
And I realize these promised rewards aren’t so literal, but whether we receive them on Earth or Heaven, there seems to be something quantifiable about the reward.
Unfortunately, I don’t believe our works amount to much.
Really, how could Heaven be more heavenly for some? How could there be something greater than salvation and forgiveness? Likening Heaven to a gated community where some are in Jesus presence and others just get a cloud with a fluffy recliner isn’t how I see things.
Instead, grace, which was hard for me to grasp as kid, seems more àpropos to my grown up mind. Grace, that great gift from God that is “the way and the truth and the life” according to John 14:6. It’s what makes all us sinners able to overcome ourselves.
But grace isn’t without it’s own problems. With no Jesus Karma, grace tells me ignoring my dad is no different from helping him. I don’t get into the one-degree-of-Jesus club for helping him, I’m in the six-degrees-of-Jesus either way. All those good actions don’t mean much when grace is part of the picture.
But then what happens to people who believe in hell? If our deeds don’t matter, can hell really exist? If grace covers us all then everyone, even the oft-cited Hitler, goes to Heaven. This is the prevailing mindset I see these days and it makes me wonder if grace isn’t somehow as naïve as doing good deeds. In this model it almost seems like I could live any sort of life I wished and get to Heaven.
Or does it boil down to there only being one action that actually matters: our belief in God. It’s akin to those passages of Jesus healing the sick by proclaiming their faith alone casts out their affliction. And is it our genuine belief in God the very thing that grants us grace? Does that mean if ol’ Hitler really found God at those last minutes in the bunker that he is just as saved regardless of his worldly actions as anyone else?
Many big thinkers have written a ton about these problems and I’m still not sure how to reconcile it all. Even though I’ve hopelessly oversimplified the discussion here, I see flaws somewhere at every turn. It’s not that I’m looking for the recipe for getting into Heaven, but parts of the Bible force the issue.
When I care for my father I do so because I feel it’s the right thing to do. Though I try to live in accordance with the lessons of the Bible, I don’t need it as a moral compass. I’m not in it for the deeds or the grace. I wouldn’t care if my action or inaction was completely meaningless. Whatever happens to me in the afterlife is up to God as far as I’m concerned.
I suspect at the end of the day the only thing karma and Jesus have in common is they both know what we’ve done in our lives and we have to trust them to make the call while we continue to live as we feel we should.