There’s a terrific moment in the TV show House, in which the irascible and brilliant Dr. Greg House is explaining to a lapsed Catholic subordinate why he doesn’t believe in the afterlife. House, with all the self-lacerating irony that actor Hugh Laurie can impart to the character, says, “I would hate to think that all of this was just a test.”
House is right — and he’s offered a crucial diagnosis of one form of Catholic piety. There’s a way of thinking about the afterlife that makes this life, here, irrelevant and even inexplicable. Catholics will sometimes argue against universalism — the comforting belief that all people must be saved, because God would never be so cruel as to damn somebody’s grandma — by asking, “If everyone is saved, why even bother to do the right thing here on earth?”
Universalism is perhaps the second-most American belief about the afterlife possible. For the most nationally characteristic view, I turn to an existentialist friend of mine, who once told me, “I heard someone say that everybody gets the afterlife he or she believes in. And I couldn’t help but think, That’s so American!” Americans believe in a universe whose order is apparent to the naked eye; an order where God’s justice lines up neatly with American cultural preferences for self-definition and multiple “truths.” This is a mindset that we might expect from a nation that has built its identity on both Enlightenment philosophy and immigration — as ZZ Top didn’t quite sing, everybody’s crazy ’bout a self-made man. Even our Last Things must be self-wrought and accommodating, pluralist and tolerant and as blandly nice as an American airport smile.
So I don’t write to defend universalism. If you want to go to hell, then Godspeed! Universal salvation is a possibility for Catholics — or else why would the Fatima prayer bid us to beg that Christ might lead all souls “into salvation, especially those in most need of Thy mercy”? But to say that everyone must be saved, because otherwise God would be too cruel, is to ignore the photonegative witness of the fallen angels — sometimes God really does let you choose hell — and to assume that mercy trumps justice, rather than marrying justice on the cross.
But I want to fight hard against a certain tendency in Catholic arguments: a bizarre reworking of Plato’s Euthyphro, in which, since our ultimate goal is union with God in heaven, actions in this life are only good if they advance us on the celestial Snakes and Ladders board. If Hitler might be in heaven, this argument runs, how on earth could hatred, slaughter, and suicide be wrong?
And it seems to me that House’s quip gets at the basic problem with this approach. What we do here matters. God put us here for a purpose, created temporal human life not merely as a “test” but as something good in itself, with goods of creaturely love, artistic creation, and philosophical seeking that are particular to this life. Did God make anything He could not love? If the answer is “no,” as I think it must be, then humans — we who live in time, as opposed to angels who live in the eternal recurrence of Nietzsche or the Mass — have some uniquely lovable characteristics. There is a point to what we do here.
Ordinary experience bears this out as well. Let’s say your mother promises you that absolutely under no circumstances will you be punished for anything you do today. She will forgive you everything. Would you slap her in her face?
Of course not! Because her forgiveness is, while intensely important to you, not actually the factor governing your conduct. Your love is what governs you. You may cry miserably if she doesn’t forgive your wrongs, or cry in humiliated relief if she does; but the basic horror of wrongdoing is the action itself, not its consequences. A good child, should one exist, is not less horrified at her own wrong actions solely because she has escaped punishment for them. (We might even be more horrified by wrong actions that go unpunished. Punishment can provide the catharsis of expiation, and so be much more comforting than the blank-check form of forgiveness, which can leave the child feeling as though her actions are either meaningless or so irredeemable that no possible action could ever cleanse her. But I’ll concede that this point, while perhaps relevant to childrearing, isn’t especially relevant to universal salvation if you already believe in purgatory.)
Moreover, a belief that heaven is all that matters can lead to insouciant disregard of the Great Commission. If invincible ignorance protects against hellfire, and the afterlife is all that matters, why would anyone evangelize? Why aren’t missionaries culpable for exposing people to the previously unattainable possibility of hell?
Well, because knowing the truth is good. Christian witness makes hell possible; it also makes true love of God, in this life, possible. To use the slap-your-mama analogy, Christian witness makes it possible for you to completely reject your mother — but it also makes it possible for you to cherish her, for the first time.
The Euthyphro may encapsulate some of the central problems of modernity, and may offer hope for a postmodern Christian response. This dialogue poses the question, “Are pious actions good because the gods love them, or do the gods love pious actions because they are good?” No fully Christian answer can accept the terms of the question, since it drives a wedge between God and the world He created. A Christian neo-Platonist might say that the biblical God is unique because He alone exhibits both the characteristics of a personal god — the kind the Greeks would have been familiar with — and the Form of the Good. He alone is made of both love and ethics, so that goodness flows out from Him, imbuing all His creations with their own characteristic goods. In this view, God infuses His creating word into all of His creatures. Thus, when we act well or poorly toward those creatures, we are, in that temporal moment, making a choice either for or against God. The eternal and the temporal, like righteousness and peace in the psalm, kiss.
As a final argument that this life is not just a test, I’ll point to the sacred wounds of the risen Christ. When Christ appeared, resurrected, before the apostles, He was so thoroughly wounded that St. Thomas could actually poke a finger into His bleeding side. What happened to Him in this life was irrevocable. There are no “do-overs”; there are no “give-backs.” Whatever healing or transformation of our wounds occurs in the next life, I suspect the wounds themselves will remain, just as Christ’s wounds remained. So think of the penitent centurion — think of his heaven. In his heaven, he is still the man who speared the side of Christ. His wrong action was not erased by God’s love — though it was transformed. His life was witness, not a test: In a test, all that matters is whether you pass. In witness, what matters is whether you live the unique and strange vocation you were given in a way that makes it possible for Christ’s fingerprints to be seen on your face.