There is a stereotype surrounding the idea that religious people who fix their hope on heaven are of no earthly good to the world today. You hear this a lot. It is intimated a number of time in Rob Bell’s “Love Wins”. It seems a logical position to hold. I think it is fallacious.
We should first clean up the question. A better question is whether people who believe that actions in this life have consequences, especially dramatic consequences after life as a group do more or less to improve the real life experience of people in this life. My suspicion is that in fact they do and is based on a variety of surveys throughout the years as well as personal, anecdotal experience.
First let me also say that I have also met some people who fit into the stereotype that all they care about is the after life and imagine that issues of this world, poverty, the environment, etc. don’t matter. They are out there, but I think they are the exception amidst groups of rigorous belief rather than the rule.
1. A number of years ago Gallup wrote a book called “The Saints Among Us” in which he noted that something like 13% of the population does most of the giving and volunteering. Some of this would be towards specifically religious ends, but others would be towards what we would call humanitarian ends. I have seen numerous surveys in fact that shows that for Americans regular church attendance is a good predictor not only of religious giving but also humanitarian giving. Look also at the groups that do most of the humanitarian work in the world today. In most cases those groups were started by religious groups who had specific and consequential assumptions about the connection between this world behavior and after life destiny.
2. It is easy to dismiss and disparage motivation based on fear of hell. Preaching hell-avoidance has not been the emphasis of my ministry and I don’t intend to start. Neither am I a believer in guilt based motivation. The reason is both doctrinal and experiential. The Heidelberg Catechism is one of the three doctrinal statements of my tradition and the motivational and experiential rubric of my tradition is misery, deliverance, gratitude. I believe gratitude is a better motivator of consistent, joyful generosity and I preach it every week. (Ask my congregation). I slip this into nearly every sermon.
Having said this self-interested motivation does work to a degree and I believe is a legitimate motivational devise. Jonathan Edwards called it “Common Virtue”. Jesus used it. Society uses it and without it life with people would be unlivable. We train dogs with it and we train children with it. It works. Even Penn Jillette, an outspoken atheist did an interesting YouTube video expressing that he only respects Christians who really believe in hell if they are up front about warning him about it. He’s an outspoken atheist but he is a very reasonable man. The doctor that fails to warn his patient about smoking and all kinds of other health risks is not doing his job. If Christians believe in hell then warning people about hell is a logical and loving thing to do. Christians of course should show some tact, diplomacy and wisdom, but its legitimate.
Giving to the poor is a basic expression of multiple religious traditions including Islam and Judaism. Many religious (including Christianity) warn its followers that turning away from the needs of the poor is a symptom of a heart that is not committed to God and potentially on the path to destruction. There are numerous stories from the New Testament about this. It’s part of the package. Therefore it stands to reason that Christians who believe in afterlife consequences will likely outperform others who do not have this belief in pursuing relief of the poor.
I once read an article in fact that did a study (I’ve been searching for this piece for a while now to note it) that found that cultures that had the threat of hell in their cultural tradition tended to outperform those that did not in terms of speed of economic development. Afterlife anxiety it seems does spur people on to energetic development of their lives in this world.
Also compare cultures that have a theology that validates a real, consistent world verses those that assert that this world experience (including evil) is fundamentally illusory and non-existent. Hindu and Buddhist cultures share an assertion that our experience is illusory and generally speaking they advise their spiritual athletes towards meditation to break the grip of this illusion to see that everything is one and that evil does not really exist. It is notable that science developed in the Abrahamic cultures in a way that it did not in these eastern cultures. Why devote ourselves to conditions in this world if the world as we see it and experience it doesn’t really exist.
3. Religious people who believe in after life consequences of this worldly behavior commit themselves to their religious institutions in a more vigorous way than those that tend towards universalism. They also tend to develop culture that is more rigorous. David Brooks made this point recently in a response to the Mormon Bible musical. Those who don’t believe in after life consequence don’t tend to attend church as regularly, give in a disciplined way or support other specifically religious organizations. These religious organizations tend to be very involved in humanitarian causes. Again, this isn’t just Christians it is Jewish, Mormon and Islam.
I also see in my own church that those most committed to the church also tend to be the most generous also towards humanitarian causes. Many of these people have the softest hearts and have a hard time turning down an appeal to help someone in need. Their levels of cynicism is lower and their habits of giving money away are rehearsed and deeply ingrained.
Again, all of this is a generalization. There are many examples of people without an belief in after-life consequences to this worldly behavior who are greatly philanthropic, but if you are going to make a generalization I think the evidence support the position that is actually contrary to a lot of people’s assumptions. Those who believe in after-life consequences (especially dramatic ones like hell) on average out perform those who have far more general sentiments like “good people go to heaven” and “good people” tends to include people they like and people in general, excluding people that have hurt them, people that have hurt children and genocidal dictators.