Historically, much Christian theology and piety have tended to regard life in this world only as a means of reaching heaven. The result has been to divide Christian life into the religious and the secular, the supernatural and the merely natural. This is harmful even to the religious dimension of life: Heavenly fulfillment is reduced to the beatific vision, considered as a human act of knowledge—individualistic, incommunicable, and even unappealing to nonintellectuals. Religion is confused with the divine life in which Christians share by adoption; as a result, it is thought of as a more than human fulfillment which radically devalues human goods.
This view leads both to false ideas of renunciation of the world and to religious totalitarianism. Moral norms come to be regarded as arbitrary divine decrees, with heaven the reward for obedience and hell the punishment for disobedience—a view which fosters legalism, moral minimalism, resentment toward God, and, ultimately, subjectivism.
While the secular humanism which developed as the diametrical opposite of this retains elements of the Christian view of the human person, the goal of every secular humanism is a definite and objective state of affairs: the perfecting of some aspects of persons in community. Whatever contributes to this is good, whatever obstructs it, evil. Human goods are compromised or attacked when necessary to achieve the goal. Only technical choices are recognized, and self-determining free choice is denied. This also entails the denial of radical evil, of sin; and any evil which cannot be ignored or remedied by education or therapy must be dealt with by force. Existential goods are psychologized and politicized, while in the private sphere freedom is expressed in moral subjectivism and hedonism.
The unsatisfactoriness of both of these views has led to efforts at a synthesis in liberalized Christianity. This is individualistic in wealthy countries, socialistic in less developed ones, but all its forms have certain common features. While liberalized Christianity denies that human fulfillment in this life has a merely instrumental relationship to heavenly fulfillment, it provides no other explanation of the impact of hope on moral life in this world. Instead, heaven is considered inevitable, and hell is ignored or denied. Because of their orientation to this world, liberalized Christianity’s adherents usually ignore heaven, invoking it only as an anodyne in the face of death and other evils beyond human control. Christian life is emptied of moral seriousness: So far as human goods are concerned, one can violate them as secular humanists do, yet one need not approach them with the ultimate seriousness of secular humanists.
In contrast with these views, the conception of everlasting life as completion in the Lord Jesus includes the threefold unity of Christians in Jesus: unity in divine life, in human acts, and in bodily life. Both human fulfillment and divine fullness are essential, for Jesus includes both. Realized human goods contribute to the perfection of everlasting communion—a true communion of persons united with one another in Jesus. Yet this fulfillment is seen as including not only perfect human well-being, but divine life, immortal bodily existence, and all the reflexive goods, summed up by the idea of eternal peace.
The basic principle of continuity between Christian life in this age and everlasting life is that the goods in which we participate now will be included in the fulfillment for which we hope. But there is also discontinuity, of two sorts: the discontinuity of maturation (goods shared in imperfectly now will be shared in more perfectly) and radical discontinuity (evil will be eliminated). Both continuity and discontinuity can be traced in respect to the elements of our threefold unity with Jesus.
Clearly, this life has a more than instrumental relationship to everlasting life, for the human goods which are served in Christian life contribute to the fulfillment of all things in Jesus. At the same time, the discontinuity involved in resurrection and re-creation rules out an effortless and inevitable maturation as envisaged by liberalized Christianity. All this helps clarify the meaning of “merit”—not that we gain a claim on God by what we do, but that if we do our part in friendship with God, he will respond by keeping his promises.
Since Christian life develops out of love of human goods, the lives of a good Christian and a decent nonbeliever will appear similar in many ways. But they are fundamentally different. Loving all the goods inclusively, the Christian will live a life characterized by mercy and self-oblation, the fifth and eighth modes of Christian response, while the good qualities of the nonbeliever will be expressions of the corresponding modes of responsibility. Moreover, the nonbeliever will in principle at least always set limits on the exercise of these, while the Christian can set none. Good Christians will receive success with humility, resign themselves to frustrations and limitations, be faithful to their vocations and detached from everything unrelated to them, and respond to evil by neither compromise nor violence.