Atheists sometimes blame Christians for believing in a Heavenly Father who is great big sugar daddy in the sky who will take us to heaven when we die. Our God, they say, is like Colonel Sanders—always beaming down from above with a benevolent smile and perhaps a bucket of fried chicken if we are good boys and girls.
This Father in heaven is a comforting thought when life is hard. They continue by saying that all our talk of self sacrifice and helping others and doing good–is self interest. We’re investing in a great big life insurance plan. We pay in the good works, faith, love and worship and in return we get happiness and heaven and forgiveness and a chance to see Grandma and Grandpa and all our loved ones again.
No doubt there are some Christians who do have such a shallow and sentimental understanding of God and the afterlife. Some forms of Protestant theology feed the “pie in the sky” with a big sugar daddy understanding. The Calvinist doctrine of eternal security allows too many Evangelical Christians to assume that they have their ticket to heaven and because they have had a certain kind of religious experience they are going to their happy home straight after they die. That is a sweet belief indeed.
However, when you stop to analyze the Catholic faith–the form of the Christian religion believed by most Christians in most places at most times down the ages–you will realize that the atheist’s accusation of a sweet belief in a cuddly grandaddy in the sky doesn’t stick.
Here’s why: Catholicism teaches that you may go to heaven if you have faith in Jesus Christ and are transformed by his grace into the saint you are destined to be. However–and that’s a big ‘however’–it’s not a guarantee. There is still everything to play for. You might get into heaven, but there’s a high mountain called purgatory before you, and before you get there you have to navigate this life, and there’s many a chance to slip and fall into the pit in the meantime.
Therefore, this means that while heaven is a sure hope, it’s not a sure bet. It’s comforting but not comfortable. The Catholic message is one of hope, but not one which should make us feel cotton candy happy. There’s work to be done, and we only get into heaven if we move beyond the self interested form of religion to something which really is self sacrifice. “Unless you take up your cross and follow me you cannot enter the kingdom.” This is a serious business and far from the nauseating, little family reunion–class trip to heaven which the atheists rightly criticize.
Furthermore, the idea that God in heaven is an avuncular figure who chuckles indulgently and forgets our sins and welcomes us into bliss with a bucket of fried chicken if we just sign on the dotted line and weep for a moment and repent and ‘get saved’ is not the idea of God for Catholics.
He is indeed the forgiving father–but the road back to the Father is long and hard. It is full of reality, and humankind cannot bear very much reality. The loving Father is also the stern judge, and he is there to judge us for what we’ve done and left undone.
Some forms of Christianity can be blamed for sugary wishful thinking, but if I were thinking wishfully, the stern judge of all, and the long road of purgation is not what I would have wished for.
Consequently, those who take the Catholic faith seriously cannot be accused of believing something comforting, or something which is all sweetness and light. This form of the Christian faith is not for sissies. It’s not something which I like very much to tell you the truth, and that’s why it seems true—because it is gritty and realistic—not sugary and spice and everything nice.
Christians of all sorts–and Catholics too–should throw out the sentimental clap trap. For the sake of our own souls we need to forget the idol we have made of “gentle Jesus meek and mild” and remember that he also said he would be the judge of all. The most dangerous trend in the modern church is this sentimental idea of a Great Grandaddy in the sky who gives everybody a piece of pie.
The atheists are right to mock that kind of God.
We should too.
Fr Dwight Longenecker is Parish Priest of Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Greenville, South Carolina. Visit his website to browse his books and connect to his well known blog atwww.dwightlongenecker.com Fr. Dwight Longenecker Website: www.dwightlongenecker.comBlog: Standing on My Head. His latest book is The Romance of Religion –Fighting for Goodness, Truth and Beauty