TEXAS FAITH: Why does a strong belief in heaven and hell motivate people?

SMU political science professor in the Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences Matthew Wilson and SMU Perkins School of Theology Dean Bill Lawrence talk about the belief of heaven and hell as a motivational factor.

ByWilliam McKenzie/ Editorial Columnist

Baylor University released its latest survey of religion in America last month. As always, there's plenty to digest. The findings about competing beliefs in heaven and hell especially caught my eye.

According to the survey, more people believe in heaven than hell. That's perhaps not surprising. Most of us like the idea of heaven more than hell.

But the report also showed that people who believed in both were more satisfied with their jobs, strove for excellence and found meaning in their work. This is how the report framed this discovery:

"The majority of people who absolutely believe in Heaven and Hell are always or often motivated by their faith to pursue excellence, which certainly would please most organization owners. This relationship is strongest among those who absolutely believe in Hell."

So, what does this say to you? Why would it be that a strong belief in heaven and hell are a motivating factor in people's lives?...

MATTHEW WILSON, Associate Professor of Political Science, Southern Methodist University

It is indeed an interesting finding, but one that really doesn't surprise me. Belief in heaven and hell is, I think, strongly correlated with an absolute sense of right and wrong, good and evil.

The motivation to pursue the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, whether in one's personal, professional, or spiritual life, is clearly much stronger if one believes that such things actually exist in an objective sense. Moreover, we cannot truly say that we prize beauty unless we know what ugliness is, cannot value truth unless we are willing to denounce lies, cannot fully appreciate goodness without recognizing evil, and cannot speak meaningfully of Heaven without acknowledging Hell.

Of course, some will say that those who believe in Hell "pursue excellence" simply out fear of being cast into a fiery pit down below, that they are in effect "running scared" of damnation. I would argue, however, that such dismissiveness sells most people short.

At the root of a belief in Heaven and Hell is a conviction that we have free will, that choices matter, and that in the end our lives can partake of Goodness and Truth and Beauty in greater or lesser measure at least in part as a result of our own efforts.

People who believe this will naturally be more inclined to pursue excellence, because for them "excellence" has a real, spiritually grounded meaning. Evil, failure, and destruction result not just from faulty brain chemistry, genetic predisposition, or unfortunate social circumstance (all modern versions of "the Devil made me do it"), but from decisions by individual human beings for which they are culpable and may be held to account. Thus, they can and should be resisted.

In considering this question, I am reminded of John Lennon's famous song "Imagine." He invites us there to contemplate a world in which there is no heaven, no hell, no nations, no property, etc.

Some people over the years have found this vision inspiring; others (myself included) find it ultimately nihilistic.

One adjective that no one would apply to such a vision is "motivating." For Lennon, perhaps, this was the point; nonetheless, it should come as no surprise that those who believe in the ability and duty of humans to choose between good and evil, truth and falsehood, beauty and ugliness (as reflected in an acknowledgement of both Heaven and Hell) would be those who strive most diligently to achieve the former and eschew the latter, in all areas of their lives.

WILLIAM LAWRENCE, Dean and Professor of American Church History, Perkins Theological Seminary, Southern Methodist University

Human beings can be motivated to engage in the pursuit of happiness for all sorts of reasons, and everything depends on what makes them happy. The incentives might include financial luxury, family security, intellectual excellence, artistic purity, public celebrity, competitive superiority, or utter ease in slothful inactivity. Comments following the death of Steve Jobs make it clear that a set of motivations, including a desire to create things that are both beautiful and usable, drove him to pursue great goals. Political leaders often campaign for office with an announced desire to serve the public and to provide effective policies for improving the welfare of the city, state, nation, or world.

For many people, those incentives are enough to meet their own standards for success, happiness, values, and joy. For others, incentives beyond the limitations of this life offer a great deal more.

The Apostle Paul wrote that if for this life only we have hoped, we are of all people most to be pitied. For Christians, the vision of human existence is larger than the boundaries of birth and death within our physical life on this planet. The promise of heaven and the prospect of hell offer a sense of permanent security beyond the vagaries of wealth, popularity, taste, or notoriety. To pursue heaven or avoid hell is to connect the conduct of one's life with a much wider horizon. A strong belief in heaven, possibly coupled with a strong aversion to hell, can offer such an alluring vision and a motivating urge.

Plenty of Christians have constructed visions of heaven and hell that appeal to them personally, although they may not be consistent with the biblical promises. For example, Jesus said that marriage will not be a characteristic of life in heaven. We Christians have a lot of studying to do if we are to be articulate about the relationship between what we believe about heaven and what the Bible promises about heaven. But that is for homework. The incentive remains.