Adam Smith and the Nature of Heaven

This one comes to us from David Clay. Adam Smith, widely acknowledged as the father […]

David Clay / 3.26.19

This one comes to us from David Clay.

Adam Smith, widely acknowledged as the father of modern economics, was first and foremost a moral philosopher by trade. Nearly two decades before Wealth of Nations (1776) revolutionized the world’s understanding of economics, Smith had established his philosophical reputation throughout Europe with The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759). It’s easy to see why: the Theory is a lucid and fascinating argument that our capacity for feeling, not reason, is foundational to our moral judgments. In particular, morality is based on our faculty for “sympathy.” In Smith’s terminology, sympathy is roughly equivalent to the modern term “empathy,” our ability to feel what others are feeling. Because we sympathize in the Smithian sense, we constantly adjust our behavior (often unconsciously) in anticipation of how others will react.

Smith was probably a deist—he occasionally references God but prefers to speak of capitalized “Nature” as the conductor of human affairs—and generally avoids theological commentary in Theory. His chief concern is analyzing the here and now. The Theory does, however, contain an extended passage obliquely challenging the traditional Christian teaching on heaven and who goes there. 

In context, Smith is discussing how human beings desire not only praise but praiseworthiness. He notes that while the virtuous person can do without praise when he is convinced of his own moral uprightness, hardly anyone can endure undeserved reproach. To such a person falsely accused and scorned, “[r]eligion can alone afford … any effectual comfort.” Later, Smith mulls over the concept of “immortality,” which he acknowledges to be a very attractive one while carefully concealing his own stance on the issue (but, tellingly, he does claim that virtuous people who doubt the existence of immortality still wish they could believe in it).

Smith goes on to observe that the doctrine of immortality had been “exposed to the derision of the scoffer” due to the way that certain religious people portray it. These pious folks make God out to be some kind of petty magistrate who dispenses rewards to sycophants, so that the “duties of devotion, the … worship of the Deity, have been represented, even by men of virtue and abilities, as the sole virtues which can either entitle to reward or exempt from punishment in the life to come.” Most people, Smith claims, are not willing to ascribe such narrowness to God. It offends their “moral sentiments.” Surely the “great Judge of the world” is perfectly fair-minded, ready to reward righteous behavior wherever it is found—even, perhaps, in those who have “no great taste or turn for the devout or contemplative virtues.”

To paraphrase: if there is a heaven, then surely a just God would allow entrance to good people regardless of religious belief or practice. That he reserves salvation for those who happen upon the right creed is offensive and ridiculous. And this is a very popular opinion in our time as well: a 2016 Barna poll found that about 55% of Americans believe that if a person leads a generally good life, he or she can expect eternal bliss after death.

This, of course, isn’t the gospel. When confronted with the notion that “God lets good people into heaven,” Christians have traditionally responded that “there is none righteous, no not one” (Rom 3:10), so that no human being can reach God’s standard of holiness. No one can be saved by good works, religious or otherwise. Only God’s free grace through Jesus Christ can “fit us for heaven.” 

This traditional response is both true and necessary. But I think there is an even deeper issue at play here. Smith’s objection to the historic Christian teaching on this topic fundamentally misunderstands the nature of heaven (or, to use his preferred term, “immortality”). In his letter to the Philippian church, the apostle Paul offers us a vision of eternal life that transcends the typical paradigm of “good / bad” people altogether.

Paul starts off the letter’s third chapter with a warning against the “judaizing” sect, who made circumcision a requirement for salvation, before going on to declare that if observance of the Mosaic Law was what really mattered, then he himself had it made. He is so bold as to pronounce himself “blameless” by the standards of the Law (Phil 3:6). At this point, we might expect Paul to explain that he had kept merely the letter of the Law while violating its spirit, but he takes no such tack. For the purpose of his argument, he is claiming that he really was righteous according to God’s Law, that he was a “good person” in a very real sense.

But now that goodness means nothing to him. Undoubtedly, Paul does not actually think that his own moral record could stand in God’s court—but even if it somehow could, he does not want it any more. He would trade it in a heartbeat to know Jesus Christ: “For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things [including my own personal righteousness] and count them as rubbish, in order that I might gain Christ” (Phil 3:8).

Paul has grasped that what makes heaven heaven is an intimate relationship with God, mediated through Jesus Christ and no longer impeded by sin and human frailty. Christ himself identifies eternal life with this kind of relationship: “And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3). Knowing Christ and the God he reveals is heaven. There is no other heaven available.

I am not attempting an end-run around Smith’s objection by sneakily implying that the “devout or contemplative virtues” are the only ones that matter after all. Scripture is clear that a highly refined “taste” for those virtues will have no place in the kingdom of heaven (e.g., Matt 23:23). Rather, the point is that putting together an impressive moral résumé, religious or secular, can do nothing to “gain Christ,” whom to know is paradise. Even if, per impossibile, we could achieve virtue on our own, that particular game would not be worth the candle. Though scripture does speak of rewards, ultimately God is not concerned with rewarding our virtue but rather giving us himself through Christ. To rely on our good deeds (of any stripe) is to refuse him, and thus to refuse heaven.

Seen in this light, our fundamental problem is not lacking the righteousness necessary to go to heaven (although that is a problem). It’s that none of our works get us any closer to the only thing that makes eternal life actually worth having—knowing Christ. And as Paul declares so forcefully in Philippians, knowing him involves the loss of all of our projects of self-justification. We “gain” Christ on no other terms.