One of the charges against religious people by the atheists is that we believe in a sugar daddy in the sky who will take us to heaven when we die. In other words, for all our talk of self sacrifice and helping others and doing good–in fact it’s simply self interest. We’re investing in a great big life insurance plan. We pay in the good works and faith and love and all that good stuff and we get happiness and heaven and forgiveness and a chance to see Grandma and Grandpa and all our loved ones again.

I blame Evangelical Protestantism for this one. At least, the form of watered down Calvinism that passes for the Christian religion in America. Most especially I blame the distorted doctrine of ‘eternal security’. This is the idea that once you accept Jesus and ‘get saved’ that you’ve got your ticket to heaven and everything will be just fine. No need to worry.

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 charge doesn’t stick. Here’s why: Catholicism teaches that you may very well 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 just get into heaven, but there’s a high mountain before you, and there’s many a chance to slip and fall into the pit.

So. This means heaven is a sure hope, but not a sure bet. Therefore, the real 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 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.

Oh, yes indeed, he is the forgiving father–but 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.

Certainly some shallow 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 this 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 actually like very much to tell you the truth.

Christians of all sorts–and Catholics too–should throw out the sentimental clap trap. For the sake of our own souls we need to get rid of gentle Jesus meek and mild and look for the one who cleared the temple and turned over the tables. Probably the most dangerous trend in the modern church is this sentimentality–which give us a false sense of security about our destiny. It lulls us to sleep.

It’s spiritual poison.