Researcher, is a senior researcher at Georgetown University's Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding.
No One is Guaranteed a Free Pass into Heaven:
My unwavering belief in humanity’s ultimate accountability before God is the driving force of my everyday existence. The importance of believing in an afterlife, for me, is not about assuming – rather foolishly – that one group of people have some exclusive monopoly over heaven because of the religion to which they belonged, regardless of their inner faith or works. Nor is it about naively thinking that I am “saved” because of a certain proclamation I’ve made at some point in my life regardless of my behavior.
The importance of believing in an afterlife, for me, is about understanding that God is going to hold me accountable for every single action I’ve ever committed in this transient thing called life. It is about realizing that God will ask me why I threw away my leftovers when I know for a fact that there are hungry, homeless people on the corner of 9th & F St. where I work. It is about realizing that God will ask me why I wasn’t willing to sacrifice my time or money to help someone who really needed the help. It is about realizing that God will ask me why I raised my voice at my mother, even though He commanded that we show utmost respect and reverence to our mothers.
Believing in the afterlife regulates my behavior, puts my ego in check, and restrains my anger when I feel like telling someone off. Being conscious of God and of my ultimate accountability to Him forces me to be ethically and morally consistent whether in public or private, because even when others can’t see me, I know that God still does. My conviction in the reality of heaven and hell motivates me to make certain sacrifices for God even if they might make me unpopular or elicit ridicule by others. For example, I continue to overcome stereotypes associated with the headscarf I wear for one reason only: hoping that God will be pleased with me when I stand before Him on the Day of Judgment. Even if others perceive me as a victim of patriarchy, oppressed, uneducated, or backwards, I recognize that God alone controls my happiness, my success and my destiny in this world and the next.
When one internalizes the reality of heaven and hell beyond mere rhetoric or theory, it completely transforms the way one approaches life and the way one perceives and treats others; it unleashes a new paradigm through which to view the world. I think it ultimately makes one live a more moral and upright life. There are some people who will act in goodness for no other reason than the fact that it’s the right thing to do. But the majority of people need incentives. The belief in heaven and hell is one of the greatest incentives to do good acts and avoid evil, because the belief in an afterlife implies consequence; it implies human accountability.
Describing the Day of Judgment, the Quran says, “That day, people will proceed separately to be shown their deeds. Whoever has done even an atom’s worth of good will behold it. And whoever has done even an atom’s worth of evil will behold that.” (Quran, 99: 6-8).
This belief is central to my life and shapes my behavior, from what I decide to wear or not to wear to the way that I treat others around me. Before taking any step or action, I reflect on where this would make me stand in the eyes of God. I think to myself, ‘’is it going to help me reach my ultimate destination – which is to be with God in eternity?’
No individual is guaranteed a free pass into heaven (except for the Prophets and Messengers, according to Islamic theology). Only God decides who enters heaven or hell or who enters hell for a short period of time until he/she is transferred into heaven. According to the teachings of Prophet Mohammad (peace be upon him), a person who spent his/her whole life in the mosque or church, but was insincere and hypocritical about it could end up in hell, whereas a prostitute who poured water for a dog dying of thirst might end up in heaven for that act of compassion and mercy.
According to Islamic theology, God will evaluate all individuals based on their actions and faith. Both are critical. God says in the Quran, “Surely, the believers and the Jews, the Christians and the Sabians – whoever believes in God and the Last Day and works righteousness – shall have their reward with their Lord; on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve” (2:62).