"This is the path I chose for myself," the deposed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein proclaimed from the scaffold, only moments before the trap door opened beneath him and he plunged to his doom. Without understanding his particular mindset on this occasion, we might find Saddam's departing statement a bit puzzling, given the circumstances. He was herded into a dark, foul-smelling chamber, where he was taunted by his executioners as the hangman's noose was tightened around his neck. Somehow he was able to maintain his dignity amid the chaos around him, even as his nightmarish final moments were captured on a video cell phone and broadcast around the world over the Internet. The video accomplished the seemingly impossible, turning a mass murderer into a martyr, which is precisely how Saddam chose to make his exit.
Since 9/11 we have been made painfully aware that some Islamic militants view martyrdom as a fast ticket to paradise. Lest we think this is peculiar to Islam, remember that the Crusaders who set out to reclaim the Holy Land for Christianity during the Middle Ages were inspired by precisely this same sentiment. Quite apart from their glorification of martyrs, the two religions also share a broader penchant for deferred gratification. Both entertain the view that by living your life right you can accumulate the equivalent of frequent-flyer miles for that final trip to the Great Beyond.
I am reminded of a summer job I once had where a group of us were doing some work in the attic of an inner-city parochial school on a sweltering August afternoon. It must have been 130 degrees in the attic, and you couldn't work up there very long without risking heat stroke. One of the nuns came up to us on a break. We were covered with grime and sweating profusely. "Your reward will be in heaven," she gushed, by way of encouragement -- a comment that still comes back to me 50 years later, whenever I am faced with some particularly nasty and thankless task.
The idea that you go to heaven when you die was not part of the belief system of the early church. When the gospels talk about the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven, they are not referring to somewhere up in the clouds. The first Christians expected Jesus to return in their lifetimes and to establish his kingdom right here. The Resurrection and Last Judgment were supposed to happen on earth, not in heaven. Only when Jesus failed to return as expected -- and the Romans began making their lives miserable -- did the early Christians look elsewhere for their reward, if not in this world, then in the next.
The promise of heavenly rewards has doubtlessly motivated many people to undertake otherwise thankless and even dangerous tasks for the benefit of humankind. But it has also resulted in much mischief as well, particularly in situations where martyrdom is achieved by killing someone other than oneself. I don't believe anyone has told me my reward will be in heaven since I risked heat stroke in the attic of that parochial school more than 50 years ago. It is perhaps just as well. I don't like being patronized or scammed. If I willingly undertake some nasty and thankless job, the real payoff for me is knowing there is no payoff.