Is Religion Only about what Happens After We Die?

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“Those rich in Christ are blessed not solely for their own good but for the distribution of these goods to others.”

Today, one may hear a lot of talk about deciding whether or not you will go to heaven or hell when you die. Of course, there’s always the crazy preachers in the street, but even closer to home, many church services are designed around people making “salvation decisions” so they can go to heaven. Even more common is the preaching that Jesus died so that we can go to heaven (apparently he didn’t die for much else!). Because of Jesus, it is now up to us to decide for heaven or hell. In fact, this can be done simply. One only needs to ask Jesus to come into their heart and then they receive eternity in heaven in return. Apart from the method though, I want to stress how much the thinking of eternity, even if well-intentioned, appears in our church culture today.

Church goers are advised to only think about eternity, that this world is passing away, that everything they do should be governed by the issue of eternity. Our job on earth, as described by many pastors, is to get as many people into heaven as possible. We are guilted into sharing Christ with people and given analogies of a surgeon with a life-saving cure that refuses to share it with the world as a metaphor for the Christian who doesn’t tell others about hell. In fact, this idea does not just pop up within the Church, but many non-Christians, or non-religious persons in general, seem to characterize ALL religion as only concerned with an afterlife. They think that Christianity in particular makes it seem like our lives on earth are pointless except for the single moment in which we happen to pray the sinners’ prayer. The only reason for our existence, it seems, is so that we have the opportunity to choose heaven over hell at the end of the Christmas service.

Of course, many of the reasons behind this ideology are genuinely based upon sincere interpretations of scriptural passages. Nonetheless, I think distortions like this have the capacity to render impossible any meaningful Christian attitude towards living. To say that Christianity is all about making sure people spend eternity in heaven is misguided because it ignores all that our faith has to say about life on earth. Further, it ignores the central identity of our faith as a vision for human life. As Miroslav Volf puts it, “Theology is an articulation of a way of life.”

sermon-on-the-mount-iconIn fact, eternal life is not something which we look forward to one day, but is something that is presently being made manifest through Christ. As we are united to Christ in salvation, we begin a journey with God that is not primarily based upon what will happen after our deaths. Though we know that even death will not keep us from Christ, and that despite our deaths, our close union with God will continue in loving fellowship, our lives with Christ are more of a way of life for here and now.

As Christians, we should wish the best for human life on earth, and not merely try to get souls into heaven, but rather should incorporate the life of Christ into our own life today. We are to share the forgiveness of Christ with others and display the love of God to all of our fellow humans. This is not limited to getting as many people to pray the sinners’ prayer as possible, but is a whole vision for what Christianity can offer to the world. Instead of allowing things to get worse and worse until the so-called final judgment, Christians with the help of God, are to make the world a better place. Our influence in the world may be different than it was during Medieval Europe, but we still occupy a place marked by influence in the lives of others.

The reason why so many consider Christianity irrelevant is that they think we are only concerned about other-worldly affairs and have nothing to say about the here and now. For Christianity to retain relevance, we must be engaged in discussions about how to make our world a better place. Many, of course, are doing just this as we fight for the cause of the disenfranchised, oppressed, and poor of the world or as we advocate for a more just society that reflects our universal value as humans. We cannot resort to merely sitting back in idleness waiting for God’s final judgment of the world or being unconcerned in worldly affairs as our determination to be “in the world but not of the world.”

Christ, and us as a consequence, are here for the world. For one, Christ advocated for a different society, one not based upon discrimination and wall-building, but one open to all equally as recipients of God’s love and care. Our message of salvation is not that we are only saved from hell, but that we are saved from sin here and now, from its consequences as well as its ongoing influence.

Sin is not just personal moral failure. It is, in its most destructive forms, systems of oppression and violence in a world of hate and pride. Sin is the segregation of society into the affluent and poor, relegating those not as fortunate as us to a life of poverty. Sin is the constant refrain of “us versus them” theology which seeks to build up hate and difference. Sin is the cycle of revenge that always must give to others what they “deserve.” This in fact, runs directly contrary to the pattern of God’s gift of grace to us who are “undeserving,” and our giving to the world should also be unconditional in that it is not based upon others’ status as deserving recipients of our love. Our concern should be just as wide as God’s: that the whole world would be changed and given the love we have received ourselves. Sin is blocking the distribution of God’s grace by making it conditional.

Sin is burning historically black churches and returning to the confines of suburban white America. Sin is a system of laws that favor Wall Street greed over economic flourishing for all humans. Sin is buying clothes made in sweatshops without concern for the well-being of humans in other countries. Sin is destroying our planet through pollution and un-concerned maintenance of our lifestyles. Sin is refusing to help inner city schools, therefore upholding the cycle of poverty its students are born into, while we send our children to the best private schools and refuse benevolence to those we deem deserve their fate. Sin is blaming the poor for their poverty without giving thought to how  we ourselves might be the cause for their continued circumstances.

Our pattern of living should be one “that ministers divine beneficence to others, in correspondence to Jesus’ own ministering of the Father’s beneficence to humanity – healing, nourishing, attending to the needs of the world – what Jesus did in his own life, a prior ministry that empowers our own.” – Kathryn Tanner

Jesus came to save us from all of these forms of sin and their consequences. It is not merely salvation from hell without concern for how my neighbor’s life is going. As a community redeemed by God, we should be the leaders in advocating for a better world for all people regardless of how we might label them “sinners.” In fact, God usually reveals his love primarily to those “sinners.” God’s love has the potential to be found in all of these systemic issues that the world experiences. In fact, many of them might be caused by Christian indifference to life on earth. If only we could take the teachings of Jesus seriously and love our neighbor as ourselves (and no, this does not just mean we should tell them the “Romans Road” out of concern for their eternal destination). Love for neighbor is concern for their life, that it would go well.

As I close, I just want to encourage all of us to be more concerned with our lives and the lives of all of our brothers and sisters who share our common home, earth. We have the potential to make the world a better place. Yes, we need to do all we can to share the love of God, but many times, this manifests itself in decisions for the betterment of others’ lives and not merely concern for one’s eternal destination while neglecting their life on earth. The Kingdom of God does not have to be only the aggregate of saved souls, but can be a literal example of how our Christian faith impacts our benevolent actions within the world and our concern that the world might be a better place when we die than compared to our births. In fact, God cares a great deal about how our lives are lived. The whole world has the potential to be a better place because of Christians, but only when we realize our responsibilities to our fellow humans lives, and not merely their decision for heaven or hell which has become a reason for Christianity’s dismissal by the majority of people. Grace appears not only in the form of avoiding hell, but as the power to life a transformed life, one which, in turn, advocates for a world which all people could say is good to live in.

If you enjoyed this, check out another one of my posts on Christianity and Culture.



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