Wednesday, December 03, 2014

My Belief in Heaven is a problem

I thought about titling this post "I have an eschatological problem" but I was worried how that would be perceived, and not only because my guess is that most people don't even know what eschatology is.

I have talked about this briefly before but I think that I'm finding, during this grieving time, that some of my misconceptions and misguided beliefs are deeper and more firmly entrenched in my thinking than I had previously thought.  Let me explain.

The way I grew up spiritually was in a culture that regularly asked a few questions:

1. If you were to die today, how sure are you that you would go to heaven?

2. Do you know where you're going after you die?

3. If you were standing before God after you die and he asked you why he should let you into heaven, what do you think you would say?

4. Would you like to know how to get to heaven?
4b. Would you like to know how to avoid hell?

These were presented to me as normal, everyday conversational questions that helped to engage people in conversations about how they can come to know Jesus personally, and thus be saved.

I now believe that all of these questions are pretty seriously misleading.

First, as I first heard from NT Wright but have since heard elsewhere, "heaven is important, but it's not the end of the world."

Heaven is simply not what Christianity is all about.  To begin a conversation in which we are trying to present the Christian belief to an outsider by appealing to heaven and hell is at best naive and at worst an arm-twisting scare tactic.

The Christian belief, nuanced of course, is about the inauguration of the kingdom of God through Jesus' death and resurrection for the redemption of the entire cosmos.  Thus, the ultimate hope of a Christian is not to go to heaven when we die (as we seem to think from our questioning), but the renewal and redemption of all things.

In being trained with those sets of questions, I had come to believe, ultimately, that heaven is the whole ball of wax, so to speak.  I had begun to believe that getting people to heaven was the mark of a "true Christian" and that "saving souls for eternity" took precedence and importance over everything else.

I would've wholeheartedly agreed with stuff like this:

This stuff motivated me.  "I want to be about Jesus' business!  I want to save souls for eternity."  I would take giant "steps of faith," trusting God to show up and redeem those "lost" people for whom he died.

But "saving souls," is a very poor way of describing His business.  Redeeming and recreating broken people is undoubtedly the crowning achievement in His business.  But it is through these "saved" Spirit-filled new believers that His whole business is accomplished, and that whole business is the redemption of all things.  In other words, yes, saving souls is Jesus' business, but so is the abolition of hunger, and the ceasing of violence, and the removal of pain, and the destruction of all things evil.  And lest you think the redemption of humanity is just one cog in the wheel remember that God's intention was to always use "saved souls" to wisely steward and usher in the renewal and redemption of the cosmos.  His business isn't to rescue people from the clutches of hell so much as to rescue people into a truly human, vibrant way of life in His kingdom -- working, praying, and living through the Spirit.

See how that's different than "would you like to go to heaven when you die?"  Heaven is hardly even a part of the plan.

My unconscious belief that heaven and hell were the main aspects of Christianity led me to an unhealthy understanding of hope.  Also faith.

The Christian hope, or so I thought, was that we would see souls saved from hell and into a relationship with Jesus.

This hope was the motivation for my action.  Not the sole motivation, but a rather big one.  I wanted to do ministry, to raise up students to be Christ-centered laborers -- laborers, mind you, in the business of saving souls from hell.

I must pause here and say something clearly: This motivation is not a bad one.  The desire to rescue someone from a possible eternal damnation is not a misplaced desire.  It is virtuous and noble.  I still have it, actually.  It's just not as big of a motivation as before.

But the emphasis of that desire to rescue souls led to me placing a bunch of expectations on God.

I expected God to save people.  How could he not?  Did he want some to perish for eternity?
I expected to be reaping eternal rewards -- this meant I expected conversions, and more people being exposed to the gospel.

My hope was that God would rescue people through our ministry.  So, when things started to get tough for me in ministry, I had little wiggle room in my hope.  If we weren't seeing more people make decisions to accept Christ, or seeing disciples grow in their passion to see others accept Christ, I had a tough time seeing what God was doing.  Is he moving at all if we are not seeing people place their trust in Him?

I thought, "If people are still damned for eternity in hell, does it really matter what happens on the fringes of life?"

Does the election matter?  Does the environment matter?  Does it even matter if someone is poor, or homeless, or jobless, or widowed, if their eternal destiny is still in question?

I'd like to pause here to ask, does this resonate with you?
Have you struggled in ministry when it didn't seem as though God was as committed to rescuing souls as you were?
Can you relate with wondering if care for the environment, or the homeless is really as important as rescuing souls?

Tomorrow I'd like to post about how my hope is being corrected, and not for the first time.

1 comment:

Kuch said...

Great insight and descriptions Bart. I agree with a whole lot of the sentiment in this. One thing to that sticks out to me is that when we narrow in on 'escaping' damnation as the biggest thing, we ourselves are missing the eternal life Christ is for us right now. We are so focused on the eternity of things that we are not preparing for eternity by experiencing His life-changing power inside of us, His Holy Spirit. We just want to 'win souls', which of course we must do, but it should not be done at the expense of knowing Him more. Rather our joy found in Him should be the driving factor to share that hope and joy with others.