This week for our sermon series, Razing Hell, we’ve been deconstructing the popular misconception of our souls going off to heaven when we die and reclaiming the biblical hope of eternal life being marked by resurrection and new creation.
In response, someone asked me:
What difference does it really make in this world and life whether I believe in one or the other? Does it make any difference what I believe will happen after I die? Isn’t really just about what brings someone comfort?
Here are my thoughts in response:
I spent the week before Christmas in a small mountain village in Guatemala with twenty other adults and students from my church. It was our fourth time in that region. We were building a ‘center,’ a building that can be used to teach health clinics and other workshops and also to lodge future service teams like ours.
It’s easy sometimes spending the week before Christmas in an impoverished place to be struck by a sense of hopelessness. It can be difficult to see how a voiceless people, a people whose own government has a long history of trying to ‘pacify’ and assimilate, have any real hope of freeing themselves from victimhood. Seen in such a light, it also can seem a weak and ultimately meaningless gesture to be doing a building project for such people. Why bother if it doesn’t remedy their pressing and urgent situation?
That’s just an isolated example of a despair that could creep over any Christian for any act of mercy we do in the world.
Understood only in terms of cold realism, all the soup kitchens, malarial nets, wood stoves and rice banks in the world won’t undo poverty.
Individual congregations praying for peace on Sunday mornings won’t eliminate violence and war. Christians witnessing to racial reconciliation won’t erase the stain of racism in our country, and to think otherwise is to fall victim to naive utopianism
But neither cold realism nor naive utopianism is Christian hope in Resurrection and New Creation.
What I realized once again in Guatemala this December: we weren’t there working with block and mortar because we thought we were going to permanently solve a social ill. We were not building for poor, persecuted Mayans because we had foolish illusions about what the immediate future might hold for the indigenous villages. The stakes are high for those people and, seen only from a finite point of view, our acts of service might prove meaningless gestures.
But we weren’t there to be realistic.
And we weren’t there to be idealistic.
We were there doing what we were doing because what we were doing was in harmony with what God will do in the End.
Christian service isn’t an idealistic stab at trying to make the world come out right.
Rather, Christian service is anchored in the faith that God alone makes the world come out right. No matter how things look on the ground in the ‘real’ world, one day God will get the world God wants and that world is one where the hungry are filled, the mourning stop their crying and the poor are lifted up.
Far too many Christians, by adopting a spiritualized notion of our souls going off to heaven when we die, take a laissez faire attitude to this world. Overly spiritualized notions of eternal life too often underwrite a politics that couldn’t have less to do with the God of scripture.
But if the End isn’t our souls going off one day to a disembodied heaven and casting this world into the rubbish bin, if the End, as it’s seen in Revelation 21-22, is this creation renewed then everything we do today in this world as Christians we do, as Paul says, in anticipation of that End. We work, as Paul says, as ambassadors of the Christ who will come again when Heaven comes down. This is truly what it means for us to have our citizenship in heaven: to live in this world in such a way that things on earth are as they are in heaven and will one day be finally in the New Earth.
Christian service isn’t a solution to the present problems of the world. Christian service is a sign, a gesture, of what we believe God will do.
If the future is one where God comforts and lifts up indigenous Mayans then we anticipate that future with our actions in the present- no matter how ineffective or meaningless other might judge them.
Christian service isn’t our attempt to fashion a world we think God wants from us nor does it idealistically put band-aids over top systemic issues. And it certainly isn’t deeds we do in the vain hope they’ll earn us gold stars from God so one day we’ll be able to walk the streets of gold in heaven.
No, Christian service, by being rooted in our hope of the End, is done with the confidence that it’s action done with the grain of the universe.