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For Heaven’s Sake?

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
(Genesis 1.26-27)

In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. 2Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. 3And one called to another and said:

‘Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!‘”(Isaiah 6.1-3)

Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. (1 John 2.15)

Now great crowds accompanied him, and he turned and said to them,If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple…” (Luke 14.25-26)

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. (John 3.16-17)

The color scheme for these quotations will, I hope, become apparent, though it is far from perfect.

One of the most basic criticisms that is often given against Christianity is that it is too “heaven oriented”–that it places all of its emphasis on a future life, at the expense of this life. And, indeed, the religious life in general must appear to the atheist to be quite a waste, the ultimate waste really: to trade your whole earthly life for, well, nothing at all. Yet, from the perspective of the believer, the life of the atheist is a tremendous waste: to trade eternity for something that inevitably passes away. There seem to be two ways of wasting your life, that are in a sort opposition to each other that would be somewhat comical if the subject matter were not so truly serious.

This is a real dilemma. How do we choose how not to be a fool? Fortunately, it has an answer. That answer is found, of all places, in the bible, which offers a third way, the true way. Would you believe that? You see, a basic tension in holy scripture has to do with a creation that is good, yet fallen. A humanity created in the image of God, yet estranged from him. Correspondingly, God is holy and unapproachable, yet his presence fills the earth. The world is full of life from God, yet to stake our heart on life in the world itself, to worship creation rather than creator, is death. One must love what God has created yet “hate his life.” That is part what I was trying to point to with the quotes above.

Within this paradigm, I think it can be seen that the idea that one must trade “this life” for “the afterlife” is a myth. That’s not the offer that is presented in scripture; the bible doesn’t say it like this, doesn’t present us with this framework for reality (despite what that subway preacher might have told you). Let me explain, though, lest I be accused of heresy. It is a myth that has a strong kernel of truth in it: namely, the fact that the best thing in all of life, and in death, for a human being to do is to stake his whole self on Jesus Christ alone, the Word made Flesh, God’s Son and our Savior. Since Christ is the foundation and wellspring of eternal life, he truly is, as evangelicals say, “the only way to heaven.”

But, the thing is, heaven is not the ultimate goal–it is only the destination, for those in Christ. God himself is the ultimate goal. The point is to know him. Heaven is only where we, redeemed and (eventually) resurrected, can know him fully. If we fail to understand this, we will understand neither heaven nor God, and we will view Jesus only as a means to an end. Our Christianity will become gnostic escapism: that is, the idea that this world is intrinsically bad, and that the thing that needs to happen is for us to utter the magical formula that will have our savior come and whisk us away. The atheist is right to see this as a fundamentally wrong approach to life. But this is not Christianity–it is only a caricature.

A proper understanding of how this life relates to the next is, I believe, a crucial thing when it comes to making sense of Christianity. The first thing we have to get straight is that the creation is intrinsically good and has a purpose: it is designed by God, and meant to be filled with his presence. The world we live in, including ourselves and those around us, is meant to be a vessel in which God dwells, and makes himself known to us, the centerpiece of his creation. The second thing we have to realize–equally important–is that the world we live in is fallen. We are fallen. We are deeply fallen and we need a Savior.

That is why Jesus came, died, and was raised. We didn’t deserve such love, yet such love he has. Now, one can say that Christ died for a humanity that didn’t deserve it and have these just be empty words. This happens, I think, when we (Christians) say such things without a perpetual inward glance, when we come to view the world as evil and ourselves, secretly, as good–again the gnostic impulse. This is never entirely conscious (unless God brings it to mind, which in his grace he indeed does), but it can build in our hearts over time. To fight this, when we teach about the doctrine of original sin, we must always think of ourselves, of our own hearts. For it is in ourselves that we know evil closest.

The universal sinfulness of mankind, though true, can seem unreal. Unreal, not because we don’t see evil all around us (we do), but because we don’t have intimate knowledge of its source, as we do in our own case. The wickedness of my own heart is quite closely known, quite real. Quite real when I say foolish things in public, when I think foolish things in private, and when shut my heart to my neighbor in need. Quite real when I view people as a means to an end, and have no patience for them. Quite real when I swell with pride and ambition, and fester in cynicism and judgment. Then it becomes easy, and honest, to believe and proclaim that the death and resurrection of the Son of God is the only answer for this weak, troubled, and dying soul, and all others.

When we realize that we are fallen, we are sinners, we realize that there is a truly Christian way of understanding this life as being, in some sense, of little account. It comes from acknowledging in our brokenness that we were made for something that cannot be had in this life–cannot be had because, as a consequence of  sin, the experience of this life falls short of attaining to the reality of what was always meant for a human soul (and which that soul will indeed experience if he lets God have his way). We do have a fundamental lack that will not be satisfied by anything but to behold our creator in his perfect love, to know him and be known by him. But to realize this is not the end of life, but rather the beginning. It is a relief, a blessing…it makes life itself, in this often sad world, even joyful. “Whoever loses his life will save it.” Nothing that is actually worth anything is lost when we give our lives to Jesus Christ. It means we can embrace suffering, and need not ever fear death at all. It means we can be for the world “…a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” (1 Peter 2.9)

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