Tuesday, April 15, 2008
Eternal Life... NOW!
Have you ever noticed the anticipatory behavior of people who are about to go on vacation? Here at school I am currently one day away from a 10-day break and the all-too-common signs of impending sabbatical are all around me. While some teachers complain aloud, "Get me the hell out of here!" others let their apathy do the talking. Instead of educating, teachers merely baby sit. And students are no exception; they too arrive to school in the morning with little to no expectation to learn - the most that can be said of the ones that do attend school is that they are physically present.
I noticed this behavior back in college as well. When an upcoming break was around the corner, everyone's mind was to be found someplace other than their schoolwork. Assignments that once seemed urgent became "I'll do it after break" assignments. Study habits declined, socializing increased, and class attendance plummeted (especially since most students skipped the last day of classes altogether).
This anticipatory apathy also occurs in athletic events. Consider a basketball game in which one team is easily defeating another, say 34-10, at half-time. Then in the second half the team who is ahead plays poorly and the team that was behind stages a dramatic come back to win 58-57! Have you ever seen the dominant team begin to play poorly or lazily due to their overconfidence? As a sports coach I have seen what happens when human beings are overly focused on the future in place of the present.
What is it about anticipating vacation or victory or some sort of pie-in-the-sky future that causes us to behave irresponsibly in the present? It seems that the human mind is easily manipulated by its perspective of the future. Not only this, but it also seems that the particular way in which a person views the future, a world view for example, will have inevitable effects on the present.
So, if this is true in academia and athletics, could it be true in Christianity as well? Could a determined belief in life after death affect the way one lives in the present? Not only do I think this is the case, but I think that it is justly warranted - what you believe about life beyond death should affect your present behavior. However, I strongly believe that christians have gotten it wrong for many years. For too long the traditional views on eternal life, heaven and hell, and salvation have distracted Christians from furthering God's Kingdom in the present.
Brian McLaren warns about fatalistic eschatalogies (eschatology meaning the study of "last things" or "future/end" things) in his books Everything Must Change (chap. 19) and The Secret Message of Jesus (chapters 18/19). McLaren points out that evangelical christians have long held a view that sees the future as predetermined and incurable. For example, he cites a famous evangelist who once said "If the Titanic is destined to sink, why rearrange the deck chairs on it?" It is this kind of eschatology that gives Christians every reason to separate themselves from the world and simply wait for their retirement or their "going home."
But what if we are not called to "go home?" What if we're called to share in "Thy Kingdom come, on Earth as it is in Heaven?" Bishop N.T. Wright writes about this in his book, Surprised by Hope. He correctly argues that as long as we see salvation as "going to heaven," as away from this world, there is no hope for change and transformation in the world in the present. Wright also states that an individual who sees death as a "going home" has no quarrels with the injustices s/he leaves behind in this world.
These kinds of world views are strongly influenced by Platonic philosophy in which the soul is separate from the body and must escape the mortal world. It is important for Christians to step back and consider the many lenses through which we interpret the message of Jesus. For most, a Western, Platonic, Modern, Post-Enlightenment lens has significantly blurred the visions of the Church. But this topic is very immense and deserves more than a small paragraph of thought. Unfortunately it will not happen here in this post.
Back to fatal eschatology or what I like to call anticipatory apathy. In the same way that my fellow teachers are anticipating their vacation I believe that too many Christians are anticipating eternal life in an other-worldly, heaven. To even begin discussing this, however, it is important to challenge the foundational idea of what Jesus may have meant by "eternal life." The Greek translation of this literally means "life of the ages." It does not mean a spiritual body that floats up into the clouds. In John 17:3 Jesus says, "And this is eternal life, that they know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou has sent." Christ Himself was the first example of this eternal life. Remember that He proclaimed "the Kingdom of God is at hand." For more on this see McLaren's The Secret Message of Jesus.
What happens to all of our favorite verses about receiving eternal life, especially John 3:16? Would this new (not really new, more like ancient and contextually sound) view be even better news than we had hoped? Wouldn't it mean that, instead of waiting for some spiritual reward after we die, we're invited to share in life the way God intended here and now in the present? Surely this sounds like Good News to me!
Therefore, eternal life or "life of the ages" is a way of living that embodies the Goodness of God. Luckily we have many examples of what eternal life should look like. Aside from the definition John 17:3 we have Micah 6:8, 1 Corinthians 13, 1 John 4:19, and many more. There is, in fact, one more significant example: the life of Jesus Himself. The fact that Christians have a specific example of how to live life is scandalous. I have often heard this called "the scandal of particularirty" because Jesus is the foundational example for us and to lower our standards is a blatant disregard to His call. Unfortunately for many Christians the example lived by Jesus is seen not as an opportunity to live the life of the ages but rather a standard for comparison by which we are graded.
If followers of Christ Jesus were to accept His invitation to experience eternal life or "life of the ages" here and now in the present by doing justice, loving kindness, making peace, being patient, loving enemies, etc., would we be as susceptible to neglecting our suffering brothers and sisters? Would we be as vulnerable to the influence of greed, power, and other temptations that injure others?
I believe that how we view the future affects the present. Not only is this true for teachers awaiting vacation and athletes approaching victory, it is true for Christians who anxiously anticipate the Kingdom of God in Its fullness on this Earth. However, as we anticipate we also accept the coupled challenge/reward of living the life of the ages here and now, knowing that this is eternal life: to know Thee the only True God and Jesus Christ Whom Though has sent.