Christian faith is often pictured, by Christian and non-Christian alike, as a kind of insurance policy that secures a person on Judgment Day from a guilty verdict and a sentence of eternal damnation. Some people choose to purchase the policy, some choose not to, and others ignore it altogether.
This picture misrepresents the story the Bible actually tells. It is a caricature, having less to do with what the Bible says than with the concerns we bring to it, chief of which is saving our own skin. Or, failing that, our own soul.
God wants to save our souls and our skin even more than we do, hence the importance of the biblical doctrine of the resurrection. But God has other concerns as well. Humanity is but one part, albeit an important part, of the larger creation which God, according to the biblical revelation, intends to save and restore.
If asked, many people – both those who attend church and those who don’t – would say the whole point of Christianity is to get into heaven. Death is looming, eternity awaits, heaven is the much-preferred destination, and Christianity offers an affordable plan for getting there.
Were someone to lay out this synopsis of the faith to St. Paul, he would not recognize it. If we told him we had come to this understanding through his letters, he would be appalled.
Christianity purports to explain how to come to God, not how to get to heaven. People who have no interest in coming to God will certainly not find heaven to their liking. This is hard for people to accept or even to hear, since so much of western Christianity, both pre- and post-Reformation, has been focused on getting to heaven.
Does this mean that heaven and the afterlife are just a myth? Not at all. The Bible presents heaven as a real, joyous, and glorious place. But God’s goal for humans involves much more than mere relocation, even to a better neighborhood. His stated goal for humans is that they should live and reign with him, they as his people and he as their God. God himself, in all his boundless joy and endless energy, is humanity’s future hope.
Because so much attention has been focused on how to get to heaven, many people have missed the biblical teaching that heaven is coming to earth; this despite the fact that tens of millions of us regularly pray, “Thy kingdom come.” “Going to heaven” only make sense when a person has aligned with heaven’s kingdom here on earth, joined God’s people, and committed to his cause.
Imagine working for Citizenship and Immigration Services where it is your job to decide whether people are granted citizenship or not. There are criteria on which to base this decision but, even so, you are often uncertain about what is the right thing to do. There are times, however, when the decision is perfectly clear.
Such was the case when one applicant bluntly stated: “I don’t believe in this country. I won’t sacrifice anything for this country. I believe my country of origin is better and I will serve that country and be a propagandist for it.
“Further, I cannot promise to be loyal to this country, knowing that prior allegiances may get in the way. And I admit that I intend never to pay a cent in taxes to this country if I can possibly help it. However, in accordance with Article 8, section 1, clause 4 of the U.S. constitution, I am applying for citizenship and the privileges it entails. I ask you to grant it.”
What would your decision be? I know what mine would be.
Do we think God’s decision should be different? Should he grant us kingdom citizenship while we are serving another kingdom? Have we any right to expect a place in the very command center of his kingdom?
The good news is that God wants to confer kingdom citizenship on as many people as possible, but he will only do so if they will confess Jesus as Lord. No one can enter God’s kingdom while refusing to be ruled by its king.
(First published by Gannet)