Q & R: Isn't the Afterlife Longer?
Here's the Q:
One of the joys of journeying with fellow believers who do not share our own views is being challenged by them. Many of my friends would not consider you very highly as a Christian leader, but without your books, thoughtfulness, and (when you were a pastor) sermons I would unlikely be a Christian anymore.
Something I've constantly run into has been the challenge to answer others when they speak of salvation, eternal life, or the Kingdom of God as an eternal state. I'm starting to really see how the gospels and the New Testament really focuses on eternal life as having life to the full here and now, in the present, a this-worldly sort of experience. On the other hand, there is no denying that the afterlife has its place in Christianity. After all, we do all die. Whether we see heaven as coming down to earth or us going up to heaven, the afterlife is there, staring us in the face. And here's the clincher for many of my friends: it's much longer than our time on earth.
So when I bring up the Kingdom of God was (in part) about reconciliation between violent enemies, restoring justice and peace in the world, or even doing good by feeding the hungry, the response has been, "Yeah, but that's only good for the next 40 or so years."
My only response to that you will find very few (if any!) examples of evangelism in Scripture that demonstrate the afterlife as the reason we spread the good news. Luke does not record in Acts the apostles preaching the gospel as an afterlife-focused endeavor. The book of Romans doesn't even address "hell" (in the traditional sense), and it's all about salvation!
Yet… somehow, the whole "eternity is much longer than this life" seems to be a stronghold, even for me at times.
If you have the chance to respond, I'm sure others would appreciate your thoughts. Keep up the good work and keep preaching Jesus Christ!
Here's the R:
As I've made clear in all my writings, I don't think we're dealing with an either/or between this life and the afterlife. But I believe we've turned things backwards ... making this life count little because the afterlife counts so much. We commonly see religious people reducing, reducing, reducing ... Jesus' life didn't matter; only his death mattered. Saving the whales doesn't matter; only saving souls matters. How you live doesn't matter; only what you believe matters. How you treat the poor doesn't matter; only how you treat Jesus matters, etc. etc.
But I think a proper understanding of this life and the after life - as one integrated "life of the ages" or "life to the full" - works in the opposite way: Everything matters. No, it doesn't all matter equally, but it all matters - because it all contributes to the "who" that we become. The way we treat the planet demonstrates whether we're careless or careful, considerate or presumptuous, selfish or prudent, wasteful or wise. Similarly, the way we treat the poor demonstrates whether we're stingy or generous, and the way we treat our enemies demonstrates whether we follow Caesar or Christ. If we practice one side of that equation, that's the kind of person we become - and that's the "us" that we bring into the afterlife. So ... if anything, belief in the afterlife makes all these choices more significant.
I suspect that the problem isn't whether or not we believe in the afterlife; I suspect the underlying problem is the narrative or framing story in which we place this life and afterlife. I've written about "the six-line narrative" in A New Kind of Christianity. That's the narrative that I think has marginalized this life in view of the afterlife. And I've tried to describe an alternative narrative in my book The Story We Find Ourselves In. That will be the subject of my upcoming book as well.
To believe in an afterlife wisely can make us fear no sacrifice - including martyrdom - in pursuit of God's kingdom and justice. It can make us willing to give and suffer, not just for our families and friends and nations, but even for our enemies ... and even for the birds of the air and fish of the sea, because we believe that beyond this life, we are welcomed into the love of the Creator who loves all creation. It empowers us to see through the shallow and unsustainable economies that currently rule our world - to live by another economy through which we "lay up treasures in heaven" through goodness, kindness, generosity, mercy, and love. It's part of the good news that changes everything.