What is the point of being a Christian?
I mean, what’s the benefit of following God in your everyday life?
If you had to boil down the reason for the Gospel, what would it be?
If you were trying to convince someone to be a Christian, what would be your biggest reason for converting?
If you take a look out the window while you drive, it seems like there’s really only one reason to follow God. Because Hell is hot, and you don’t want to go there one day.
And because I want to be fair to the more “glass-is-half-full” Christians out there, the flip side of the coin is that if you follow God, you get to go to heaven when you die, which is supposed to be really awesome and totally worth the not having sex with people that you aren’t married to, or the not drinking too much alcohol, or the waking up early on Sundays to be at church every week.
The argument is pretty compelling – Be a Christian, and enjoy eternity. Be a not-Christian and suffer forever. The choice is yours.
But is eternity all we have to offer? Is heaven (or lack of hell) really the best incentive to join up?
What if there were no eternal ramifications? What if when you died, it was game over? What if, good or bad, right or wrong, Christian or atheist, saint or serial killer, there was nothing after death. Would there still be a reason to be a Christian?
When Rob Bell published his book Love Wins in 2009, one of the more common responses to it was, “If Jesus saves everyone, what’s the point of evangelizing? Or of even being a Christian?”
While I have no intentions of jumping into the question of universalism in this particular blog post, I absolutely want to examine that question. When we ask, “what’s the point of evangelization if everyone goes to heaven?” we imply that there is no reason to tell anyone about the Gospel, or to follow God ourselves, unless there are eternal ramifications. That if there’s no reward for the Christians and punishment for the non-Christians, there’s no point in following God.
This could not be further from the truth.
In John 10:10, Jesus tells his disciples that he has come to give life, and give it abundantly. This passage has often been taken to be reference to eternal life in heaven, and it certainly includes that, but what Jesus says is, “I have come so that they might have life and have it abundantly.” Notice that he doesn’t say, “One day, I’ll come back, and when I do, I’ll hand out abundant life.” He doesn’t say, “I have come to make promises of life, to be paid out at a later date of my choosing.” He says, “I have come so they may have life and have it abundantly.” And if we believe that, we have to start offering better things to the world than, “Well when you die, at least you won’t be in torment.” Because Jesus didn’t just offer eternity. He offered right now.
When the Church makes Heaven and Hell the primary result of God’s action in the world, it proclaims its own impotence in the world. There’s no reason to engage in social justice now, when it all will be made right in heaven. There’s no point in serving the suffering here, because it will all be relieved in the age to come. A heavy focus on eternity removes the responsibility of the church to do something useful in the world now. A Church that places its hope in eternity has an easier job, but it also doesn’t accomplish anything.
The Church is not the life raft of Good in an ocean of Evil, waiting for the day she will be rescued. The Church is God’s way of working to restore the world now. It is the present and continuing act of reconciliation of God with his people. It is God’s act of restoration and re-creation. The true Church is where God works to make the world the way he intended it to be.
For too long, we have asked people to grab on to Jesus and hold on long enough to escape the world and receive their eternal reward, and that’s not what it means to be a Christian. Being a Christian is replacing our desires with Christ’s desires. It’s substituting our motivations with Christ’s motivations. It’s surrendering our interests to the interests of the kingdom of heaven. The reward of Christianity is transformation now. The great benefit of surrender to Christ is that we become the image of Christ, and one person at a time, the world is made new. It’s harder work. It involves daily sacrifice. It involves picking up our cross and following Jesus. It means getting involved in the lives of people we don’t like and who can’t make our lives easier or more successful. It requires taking on other people’s pain and suffering as we attempt to be Christ in the world.
It’s a bigger investment of time, money, and energy. But it also gives us purpose and meaning beyond one glad morning, when this life is o’er. The cross did so much more than punch our tickets to life in heaven. It enabled us to truly experience life on earth, and to share that life with everyone else.
May the Church remember that we have more to offer the world than a good retirement plan. May we look forward to eternity without abandoning the work of the present, and may we be willing servants of God in his work of restoration in the world now.