It is UN World Interfaith Harmony Week this week, the first in February, as I write this. Here in Calgary, three times a day, we are hosting short presentations by various religious groups. The purpose is to learn from each other and to come to understand each other a bit better. It’s going well! Some of the presentations have been really great – informative, artistic, reverent.
One of the presentations stirred up some controversy. It was led by an evangelical Christian – a kindly fellow who in no way was trying to be anything but respectful and gracious. But… evangelical Christianity these days seems to push some significant buttons in non-evangelicals!
As I have reflected on this, I think I noticed something. The experiences this fellow talked about were experiences of life-transformation. Repentance and new life, to use evangelical language. They were stories about how people had, in response to hearing about Jesus from a genuinely caring individual, “confessed their sins, gave their lives to Jesus, and were transformed.” Addicts who found recovery, broken marriages that were healed…
But unless I am reading things into what this fellow said, the theology and belief structures were all about eternal salvation, not earthly change. The theology was about how all of us are tainted, rotten, unacceptable to God until we invite Jesus into our lives. What’s really at stake here is not the quality of life on earth, but whether we are bound for heaven or hell after we die.
So when this evangelical pastor talks about lives changed by Christ, I’m right with him. And for me, this is the strength of evangelical Christianity: this guy is in there talking about real stuff with people who aren’t doing so well – about marriages falling apart, about violence and abuse, about addiction and all the various ways our lives can go to pieces. And yes, about the ways we sin, the ways we do stuff that causes harm, the ways we choose an evil path. He’s talking about this, and he’s encouraging people to bring that stuff into their relationship with a loving God and allow God to work real healing. It’s what they do in 12-step groups. It’s what I wish we did more in the churches I’ve served.
But I part ways when it comes to the eternal salvation stuff. For me, the existence of a literal “hell,” a place of eternal punishment for those who don’t in this life accept Jesus (whatever that actually means) is incompatible with the notion that God loves us without exception and without condition. It is by definition vengeful and violent and represents the opposite of what Jesus taught and modeled on this earth. And while this may not be all that persuasive, it also contradicts my own experience. I have given up on God, walked down the wrong path, turned God away many more times than once, and God has remained faithful to me through it all. I don’t seem to be able to fall anywhere that God’s love doesn’t catch me.
When and where are we saved? Is it after death, in some place called heaven? I guess I hope for some blessed afterlife, but I really don’t think that’s what Christianity is all about. I don’t see Jesus being primarily about getting us out of this world, thereby rendering this world as of (at best) secondary importance. In fact, the whole movement of God is into this world. That’s what the Incarnation is all about – Jesus Christ, God the Son taking human flesh is a movement into this world, marking it and making it sacred, all of it. In the gospel of John, the Word infuses all of creation, the Light infuses all of creation, God is a part of all of it from the beginning. When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we pray for God’s kingdom to come, God’s will to be done on earth.
When Jesus called disciples, he didn’t call people to believe certain things about him. That came later. What he asked was for those he called to follow him. What we are about is not to get the right beliefs into our heads, to wear the right brand of religion so we can get into heaven after we die. It’s about making a real connection with God so we can get heaven into us – into us as individuals, into our families, into society – right here and now.
So those stories of changed lives are right on target. The fact that these lives are changed in and through an experience of evangelical Christianity is significant — but I hear these stories of changed lives, connection with the divine, the building of loving community, from many different religious perspectives (and some from NON religious perspectives, ironically). Salvation is happening here and now. I think God’s got eternity taken care of. What we’re called to pay attention to is right here, right now.