I have been very open in the world of social media about my agnostic view of the afterlife. As I’ve said in other posts, I don’t know what happens after we die– and I’m okay with that. I shifted from “totally sure” to “not-so-sure” about the afterlife when I realized:
- Jesus was not talking about the afterlife when he used the words/phrases: Kingdom of God, Kingdom of Heaven, eternal life or everlasting.
- Most of the scriptures we use to talk about an afterlife are about this-worldly triumphs for a downtrodden people awaiting what they believed would be the imminent intervention of God.
- The Jewish people (including Jesus) did not believe in a heaven or a hell. There is literally very little discussion of the “next world” in Judaism. Theirs has always been a religion concerned with living morally in this world to obtain the favor of God.
When I changed my mind about the meaning of Christianity, (that is, when I decided that the purpose of following Jesus was not to get to heaven), I began to realize how much my afterlife theology had colored every aspect of my life… In other words: When I decided that I could no longer believe in a God who spent his days sifting people into categories marked “Accepted” and “Damned”, it became quite clear to me that my efforts to interact with people of other religions, or the “sinners” next door, or the guys who wanted to date me and even my employers had been dominated by my preoccupation with “salvation”.
And, no area of my life had been more affected by my understanding of the afterlife than my political opinions.
Before I explain what I mean, I should admit to you that while I would like to pretend that my political convictions are now totally independent of my religious commitments, I cannot. Like most of the Christians I know, my political opinions are still informed by my understanding of what it means to follow Jesus. I am unable to escape my personal view of what I believe God wants for all people: Justice. Equality. Dignity. Sustenance.
I believe that whether Liberal or Conservative, we are all in a sense “values voters”. I am painfully sensitive to the difficulty involved in separating church and state on both sides of the political spectrum because it’s a struggle for me, too. That’s why, for the purposes of this particular blog post, I am not as concerned with the “values” as I am the unexplored motivations behind them– especially when it comes to afterlife theology.
The current dominant teaching in Christianity is that one must “come to a personal saving knowledge of Jesus” to rescue his or her own hide from the wrath of a spiritually and theologically meticulous God. After “getting saved,” the focus is largely on personal growth. (For fun one day, go to the Christian section of any book store and compare the number of books designed for personal spiritual growth to the number of books about group discipleship. If you’ve never noticed the number of individualistic books on the shelves, you’re likely in for a surprise.)
Christianity seems to have become a religion focused on getting oneself to the goal… Most Christians will agree that this goal is heaven. When I believed that the sole purpose of my religion was to save myself, and make me better, and that the world’s problems (poverty, injustice and otherwise) would be corrected by God in the distant apocalyptic future without my help, it was much easier to feel… well… a little less responsible for the world around me.
It doesn’t shock me to turn on the television and hear wealthy Christian politicians speak of the poor as if they’re a burden, or international “aliens” as if they know nothing of their own spiritual ancestors’ exodus from Egypt, or other religions as threats to their vision of what the world should be, or equality as if it’s a fate worse than death for this country. After all, we are now several generations deep into a theology that tells us Jesus’ ministry was solely about getting oneself saved and preserving one’s own interests. Our leaders are not exempted from the influence of those teachings.
Jesus’ other message– the one about caring for the poor… the downtrodden… the “least of these”– has been lost in a haze of chatter about raptures, infernos and personal conversion experiences.
My understanding of what it means to be religious and responsible to my society changed when my theology changed. I realized that it can no longer be about my own personal salvation. Because we are one, and because we wish to be one with God, it must be about all of us.
I’ve begun to ask myself how things would be if the focus of Christianity was on group salvation… on salvation based upon our efforts to truly care for one another. I hope to find out someday.
You May Also Enjoy Reading:
1. A Snapshot In Time: What More Christians Should Consider
2. The Still Small Voice: A Reflection on the Presence of God
3. Download My Free E-Book About (The Non-Existence of) Hell