The Almost-Gospel

In yesterday’s post I was writing about how there’s a problem in the church that is evident in the statistical data which shows that divorce and other moral problems are occurring in the lives of Christians at the same rate as in those who are not Christians.

I think the cause of this is deeper than most people would imagine.  It starts with an almost gospel.  For most Christians, this is a belief such as, “Jesus died on the cross so I can go to heaven when I die.”  This is not all that accurate, because when Jesus spoke of eternal life, he was always referring to eternal life that begins now on this earth while we are still living, and that carries with it a freedom and a lightness.  But if one believes that Jesus came and lived and died only (or even mostly) to bring eternal life after one dies, then he will seek to convert others to this belief as well.  This belief and way of living almost doesn’t require Jesus at all.  Jesus is the guy who stamps your hand with the heaven stamp when you say the sinner’s prayer, but in this belief there is nothing all that substantive about the way he actually lived (I’m not speaking of what he taught, but the way he lived and structured his life) that we need to apply to our lives in the present day.

Reality of course is that Jesus came to bring freedom, lightness, and abundant life, all which concern our life right now, in this world.  We should be experiencing increasing freedom from fear, from vices, from the paralyzing cares of life, and we should be doing so in a way that feels like we’re not really trying.  This freedom will come from living the way Jesus lived, and depending on God the way he depended on God.

Now real freedom is being able to do difficult things easily, not with a great deal of strain.  I am not currently free to bench 300 lbs.  But one day, perhaps, I might be.  And I can even envision a day when I could potentially do so with ease.  The easier is is for me to do this, the freer I am in doing it, as it requires less and less of me!  So spiritual freedom will mean having increasing power to live free from the things that separate and alienate us from God, and finding that it does not require teeth-gritting and exhaustion to do so.

This is how Jesus spoke about why he came and what he offered to the world.  It concerns our life now – the way we actually live.  Not just what we do, but how we structure our lives and spend our time in order to make obedience to God possible.  (Many well-intentioned people desire to obey God but live such hectic lives that they cannot do so.  Finding God is not an event, but a way of life.)

So the “Give your life to Jesus so you will go to heaven when you die” thing is simply not the gospel of freedom Jesus came to give us.  It is not the message Jesus communicated to us, and thus does not have the power to bring real transformation to human life. No matter how much you believe it, and how many others you convert to it, it still will not be real.

Now is there an eternal life-after-death component of Jesus’ message?  Of course.  Eternal life is eternal — it goes on forever.  But the evidence that most Christians don’t really understand how this works lies in how many Christians still fear going to hell.  If you understand that eternal life begins now and stretches out into eternity from here, then it no more makes sense to worry about entering God’s kingdom now and winding up in hell than it would make sense to jump on I-75 south and worry about winding up in Poland.  You can’t get there from here.

But once one embraces this almost-gospel, it has a hypnotic quality to it.  What a bargain!  Jesus died for my sins and now I’m going to live forever?  And grace is there to cover me when I screw up?  Sweet.  Then I’m sure I’ll be screwing up for the rest of my life.  While no doubt true to some extent, this doesn’t even consider the very real rest Jesus called us to, and the very real transformation we will experience as we learn to enter into and live in that rest.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic. A request for me to defend some of my comments does not obligate me to do so.

  • I know it motivates me to point people in the other direction. Either it’s real or it isn’t; truth or not. I doubt real life change is attributed to the threat of hell. But believers should be motivated by the threat that others (maybe most) could go there, whether you are talking about a hell here on earth or then (after death) and there in the firey pit.

    Don’t say “turn or burn” say “doesn’t being seperated from your creator and your ultimate purpose stink?”

  • Heaven is an eternal truth and hell is an eternal truth and so are human souls. Other than that God and his word are eternal.

    I remember when people used to be afraid of hell and excited about heaven. I don’t think this was all bad.

    • Perhaps not all bad. I don’t think fear of hell is much of a motivator toward a vision of a transformed life though! I generally don’t find hell useful in talking about God. If hell is separation from God, then most people are in hell now, including many/most religious people who, though claiming to know God, still live in chaos and falsehood.

  • Hey Dave!

    Great posting and blogging work. I’ll be back when I have some more time to read. Important topic, too. I wonder who would want to live forever without being forever transformed. Seems dull and even painful.

    Somwhat realted is Donald Miller’s new book. It’s a must read: 100 Miles in 1,000 Years. i don’t the sub title off hand but it’s something like making your life into a real narative.

    Thumbs up,

    Nate

    • Thanks Nate. I had recently heard the new Miller book is pretty good. I’ll check it out.

  • Jeff Vannest

    I dislike talking about heaven and hell. I dislike Revelation. I dislike talking about the Devil. These are distractions. We are asked to focus only on the eternal truths Jesus taught and to live the Kingdom every moment of every day. If we can do that, then everything else is just noise.

    • I certainly agree that we are to live in the Kingdom every moment of every day. The key question for me is what it means and looks like to actually do that, along with the corresponding reality that we cannot, in fact, do it. We can structure our lives in such a way so as to learn to do it, but that gets into discipleship. And when we are learning to live in the kingdom, will our lives be different? At any point? Or does it just happen abstractly, in our minds?