Now or Later? Here or Somewhere Else?
We were in Denver last week, and we drove by a church marquee that read, “Get your free ticket to heaven. Details inside.” That’s a classic example of what I call “Escapism Christianity.” It’s a paradigm of Christianity that minimizes the importance of life in this world and sees the work of Jesus only in terms of providing a personal escape route to a place of eternal security called “heaven“ – and only for those who have the correct beliefs which, of course, are provided in the cloistered safety “inside” that church. It has been my experience that this paradigm of Christianity sees relatively little value in seriously engaging the tangled and difficult problems of the world with a selfless compassion and tenacious advocacy that seeks to improve the lives of those who suffer greatly on this planet due to poverty and injustice.
The Jesus I encounter in the gospels shows very little concern for “heaven” by that definition and how to get there, and a nearly total concern for the quality of life in this world. Before you quote me John 3:16, there is something I need to note about the meaning of the phrase “eternal life.” For the first century Jewish mindset, the context of the New Testament, the phrase “eternal life” is, firstly, not a reference to heaven as a location outside this world. In fact, the phrase “eternal life,” in Greek, literally means “life of the age to come.” The “age to come” was understood as a quality of life that would arrive in this world right here on good old planet earth. It was not a reference to an out of this world afterlife.
In fact, there are four biblical phrases that are used almost interchangeably that bear this meaning: kingdom of God (Heaven), heaven, eternal life and the age to come. The age to come was seen and understood as a future transformation of this world that the messiah would usher in.
This misunderstanding of the primary meaning of these terms has led to a paradigm of “Escapism Christianity” that minimizes regard for the great human social problems of this world and places maximum emphasis on personal salvation understood as an escape from this world.
Jesus didn’t challenge people to follow him to escape life, but to more fully engage it. Jesus grounds us in this world to do the work of the age to come, love and compassion, in the here and now. Even in the great prayer we call the Lord’s Prayer Jesus taught his disciples to pray “thy kingdom come on earth.” It is in the engagement and mission of cultivating the age to come in the present that we discover and experience the authentic meaning of heaven beginning right here on earth.