The Afterlife and the Christian Life

For a few of my teenage years, I carried a “Get Out of Hell Free” card in my wallet. It looked like a “Get Out of Jail Free” card from the game of Monopoly. It was a tract from a conservative Christian organization designed to encourage people to ask questions about their own salvation. I carried it around as a joke. I thought it was funny. I would have it in emergency situations. Though I thought it a joke, the tract represents a very real impulse in the life of many Christians. A large number of us are obsessed with the afterlife. Many evangelists use this to encourage conversion. They tout the rewards of Heaven and the eternal punishments of Hell and play on your desires to avoid punishment. I am not being negative here. I believe this is a valid form of evangelism, but is it the best idea? It might get people in the door, but I think new Christians need to quickly move past the afterlife as a primary motivator. If the rewards of Heaven or avoiding Hell are your primary motivators, then your concerns are still self-centered. A central tenet of the Christian life is to become less self-centered.

I doubt that self-centeredness can be completely avoided in initial conversion experiences. I can only speak concretely about my own. I was in elementary school when I walked down the center aisle of a small mountain church to declare my life for Christ. I walked the aisle convinced that I am a sinner; convinced that Jesus was the answer to dealing with that sin. I resolved to following Jesus’s example because I was convinced that this was the best way forward. I was convinced of a great many things. Some of them properly centered on Jesus. Others were self-centered concerns.

In fact, one of my most vivid memories of the experience was the feeling of a weight being lifted. The prospect of Hell no longer had hold over me. After the service, my father and I drove to the neighboring town of Cornelia to run an errand. I remember watching the trees pass in the night through the window of the car thinking, “if I die tonight, I will go to Heaven.” On that drive down Duncan Bridge Road I was at peace. It was a self-centered peace, but it was peace all the same.

It would be hard to blame the young me for concentrating on Heaven and Hell in my salvation. I was exposed to what many have termed “Hellfire and Brimstone” preaching at a very early age. I spent my first decade in Southern Appalachia. In little country churches that dot the hillsides, red-faced preachers animated by the Holy Spirit stood tall in the pulpit proclaiming a salvation from the fires of Hell and the promise of riches in Heaven with its streets of gold. It might sound strange to a more urbane audience, but it made sense in that community. Think about rural life in general. It is action-oriented. If you need food on your table, you plant it, raise it, slaughter it, or harvest it. If you need a fence, you build it. Rural life is often centered on physical work and hard work typically reaps rewards. Therefore, preaching that concerns reward and punishment rings true in such a community.

The focus on the rewards of Heaven is also a consequence of the circumstances of the community. I remember the hymns most vividly. “I’ll Fly Away.” “I’ve Got a Mansion (Just Over the Hilltop).” “The Uncloudy Day.” All of these songs are about escaping this plane of existence for the joys of Heaven. I understand why they emphasized Heaven. I personally came from fairly comfortable origins. My grandfather was highly educated and a community leader. My family was firmly middle class. The community as a whole was on the rise. However, the memory of a very hard life in the isolated mountains was still present. To this day, southern Appalachia struggles with poverty, drug addiction, and a lack of access to many social services. If it is bad now, imagine how it was a century ago. The emphasis on Heaven becomes understandable. This life stinks; surely Heaven will be better.

“Hellfire and Brimstone” preaching is also rooted in the New Testament and Christian history. Jesus used the specter of judgment in Matthew 25. Paul speaks of the wrath and punishment of God on those who do not believe and trust in God. The Revelation of John provides a fertile vocabulary for “Hellfire and Brimstone” preaching.

Christian history is replete with preachers who used the motif. One example is the saying commonly associated with Johann Tetzel, “as soon as the coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs.” Martin Luther did not reject concerns for the afterlife in confronting preachers like Tetzel and the selling of indulgences. Luther’s concern for the proper basis of justification is inextricably linked to notions of an afterlife. Another example is the famous sermon from Jonathan Edwards, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” In the sermon, the destruction and wrath of God could happen at any moment. The only salvation from that destruction is found in Jesus. Philosophers have even joined in the game. The rewards of heaven are at the root of Pascal’s famous wager.

If the idea of “Hellfire and Brimstone” preaching is valid and rooted in history, then why am I arguing that it is not the best idea? I make that argument because salvation should not be about personal rewards. Here I risk a problem. Anytime you try to distill salvation down to a simple statement of “salvation is…” you will run into problems. I do not believe you can contain the entire truth of salvation in a simple statement or even a set of statements. I do not think we will ever completely understand salvation. It has many faces and angles. However, it is my firm conviction that a central component to salvation is the loss of self-centeredness. As we proceed in a Christian life, our self-centered concerns should recede. It is a part of our sanctification.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) wrote an interesting piece titled Creation and Fall that has greatly influenced my thinking on salvation and the nature of sin and self-centeredness. Before the fall, God was at the center of Adam’s life. Bonhoeffer uses the image of the trees at the center of the garden to illustrate the concept. “By the limit — the tree of knowledge — there is also the tree of life, that is, the life-giving Lord himself. He is at once the limit and the middle of our existence; Adam knows that.”1 In a proper relationship, our lives orbit around God and God’s concerns. God is the center and we are the satellites. In the fall, Adam exchanges his status as man imago dei (man in the image of God) for man sicut deus2 (man as God). In other words, sinful humans rip God out of the center of their lives and replace God with themselves and their concerns. Salvation is properly seen as a loss of this self-centeredness. In the process of salvation, we take back our rightful role as satellites in orbit around God. A concern for our fate in the afterlife is a self-centered concern. It puts us back in the middle. It is not the worst thing in the world, but I believe it is something that we should move past.

Another important figure in Christian history, Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), gives us a matrix to understand how this loss of self-centeredness progresses in his most famous work, On Loving God.3 In the second part of the work he describes four movements in our life with God. We start with a love of self for the sake of self. That this is our starting point should be obvious. We all have selfish desires. Some are innocuous like hunger. We have to eat. Others can result in evil deeds and harm to others. Within this self-centered life, we inevitably experience tribulations. These tribulations can lead us to God.

We can find answers to our tribulations in God. As God solves our problems, we begin to love God, but this love of God is still rooted in a love of self. You are using God as a way out of trouble. Bernard does not trash this kind of love. After all, it is the start of loving God, but it is not the end.

As you love God, you begin to see the goodness of God. Hopefully, you will begin to love simply because God is good. In this third progression, you begin to love God for the sake of God. This degree of love should be the destination of the Christian life. Because God is good, you love God and love what God loves. You see this as your purpose as God intended it. Your self-centered concerns fade into the background. Regarding the afterlife, love of God is no longer a tool to gain infinite personal rewards in Heaven. Your love of God is no longer transactional. It is no longer a means to a self-centered end. You love God because he is good and that is enough. You no longer worry about tomorrow because you trust in a loving God to provide for your needs in the best way possible.4

This post evolved out of a comment in Marcus Borg’s The Heart of Christianity. While discussing the centrality of the afterlife in his “earlier” paradigm of Christianity Borg reveals, “If you had been able to convince me at age twelve that there was no afterlife, I would have had no idea why I should be a Christian.”5 Given my own story above, I would have found myself in a similar place. However, loving God for the sake of God should be enough. Even if there were no afterlife, living a life in proper relationship to God our creator should lead to contentment. Any anxiety over our ultimate destination has been pushed out by a concern for God.

Where does that leave a Christian concern for the afterlife? Is is wrong to concern ourselves with our final destination? After all, it seems that a foundation of the apostle Paul’s hope lies in the anticipation of Jesus’s return and the establishment of God’s justice in the world as Jesus wins a complete victory over the powers of sin and death. Indeed, I have written a number of previous posts that touch on the topic of eschatological hope (Every Knee Will BowFreedom in Chains, Opposition and Persecution, Salvation Begun, Salvation Completed, In All Things?). However, Paul’s starting starting point is that Jesus is Lord now. Paul loves God in the present for the sake of God. Paul’s vision of the afterlife is centered on the culmination of God’s Kingdom on earth. Every knee will bow. He certainly believes that an afterlife spent in Christ will be good for you. It is a central brick in the foundation of our hope, but that afterlife’s concerns are centered on Jesus and not our own experience of rewards or punishment.

We can return to Bernard of Clairvaux at this point. There is a fourth degree of love that is only available in the afterlife. When we inherit glorified bodies (1 Corinthians 15) we will be freed of even our innocuous self-centered concerns such as hunger. Our concerns will be centered on God and God’s concerns. Therefore, when we love ourselves in this glorified state, we will be loving God because our concerns will completely coincide with God’s concerns. In Bernard’s words, we will be able to love ourselves for the sake of God. Although this kind of love is not exactly possible on our current plane of existence, it does paint for us a picture of an afterlife that is God-centered rather than focused on our own rewards. This vision of the afterlife also rests at the end of a progression in which we have already learned to love God for the sake of God.

In our Christian life we must push forward to lose our self-centered concerns. This includes shedding self-centered concerns about our fate in the afterlife. When we learn that loving God for the sake of God is enough, then we can return to concerns about the afterlife. In our progression, our concerns for the afterlife should have shifted to becoming God-centered. It is the culmination of God’s Kingdom on earth. The nature of our rewards in that Kingdom are no longer central concerns. I would argue that they should not be concerns at all. In reality, we will probably never get to that point completely. It would be interesting to review my posts on eschatological hope mentioned above to see how they compare to what I am advocating here. I admit that I am not at a point where I have shed all self-centered concerns about the afterlife. In times of distress, I still think of my sure future in Christ somewhat selfishly. However, those concerns should ultimately resolve themselves in a concern for Christ and his coming Kingdom. When we come to a point where we are comfortable being a Christian without the promise of personal rewards in the afterlife, then we are truly ready to consider the afterlife again in its proper God-centered focus.

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall (New York: Touchstone, 1997), 57.

[2] Bonhoeffer, 78.

[3] Bernard of Clairvaux, On Loving God (Rome: Cistercian Publications, 1973). You can also access the work at https://www.ccel.org/ccel/bernard/loving_god.

[4] Matthew 6:25-34.

[5] Marcus J. Borg, The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2003), 10.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. ljhooge says:

    Interesting post. Thank you.

    A few questions. Was ‘fire and brimstone’ preaching more acceptable in the past? If so, I’m wondering why. Has culture changed?

    Do you have a post on how ‘the cross’ actually works? Any thoughts on that? Eg., Christus victor, etc.

    Peace.

    Like

    1. It probably depends on one’s definition of Fire and Brimstone preaching. Some might recoil at any mention of hell. Others might characterize it by the style and method of sermon delivery (i.e. emotional, animated, etc.). For my own part, I generally define it as preaching that is designed to bring the hearer to a decision about his/her fate in the afterlife. “Believe in Jesus and go to Heaven while avoiding the eternal fires of Hell.” The centrality of one’s fate in the afterlife is the key defining characteristic for me. In my experience, it is also accompanied by many emotional appeals.

      I don’t know that I have a good enough perspective to answer your question about its acceptability. My perception is that in my little corner of the American Southeast it seems to have faded drastically over the last 3 or 4 decades. The decline coincides with a time of growing economic prosperity, which I think is important. Positively considered, Fire and Brimstone preaching centers on eschatological hope and marginalized communities have always concentrated on that hope. If your physical situation is not dire, you have less perceived need of that hope. Therefore, as culture changes so does it’s preaching. My inclination is that preaching in more marginalized communities will find the “choose Jesus and experience eternal rewards” much more poignant and vital than more comfortable situations.

      Regarding the work of the cross, I have not written anything on this site that deals with that specifically. I don’t think any of our atonement models fully capture and define the grace shown at the cross. In the objective sense, I think Jesus died a vicarious death for us. In the subjective sense, I think such sacrificial love should inspire in us love of the same kind (as far as that is possible). Finally, I think the language of the Christus Victor model best explains the whole of the Christ Event because it should be seen as the victory of God over the powers of sin and death.

      As in so many other things, NT Wright is a big influence on my thinking about how we view the cross. https://youtu.be/qfnV69nIOrw.

      Liked by 1 person

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