Monday, September 30, 2013

THE ROLE OF HEAVEN IN CONTEMPORARY CHRISTIANITY


For many of my Christian friends, the central message of Christianity is all about how we conduct ourselves in this life rather than how to get to the next.  If that is the case, then perhaps I have been creating a straw man in lampooning Christian notions of heaven.  If Christians are not concerned with heaven, or at least the idea of heaven that I was taught, then perhaps my criticisms have been unfair.

So I decided to do a bit of research into Christian beliefs, both in terms of what are the official doctrines of the major denominations and in terms of what individuals who describe themselves as Christians actually believe.
  First, with respect to specific denominations, the official positions of virtually all Christian denominations assert that heaven is a real place.  This would only seem to make sense in light of the fact that a bedrock belief of Christianity is in the salvation of mankind through Christ’s intercession, his life, death, and resurrection.  If there were no heaven, it is not clear what the point of salvation would be.

Second, a 2011 Gallup poll [See: http://www.gallup.com/poll/1690/religion.aspx#3] found that 92% of Americans believed in God while 7% did not.  (Incidentally, the percentage of nonbelievers seems to be trending up in recent years.)  That same year 85% of Americans stated that they believed in heaven, and 14% said that they did not.  It would be most unusual for someone to believe in heaven but not believe in God.  So I would assume that nearly all those who deny God’s existence would also deny the existence of heaven.  If that is the case, then the percentage of those who believe in God and who also believe in heaven is overwhelming.  Again, that would only seem to make sense in light of the central importance of salvation to the Christian faith.  To put this another way, individuals who consider themselves Christians but who do not believe in the reality of heaven must ask themselves what the point of salvation through Christ is.  Salvation for what purpose?

Where does that leave us?  I think it means that belief in heaven, or at least some sort of afterlife, is an intrinsic element of the Christian faith and that Christians hope to reach heaven through Christ’s intercession and sacrifice and God’s mercy.  So as a general matter, that belief has not really changed over the past 50 years.  Then the question becomes what is heaven going to be like.  I have described a heaven that is essentially without sin, death, pain or suffering and that goes on for eternity.  But I have the sense that that conception, based on what I was taught as a child, may be an overly simplistic one.  I would welcome hearing from anyone who has a more “adult” understanding.

Finally, I think I am beginning to understand that the emphasis, at least for many Christians, has shifted.  No longer is the primary focus on what one needs to do to be saved.  Instead, it is centered on this life and what it means to be a Christian in terms of moral standards, lifestyle choices, and behavior.  That said, to avoid perhaps making the same mistake I made before of painting with too broad a brush, different Christian faiths and different individual Christians vary in terms of the emphasis placed, on the one hand, on reaching the ultimate goal (heaven) and, on the other, living a life according to “Christian” principles.  For Seventh-day Adventists, for example, the belief that Christ’s second coming is imminent is one of the two most fundamental distinguishing doctrines of the faith (the other being the seventh-day sabbath), and the whole point of the second coming is to welcome the righteous into heaven and eternal life.  By contrast, for many more mainstream Christian denominations the faith is centered on what’s important in this life.

So why do I still object to Christianity, or at least to that form that stresses living a good and moral life?  This is the subject of another essay that I am working on, at least in my head.  But, briefly, I don’t think the good and moral life requires acceptance of a certain set of the beliefs, such as heaven or the resurrection of Christ, that underpin Christianity and that I consider to be unsupportable and irrelevant.  There are literally billions of people who live good lives based on moral codes that have no basis in Christian beliefs.  I consider myself one of them.

© 2013 John M. Phillips

4 comments:

  1. And I agree, you are one of those and so are many others. I just wonder what it is you object to about Jesus. If he truly lived a perfect life, meaning that all his actions were directed towards loving others, teach us how to love so that we would stop inflicting pain and suffering on each other by our selfish actions or inactions, then why is his life so irrelevant to you? If he was the one person that lived a "good" life...the same one you want to live, why reject him? And if following his example, because you agree with his lifestyle choices and want to be like that in your dealing with other...why reject him when you agree with his principles? Jesus said eternity starts now, the kingdom came when He did. And our earthly home is our eternal home....heaven begins now, life eternal is that we know Him, for if we haven't come to that understanding his return won't change us then. Heaven is as real as any planet...but it is only a temporary stop over while the world is left in darkness( as it was before time, before God divided the darkness from the Light, without life. But then it will be as it was in the beginning, restored to perfection and people will return and inhabit it once again.

    I have another question for you...you have stated you wouldn't want to live for eternity...it might get boring. But if you could set a date for your end how long would you want to live? Would you want to see your grandchildren gown with children of their own and maybe the generation after that? Or 300 years, or 1000...what would be enough if you had a choice?

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    1. Lisa,

      Jesus was probably a good man, but I don't think he lived a "perfect life" any more than that you or I have lived a perfect life. Any number of people have lived good lives and are good people who believe that we should be tolerant of others and help others as and when we can. But that doesn't mean that I should worship any of those people and treat them as a god. If by "rejection" you mean that I reject Jesus's divinity, I don't see any more reason to believe in his divinity than in the divinity of any other good and righteous people.

      You say, "Life eternal is that we know Him." I frankly don't know what that means.

      With respect to the second paragraph, there seems to be some confusion as to the circumstances. If you were talking about the afterlife, then my understanding is that there will not be marriage in the afterlife, so would I still continue to have progeny? If you were talking about this life, then, since we simply aren't built for a super long life, I don't think I want to get to the point where the quality of life is so diminished by the infirmities of age. Would you? Besides, and this may be difficult to grasp, much of the enjoyment we draw from this life stems from our understanding of its limited duration. We look to do things because we know that.

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  2. What does worship really mean? What does God desire from us? Just a loving relationship, like a Father and son...He came and walked in the garden in the cool of the evening with Adam and Eve... He rested from His work at the end of creation and offers us a day where He is available to be together, much like celebrating a birthday or anniversary...a day unencumbered with other concerns. To come and know Him and see that He is "Godd".....The Jews burdened the Sabbath with so many rules it became a unbearable, and Jesus ignored their laws. The custom of the Jews was to go to the temple and as He has been raised in those customs He did likewise...but fellowship with God can be anywhere..the best place is in nature...our first home.

    I was talking about 1000 good years...like Enoch...would you be interested, or if life lasted 2000 in good health...are you a taker?

    Heaven beginning now...I mean a change of heart in humanity...a heart of love and concern for others, a desire for peace and doing away with greed and hatred, discrimination, and anything that is selfish...heaven is a lifestyle not so much a place. Jesus lived that lifestyle...and according to the Bible ( I know it's just a book) Jesus healed, and restored everywhere He went...drawing hundreds of followers according to history...yet even miracles didn't convince the leaders of the Jews to believe. And when then commanded Him at His trial to demonstrate His power, He refused, because He knew it would make no difference in their mind set.

    Being saved is a mindset, believing and having a desire to live like Jesus, to be like Him because you believe this is the way that life is best. To live that way, not to be saved, but because this is your conviction...even if there was no life after. Much like that being your desire, to live an upright life, despite the lack of hope for an eternal life. I just think that believing in Jesus, and knowing He was able to defeat selfishness, gives us hope and desire to be like Him. And of course I think that the Holy Spirit helps us to heal our selfish ways and develop that kind of character.. That is what it means when the expression "heaven begins on earth" is used. Just think if every human wanted to live like that, we would have heaven on earth!

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    1. Lisa,

      I'm not sure where you're going with the hypothetical questions about living longer. I think we all have this sense that life is too short, although that sense becomes somewhat blunted as we beginning acquiring the infirmities of age. (See my little story about fruit flies in the essay on Anesthesia, Dreams, Death, and Fruit Flies 8/15/13.) I for one would like to see how it all turns out, too. Would I want to live 1000 or 2000 if in good health. I'm not sure, perhaps. But that doesn't mean that I would like to live for eternity. I'm just not built for that. As I said, an important aspect of the excitement of life stems from our knowledge that life is in fact limited. If we all lived an average of one day, one year, or 1000 years, this would be a very different world.

      Many of the qualities that you mentioned I have tried to adopt for myself. But, surprisingly, not as a follower of Jesus or because being good might get me a ticket to heaven, but simply because I believe they are the right thing from a secular perspective. This is a topic that I want to write about further.

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