Why do so many Christians care about alleviating poverty and working for justice in the world? Put simply, what is their theology, and does it really matter?
Theology in itself is the study of God and of God’s relationship to everything else in existence. For some people theology conjures up images of people in ivory towers poring over books and doctrine and other things that don’t seem anywhere near related to the realities of life on the ground. But it is crucial that we have our theology right. It matters what we believe.
Much of the theology we hear in our churches is basically individualistic, Western, and focuses ultimately on saving souls and getting people into heaven. Within this worldview, the alleviation of poverty and working for justice are seen as good things to do, but they are not as important as saving souls, because people’s eternal destiny is what really matters in the end. The other stuff is just temporary.
Last week at church I spoke on our Mythbuster series about what our ultimate destiny is. Our ultimate destiny is not a disembodied heaven up in the sky, but right here on a renewed earth.
You can access the PowerPoint presentation here, my sermon notes here and you can listen to the talk here.
In case you haven’t seen it yet, my latest article on Christian Today has gone nuts. It’s obviously touched a nerve in one way or another with many people.
This article is probably my strongest one yet for Christian Today. I try to pull no punches in busting the myth that most Christians believe – that we will be spending eternity “up in heaven” with God when we die. Nothing could be further from the truth – literally.
Hope you get a lot out of it…
When I was a young Christian, about 30 years ago, I was taught that the kingdom of God meant one thing and one thing only. It was the place those of us in Christ go to spend eternity with him when we die.
Sometimes when I feel the pain of life, whether my own or that of others, I just long for the kingdom of God to become fully realised in this world. I recall the words of the U2 song, Peace on Earth: “Heaven on Earth, we need it now. I’m sick of all of this hanging around…sick of the sorrow, sick of the pain.”
I relate to that. I’m sick of the pain, I just want justice, peace and love to rule the world now.
This morning at church we remembered the passing of a much-loved member of our congregation. He died two years ago today. At the end of the service we sang a song he wrote before he died. The lyrics are as follows:
This morning I preached my God is a materialist sermon at my church (North Ringwood Uniting). Click here to listen to it. The audio has a few minor changes to the original transcript, which is in 3 parts and can be found here, here and here.
This is the final in a 3-part series on how many – if not most – Christians have a deficient view of heaven and of what our eternal destiny is.
This is where the Gospel touches something deep within us, something that tells us that there really is hope, that what we are doing really is worthwhile in the end, that there really will be a day when everything will be put right. And it is not a hope in the sense of ‘gee I hope it happens.’ It is a hope based on historical fact. If we don’t believe that, it would ultimately be empty and unfulfilling and wouldn’t be real hope.
If God hasn’t come to earth in the physical person of Jesus, and if that Jesus wasn’t physically resurrected, then nothing really matters. We can make our own meaning and do all we can to bring justice while people are here. But if deep down we still know that it is not everlasting – that in the end everyone still dies and rots in the ground – then there is ultimately no justice, and no hope, and we come back to this sort of philosophy of a Richard Dawkins which says,
“In a universe of blind forces and physical replication, some people are going to get hurt, others are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”
Another Richard, Franciscan priest Richard Rohr, says that the human soul can live without success but it can’t live without meaning. Deep down we all crave significance. We all want to be part of something that matters, something that lasts. Rohr quotes Albert Einstein who said,
“The only important question is this: Is the universe friendly or not?” Can it all be trusted? Is the final chapter of history victory and resurrection or a dying whimper?”
This is the second in a 3-part series on how many – if not most – Christians have a deficient view of heaven and of what our eternal destiny is.
The fact is that God loves the material world. Matter matters to God. After all, God made it and said over and over that it was good. And if God says it is good then who are we to deny its goodness by living our lives as if it’s not that good?
The overarching theme throughout the whole of the Bible is that God is in the business of making all things new. When Jesus says this, what part of ‘all’ aren’t we getting? This earth, the whole created order, will one day be made new. Everything we see and touch and feel today will one day be renewed, including our bodies. It is in this sense (and this sense only!) that God is a materialist.
God loves the physical, and says it is no less valuable than the spiritual. In fact, God doesn’t even separate the spiritual from the physical like we do. That idea is more of a Western construct than a biblical one. We can be assured that the works we do now in our efforts of justice and poverty alleviation are not in vain. We are not fighting for a better world which will one day be destroyed while we escape off to heaven and leave it all here to rot, as too many Christians still believe.
We are also not fighting a losing battle, where the wicked and the corrupt always win. One day the tables will be turned; the first will be last and the last will be first. There will be a day when there will be no more tears and no more pain, because those things will all be of the past. That is the great hope we have, and the great news is that we get to be a part of it right now.
This is the first in a 3-part series on how many – if not most – Christians have a deficient view of heaven and of what our eternal destiny is. Is God a materialist?
The statement, ‘God is a materialist’ can be taken a couple of ways. One is that it is an oxymoron, because materialism is seen as the idea that there is nothing in existence beyond the material, so to talk of God, a non-material being, doesn’t make sense. It’s like talking about a square circle. The other way this statement can be seen is in the sense of a prosperity doctrine where God will bless you materially when you follow Him.
It probably does not need any explaining to say that neither of the above descriptions of this statement is what I am referring to when I say that God is a materialist (at least I hope I don’t have to explain that!).
So what am I saying?
Let me ask you a question. Do you believe you’re going to spend eternity up in heaven with God? I recently asked that question in a talk I gave on this topic, and almost half the audience put their hands up. Let’s get this straight right from the start. Despite what we hear in many of our churches and despite what we sing in many of our church songs, our final destiny is not up in heaven with God. It’s actually much better than that. Let me explain.
I had a read of Tom Wright’s John for Everyone this morning. I looked at John 3:1-13 which is the passage about being born again. As I read it and Wright’s explanation of it, the truth of what the good news really is dawned on me again. We don’t need to be born again so we will get into heaven when we die. Jesus didn’t come down from heaven to show us how we can get there with him. The good news is that, ultimately, heaven is coming here, and that has already started in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus coming down from heaven was the beginning of heaven coming here, the beginning of the new creation, of the new heavens and the new earth.
This passage has been among the most loved of Christians – particularly evangelical Christians – for years, and rightly so. John 3:3 is one of the verses you learn when you learn the four spiritual laws (something else which gives a twisted understanding of the Gospel).
I firmly believe in the need to be born again. After all, Jesus did say it, so we can’t just dismiss it. But we need to understand what Jesus really meant, and in what context he was saying it when he had his famous conversation with Nicodemus. Like everything when we read Scripture, we need to look at this passage in context. The whole context of Scripture is that it is a story, the story of God’s salvation plan, yes, but more than that, God’s redemption plan for not just humanity, but for the whole of the created order. Jesus said “Behold I make all things new.” (Rev 21:5, emphasis mine). And so it is in that sense that when Jesus talks about the need to be born again, he is talking about our need to be born of the Spirit of God to be able to do the works of God. This is what transformation is all about.