In the middle of these debates about the afterlife you often hear the following complaint: "All this talk about hell and the afterlife is a waste of time. Jesus' message was about TODAY, about God's will being done on EARTH. This entire conversation is a profound missing of the point!"
I understand, but here's the problem. You're complaining, not diagnosing. Yes, Christianity, as it is commonly practiced, is other-worldly. But what we need to do is to get to the root of the problem. We can't just complain about the symptoms. To gripe about other-worldliness gets us no closer to why Christianity is tempted in this direction. To say Christians are too other-worldly is descriptive, not explanatory. I want to know why we are other-worldly. So let's quit the complaining about other-worldliness and think. Think!
Hmmmm. So why are so many Christians other-worldly?
Well, when we die Judgment Day happens. And on that day my eternal fate will be decided for all time. Eternal bliss or eternal torment. End of story. No second chances.
Now, what effect do you think this belief might have upon people?
Well, it seems pretty obvious that people would start thinking and worrying about what is going to happen to them when they die and face Judgment Day. Will they wake up in Heaven or Hell? And once people secured the status of being Saved in this life (according to their denominational understanding) they would work real hard to keep Others (inside and outside their denomination) from mucking it up. In short, they would become other-worldly and display a fear-driven dogmatism.
And that makes sense. If everything hangs in the balance at the moment of death, where a one-time irreversible decision occurs on Judgment Day, then you can't help but build your entire life around the death-event. So, after thinking a bit, it looks like we have our answer:
The traditional doctrine of hell creates a death-centered faith that imports other-worldliness and dogmatism into Christianity.This is so obvious I don't know why people don't talk about it more often. Everyone is running around complaining about all this other-worldliness when its the very predictable outcome of a very particular doctrine. Church leaders sit around wondering, why can't I get my congregation to be more concerned with this life? More concerned with justice? More concerned with structural evil? More concerned about caring for Creation? Well, I'll tell you why: They believe in the traditional doctrine of hell.
The traditional view of hell creates a death-centered faith. If everything is hanging in the balance at death then death drives the show. Death is in charge. Death becomes the center of gravity and everything orbits it, an orbit of other-worldliness (you may need to click on the slides to see the text):
Think about all these problems we lament within Christianity:
1. Privileging Justification over Sanctification:As I hope you can see, all these problems are interrelated. Why? Because they are symptoms of a common illness. They are the runny nose, aching joints, and the fever. But they are not the virus causing the illness. As illustrated above, their relationship with each other is due to the common orbit they trace around a death-centered Christianity.
Why do so many Christians consider salvation to be a status rather than the slow transformation into the image of Jesus? Why do so few Christians end up as committed disciples? Why do we privilege the cognitive decision of "accepting Jesus" over spiritual formation? Why is there, in the words of Bonhoeffer, more "cheap grace" than "costly grace"?
2. Privileging Then over Now:
Why do so many Christians have an over-realized and triumphal eschatology? Why do they think more about singing praise songs in heaven than about the hurt and suffering all around them?
3. Privileging Soul Saving over Social Justice:
Why has evangelism become dislocated from social justice? Why do so many Christians think "proclaiming the Kingdom come" means bible study but not digging wells or feeding the hungry?
4. Privileging Piety over Engaging the Powers:
Why are so many Christians focused on individual moral performance over social and political engagement with the structural evils and injustices in the world? Why do Christians worry about gays but not poverty?
5. Privileging the Soul over the Body:
Why are Christians so Gnostic in their approach to the body? Why are they not more sacramental and Incarnational? Why do they privilege orthodoxy over orthopraxy?
6. Privileging Heaven over the Earth and Creation:
Why aren't Christians more concerned over a Creation God declared "good"? Why do so many Christians think the earth can be used as big trash can? Or used up and thrown away?
People have been talking about the problems I list above for a long time. Just about every book you read today about spiritual formation or the missional church deals with these problems. But these books fail, time and time again, to put their finger on the root problem. It's as if these other-worldly tendencies and temptations just fell out of the sky or something.
But the illness is easily diagnosed: It's the traditional doctrine of hell. This is the reason we find these problems within Christianity.
So what we need is a way to remove this death-fetish from the Christian faith. To replace a death-centered Christianity with a God-centered Christianity. The orbit of other-worldliness will only be broken by changing the center of gravity. You won't create this-worldliness by complaining about other-worldliness. You have to go to the root of the problem.
This is why Christ's victory over death is so central to Christian universalism. If death remains the moral pivot of your biography then the death-fetish remains firmly in place, along with its other-worldly obsessing. Universalism removes the death-fetish, creating a this-worldly orbit around God's love. A love-centered faith. As the bible says, perfect love casts out fear. We become liberated not only from death but from the fear of death. As it says in Hebrews 2.14-16:
Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.Christ sets us free from our slavery to our fear of death. Because of Easter Sunday death is no longer the Moral Stopwatch, tick tick ticking away. Easter removes the death-fetish and creates a Christ-centered, rather than death-centered, faith. Easter stops the orbit of other-wordiness.