8. Can we find a better way of viewing the future?
In order to answer a question about what is better, first I must ask what the alternative is. Or in other words, how do Christians view the future presently? Also, I’ll assume by “future” that we are talking about eschatology which is beliefs about the end of the world and what comes after that. I’m not sure that there is a real unified way of viewing the future among Christians presently (summary of Christian eschatological differences), so it is difficult for me to make a better comparison.
However, there is what has become a pop culture narrative that many hold a certain amount of belief in. It looks something like this: there are places called heaven and hell. When a person dies they join a queue to be judged based on how good or bad they were in their life. If God decides they were good enough, they are allowed to enter heaven. Heaven is a place of peace and good manners, with white clouds and angels and harps and all your deceased loved ones. If a person wasn’t good enough for God, then they are barred from entering heaven and are instead sent to hell. In hell people are eternally tortured by fire and perhaps by being jabbed with pitch forks wielded by demons.
Many Christians in our culture hold some to variation of this story about the future. Some Christians (evangelicals for instance) tweak it so that the judgement is based not on what a person did—how good or bad they were—but on if they say they believed in Jesus. With this view of the future, the “good news” has been reduced to “believe in Jesus and you’ll go to heaven instead of hell when you die”, a.k.a. the “get out of hell free card” or “fire insurance”. If people buy into this, they may say they believe and are Christians without this making any difference in the way they live their lives. I’ve discussed further earlier in this series why I feel this is a poor, limited view of the “good news”.
Eschatology is a big topic, and it seems that most people approach it attempting to figure out exactly what the future will look like, when and what events will happen, who will be involved, etc. However I won’t be diving into these types of details for a couple of reasons. First of all, the exact meaning of many of the teachings about future events can’t be precisely determined, as evidenced by the existence of many differing view points. Second, I don’t believe figuring out the details is the point. I take the religious leaders in Jesus’ time as a warning: they had all the prophecies about the coming messiah and they thought they knew exactly what he would be like. They were so confident in their own understanding that they missed him when he actually did come. Also, Jesus told his own disciples pretty clearly what would happen to him, yet they still didn’t understand until afterwards. So my approach is to be familiar with the scriptures about the future, but not to try and figure them all out.
Some of the things which I think we can say are that there will be some kind of judgement, resurrection of the dead, and eternal existence in final places which could be called heaven and hell, though those terms need to be redefined. From the bible it seems that when a person dies, their spirit goes either to heaven or Hades—the land of the dead (which may be more like purgatory than hell). At a future point, everyone will be resurrected and judged. There will be a new heavens, new earth, and new Jerusalem. The people who are right with God will get to enter the new Jerusalem, while others will be left outside. Some evildoers will be cast into a “lake of fire” or hell.
So first of all, there will be resurrection, which means that your death isn’t the end of your story. Jesus instructs us to “store up for yourselves treasures in heaven” (Matthew 6:20). In other words, don’t just live for this life, attempting to grab as much as you from it, because this life and the things in it are temporary and fleeting. Rather, work towards building up your future life which isn’t temporary nor fleeting but is instead eternal.
Second, there will be a judgement and/or a discriminating between different types of people. As described above, the standard view here is that God has some kind of standard, and that he will allow people who meet that standard to go to heaven and those who don’t will be punished. There are many different places in the New Testament which describe the type of people who will be in “heaven” and “hell”. The problem is that there isn’t one consistent answer.
Allow me to propose a different way of looking at this. What if it’s not so much whether or not you jump through the right hoops that God arbitrarily set up (whether it be good works, confession of faith, baptism, etc.). Rather, what if it’s more a matter of only a certain quality or kind of person can participate in God’s kingdom? The bible talks about there being a book of life, and that those whose names are written in it can enter the new Jerusalem. What if the book of life isn’t a list of who God decides he’s going to let into heaven, but is rather a record of those who already posses the kind of life which will allow them to enter? Jesus said “everyone who has will be given more… whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him.” (Matthew 25:29). Maybe this is what he means by gaining eternal life: those who have his life presently will receive even more life. If that is the case, then salvation isn’t a matter of jumping through the right hoop, but is a matter of becoming the right quality of person. Also, it means that God isn’t unloving by sending some people to hell. On the contrary, he’s been trying to warn people how to keep from being the type of person who’ll miss “heaven”.
If this seems far-fetched, consider this: if heaven is the place where God dwells, would those people who don’t like God and don’t follow his ways presently really be happy there? This also helps to explain the differing lists of people who will go to “heaven” or “hell” in the New Testament—they aren’t lists of things which allow you or prevent you from entering heaven, rather they are describing the quality or character of the type of people who will or won’t be able to participate in God’s kingdom. And this also keeps the “good news” from becoming merely “fire insurance”, because a person must begin to become the right kind of person presently—there is no free pass.