Narrow Ways & Broad Roads

 

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In his book ‘The Divine Conspiracy’ the philosopher Dallas Willard says that if you ask anyone from the seventy four percent of Americans who say that they have made a commitment to Jesus Christ, or ask them what the Christian gospel actually is,you will probably be told the following: Jesus died to pay for our sins, and that if we believe he, i.e. Jesus did this, we will go to heaven when we die (wherever/whatever heaven might be).

Willard states that, in the theology of post modernity, justification has taken the place of regeneration—as he puts it: “Being let off the divine hook replaces possession of the divine life from above.” It’s one thing receiving forgiveness but quite another  giving your life to Christ and taking on his mantle and taking the Holy Spirit’s direction for your life.

In their book ‘ How Now Shall We Live’ Colson and Pearcey  quote Bruno Bettelheim who said that, “Children’s moral choices are based not on abstract standards of right and wrong but on the people they admire and want to emulate. The question for the child is not, ‘Do I want to be good?’ Bettelheim writes, ‘ but who do I want to be like?’  Is it possible, we ask,that the rugged individualism of the pioneer spirit of cultural mores—the ‘I did it my way’ mentality has been a less than helpful model?
The Biblical Narrative strongly recommends Jesus Christ as a role model.
It may well be the case that much of Evangelicalism has been overly concerned with  justification without the personal sacrifice that following Christ  demands, or, we should add,the response that such grace deserves. Grace though is undeserved yet ‘grace’ that shows no sign of reciprocation may well be ‘in the eye of the beholder’, i.e. it may be imaginary.

It could be argued that Evangelicalism has been too concerned with being: pro profit [at any cost], pro-life, anti gay—anti anything that appears to be unbiblical. It may though be a gross caricature of American, and European Evangelical churches to make such unsubstantiated value judgments. It is possible that some of the criticism leveled against the Evangelical Church, on both sides of the Atlantic comes from the ‘feed the world and save the planet’ and not the  ‘save the world a.k.a John 3:16’ brigade. As has been previously stated, We are convinced that Jesus’ mission should affect his world and bring salvation to a lost humanity. Jesus’ mission was to bring people back to God. ‘For God so loved the people in the world that the second person of the Trinity came so that ‘we’ could live—forever.

‘I’m OK to die’

For many belonging to church communities, and who associate themselves with Christianity, the concept of heaven seems to have become less clear-cut, and—dare I say it—less fashionable in recent times. Of all the doctrines that the church presents the question of life after death is surely one of the hardest for which to give an apologetic, i.e. a reasonable report. We can discuss the historical validity of the New Testament: the reliability of the oral tradition, eyewitness accounts, archaeological evidence…we can speak about our own experiences of transformation, renewal, relationship with God.  But, regarding the one thing that must come to us all—death—we often hesitate.  If we are honest, few of us like to consider our mortality for too long, and we cannot produce empirical evidence of life after death, or the existence of heaven or of hell.  There are numerous stories of dreams, visions, ‘near death’ experiences and the like that can support beliefs of many different sorts about the after-life, and we know that more than a few have martyred themselves and changed the lives of the many—for ‘good’ and ‘evil’—for a host of different causes, but confident expositions of doctrines of heaven and of hell are rare in many churches.

Back in the heady days of university life Rosemary was a member of the Musical Comedy Society.  Back-stage one evening, dressed as a 1920s flapper, waiting to leap on stage as part of the chorus line in ‘No, no, Nanette’ she overheard a conversation that has stuck with her over the past 35 plus years.  The setting is irrelevant, but the impact profound. Perhaps you the reader, as you picture this scene of pre-performance nerves, grease paint and ostrich feathers, will identify nonetheless with similar comments or conversations.  Another member of the cast who had arrived late, was being bundled into her costume, but was still breathlessly giving vent to her shock and disappointment that before coming to the theater she had been speaking with a Christian—who she thought was a nice person; they had suggested to her that if she wasn’t ‘born again’ she would go to hell.  Her genuine pain and consternation revolved around the fact that she had previously ‘understood’ the message of Christianity to be only that of love and forgiveness; indeed she felt she was a Christian because she tried to live a good life and hold those same values.  How could she reconcile such things?  How could this person tell her,on one hand, that God loved her and, on the other, that she might go to hell?  Rosemary then faced her own dilemma.  Flapper costume or no, she was a prominent member of the Christian Union committee, and felt that she had to respond in some way. Whether her comments helped or hindered in that individual’s ‘journey’ is only known to God! What would you have done?  Have we not all wrestled with God’s love, on the one hand, and judgement, on the other?  Have we not all felt some fear of death, and pain of loss of loved ones because of the ‘silence of the grave’? There may well still be ‘hell fire and brimstone’ sermons preached from some pulpits, but do we want to either frighten people into the kingdom through fear of hell, or frighten them away because the alternatives—one way to heaven through Christ alone, or eternity separated from God—just seem too stark and ‘unloving’–but are they indeed?

In the post-modern, western culture our views on life after death are mostly relegated to private belief systems and, often, these ‘beliefs’ are what gives most comfort at the time of bereavement. If you have only a little imagination it is still not difficult to summon up some idea of what conscious existence without anything good around might be like.  Isn’t that what separation from God would be like, if, as Christians believe, all that is good comes from God? If all that is ‘good’ does, indeed, come from God we may suppose that without the benefits of such ‘good outcomes’ Or what if all your worst fears and imaginings became present, continuous, unmitigated reality?  It’s not good to dwell on, is it?   Would our loving heavenly Father really hold us to any decision we make to live eternity without him?  Such is the nature of our hesitation. Can our view of heaven, as our destination, become so much of a certainty, so much of who we are, that we can confidently state we’re ‘okay to die’?  Has Christ’s promise of preparing a place for us (see John chapter 14) altered, as it were, our genetic code, so that—come what may—we can live in the certainty of a ‘life sentence’ of the most glorious sort possible?

For the director of music. According to gittith. Of the Sons of Korah. A psalm.

How lovely is your dwelling place,
    Lord Almighty!
Even the sparrow has found a home,
    and the swallow a nest for herself,
    where she may have her young—
a place near your altar,
    Lord Almighty, my King and my God.
Blessed are those who dwell in your house;
    they are ever praising you.
Blessed are those whose strength is in you,
    whose hearts are set on pilgrimage.
As they pass through the Valley of Baka,
    they make it a place of springs;
    the autumn rains also cover it with pools.
10 Better is one day in your courts
    than a thousand elsewhere;
I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God
    than dwell in the tents of the wicked.
11 For the Lord God is a sun and shield;
    the Lord bestows favor and honor;
no good thing does he withhold
    from those whose walk is blameless.
12 Lord Almighty,
    blessed is the one who trusts in you.

Psalm 84 is a beautiful composition that describes the writer’s sense of anticipation as  the ‘sons of Korah consider pilgrimage to the temple—the ‘courts of the Lord’—and the wonders of coming near to the almighty God. Verse 5 says, “Blessed are they whose strength is in you, who have set their hearts on pilgrimage.”  Paul also speaks, in his letter to the Corinthians (2 Cor. 5) of ‘groaning’ with longing to be in our ‘heavenly dwelling’. Again, in Colossians the apostle Paul speaks of , “Forgetting what is behind and straining towards what is ahead: “I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenwards in Christ Jesus…” (Col. 3: 13, 14)

There are many analogies in the Scriptures to running a race, enduring hardships, striving for a goal.For those of us who love travel (and indeed running and other kinds of goal-orientated sports) such analogies resonate with our life experiences.  The very word ‘pilgrimage’ has its own aura of excitement, with hints of undiscovered and potentially beautiful places en route to an anticipated, perhaps well-loved destination. There might be exciting and evocative smells, tastes and sounds to experience, new friendships to make along the way, encounters that stretch and challenge us.  The possibilities of dangers or ‘white knuckle rides’ add to the sense of achievement once the adventure is over, and provide stories to dine out on for years!  Surely most of our hearts stir, even just a little bit, at the thought of our lives being a pilgrimage; better that than sitting out our days in passive resignation to our fate of existing for—maybe—three score years and ten and then becoming dust.  If our hearts are set on pilgrimage the implication is of a directional activity, a ‘purpose-driven’ life.  For many, the pursuit is of happiness, or ‘well-being’, even the mystical notion of  a ‘spirituality’. that has no connection with faith or even reality.

The ‘live fast die young’ catch phrase (not heard so often nowadays) can be easily said of those who crash and burn (sadly sometimes literally as well as metaphorically) at an age we consider to be too young. But for those who are sold out for the Kingdom of God, and who want to introduce others to their Lord and Savior, they can say with Paul in Philippians 1:21,‘For me to live is Christ, to die is gain.’  Salvation is certainly not just about a ticket to heaven.  A certain impassioned preacher once said words to the effect of, “I don’t want to spend my life playing silly games, even silly Christian games.  I want it to count!”  Paul’s words to the Philippians were not superficial sound bites. Indeed Paul’s ‘choices’ led to his journey to Damascus that subsequently impacted every part of his life, and his view of eternity.

The journey itself, for many people today, is all that matters.  It becomes its own ‘reason for being’.  We have heard professing Christians teaching that Christ’s power can so impact our lives here and now that we don’t ever have to preach about heaven and hell.  The message so often becomes about meeting needs in the ‘here and now’, with echoes of our society’s emphasis on instant gratification and what can be described as the credit card mentality (instant access and flexible friends!) as opposed to the savings mentality (delayed gratification, present sacrifices for future rewards).  Again we would say—don’t misunderstand us here, we believe in, and yearn to see God’s power released in saving, healing and transforming lives.  We long for wrongs to be righted, justice to prevail, poverty and inequality to be stamped out.  How can you know anything of God’s heart and not want these things? But if we are prepared to rely on Jesus’ words for these aspects of our mission and our lives then we must also take note of what he said about heaven. And indeed, ‘If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.’ (1 Cor. 15:19)

We may feel that Jesus didn’t actually say enough on the subject of Heaven, we may have our doubts at times about whether we will ‘make it’, and beliefs held for a life-time may be turned on their heads when we are confronted with terminal illness or the searing loss of sudden bereavement. These things however, don’t negate the need to give serious consideration to the subject. So what would we say of heaven, and life after death now?  Death is one uncomfortable reality.  It is not pretty.  There is an increasingly popular view in our western culture that we have ‘the right’ to die peacefully and with dignity.  Who defines such ‘rights’?  Surely not the victims of wars, famines and other such disasters, neither those who are willing to lay down their lives for others. If we do have such a right, Jesus—God incarnate—laid it down along with any other ‘rights’ when he was nailed to a cross and died an agonizing and humiliating death. But he did it to prepare an eternal home for us, and a way to get there.  Our hope is that when confronted with a sudden prognosis of a terminal illness, or ‘premature’ death of a loved one, we would always be able to say ‘Why not me?’, rather than the plaintive ‘Why me?’ which is so often our reaction to the things we feel life throws at us.  Such things are undeniably tough, but are, indeed, a part of normal human existence, and in addition to this some of the choices we make (following Christ being one of them) change the quest for happiness into something far more risky and potentially life threatening.  Should that deter us?

Jesus, and his early followers, had their eyes fixed on a prize.  Yes, the journey was important, but the destination, and the glorious hope of meeting the One who created, sustained, loved and redeemed them, gave them the strength to stand firm in the face of hideous persecution and death. Of course it wasn’t just the early church that lived under the threat of death; one only has to read (usually not the major news agencies) to see what life’s experience is for professing Christians is around the world even in alleged democracies.

We (the church) may not be preaching terrifying sermons about the raging fires of hell so much as in previous centuries, but those who profess to be followers of Christ should surely also be living lives that demonstrate a belief in the reality of life after death, and in the eternal consequences of some of the decisions we make in this life. That leaves us with a question:

Is it only ‘love’ that wins?  What of Justice?

Derek White & Rosemary Griffiths (updated June 2019)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Soli Deo Gloria

Derek White & Rosemary Griffiths

[1] Dallas Willard; The Divine Conspiracy (Fount) 1998 P.51

[2] We fully realize that this is a sweeping statement that cannot be verified however it is not beyond the realms of possibility when one considers the secular development of the [American] Utopian Dream. Dreams that are lived out have an influence on ‘the children’ of the dreamer.

[3] Charles Colson & Nancy Pearcey [quoting Bruno Betteleheim] ; How Now Shall We Live? (Tyndale) P.452

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