What do my Hindu friend, my atheist friend, and my agnostic friend have in common? Well, most recently, they have all ganged up on me wanting to know if I think they will go to heaven when they die. We have great theological conversations – three of us have known each other for almost thirty years. But they aren’t asking this question because they believe in Christ and want to spend eternity with him. They are asking because they want to know if I am bold enough to “arrogantly” (their word, not mine) exclude them from eternity. And if I am arrogant enough – that is somehow just more evidence that Jesus was not the real deal.
Many progressive Christians would simply answer this question by saying something along the lines of “All good people go to heaven because all religions are basically the same.” But I think the answer is far more complicated. First, although that sounds like a non-arrogant answer, it really isn’t. And secondly, it doesn’t capture Jesus’ complete teachings. For instance:
What does being good at anything have to do with getting into heaven? Jesus is not like Santa Claus rewarding us for good behavior. Salvation cannot be earned either by keeping a list of rules or doing a set of good works or even by believing hard enough.
Are all religions the same? No! We don’t even answer the same questions. “How do I achieve nirvana?” is not the same question as “Am I going to heaven?” And isn’t it just as arrogant for me to claim that all religions (ignorantly) really worship my God when they don’t claim that for themselves?
Furthermore, while it is true that modern Christianity has focused on getting everyone a ticket into heaven, that is not the question Jesus was even answering. Christianity does not answer the question “Who is going to heaven when they die?” It answers the question, “How can I align with Christ to do the work of God this day and forever more?”
Demanding that I answer whether they are going to heaven when they die is like demanding an ultra sound give them a blood analysis. Deciding who is in and who is out is not my job. However, I promised them I would try and answer the question best I can from what scripture does tell me… so here is my answer…
Scripture testifies to a time when humanity was in a right relationship with God and each other. We were whole in this relationship – free to love God, others, and ourselves unconditionally. It was an intimate and fulfilling relationship all around. Then humanity decided we could do better on our own without God and in doing so we broke creation and ourselves. We became diseased, violent, destructive, selfish, etc – all the things that sin is made of. We were no longer whole. We could no longer love God, others, or ourselves unconditionally.
But the good news is that going our own way did not break God. God still loved us unconditionally.
Humanity immediately began searching for what we once had. We found that God was still there reaching out to us, but our hearts (like creation) were broken and unable to fully accept the love God wanted to give us. Without God’s love filling our hearts, we were unable to unconditionally love God, each other, or ourselves. This resulted in a lot of rule following and sacrifices hoping to be made right before God. But neither the rules nor the sacrifices worked. Our hearts were still broken, we still committed selfish acts, and we were always making one more sacrifice hoping God would be happy with us.
Then the prophets started to speak of the Christ – God coming to us. This would be a whole new way of living. No longer would we follow a set of rules to try and make God happy. Instead this Christ would make it possible for the Spirit of God to live within us and guide us. No longer would we make sacrifices to impress God. The Christ would be the one and only sacrifice for us. In his sacrifice our hearts would be healed so we could once again hold – not only the love of God – but the Spirit of God.
And hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. (Romans 5:5)
Christ came, Christ died, Christ rose again, and Christ sent the Holy Spirit to live within us. It is by this Spirit living within us that we can follow him and serve God. Following Jesus has nothing to do with a set of rules, a set of good works, or a right theology. In fact, one of the only things the early Christians agreed upon was the resurrection. Following Christ has everything to do with letting the Spirit of God live within us – providing us with love, wisdom, and power to do the work of God. This is a completely new way of life.
Christianity isn’t about getting a ticket to heaven, it is about the Spirit of God living within me so that I can follow Christ. “Are you going to heaven when you die?” is the wrong question to ask me. All I can say is that God can (and will) do whatever God wants.
The right question to ask me is: “How do I receive the Spirit of Christ so that I can follow him?” The answer is that God will not force the Spirit upon you. But it is given to all who genuinely want to follow Christ to do the work of God. I can’t tell you if you are going to heaven or not. But I can tell you how to start following Jesus today and for eternity. I can tell you that your life will never be the same again. And I would really enjoy following Jesus with you. It is an amazing journey.
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The woman sat across from me in my church office. She had no trouble believing in miracles, the Immaculate Conception, the resurrection, a-man-swallowing-whale, The Eucharist, or any number of unexplainable mystical things. She had no trouble believing in a God who loved unconditionally – who asked followers to love and forgive even their enemies – who taught we were all one in Christ. She had no problem with God calling her into servant-hood. In fact, that gave her a joy that she couldn’t quite explain.
But she had a list of things from the scriptures that made no sense to her. She was struggling with a deity who on one hand told followers that their purpose was to invite outsiders into their community, but who on the other hand told his followers to kill whole nations in order to gain their land. She didn’t understand why this deity was against the LGBT community and allowed slavery. And she didn’t understand why would this deity take an interest in women’s fashion demanding long hair, no makeup, and hats.
The bottom line was that she just couldn’t accept that scripture was inerrant. There were too many things at odds with each other. To make matters worse, she attended a church that was very concerned that its members accept every word in the scriptures as completely inerrant – 100% truth – fully inspired – fully relevant to her life. To believe this was to be “in” – not to believe this was to be “out.” It was certain she would be shunned if she disagreed. Understandably, this was all causing her a lot of unrest.
But the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. (John 14:26)
But if we go back to scripture itself, Jesus never suggested that our guidance for following him would come through a canon of letters, books, and gospels put together in the centuries following his death. We have no record that he ever instructed his followers to even write stuff down. Instead he told his disciples that the Holy Spirit would teach us, guide us, comfort us, and empower us.
Perhaps, many of us have placed our faith in the wrong thing… a book. A great book, inspired by the Holy Spirit containing great wisdom. But why would we place our faith in a book, when we could place our faith directly in the living Spirit of God?
It is not the scriptures that are inerrant – it is the Holy Spirit. The danger of course is that we never open our hearts to hearing the Holy Spirit and stumble along making it up as we go. On the other hand, if we intentionally seek the Spirit, we will develop a deeper relationship with God than we have ever had before – one in which the things of God are interpreted and understood like never before.
April is a progressive Christian who writes about scripture and spiritual disciplines. See her latest book, James in the Suburbs.
A lawyer had been talking theology with Jesus. They were discussing the following Old Testament Law:
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10).
Apparently, the lawyer had no problem loving some people (perhaps the ones that agreed with him politically, theologically, and culturally – or maybe the ones who had worked hard enough to deserve his love), but he had a problem loving other people. So the lawyer asked Jesus:
“Who is my neighbor?”
Jesus told the lawyer the story of a man who was in big trouble. The first two people to realize the man was in big trouble were people in positions of religious authority or prestige. They were people who kept all the religious rules and believed the right theology. But when they saw the man, they didn’t want to get involved so they did nothing to help the man in trouble. The third person was both a heretic with messed up theology and the man’s enemy. But it was the heretic who not only stopped to help, but gave generously of both his time and money to care for the man in trouble.
So Jesus asked the lawyer: “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”
The lawyer answered, “The one who showed him mercy.”
It was the heretic who loved the man and showed him mercy. It was the heretic who walked in the way of Jesus, who fulfilled the law.
Jesus said to the lawyer, “Go and do likewise.” In other words, “Be like the heretic!”
Followers of Jesus aren’t frantically worried about having perfect theology. They know they don’t and won’t ever (at least in this life) have all the answers. They depend on Jesus to have the answers for them. So instead of being known as the people with the answers, followers of Jesus are known as people who show mercy. They give of their time and resources to both friends and enemies alike.
Go and be like the heretic!
April is a progressive Christian who writes about scripture and spiritual disciplines. See her latest book, James in the Suburbs.
Observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy, as the LORD your God commanded you. (Deu 5:12 NRS)
Most Saturdays my husband and I practice Sabbath. Simply put, on Saturday, we trust God to take care of all the things we are putting on hold so that we can rest. We start by lifting up a prayer of thanks and lighting a candle that will burn all day. Then we really rest doing whatever feels right – we hike, we bike, we read, we watch a movie. We think Sabbath was the greatest invention since sliced bread. We look forward to it every week. We really miss it when we have to skip a week. We have noticed how much more worn out we get during the weeks when we haven’t had a Sabbath.
Jesus and his disciples were serious about the practice of Sabbath. In fact, the day Christ was buried, the next day was Sabbath. So the women followers of Jesus observed Sabbath the next day instead of grieving at his tomb. It wasn’t until the day after Sabbath that they went to the tomb again.
The women who had come with Jesus from Galilee followed, and they saw the tomb and how Jesus’ body was laid. Then they returned, and prepared spices and ointments. On the Sabbath they rested according to the commandment. (Luk 23:55-56 NRS)
As serious as they were about Sabbath keeping, Jesus and his followers also understood that keeping Sabbath wasn’t an unbreakable rule. Like all rules, love trumps. When the disciples were hungry on the Sabbath, they broke the Sabbath rule in order to get food.
At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the sabbath; his disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. When the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.” (Mat 12:1-2 NRS)
When someone needed healing on the Sabbath, Jesus broke the Sabbath rule and healed the man.
Jesus said, “…it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and it was restored, as sound as the other. But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him. (Mat 12:12-14 NRS)
This rule breaking for the sake of doing good got Jesus in a lot of trouble. It is what eventually led to his death. But it tells us something about Jesus and about following Jesus. As important as keeping the Sabbath was – Jesus’ love always won out.
Jesus’ followers recognize when a rule should be observed and when a rule should be broken for the sake of love. What rules are you keeping that stop you from loving others?
April is a progressive Christian who writes about scripture and spiritual disciplines. See her latest book, James in the Suburbs.
Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. (Gal 6:2 NRS)
JK Rowling, a former welfare mom and author of the Harry Potter books, stood before the 2011 Harvard graduation class to give the commencement speech. What would an author of children’s books possibly have to say to these brilliant young people about to embark on the journey of their lifetime? Well… she spoke about the importance of using one’s imagination. A seemingly frivolous topic. But hardly!
She focused not on using one’s imagination for pleasure or entertainment (although I am sure she would approve of such things), but on using one’s imagination in order to empathize with others. She is very wise. It is by first listening and then by using our imagination to put ourselves in another person’s shoes that we can have empathy for that person. And it is only when we have empathy that we can authentically bear another’s burdens.
We do not follow Christ unless we bear the burdens of others. This is easier said than done in a society that has deluded itself in believing that “every man or woman for themselves” makes us all stronger. This is not true. Jesus taught that we were meant to bear one another’s burdens. This is how his followers are to live.
Whose burdens will you bear today? An enemy will do, as well as, a friend. Listen to the person, imagine what they’ve been through, empathize, and then use your imagination again to find ways to bear their burdens. Make their deepest concerns your own. Enlist others to help bear their burdens – two or more working together is always better than one.
If we do this, we will be following in the way of Christ. Paul says we will have “fulfilled the law of Christ.” Let’s get busy! 🙂
Most nights I sleep like a baby – except just every now and then. Last night was one of those nights. When I can’t sleep, I have learned to embrace being awake. Like a little kid, I find something that I want to do and enjoy the extra time. Its found time when I can do whatever I want. Last night I decided to watch a documentary. Yes, I know that is nerdy, but I love documentaries. This one was about Easter Island.
Easter Island is that amazing island in the South Pacific where huge carved stone statues were found standing together looking into the ocean. Archaeologists have found the spot where the statues were carved. And they have discovered the tools used to carve them. But they had never been able to figure out how these 82 ton statues could have been moved the long distance from the quarry where they were carved to their final resting places.
To make the information even harder to discover, the island is an ecological disaster. The natives had killed each other off. An infestation of rats and farming gone wild had completely deforested the island. In addition, the natives were eventually taken as slaves. By the time archaeologists decided to study the island, there were less than 100 natives left.
Finally, archaeologists decided to go to the remaining tribe to see if they knew how the statues had been moved. Of course they knew! Without hesitation and doubt, the natives declared that the statues had walked into place. The first archaeologists laughed and disregarded the wisdom of the tribe as being ridiculous. Then moved on to other theories. But recently, some archaeologists decided to listen. And they asked the question… “how might the statues have walked into place?” They begin to notice several things about the statues – they had notches cut into them where ropes might have been attached and their bottoms were rounded instead of being flat allowing them to rock back and forth in a forward movement. The archaeologists thought about this for some time when they came up with a theory that the statues had indeed walked into place. Then they build their own statue and “walked” it into place (see the picture).
What had seemed so crazy suddenly made sense. The statues really had walked into place. This is often like studying the Bible. I am not saying that miracles aren’t possible. I absolutely believe they are. But what I am saying is that often we don’t understand what the Bible is saying simply because we don’t ponder it long enough exploring all the possibilities. We accept what others believe without thinking for ourselves. We don’t listen to the subtleties of language and tone. The Bible is an ancient text most often told orally before it was ever written down. Then written in a culture we no longer understand. We have to interpret it in the culture that it was written – and translate that for the culture of today. But so often we give up too easily without real understanding. We misunderstand scripture and use it to be intolerant, discriminate, hurt others. But we need to listen better… hear what the Holy Spirit is really saying through the authors. Explore all the possibilities! If something isn’t in line with Jesus’ teaching of loving God and others – keep asking questions! God isn’t afraid of those who ask questions.
Jesus wasn’t supposed to work on the Sabbath. He had very strict rules that he was supposed to follow. The leaders wanted to trick him into doing evil so they brought a disabled man to Jesus on the Sabbath. Jesus healed the man despite the set up and broke the ancient rules.
When the temple leaders cried “Ah ha! We’ve got you!!!” Jesus told them that they were judging by wrong standards. They cared more about their rules than the man who was healed (John 7:23-24).
How do you distinguish between good and evil? Do the good people believe all the right things while keeping the right set of rules? While the evil people believe all the wrong things while disregarding your particular list of rules?
Reverend Tony Campolo started a speech like this: “I have three things I’d like to say today. First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Second, most of you don’t give a shit. Thirdly and what’s worse is that you’re more upset with the fact that I said shit than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night.”
Where does your sense of right and wrong fall? Were you more upset that children died or that Tony cussed?
I know churches who are dead set against allowing women and/or the LGBT community to have an equal communion among the believers. They are barred from being teachers, elders, and pastors. But the same churches disregard the teaching in the Bible against divorced people remarrying and being teachers, elders, and pastors. Women are not required to cover their heads in these churches either. They keep some of the rules they think they’ve found in scripture and disregard others. And yet, these churches pride themselves in being able to distinguish good from evil.
So what is this Teaching about Righteousness that the author of Hebrews mentions? Could it be that it is not following a list of rules, but living in love? Could it be caring for others more than one’s self? Could it be following Jesus into the difficult places he calls us to go sharing our spiritual and physical food with vulnerable people?
Mature followers of Christ distinguish between good and evil.
11 We have much to say about this, but it is hard to make it clear to you because you no longer try to understand. 12 In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! 13 Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. 14 But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil. (Hebrews 5:11-14)
Thanks for joining me in this Study of Hebrews. I’d love to hear your comments and questions (below) or on Facebook. Don’t forget to click (above right) on “Follow” to receive future posts! And please invite others to join us!
There are three things that make me think the Jews acted violently on their own despite the fact that some of the authors of the Old Testament recorded stories saying that God was telling them to slaughter entire nations.
First is that the prime directive of God to the Jews was to be a people that invited the world to God. And from the very beginning the law told the Jews to love God and others. Even the 10 commandments told the Jews not to kill (it doesn’t say not to “murder” leaving it okay to kill for righteous causes – it says not to kill). So I can’t see God telling the Jews to then kill those who got in their way both because it defeated God’s own prime directive, but also because that meant a human being would have another’s person’s blood on their hands. After working with the PTSD patients at the VA Hospital in Decatur, I can’t see God ever asking someone to harm another person – I think that does something to someone’s soul that is almost unrecoverable.
The second reason is because of what I learned from an orthodox Jew who is a friend of my husband. I admire this man because he still follows the Old Testament laws and that is not easy in our society. One time he and my husband were traveling together and stopped to eat in the airport. Before the man would eat he dialed some sort of Orthodox Jew 1-800 number to find out what he could eat at that particular restaurant. This guy is seriously Jewish! Well, in talking with him, we found out something interesting – that even orthodox Jews don’t believe that the entire Old Testament is holy – just the Mosaic law and the prophets. The rest – all the stories where these vicious acts of violence are recorded – are an important part of their history, but not considered infallible “truth”. This has always been what even the ancient Jews believed. I think they might be right – especially when you consider that there are drastically different accounts of the same battles in different books of the Old Testament.
The third reason is that Jesus is the God of the Old Testament. Jesus agreed with the 10 commandments including “Do not Kill” except he took it even further. He said that we murder when we so much as hate. He said we have murdered even if we never took action – just because we hated another person. He taught us to love our enemies. He said not to live by the sword. He went to the cross without a fight. I can’t see Jesus condoning or authorizing genocide. I can’t see how Jesus could be the God described in some of the stories of violence against other nations. I think the writers of those particular stories were attributing something to God that God was not a part of.
Well… there are my two cents. Would love to hear your opinions!!! April
There are many people held in slavery today by Christianity. Christians who have a list of rules that they must follow to get into heaven are slaves to that list of rules. Christians who have a list of good works that they must do to get into heaven are slaves to that list of good works. Christians who have a list of theological beliefs that they must never doubt in order to get into heaven are slaves to dogma. And the slaves of rules and works and dogma are all slaves to the fear of death – the worry that they might spend eternity in hell.
The good news is that Jesus came to free us from just this kind of slavery! We no longer have to be afraid of death. No more striving to get enough points to get into heaven, because in his death, Jesus rendered the power of the devil – over eternal spiritual death – inoperable. This frees us for eternal love – to be loved and to love.
14 Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy (render inoperable or ineffective) the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. 16 For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham. (Heb 2:14-16 NRS)
A note you might find interesting: The devil, Diabolos, literally means “slanderer” or “accuser.” Think diabolical! He is an evil spirit that once had the power of eternal spiritual death over us. He lies to us about God and to God about us. We don’t want to believe he is real. It sounds almost silly. But the author of Hebrews did. And I do too. Every time I hear a lie about God or about one of God’s children, I know Diabolos is near by.
Refuse to be held in slavery. Jesus died to set us free from fear and free to love and be loved.
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By the way, honey, I am ever so grateful that you got me the first appointment of the day. They hadn’t even opened the shop doors when I got there! And watching the sunrise from the Toyota parking lot was, well, breathtaking.
After they took my car and gave me a mind blowing estimate (more than $700 – are you serious?) for the services they were to provide, they sent me to the complementary coffee bar where I could plug my PC in and work.
There I sat doing some editing and thinking about how Toyota could have done without the swanky coffee bar during their recent remodel and saved me some cash. I don’t even drink coffee.
Cranky. I was cranky. Which so rarely happens to me. But working helps so I got busy.
A few minutes later, I was lost in thought, when the twenty-something young man working behind the coffee bar, gently began to sing “Kyrie Eleison” which means “Lord have mercy.” I was the only one anywhere in sight so it was slightly awkward. But beautiful. Angelic. I looked up at him. His innocent gorgeous almost vacant brown eyes were looking straight at me and unfettered he kept singing.
I stopped what I was doing and listened… “Christe Eleison”… Christ have mercy. I breathed in what it meant that Christ shows me mercy – all of us mercy.
Crankiness gone. Perspective back. I was awed. I felt someone had just poured the blessings of God upon my head. It was like receiving the Eucharist. Without a word he finished, gave me a big smile, and went back to work.
It was only then that I saw the little laminate folded brochures standing every few feet down the length of the bar. The brochures told the customers that the coffee bar was staffed by autistic young adults employed by Toyota.
“Dominus conservet eum, et vivificet eum, et beatum faciat eum in terra”… O Lord, preserve this boy, and give him life, and bless his days on this earth!