So, say we had it all wrong somehow…
Say God is still God, but we’ve misunderstood the whole abundant/eternal life thing and it turns out there actually is no afterlife as we’ve been thinking of it. (This is not what I actually believe or preach, by the way. Please note that I’m positing this as a rhetorical device.) Say after we die, we aren’t aware of anything more than we were aware of before we were born. Would it still be worth it to follow Jesus?
Or, say what Rob Bell is hoping for is right, and there is eternal life and everybody is already saved. Say God somehow, for reasons we don’t understand and can’t explain, has chosen to claim the entire creation for eternal life and joy in spite of our pitiful sinful selves and in spite of the necessity for God to be just. If we didn’t have to follow Jesus to be saved, would there be any point in following Jesus at all?
Let me be clear here. I’m not talking just about the “I like being part of a church with all my friends” kind of following, or the “Jesus was a great guy who said some terrific stuff I can really agree with” kind of following. I’m talking about the losing-yourself, taking-up-the-cross, sometimes-dying-because-of-it kind of following. The kind that hurts. If there were no Paradise in which to experience ultimate and eternal bliss, if there were no torment and burning hell to be avoided at all costs — would taking up the cross to follow Jesus be worth it? Is there any reason to make the sacrifices, practice the disciplines, bear the burdens of others, other than to avoid burning in hell?
It seems to me that any approach to evangelism in our current context(s) has to start with a capacity, not only to say “yes” to this question, but to explain why. In other words, we have to be sure we know how to proclaim the cross as something other than just fire insurance1
I think there is a desperate, crying need for a not-related-to-avoiding-hell proclamation of the Good News — especially among young adults. Those people between the ages of 20-35 who see themselves standing outside the faith are not, as we often seem to believe, uninterested and unwilling to consider Christianity — at least, not in my experience. They may be convinced, however, that fire insurance is the best thing we have to offer — and that, they’re not interested in. But my repeated experience has been that if there’s something else that can give meaning and shape and hope to their walk through this world, they are more than eager to hear about it.
This was reinforced for me yet again as my family and I walked El Camino de Santiago in the summer of 2010. The Camino is a 1000-year-old, 500-mile pilgrimage route across northern Spain. (It’s seen a resurgence in popularity recently, and was featured in this year’s movie The Way, starring Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez.) It took us five weeks to make the trek, and in that time I had a whole lot of opportunities to talk with young people from all over the world (Canada, Spain, Germany, Austria, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, the Netherlands) about their lives and their faith. Oddly enough (since this is a pilgrimage route, after all), of all the young adults I encountered, only two identified themselves as believing in God, and Christian. And neither of those attended church regularly because, they said, it was so disconnected from the real world it wasn’t relevant. The others pretty consistently said either that they didn’t believe in God, or that they weren’t willing to claim one faith which insisted on having the only truth while consigning everyone else to hell.
And yet, they were not disinterested, much less too skeptical to want to talk about faith. In fact, when I would ask the standard question that began most conversations — “What brings you to walk the Camino?” — every single person expressed some kind of spiritual seeking. They usually didn’t identify their reasons as spiritual, but, at root, they were: “I’m trying to find the direction for my life.” “I’m trying to discover how to handle the stress of my job; I’m a doctor, and I have a hard time with the fact that so many of my patients die.” “I’m trying to figure out how to take better care of my students.” “I’m trying to learn to be less materialistic.” “I’m trying to find some hope in my life.” “I’m trying to figure out what really matters.”
One morning I entered a small village and ran across a Camino friend named Jorge, a native of Valencia (Spain) who was fluent in English. We had become friends a few weeks earlier when he heard us talking to each other as we were walking along; as we passed him he jumped up from where he was resting and shouted, “Oh my God, Americans! I have to walk with you!” We bonded. On this morning, he was sitting over coffee with five Spanish-only-speaking young women, and he invited me to join them. As I sat down with my café solo grande, Jorge asked me, “Can I tell them what you do?” I was happy to bust out my newly-acquired-but-extremely-limited Spanish chops by saying, “Soy pastora.” Which they responded to (in unison) with the one English phrase they all knew, “No way!” And immediately they began peppering me with questions — about God, about Jesus, about my congregation. We talked for two hours, with Jorge frantically trying to keep up with the translating. I told them about my congregation, about the willingness of our denomination to bear the tension of tackling issues like poverty and racism and homosexuality, about my own spiritual journey. I told them that it was the institutional Church that had challenged my most significant issues: my racism, my classism, my materialism, my homophobia. I shared my testimony. At the end of that time, one woman said to me, “I lost my faith when I was ten. How can I get it back again? Where can I find a church like yours?”
Interestingly enough, what caught at her heart was my sharing why Jesus’ death on the cross matters so much to me — outside of any consideration of heaven and hell. This is the short summary of what I said:
- I believe in the Incarnation. Jesus not only is the Son of God, Jesus is God — God-with-Us at the same time God continues to exist throughout and beyond all of creation.
- This means that when Jesus died on the cross, the immortal, eternal, omnipotent, omniscient God found out exactly what it feels like to die. (And if God wasn’t finding this out, per se, at least God was making we sure we could understand that God knows what it’s like.)
- This dying with/for us is so radical that I believe God knows, completely and fully, what it is like to die every single death that every single one of us dies — emotional, physical, spiritual, whether brought upon us by our own sin or by someone else’s or by “natural causes.” There is no death we can die, no darkness we can enter, that God doesn’t understand, because God chose to go there just to be with us — every single one of us. This is because God loves us that much, and refuses to leave us alone.
- This includes the place we’re in when we scream, “God, how could you abandon me like this?” God doesn’t judge us for a lack of faith; God has chosen to replace judgment of our weakness with compassion. God has been there, and understands exactly why we’re screaming. (This means God also knows our excuses, so there’s no point trying to pull anything over on God, vis-à-vis why we do what we do.)
- God, who one would think cannot die, has somehow entered death with us, and by doing that has promised us that we shall live because wherever God is, life is there. Even in our dying. Death can’t overcome God.
- Which means that we don’t have to be afraid of death, because God’s life will hold on to us. So we can face death down, walk its paths in all of its manifestations, with faith and courage.
- And we can do this for others, entering into their pain and suffering (as Christ entered into ours) out of the love that emanates from God. We can remain present to others’ pain, instead of abandoning them — because we know that God is in the pain and won’t abandon us.
- Loving people like this — even when it hurts like hell (a phrase I use because that’s exactly what I mean) and even when you don’t have to — is the truest, deepest, most real love there is.
- This is what it means to walk the way of the cross — entering into the pain of others so they won’t be alone, simply out of love. Loving the one who’s not like you — because that’s how God loves you.
- And it’s worth it, because that’s exactly where we walk most closely with God. It is precisely there that we find the deepest, richest life. And that’s why I’m a Christian.
I continued by telling them that I believe (and have seen) that the power of this love changes hate into mercy and darkness into hope. I want the power to love like that; I crave the possibility of being part of that transforming work. And the only place I know of to find that power, that courage to love so radically, is in the cross — the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That’s where it met me, that’s where it changed me. So that’s what I proclaim.
Three days later, as I sat at a café in Sarria, the woman who had asked me where she could find a church that proclaims this walked up to me with another young man I hadn’t met yet. In very halting English he told me, “She wanted me to come tell you how much it meant to her to talk with you. It was very important. She very much wants to thank you. It was very, very important to her.”
I don’t tell that story because I think it illustrates how wonderful I am. I tell the story because it illustrates how wonderful the story of Jesus Christ is — even without any threats of damnation to give it weight. Sometimes I wonder why so much of Christendom seems to have forgotten that evangelism is not (and never has been) trying to convince non-believers that they are wrong and we are right. It’s simply sharing something that’s better than the best movie we’ve ever seen, the most amazing book we’ve ever read, the most fantastic restaurant we’ve ever eaten at. We don’t have to convince anyone of anything. All we have to do is share what we already know: God is very, very, very good.
St. Paul Evangelical Lutheran Church
As an aside: this isn’t a commentary on the validity of the doctrine of propitiatory atonement, which is how much of classic Christian thought has dealt with the tension of a just God addressing the reality of human sin. I’m forced to admit to a certain level of Christian agnosticism here; I simply cannot say I have attained a comfortable understanding of whether this is the clearest, best explanation of why Christ died on the cross, or not. I know some people who sincerely believe that this is absolutely foundational to all other Christian thought, and other people who think this is an outmoded doctrine that has nothing to do with the nature of God. I don’t know who.s right. But I’m increasingly convinced that, regardless of its doctrinal accuracy, propitiatory atonement is not the best starting point for inviting those outside the faith into a dialog about God.