Tomorrow night I will be starting a new sermon series at LifeSign called the Journey to Eternity. My hope is to offer a fresh perspective on eternal life that is more faithful to what the Bible actually teaches than the depictions of eternal life in popular Christian discourse which have created so many stumbling blocks for people who are seeking God’s truth with sincerity.
In popular Christian discourse, eternal life is often assumed to be equivalent to the afterlife. It is understood as a reward or punishment for our life on Earth. When all of Christianity is reduced to the goal of acquiring an afterlife reward instead of a punishment, then getting saved in a decisive and official way isn’t really any different than the responsibility of talking with a financial planner in your mid-thirties to find the right investment portfolio so you can have the reward of a comfortable retirement. This is why the personal afterlife insurance gospel plays so well in suburbia and also why it disgusts many Christian young adults if they ever leave the protective subculture and have to think for themselves.
But this reductionist reward/punishment understanding of eternal life doesn’t have much to say about how Jesus actually talks about eternal life. He tells the woman at the well in John 4:14 that when people accept the living water he has to offer, it “will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” I don’t think that we should wave away this passage and say oh, he’s just using fancy figurative language to talk about people going to heaven when they die. That would be a very clumsy, shallow way of reading the Bible.
There’s clearly a reality represented by this living water that satisfies the human spirit in such a powerful and complete way that it’s akin to drinking water that permanently satisfies someone’s thirst. If we stay within the metaphor, then eternal life is defined as the condition of finding the permanent spiritual nourishment of Jesus’ living water.
In John 17:3, Jesus says, “This is eternal life: that they may know you the only true God and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” Eternal life is not a reward that you get for knowing God; it is knowing God. The reward is the divine communion itself. It is experiencing the perfect intimacy for which we were created and without which we jump from one inadequate coping strategy to the next.
If eternal life is to know God, then the goal of life should be simply to know God as opposed to doing or saying whatever it takes to gain admission into Six Flags Heaven. When we understand the goal of life in these terms, it reframes how we think about the problem of the human condition. The main problem, as I preached in my sermon last weekend, is that our sin causes us to be “alienated from the life of God [i.e. eternal life] because of [the] ignorance and hardness of heart [that it causes]” (Ephesians 4:18).
Our alienation from God will become a darkness as thick and complete as hell if nothing happens to address it before we die. The problem is not that God is an inflexible bureaucrat who has some particular formulaic prayer or other “proof” that He’s waiting to observe in us before He puts our name on the special pass list for Six Flags Heaven. The problem is that we don’t trust God, and without that trust, we “will not see life” because “God’s wrath remains upon [us]” (John 3:36, my translation). Wrath is the word for how people receive God’s fiery passionate love when they don’t want anything to do with it.
God is perfectly hospitable, loving, and merciful, but we simply cannot enter into the eternal life that allows us to see God for who He really is without being given the ability to trust in Him. Our basic human problem is our lack of trust in God and the alienation this causes. To me, it’s important to explain that our problem doesn’t have anything to do with any deficit of beauty in God’s nature or the need for certain systematic theologians or megachurch pastors to retain their intellectual property rights over God’s nature and plug Him into the clumsy binaries of a theological system that goes adrift from its Biblical faithfulness insofar as it turns mercy and justice or holiness and love into opposites.
God is perfectly loving because He’s so holy. And His mercy is the most just response to the impossible mess of entangled culpabilities and mitigating circumstances that those of us who think we have clean noses would like to oversimplify so that we can justify ourselves. God’s grace is always absolutely unconditional, and its abundance is nothing less than infinite; there is nothing that needs to be “held in tension with it.”
But just because God is love doesn’t mean that He will lobotomize us into zombies who are programmed to desire eternity with Him. He has to win us over from our preference for cheap thrills, self-destruction, and isolation; honestly, it’s a very hard sell. Throughout the centuries, His people dissed Him for phantom gods who were more exotic and self-validating of like Baal and Asherah. But God decided to give it His best shot, so He sent us Jesus so that anyone’s trust that He gained through Him would not perish but have eternal life.
June 8th: The human problem with trusting God is where the sermon series will start, in the Garden of Eden, where the man whose Hebrew name is humanity (adam) and his wife (who didn’t get named Eve until after the story) decided not to trust God and as a result lost the wonder and delight in God that is supposed to be our existence. We will try to read the story with fresh eyes and put aside some of the interpretive legacy of Western Christianity that has tried to make the text fit its doctrine, instead taking our cue from the text’s natural emphases. Adam and Eve tell us what all of us as humans lose and need to regain.
June 15th: The next place we’ll go is to look at the gift of God’s Torah, which is way more than just a set of rules. It rather describes a way of life that seeks God’s heart and embraces the laws and principles that hold together His created order. This Torah has been a major source of eternal life for Jewish people throughout the centuries, but it is easily abused and turned into a means of self-exaltation and social hierarchy.
June 22th: Hence, we will next look at how God used His prophets to provide further insight into the eternal life He wanted His people to enjoy, to explain that the point of all the animal sacrifices and the rest of His elaborate system of ritual was not to appease a capricious bloodthirsty tyrant, but because God wanted His people to have concrete, physical means by which they could put their sin to death and experience the true repentance of a “contrite spirit” which would allow them to pursue “justice, mercy, and humility.”
June 29th: The week after that, we will look at a very special prophecy in Isaiah 53 about a suffering servant who would come and deliver His people from their sins. This prophecy can be understood to describe both the identity of God’s people, the God-wrestlers (Israel) in general as well as the identity of Jesus Christ. The way to eternal life is through the suffering servant both in what He does for us and what we do with Him.
July 6th: The weekend of July 6th and 7th will involve an overlap of two sermon series since I’m preaching both Saturday and Sunday. The topic for Sunday’s series is hospitality. And honestly, I cannot think of a better frame for describing what Jesus does for us. He is the one who welcomes us to God’s banquet and provides the means through His life, death, and resurrection for us to get there. In the words of John 14:3, He is the one who “goes to prepare a place for us,” the ultimate host. Eternal life is living in God’s hospitality both in the sense of receiving it graciously and being a vessel by which He shares it with others.
July 13th: The next week provides an opportunity for us to talk about the eternal life we experience through our incorporation into the living body of Christ and through the continuance of God’s Pentecostal outpouring of the Holy Spirit. This will provide an opportunity for us to talk about the sacraments and other means of God’s grace by which we experience eternal life in community with other disciples.
July 20th: In the final week of our series, we will explore what the Bible has to say about the ultimate consummation and glorification of God’s kingdom. Eternal life is both a present and a future reality. Though I’m seeking to transcend a tacky punishment/reward paradigm for describing the goal of intimacy with God, I do think that our hope in God’s ultimate victory is a very legitimate and important aspect of our faith.