The church today needs a fresh vision of what, with God’s grace, it hopes to achieve. What should that vision be? Should the church be preparing people for the Last Judgment, ensuring that they will qualify for heaven rather than hell? Or should it be trying to extend the Kingdom of God on earth, in which case, how is this to be done? According to the gospels, Jesus was concerned about both, and the church has followed his example, seeing Christian conversion as both a blessing in this life and a passport to heaven in the life to come.
This dual vision, however, has been a source of confusion. First, it presents a contradictory picture of Jesus, as both an unforgiving just judge and as a forgiving loving friend. He cannot be both. Second, it remains unclear whether people’s short lives on earth matter much, compared with eternal bliss in heaven or eternal suffering in hell. In the past the churches have focussed on salvation, regarding daily hardships as relatively inconsequential. Today, as belief in the Last Judgement fades, the opposite is occurring: churches are so keen on providing a loving community for their members, that they have obscured the nature and cost of discipleship in the world.
Although those within the church are aware of this shift of emphasis, people outside it repeatedly portray it as terrifying people with visions of hell, and demanding allegiance to the church and its rules as the condition of avoiding eternal punishment. Medieval preoccupation with the Last Judgement in fact continued through the Reformation, the only difference being that Luther and Calvin argued that faith in the sufficiency of Jesus’ propitiatory sacrifice is all that is needed for salvation. Protestant churches have continued this tradition, with its Pauline focus on faith rather than works as the mark of holiness. Again and again missionaries and minsters have been depicted in books and films as being so focussed on salvation hereafter that they overlook the obvious needs of the people before them. No wonder the public commonly judge the church to be of no earthly use.
I am not alone in thinking that faith in the Last Judgement should be questioned. Clayton Sullivan, for example, after a critical study of C.H. Dodd’s writing on realized eschatology, concluded that Jesus’ teaching that he would shortly return to set up God’s kingdom of earth “turned out to be an error.” (Rethinking Realized Eschatology, Mercer University Press, 1988, p.118.) Jesus and his disciples expected that he would return shortly after his death to judge the world and establish a reign of peace and justice. This did not happen, so in this belief they were mistaken. How did their belief in it arise?
It is very interesting to study Isaiah chapter 59. The author despairs of the sin of Israel, and of the suffering it brings. He asks how can justice and truth be established in the land, so that it can prosper as God wishes? The answer he suggests is that God himself must intervene and send a Redeemer to establish his kingdom in Zion. He will repay people according to their deeds, and as the following chapters explain, he will create heaven on earth, a new Jerusalem that will glorify his name.
The doctrine of the Last Judgement clearly has its origin in this prophecy. Jesus, believing himself to be the Messiah, thought it was his vocation to fulfil this prophecy. And St John in the book of Revelation took up the theme, augmented with details from Daniel’s dream in Daniel chapter 7, and portrayed Jesus fulfilling this role at the end of history, whenever that will be.
It is interesting to compare Jeremiah’s prophecy about the restoration of Israel in chapter 31. He has a different solution to the problem of their wickedness. He said God would forgive people their sins, and change their hearts so that they would want to live justly. That is the solution that Jesus in fact helped to bring about.
Although Jesus preached the Second Coming, he encouraged his followers to work with him to create a kingdom of love and forgiveness in this world. In doing so they created a new community, his church. Such a community is both just and loving. It is just, with each respecting the interests of all, and loving, with people caring for the welfare of others, doing what they can to make their lives good.
Members of the church today value it for providing a caring community, in which people forgive, love and help one another. This, I think, was what Jesus and St Paul and St John valued, and it should be the clear focus of the church’s vision. The new danger for the church is that some of its members so rejoice in their love for one another that they forget to love those outside their circle. The love people find in the church is one that God wants them to take into the world. The Christian church can be a mighty agent for social justice, individual welfare and peace throughout the world if Christians work for that in whatever sphere God has placed them.
But what about heaven hereafter? Although there is evidence that Jesus rose from the dead, there is no compelling evidence that anyone else has done so. Nevertheless, if people have immaterial souls that are, perhaps, the seat of their consciousness, their thoughts, desires and will, it may be possible that their souls will survive death and live in a new state with God. Because our mental states are a function of our brain states, however, it is doubtful that they would survive the death of the brain, though that is not to say it is impossible.
People for whom this world is intolerably brutal and oppressive have generally found great solace in the belief that after they die they will go to heaven, to another world of light and love. And those approaching death have found comfort in this belief as well. For instance African slaves in the southern states of America remembered how God sent a chariot of fire to whisk Elijah away into heaven, and longed for him to take them as well. They recalled how God had taken the tribes of Israel out of Egypt when they were slaves, and led them across the river Jordan into the promised land, flowing with milk and honey. The deep river of death was, for them, a passage to heaven. The dream of heaven helped to sustain them in troubled times. Indeed for time immemorial, people around the world have believed that physical death is not the end of spiritual life.
However, a hundred years after their emancipation, consider the dream that inspired that Christian African American saint Martin Luther King. In his speech at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington, in 1963, King dreamed of black and white men, women and children, living together in friendship and peace. King was sure that God would bring a kingdom of peace and love on earth, and dedicated his life to furthering that dream. Towards the end of his speech he said:
“With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.”
The vision of a heavenly Jerusalem ruled by Jesus and infused with the light of his love represents an ideal that will continue to inspire Christians down the ages. But it would be wrong to wait for Jesus to come again to create it. Disciples of Jesus must work wherever they are placed to continue the work he began here on earth. Those who share his compassion will be drawn to his vision of a just, loving, dedicated society, and with God’s help, they will spend their lives trying to create it. Heaven is an inspiration, a dream that Christians share with God. As it says in the song: You’ve got to have a dream, if you don’t have a dream, how you going to make a dream come true?