Having been born and brought up in a Western, pretty traditional church experience in Northern Ireland (the Bible Belt of the UK) I know the extreme importance of being born again. As a kid, going to Christian Summer camps or being part of Christian organizations, hearing messages and going to Church every Sunday, was ultimately geared up to one thing.
Being saved and securing a place when you die for eternity in Heaven.
When we get there we’ll sing worship music for all time and we won’t hate it because it will be better than on Earth. Most likely just meaning that the words projected onto the screens will never be delayed or for the incorrect verse.
We won’t need football or tv shows or movies because we’ll be far more entertained than we could ever imagine.
As long as you say a very specific prayer, admitting that you are a “sinner” and that you would like Jesus to come into your heart, you are saved. You can’t undo it and you’re going to go to Heaven.
There doesn’t seem to be a barometer of what exact words you are supposed to use or how you can tell if you’re being sincere enough but it’s generally assumed that saying some sort of combination of these ideas is enough.
Of course, on the other hand if you don’t, then you are going to spend eternity burning up in a lake of fire.
So um, it’s up to you.
At the heart of all of this is the need to believe a couple of things which we’ve already touched on. 1/ That you need saved in the first place and 2/ That Jesus died in your place.
So belief seems to be extremely important to the whole process of being saved. What happens when you start to question some of the “important” facets of Christianity is where problems start to arise.
A few years ago, Rob Bell wrote a book in which he questioned the very crux of these beliefs; specifically that perhaps we can’t be sure that a literal Hell exists. The whole book kind of blew by without much fanfare but the book did raise an important question.
What role do the beliefs about Heaven and Hell and eternity play in our lives, even after we’ve said our prayer and feel secure that we’re not going “there”?
This is something that I’ve been thinking through a lot recently in regards to my own faith.
There are very few things that can cause a stirring inside us Christians more as someone who holds a different opinion or view of God, the Bible, Jesus or what we should believe or not believe. We can get defensive very quickly because it seems for some reason that we need to believe the correct things or something is extremely wrong.
God is going to judge us. Or God is going to be upset. And you don’t want to see Him when He’s angry.
In the past few years I’ve gone through somewhat of a deconstruction/reconstruction period in my faith. Many people consider this a painful experience but for me it was necessary and important. As part of this journey I’ve had people question whether I’m still actually a Christian anymore (spoiler: I am) and pushed back on some of the ways my beliefs have evolved because they fear I’m heading down a path I won’t be able to return from.
I say fear because when it comes to our beliefs we hold a deep fear over being wrong.
I talked earlier about the process of becoming a Christian that many of you will be familiar with. I am somewhat of an expert on it since I must have become a Christians 4 or 5 times throughout my childhood. I was never sure if it actually stuck and so just to be on the safe side, I would make sure.
As a kid I didn’t see it, but now having some level of maturity (I said “some”) I realize I was experiencing doubt and because deep down I didn’t trust God could allow me to voice those doubts, I needed to double down in my efforts at being a good Christian (A complete oxymoron by the way). Or if that failed, say the sinners prayer over and over.
Beliefs are therefore extremely important to how we function. My belief as a kid was that God can’t deal with sin. Like He went out of His way to deal with it on the cross which took a lot out of Him, so the least I can do is obey Him perfectly. That affected whether I allowed doubts to come to the surface and face them head on or whether I suppressed them but allow that suppression to create unspoken tension and anxiety.
Couple all of this with the deeply held belief that what we believe can have eternal effects on where we’re going to end up when we die; we can see how what we believe is extremely important.
All of this goes on under the surface though and that is why I think we get extremely uncomfortable with interpretations of faith that aren’t necessarily traditional or what many would call “Biblical”.
At the core is a belief that if we believe something slightly out of the box then it could have ramifications for whether we’ll get to go to Heaven or Hell.
So why does this matter, if indeed it does at all?
When so much emphasis is placed on eternity as something that happens when we die, rather than something that is happening all the time, it will effect how we treat others and the world around us. We’re less inclined to care about the environment or about justice or about whether people have access to clean water or healthcare.
My experience has been that there is a rough line between conservative Christianity which focuses more on eternity and a more liberal Christianity that may tend to focus on social justice, here and now. This isn’t a hard rule that we can use to characterize Christians as being one or the other. In reality, we are a mixture of both. But subconsciously the fear of hell that many of us were born into, moves us and impacts how we react to the world we find ourselves in.
Phrases like “In the world, but not of it” help us maintain this Heaven/Hell paradigm that exists.
So as someone who leans more to the Liberal end than the Conservative end, my emphasis is less on believing the “correct” things especially if believing the correct things doesn’t equate with compassion and love and peace with God, ourself and our communities.
Or put another way, I’m less concerned with what I believe and more with how I believe.
If I meet someone who comes from a completely different faith background to me, but is more compassionate and Jesus-like than many Jesus followers, I feel an affinity to them. They may believe doctrines and theology that may seem contrary to much Christianity thought today, but their beliefs are working out in a way that is more Christlike.
I’ve met many humble Christians who are conservative and believe in a literal Hell who are compassionate and loving and fight for justice and I’ve met many liberal Christians who are arrogant and judgmental to anyone different than them.
So it seems you can be deeply conservative or extremely liberal and still live in a way that is judgmental, hateful and unforgiving.
You can also be extremely conservative or deeply liberal and still live in a way that brings Hope, Love, Grace and represents Jesus in a way that attracts people to Him.
Is it then possible that beliefs aren’t the crux of everything? That as important and as much as they shape our worldview and behaviors; they shouldn’t be the most important facet of the Christian life?
And is it possible that for many of us the reason holding the “correct” beliefs is important is because somewhere, hidden and unspoken we’re afraid of Hell? We’re afraid of going there and ironically the one thing we tell ourselves isn’t important in getting to Heaven, that is, our actions, turns out to be the one thing we believe is going to get us there, in the form of believing the right things.
You’ve probably heard the argument that it doesn’t matter if you live a completely selfless life, doing nothing but good, caring for the poor and the sick; if you don’t ask Jesus into your heart you’re still going to Hell.
These kind of beliefs are what cause us to focus so much on believing the right thing in the face of goodness. It’s what stops us from having compassion for those who are different. A persons value is in “winning” them for Christ and where they are spending eternity rather than any inherent value they have as a person.
Our beliefs change, they evolve and we remove burdensome beliefs that create fear and anxiety. At least we should. And this is the wonderful thing about how Jesus viewed eternity.
When Jesus prayed, “On Earth as it is in Heaven” it was an urgent call to a new way of living now, not an urgent call to live Holy in order that we don’t get left behind when Jesus comes back.
“Time is of the essence” as we say, can mean missing the spiritual and Holy in every moment because we’re so obsessed with believing the right things to avoid Hell. What if, when we talk about being ready for Jesus, it’s less about having everything nicely tidied and squared, ready to go for an eternal vacation and more about having already started the work of creating Heaven, as imperfect as it may be, right here on Earth.
Could this change of thinking help conservatives open up new conversations, say with their LGBTQ brothers and sisters by seeing the beauty of them as a person rather than someone we’ve already condemned to Hell?
Could this help those of who are more liberal see the fear and anxiety that underpins deep down in many conservatives’ reactions to those of us who think differently than they do? Without falling into the trap of needing to be right ourselves?
We’re saved for here and now, not for there and then. We have opportunities to create Heaven and Hell everyday despite all our inconsistencies as Human beings.
We don’t need to have it all figured out to live this way. We can begin to create and Love and paint Grace anywhere, anytime.
Our beliefs are critical but sometimes they get in the way.
And would you believe it, that could be the one thing stopping us from truly being saved.