Making up for Thursday
Well there it is, that troubling sentiment expressed so poorly by some who assert or imply that everyone who isn’t a Christian (and usually, everyone who isn’t their kind of Christian) is going to hell.
Here we face the great challenge of rightly understanding the message of Jesus. Matthew, Mark and Luke are all quite clear that Jesus proclaimed that people should turn and show allegiance to the dawning reign of God. And even though the Gospel of John uses very different language to describe the reality of this life that has come in Jesus, yet the fundamental elements of the message are the same. For John, who uses the language of eternal life (in Greek the life of the ‘aeon’, the life of the age to come), this life is something we have now in Christ. It is not waiting for us in heaven after we die; it is a present reality he describes as abiding in the Father. What the other Gospels describe as ‘the kingdom of God’ is this same imperishable life, a transformed existence of a world – and our lives – that has been brought into the realm of God, brought under the gracious life-giving governance of God’s Spirit. All four Gospel bear witness to Jesus bringing a world restored, healed, transformed, resurrected.
If our fundamental narrative is that good people (good morally or good from good works or good from trusting Jesus) go ‘up’ to some place called ‘heaven’ and bad people (bad morally or bad because they did not trust/believe in Jesus) go ‘down’ to some place called ‘hell’ then this statement – “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved” – is going to sound very different than if our fundamental narrative is that God has come to heal the world in Jesus, to carry us from this broken age of sin and death into a new age of grace and life.
If Jesus is the only way to get into a place called heaven, and I don’t believe in Jesus, then we are stuck putting me and all those like me in hell. But if Jesus is the one who heals a dying world, who reconnects God and humanity that they might dwell together, then his ‘name’ is what heals. Regardless of your religious experience or behavior, regardless of your psychological health or moral history, his name, his power, his identity, is what heals.
It still leaves open, of course, the question whether I am going to show allegiance to and trust in that ‘name’, but it will not be my trust that gets me “into heaven”; it is Jesus who brings heaven to the world.
The Greek words ‘to save’ and ‘salvation’ mean to heal, to restore to a full life in your social context – to restore you to family and friends and fields and the religious life of the nation. Someone who has been ‘saved’ gets to return home. They get to return to the temple. They get to return to their life. Saving the world means restoring God’s creation so that we live in harmony with God and one another. God doesn’t want us to dwell in heaven (the heavens) with him, he wants to dwell on earth with us: the lion and the lamb, the new Jerusalem, the wedding banquet that has no end. The martyrs under the altar in Revelation 7 are waiting for God’s New Jerusalem on earth; they don’t want to stay under the altar.
It is Jesus who brings healing to the world. It is the crucified one, who did not wreak vengeance on his enemies but forgave them. It is the risen one, whom God declared as his true and righteous one. It is this one who would not be tempted to turn his power or authority to his own ends but remained the perfectly faithful son (the ‘son’ we have not been) that brings wholeness to all existence.
Power, War, Sex, or any of the governing powers and ideologies of our world will not do this. War can’t bring peace. It can crush an army, but it cannot bring peace. My mother can force me to share with my brother, but force cannot make me want to share. Only a boundless generosity and love can create me as a loving, generous person. Only the boundless love of God manifest in Jesus will heal the world. That is a far different claim than “believe in Jesus or go to hell.”
Christians don’t have to – and shouldn’t – surrender and say there are many paths to heaven to avoid the ugliness of “believe like me or die.” We have to only understand that “heaven” is coming to us. Jesus is bringing to us the healing of the world.
And we are invited to show allegiance. We are invited to trust it. We are invited to live now the healing that awaits us. To forgive as we have been forgiven. To love as we have been loved. To open wide our hands and arms as God has opened wide his arms to us.