There is a story hidden in the history of the Church that has been rarely told. It is about how the central proclamation of the early Church waned and was replaced by something else entirely. That proclamation, obvious in the writings of Paul, was that those who had been baptised into Christ became a new creation (2Cor. 5:17). This new creation pertained to the individual in the present.
Furthermore, it was not only the individual believer who became a new creation, the creation itself has been "groaning in labour pains" for its release from its bondage to decay (Rom. 8:18-25). In other words the gospel points to this-worldly transformation.
It was Joahannes Wiess (1863-1914), a German theologian, who recovered the idea that the gospel pointed towards an imminent kingdom of God that was a social reality. Later research has confirmed that this is the case. Indeed, if one reads the letters of Paul, or the beginning of the gospel according to Mark or the theological framework of the gospel according to John, it is obvious that the salvation that Jesus brings via his cross and resurrection, is a salvation of this world and its peoples. The mention of "eternal life" does not mean that we will live forever in heaven but that our life here and now will be conditioned by the eternal life of God. Thus "eternal" is a qualifier of life that does not mean forever. Rather, as in the Eucharistic liturgy (The body of Christ keep you in eternal life) it refers to a kind of life in which the enmity between God and the self has been breached in the present.
The idea that replaced this understanding was that salvation was the salvation of the individual soul after death with its entry into heaven to live to eternity with God. One can see how a literal reading of "eternal life" would produce this. How the waning of one idea and its replacement occurred is open to historical research and obviously outside the scope of this essay. Nevertheless, one can speculate about how this could have happened. There were all kinds of beliefs about life after death circulating when the church was new and some of these may have been sequestered. There is also the ever-present imperative to say something about the mystery of death as many religions do. This would have been particularly exacerbated in the context of Christianity becoming the state religion under Constantine and consequent populist pressures.
Such pressure to allay the fear about death and to console those who lost loved ones has ensured that, by and large, the Church has not spoken out about this drastic corruption of the original gospel to this day even though the evidence from Scriptural research, as they say, is in. Indeed what preacher will stand before his or her congregation and tell them that, no, they will not meet their loved ones in heaven and that death is the end of all human possibilities? Despite often exclusive preaching about the central theme of the early Church many parishioners cling to the idea that death is but a move to a more glorious room. It is often the case that both the immanence of the Kingdom and life in heaven after death are held together as if they do not contradict each other.
The orientation of the life of the Church towards life after death in heaven has had disastrous consequences. It may seem to comfort many who have lost a child, for example, to believe that that child lives with Jesus. But that does little to stem the grief of the parent. It is false comfort.
The prospect of surviving death through belief in Jesus takes the focus off what is going on in our lives and in the world. If we are looking forward to going to a better place, then this life and earth are of little consequence. This is why some Christian fundamentalists are scornful of environmentalism since we are all going to a better place this earth can be forsaken, despite the plaudits of the psalms that laud the wonder and beauty of the creation. Surely this understanding splits our loyalties between the earthly here and now and the heavenly forever, with disastrous results. Surely, with our eyes fixed on heaven there arises the possibility that we neglect our present circumstances.
I often wonder at the cruelty displayed by people in the past. The burning of heretics was excused because the earthly flames to which they were subjected were thought to be nothing compared to the agonies they will suffer in the flames of hell for all eternity. The modern version of this, that I think came to our attention in the Vietnam War, was: " kill them all and let God sort them out." When death is not the final extinction of the person, then our attitude towards death loses its sharpness. An example of this is demonstrated on Andrew Denton's "Better off Dead" audio tapes of two sisters who had carried out the wishes of their mother to die. After the event they remarked that it was all wonderful and peaceful and that since they were Christians they believed that the mother was safe in heaven. This is how death is domesticated. When we understand the soul to be immortal then murder may be thought of as launching the murdered into the afterlife and Islamic suicide bombers can concentrate on the seventy-two dark eyed virgins that are promised to martyrs.
Belief in the immortality of the soul and its afterlife distorts what it means to be human: creaturely, tenuous and limited by death.
The entrenchment of the promise of life after death in the Medieval Church provided the Church with a very large bludgeon by which the faithful could be kept in order. This was given warrant by the gospel according to Matthew Indeed, such were the excesses of the Church in the Middle Ages that it provoked the Reformation that split Europe in two. While the Reformers were more circumspect about souls trapped in purgatory and the power of the Church to help them, they also adhered to the idea that salvation existed ultimately as the escape from this world to the next heavenly world.
Christianity does proclaim a victory over death. This is not to be confused with the elimination of death. Rather "death" is understood in existential terms as a kind of nonbeing lived by those captivate to idolatry, the worship of the things of the world that are not God. Jesus was crucified because he refused to worship false gods, be they the family, the state, the distorted worship carried out in the temple or ambition for oneself. This is close to the bone because we all give ourselves to something. Jesus stood in the great tradition of the prophets of Israel that called the nation back from worshipping false gods and suffered for their proclamation.
The connection between idolatry and death is clear. Idols may represent powerful forces in the world, like the market, or like patriotism or fidelity to class or profession but they claim the person and hence hold him in bondage. This is why freedom is an important theme in scripture. Freedom from idolatry brings life while life in bondage to the gods brings a living death.
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