No doubt the recent heat wave gripping a good portion of the US has caused some preacher, somewhere, to remark: “It’s a sinner’s preview.” It’s an old chestnut, but it’s one that I wish we Christians could do without.
You see, I think Christians, especially American Christians, put far too much emphasis on “the afterlife.” For a great many people, “the afterlife” is one of the main reasons—if not the main reason—they become followers of Christ. As a Church, I think, we’ve become obsessed with Heaven and Hell, with reward and punishment, and it really bothers me.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not opposed to the idea of the afterlife. In fact, I look forward to eternal communion with the saints and with God, but looking forward too much and too often can take our eyes off our present communion, or lack thereof, with our fellow humanity and, by extension, with God.
There’s another old chestnut says: “You’re so heaven-minded that you ain’t no earthly good.” That’s a sentiment that understands what I call the beforelife.
The beforelife is the life we live with God and with others here and now, and I think we Christians need to be much more concerned with the beforelife than we are with the afterlife. A preoccupation with the afterlife can lead to simply doing good things hoping to get a reward—going to Heaven. On the other hand, such a concern might lead one to eschew doing evil just to avoid a punishment—going to Hell.
For example, years ago at a Bible study I was leading, we were discussing various understandings of the afterlife throughout the history of the Church. I mentioned that some very faithful Christians even believe that Heaven and Hell are metaphors—that they don’t literally exist. One sweet lady in the group said: “But if there wasn’t a Hell, why would I even want to be a Christian?” For her, it seemed, the entire point of being a Christian was so she wouldn’t “go to Hell.”
Of course, there is also a flip-side of that coin—people for whom the entire point of being a Christian is so that they can “go to Heaven.” Look through your church hymnal some time, especially an older hymnal, and count how many songs are about “going to heaven,” hymns like “When We All Get to Heaven,” “When the Roll Is Called ‘Up Yonder,’” “I’ve Got a Mansion ‘Over the Hilltop,’” and “In the Sweet By and By,” just to name a few (our current United Methodist Hymnal lists in its index [p. 943] under Heaven: hymns number 722-735, plus twelve other hymns not falling in that range, plus “See also Eternal Life,” which lists many more).
Reaping rewards or avoiding punishment, neither seems a very pure motivation for following in the Way of Christ.
Worse still, many clergypersons through the centuries have used this concern with Heaven and Hell as a “carrot and stick,” conditioning the flocks of Christians in their charge like so many “Pavlovian sheep.” I’ll have none of it. I want the people I serve as pastor to be like Christ because they want to be like Christ, because they think being like Christ is its own reward.
Ask yourself: Why don’t I steal or kill or commit adultery? Why am I so nice to people? Why do I contribute to charities? If you answer, “So I won’t go to Hell,” or “So I’ll get into Heaven,” then you might just be a Pavlovian sheep, but if you answered, “Because I really don’t feel like stealing or killing or committing adultery,” or “Because I truly care about people, their needs, and their feelings;” or “Because I actually enjoy giving of myself, helping others,” then you may be participating in the beforelife.
Being concerned about the beforelife leads to doing good things because they are good in and of themselves and to abstaining from bad things because we really believe they’re bad. To live the beforelife we can’t just be good with the hope, with the expectation, that we’ll get something in return, we must be good no matter what; we have to be good because we are good. Participating in the beforelife also frees us from the stick and the carrot of those who would twist God’s grace into an instrument of control.
Participating in the beforelife can be very daunting, though; because it requires a genuine change of heart, not just improved behavior. It takes more than willpower. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day, for example, were masters of willpower. They were supremely successful at gritting their teeth and doing what had to be done; they were perhaps even more successful at using every ounce of strength not to do the wrong things, but Jesus kept trying to teach them that if they had to grit their teeth to do something, they might as well not be doing it. Can you imagine working so hard to get something right and then being told you’ve got it all wrong? No wonder Jesus had so many run-ins with the Pharisees.
I think a lot of the Pharisees and even a lot of Jesus’ disciples found it difficult to believe that a big part of the good news of the kingdom is that God isn’t demanding willpower; God, through Christ, is offering a change of heart and mind, a change of life. Paul, in particular, has a lot to say on the subject:
“…be transformed by the renewing of your minds…” (Romans 12:2)
“…be renewed in the spirit of your minds,and…to clothe yourselves with the new self…” (Ephesians 4:23-24)
“…you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator…” (Colossians 3:9-10).
Being transformed is often painful, and it is never easy; but, I believe it’s worth it to live in the beforelife. Instead of the be-all-end-all of Christianity, the beforelife makes Heaven mere icing on the cake. This good news—the offer of a changed heart, a renewed life—is a Gospel worth proclaiming to weary people in a demanding world.
All scripture, unless otherwise noted, is from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.