Every day I drive past an Oldsmobile bearing a prominent window sticker that reads: “The Purpose of Life Is…to Get to Heaven.” I’m sure the owner of this always-parked car is a well-intentioned human being who wants to reach people with the gospel so they can spend eternity with God. But aside from the perplexing ellipsis in the middle of the slogan, I find the statement itself to be misleading at best and dangerous at worst.
It would be unfair to attribute all of the following to the owner of the car, but the window sticker reflects an approach to the world that James Hunter refers to as “Lifeboat Theology.” The idea is that this world is a horrible place that will soon be destroyed, so Christians should focus on saving souls from earth so they can get to heaven. Whether or not a person would choose to state this explicitly, the assumption is that any time spent on “non-spiritual” activities is a waste. So preach the gospel, pray, sing worship songs, read Christian books, and watch Christian movies (maybe), but whatever you do, don’t get involved in politics or economics, listen to secular music, hang out with non-Christians without an indicting gospel presentation, feed the poor (without including a gospel tract with their meal), care for the sick, get involved with the arts, etc.
I’m certainly not suggesting that we neglect prayer, evangelism, or any other so-called “spiritual activity.” And I am indeed being overdramatic in characterizing (or caricaturing?) the mentality of lifeboat theologians. But we have all encountered this line of thinking before, and many of us (myself included) are trying to recover from our it’s-all-about-getting-to-heaven-when-you-die roots.
Much of this thinking flows from a Platonic view of the world. Plato held a sharp metaphysical dualism, where reality is divided between the physical world in which we live and the spiritual heavenly world. This heavenly world contained the Forms, upon which all of the individual objects of our world are patterned and from which these worldly objects derive their meaning. Everything about the heavenly world is spiritual and non-physical. Everything about our earthly world is physical and non-spiritual, with one important exception: Plato believed that we could transcend the physical limitations of this world through the use of Reason (not a surprising conclusion for a philosopher to come to).
This Platonic line of thinking views the things of this world as unimportant, temporary, and sometimes, matter itself is seen as evil. Early in Christian history, this type of thinking formed an important part of Gnostic teaching. They claimed that the soul was imprisoned in the body, and that through attaining a higher knowledge, the soul could escape the confines of the evil matter that makes up the body. (Interestingly, this old Gnostic doctrine shows up from time to time in a variety of places. A couple of years ago I encountered a fully developed version of this teaching in the song “My Body Is a Cage” by the Arcade Fire.)
But the belief in the superiority of the non-material has not been limited to heretical groups. In fact, this view has dominated much of Christian history, right down to the present day. The question we have to answer is whether or not the Bible teaches that this world in all of its physicality is bad, deficient, or unimportant.
On the one hand, the Bible presents this material world as stained by sin and subject to decay. So in many ways, this world is a broken and scary place. Our world is fraught with moral, spiritual, and physical dangers.
But even though our physical world is stained with sin, the Bible still portrays it as the good creation of God. The creation has been “subjected to futility,” but it is looking forward to a day of redemption (see Romans 8), and in the end, this world will be transformed, re-created (see Revelation 21). We can’t forget that this world—in all of its physicality—was designed and lovingly formed by God himself. He looked on the totality of what He had made and declared it good—even very good. Even the cultural possibilities in our world were initiated by God as He first created this world, then reached down into the matter of this world and formed both a garden and a gardener.
From the moment sin entered the world, culture has been used against God rather than for Him (think of the leaves Adam & Eve sewed together to hide their shame from God and each other, or of the Tower of Babel). But culture can and should be used for God (think of the tabernacle or the temple, or of Jesus creating the cultural practice of communion as a way of remembering His death, or of the early church challenging the cultural practices of racial division).
But beyond a certain degree of cultural engagement, Jesus cared about the physical realities in our world. Not only did He forgive sins, He also healed sick bodies. Not only did He create a path to heaven, He also raised Lazarus (and Himself, and ultimately everyone who follows Him) from the dead. When Jesus rose from the dead, His new body was strange and different, but it also seemed to have retained important physical characteristics, to the point that He could eat fish and be touched by His disciples.
As glorious as the promise of heaven is, a faithful follower of Jesus Christ cannot afford to despise or neglect the physical world. Jesus said that we are in the world, but not of it. We often emphasize the “not of it,” but faithfully representing God in this world requires us to acknowledge that God has placed us in this world. Jesus is King over every aspect of this world, and our calling is to see His will done on earth—every aspect of every part of this earth—as it is in heaven.