For most evangelical Christians (and not a few mainliners), salvation is about going to heaven or hell. Once upon a time I believed that too. I was wrong.
Now, don’t misunderstand me. I believe in an afterlife. I believe there is more to this life than this life. And I am sure it will be good, because God is good – as the song says, “God is good, all the time.” I believe that.
If you believe that, then there is no need to worry about heaven or hell in the literal sense. God would not be good if God tortured people. Other people might torture us, and we might torture ourselves, but God won’t. While not literal, hell is still a reality though. And most of usually have to live through some “hells” before we reach “heaven.”
Heaven is where love is, now and forever. I love this passage by Wendell Berry in his book, The Lost World: “I imagine the dead waking, dazed, into a shadowless light in which they know themselves altogether for the first time. It is a light that is merciless until they can accept its mercy; by it they are at once condemned and redeemed. It is Hell until it is Heaven.”
I don’t know why, like the prodigal in Luke 15, we have to go through “hell” before we get to “heaven.” But such seems to be almost always the case.
Salvation in the biblical tradition is not primarily about the afterlife. It’s about a “way of life” not a “way out of this life.” It’s about the transformation of individuals and whole communities by love, in love, in order to love. To be transformed by love is to be transformed by God, for God is love. So wherever love is God is (see 1 John 4:7-12).
The power of God to save is the power of love. In Paul’s letter to the Galatians he says, “The fruit of the Spirit is love” (5:22). Again he says, “The only thing that counts, is faith working through love” (5:6). And once again, in the same letter, “The whole law [the whole requirement of God for humanity] is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (5:14).
In his letter to the Corinthians Paul says that of the three great principles of the Christian religion, faith, hope, and love, “the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor. 13:13). In his letter to the Colossians, Paul says, “Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (3:14). In Ephesians he says, “Be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us” (5:1-2).
This is from one who formerly, prior to his encounter with Christ, was driven by the anti-human forces of prejudice and hate under the guise of religious zeal and fervor. Not much has changed has it? Being a Christian doesn’t mean diddly squat unless we love.
In a little book I wrote about progressive Christianity I said this: “The journey of personal redemption is a journey from the selfish ways of childhood to the adulthood of self-giving love. It is a journey from the partial to the complete, from immaturity to maturity, from brokenness to wholeness, from the false self to the true self, from egoism to compassion, from exclusive focus on our own suffering to an inclusive solidarity with the suffering creation, especially our disadvantaged sisters and brothers within the human family. Each journey is unique. Each has its own twists and turns, defeats and victories, setbacks and advances. None of the ‘hells’ we each pass through are exactly alike. But I am convinced that the God who has come to us in Jesus, who knows the number of hairs on our heads, who calls us ‘dearly beloved,’ will bring each one of us to final redemption.”
Salvation, however, is not just about our own personal growth in love and transformation by love. It’s also about the transformation of our families, communities, organizations, institutions, and all of society. It’s about confronting injustice, as we stand with and advocate for the marginalized and disenfranchised (that would especially be the undocumented who are now living in fear of deportation, and minorities who are often mistreated such as our LGBTQ sisters and brothers). It’s about God’s will being done ON EARTH as it is in heaven. It’s about praying, serving, and working for a just, equitable, peace-full, grace-filled world.
It’s common sense really. What would a God of love want for and from God’s beloved daughters and sons? God wants us to love and care for each other because we are all one people and one family. Authentic faith is nothing less than trusting in and being faithful to the way of love as it was so beautifully incarnated in the life of Jesus.
(This article was first published in the Frankfort State Journal)