One of the ways many traditional Christians have avoided real change/conversion has been to make the gospel of Jesus primarily about going to heaven and avoiding hell. I think this is particularly true for many of us who have made “heaven” the reward for believing the right things. We use all sorts of language for this: accepting Christ into one’s heart, making a decision for Christ, having a born again experience, trusting Christ as personal Savior, etc. (all these expressions mean different things to different people).
The problem is that many Christians who feel they have made this “decision” think that they are guaranteed heaven and see no real need to change now. With the promise of heaven secured, one’s ego can easily pad and protect itself in ways that avoid dealing with the pride, negativity, and greed that resides there. When whole groups of people (evangelical Christians?) are committed to ego protection and defense, real personal or communal transformation rarely happens. Being a Christian, then, becomes nothing more than believing the correct doctrine, observing the proper rites and rituals, or saying the appropriate words. The ego is not touched and the heart is not changed.
But when we understand “heaven” and “hell” primarily as spiritual symbols of our spiritual state in the present, we are more likely to assume some responsibility for how we live. Authentic spirituality is always about “today.” It’s about seeing, doing, waiting, trusting, loving, caring, sharing, and serving now, rather than something we are given in the future as the result of believing the right things or being a part of the “in” group. Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). Following Jesus daily, being led by the Spirit of the living Christ daily, living daily in and for the kingdom of God, is not optional. It is at the very heart and core of the good news Jesus proclaimed and embodied.
Jesus certainly believed in a future resurrection, as did his early followers (whose writings make up our New Testament). But that was never at the center of the gospel he proclaimed. Jesus called his disciples into a mindset, lifestyle, and lifetime of change. And I have no doubt that whatever constitutes life in a resurrected state (which is all speculation from our side of it) continuing change will be part of it.
Salvation is a continual process, never a completed state. When one stage is complete, we simply enter another. One who is being saved, one who is spiritual, is one who invites and welcomes the indwelling Spirit to teach her/him how to love. This involves breaking old habits of ego protection, negative reactions, and selfish behavior and attitudes, and allowing the Spirit, whose very nature is Love and Grace, access to our innermost being. The Spirit inspires and empowers new patterns of reaction and interaction with others in ways that are pervaded by forgiveness and compassion. We learn to die daily to the old, false self as we learn to put on the new, Christ self (read Eph 4-5 and Col 3).
When we do church right, this is what we are teaching one another—how to “walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us” (Eph 5:2).