A Provocation: Twelve Myths Too Many Christians Believe, Pt 2

For part 1, click here.

  1. The goal of Christianity is to leave your body and have your soul go to heaven when you die.
  2. The rapture.
  3. Jesus talks more about hell than about heaven.
  4. Biblical = the historic Christian faith.
  5. Salvation means that your eternal destiny changes from hell to heaven.
  6. The Bible can be relied upon because it doesn’t have any mistakes in it.

The goal of Christianity is to leave your body
and have your soul go to heaven when you die.

This one is particularly pernicious, and not for the reasons you might think.

Typically, Christians will respond, “Of course that’s not the goal of Christianity. The goal is Jesus.” And that’s very nice of course, but most of the people who respond this way have deeply embedded in their souls the idea that yes, of course they’ll get Jesus, but not to worry, their soul is still going to leave their body and they’ll be going to heaven when they die. Which is completely untrue. Well, sort of.

Here’s the deal: Once upon a time, there was a dude named Plato. Maybe you’ve heard of him. Greek philosopher. Anyway, he had this crazy idea that our bodies were evil and that if we could just get into this world of forms, this spiritual world, everything would be wonderful. Our bodies and this earth were the problems.

And then Christianity picked up on it. They decided that Plato had a fantastic idea, and they decided to go with it. There was only one problem: The early church kind of flipped out because that’s not what they believed. Now, you’ll find that the apostle Paul said that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord, and elsewhere it’s written that Christ is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, so there is indeed reason to believe that you go to heaven when you die…. but that’s not the end of the story.

See, the end of the story has its roots (surprise!) in the beginning when God created everything and said “Yeah, I did good.” The idea is that God isn’t going to trash what God made good, but rather that God is going to fix it. God is going to undo all the bad that’s been done.

And this is way better than the pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die, to borrow from Joe Hill. This is the absolute undoing of everything that has ever been wrong with the world.

Let me say that again.

This is the absolute undoing of everything that has ever been wrong with the world.

N.T. Wright says in Surprised by Hope that essentially, the Christian hope is that what happened to Jesus in the resurrection happens to the entire universe. Or to borrow from Tolkein and answer Sam Gamgee’s question, “Is everything sad going to come untrue?”

Yeah, Sam. It is. And that’s miles better than pie in the sky when you die. That is the promise of a faithful creator to restore his creation – and Jesus is the down payment, so to speak, on the promise.

That is the Christian hope.

Why it Matters: It matters because if we think the world is going to Hell in a handbasket anyway, why not trash the place (except for the fact that we want it to be here for our kids and grandkids). We can take on a sort of irresponsibility that it’s all going to burn and we’re going to go to heaven when we die anyway so why not hurry up and leave?

It also matters because, as Rob Bell puts it, the good news is better than that.

The rapture

There are some great books that discuss this, not the least of which are The Rapture Exposed by Barbara Rossing and Surprised by Hope by N.T. Wright. The summary of the argument

Why it’s wrong: The idea of Jesus coming back to earth is right-on, but there’s a bit of confusion when people read the text. Here’s the salient passage:

For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord. (I Thessalonians 4:16-17).

With our evangelical glasses on, it’s crystal-clear. Jesus comes down from heaven, resurrects the dead, they meet him, and then we meet him, and everybody goes back to heaven, home where we belong. It’s a pretty picture… but it misses one important detail: it never says Jesus is going back.

It says Jesus is coming here.

See, back in ancient times (or even now), when somebody super-important showed up, people didn’t just say “Cool, he’ll get here when he gets here.” They went out to meet that super-important person. They met that person on the way. And that’s what Paul is describing in I Thessalonians 4. We’re not going back to heaven with Jesus. Jesus is coming here to be with us.

This is a big deal. Jesus isn’t coming back to take his people to heaven and then blast earth with a death star. Jesus is coming back to undo all the shit that been done. And that’s powerful.

Why it’s a problem: Besides the fact that it’s wrong, it’s a problem because we don’t invest in God’s good earth. We’ve trashed the planet and not taken good care of it, and we’ve trashed our own bodies because we’re really spiritual beings leaving behind our temporary physical bodies anyway. We are supposed to be living out the kingdom of God in the now instead of participating in the ways of this present age. Jesus is coming back to restore all things, and we are his servants in the world. How on earth will anyone ever believe that Jesus is coming to restore the world when his servants are trashing the living hell out of it? This is a serious problem.

Jesus talks more about hell than about heaven.

I crunched the numbers. In the gospels, Jesus uses words that the NIV and NASB translate as “Hell” exactly eleven times, out of fifteen times in the entire Bible. By contrast, Jesus also talks about heaven eleven times. …In the sermon on the mount. In the NIV, there are 123 references to heaven in the gospels. Not all of these are Jesus talking, but most of them are.

The catch is that there’s a wee bit of almost-truth to this myth. Jesus does indeed spend more time “describing” hell as most modern Christians think of it than he does describing heaven. As we should know by now, we’re not going to “heaven” anyway, and that’s not Jesus’ focus anyway. Jesus talks about the Kingdom of God / Kingdom of Heaven far more than he talks about just about everything else.

Jesus doesn’t describe heaven (as we think of it) very much. I didn’t get all the way through, but if memory serves me right, Jesus talks about heaven as somewhere that we go when we die exactly zero times. Sure, there’s that line about Abraham’s Bosom, but Jesus doesn’t say that’s heaven. Then we have where he says that in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like the angels in heaven, but he’s talking about the resurrection and not “heaven,” which, as we just discussed, is not accurate. Except that he says the angels are in heaven. That’s about all Jesus says.

Basically, Jesus doesn’t talk about heaven like most people think of it… at all. Ever.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “So if Jesus doesn’t talk about heaven at all, then hell wins by default.” Well not exactly. See, Jesus doesn’t talk about hell at all either. He talks sometimes about people being “cast into outer darkness” in his parables, and a few times about people being cast into Gehenna, where the worm doesn’t die and the fire isn’t quenched, but when his original audience heard him talking about that, they heard him say the garbage dump outside of town, not some shady place in the afterlife where people’s bodiless souls got tormented forever and ever. (I think we just talked about that part, too).

In short, the score is 1-0.

And then you bring back in all the times that Jesus talks about heaven – the Kingdom of Heaven, or the Kingdom of God (basically the same). That whole “Kingdom of heaven” thing never does get explained very clearly. Whenever Jesus talks about the kingdom, it’s always “The Kingdom is like this,” or “The Kingdom is like that.” Similes everywhere. The Kingdom is a big deal to Jesus.

Sometimes when Jesus talks about heaven, he just means the sky. Check it out.

Biblical = the historic Christian faith.

There are a great many things that are Biblical that have nothing to do with the historic Christian faith. I once “proved,” using the Bible, that God does not exist. My friend Joel was quite impressed. The deal is, just because it says it in the Bible, or just because it can be construed to say it in the Bible, doesn’t mean it’s true.

In my Biblical History and Literature class, the professor used the analogy of a tile picture. If you put the tiles together the right way, you get a beautiful picture. If you put them together the wrong way, you get something ridiculous. That’s why we need creeds. They’re like directions for putting the Bible together.

This is important because in the past century or so, people have been collecting all manner of ridiculous beliefs “because the Bible says so.” If we kick it back 150, we can include the idea that Christianity endorses slavery.  Just because it can be “proved” from the Bible, that doesn’t make it Christian. Check out The Bible Made Impossible. (By the way, I want that book. Like really bad. So if you wanna buy it for me, I’ll be really happy).

Salvation means that your eternal destiny
changes from hell to heaven.

If you walk into your average evangelical church today and ask them what being saved means, they’ll tell you (more or less) that you become a Christian and instead of going to hell, you will go to heaven. And this is just wrong.

If you skim the first testament very long, you’ll find that the word “salvation” shows up pretty frequently. To the tune of 80 times. Would you believe that not a single one of them is referring to eternal destiny? Every last one refers to God saving people from some kind of trouble or another, but not a single one has anything to do with eternal destiny or heaven or hell.

And for as big a deal as some Christians claim salvation is in the New Testament, that word only shows up 40 times. Jesus himself only uses the word twice. The first is when Zacchaeous makes good, and the second is the woman at the well. Jesus says salvation has come to Zach’s house, and he tells the woman at the well that salvation is from the Jews. If it was such a big deal, you’d think he’d talk about it more.

Now, if you read through the rest of the new testament references to salvation, you’ll find plenty more that appear to mean what that bit about changing your eternal destiny. But if you take off your evangelical glasses for a moment, you’ll realize that it never links salvation with one’s “eternal destiny.” Not once. See for yourself. Wait! you say. “If going to heaven and not going to hell isn’t what salvation is about, then what is it about? And how can I go to heaven and avoid going to hell?”

I’ve come to believe that these two ever-linked questions only exist because of modern so-called evangelistic efforts. This isn’t the point of the New Testament or the early church. Their point was resurrection. Their point was taking up one’s cross and following Jesus. Jesus, the God of radical inclusion, the lover of sinners.

But I’ve been there. I’ve spent the long, late, awful nights wondering if I’m going to go to hell and wishing and hoping that I prayed hard enough for God to save me, if I was really and truly and honest-to-goodness actually saved. But I’ve stopped, because as Linus tells Lucy, good theology takes a load off of your mind.

I don’t know if I’m a universalist anymore. I don’t think that God is going to eternally torment anyone, but I don’t know how it works. I don’t know if we can or if we’re supposed to.

I’ve heard it argued that eternity is a long time and we need to make sure that we get to the right place, but I’ve read too much of scripture and done too much research to assume that praying a prayer the right way gets us into heaven and out of hell and puts the magical salvation stamp on us.

I would say that God has saved me from so many things, including maybe even a hell here on earth of my own making, but salvation isn’t something that we acquire from God and own, as many from my former days used to express it “I’d like to thank the Lord for my salvation,” but rather something that God does to us. Maybe I’ll blog about salvation later. But, as Rob Bell would say, the good news is better than that.

I believe in salvation. I’ve experienced it, over and over again. I still pray that God will save some people that I care deeply about. And they’re already Christians.

I pray that God will save them from their sins, from their firm beliefs that they are right, and from their self-imposed misery that has resulted from it. And maybe I should pray that for me too. If you want to, I welcome all the prayers I can get.

The Bible can be relied upon because it doesn’t have any mistakes in it.

Have you ever heard the one about the hunter who shows off his new bird dog to his friend? He shot a bird, and the dog walked across the lake to fetch it. He shot another, and again, the dog walked across the lake. He smiled to his friend, and his friend said, “Worthless dog can’t even swim.” Both statements miss the point.

Saying the Bible can be relied upon is like saying that a car is reliable because it can fly. It’s incoherent. It asks entirely the wrong question and insists that the only “correct” answer must be one that’s irrelevant to what the Bible is even about. It’s like that scene in Dead Poets Society where Robin Williams opens the textbook to a page that has a chart showing how to judge poetry: the horizontal is a poem’s perfection, and the vertical is how important the poem’s goal is. Robin Williams’ character tells his students to rip that page out of their textbook.

The Bible is much the same. Asking the Bible not to have “mistakes” is like asking a fairy tale to be literally true. I am not saying that the Bible is a fairy tale. It’s just a comparison. It’s like complaining about a puppy because it can’t fly. My point is that that’s not what it’s for.

For instance, the first two chapters of Genesis are Ancient Near Eastern Cosmology. They envision the world as flat and as having pillars and foundations, with a dome above them in the sky, keeping the blue ocean up there above them. Some “creation scientists” have argued that there really used to be a layer of water up in the sky (Google “canopy theory”), but this is absolutely unnecessary. The first two chapters of Genesis are orienting narrative that tell people who they are and where they came from, and they explain why there’s an ocean in the sky amid myriad other orienting narratives that explain why there’s an ocean in the sky. In their historical context, in the context of the other orienting narratives of their time, the first few chapters of Genesis create an absolutely beautiful orienting narrative.

But this is terrifying. We all have a deep desire to know from whence we came. If the first few chapters of Genesis aren’t to be taken “literally” or as modern-day history or science, that leaves us with a bit of a mystery. Where did the universe come from? How did God create the heavens and the earth if not in six literal days? If not, why does the Bible say that God did? (Hint: ANE Cosmology).

Perhaps science could help us find the answer to those questions if our faith in God begins to revolve around Jesus and ceases to rely upon the Bible “not having mistakes in it.” Science may be able to answer the how (as in how a bowl of water boils), but it can’t answer the why (as in “because I want a cup of tea”).

David M Schell About David M Schell
David M. Schell is a doubter, a believer, and a skeptic. He writes about God and stuff. He is happily married to Kristen, and that's why his posts don't come out as often or as angry.