Tag Archives: ethics

Eschatology Without Ethics is Just Religious Escapism

The Christian bubble I grew up in was pervaded by talk about “eternity.” Over time this word has taken on an unfortunate connotation of dualism, a contrast between the compromised and fleshly experience of this life and the hyper-spiritual forever-dimension that is its opposite. This is a major mistake, as biblical talk of “eternity” and “eternal” things is actually concerned chiefly with the continuity of both human society and creation as a whole. Our hope is not that this life be forfeited in exchange for another one, but rather that it be redeemed and fulfilled.

lecrae nonsenseA popular meme in my Facebook feed says (in words attributed to evangelical rapper Lecrae), “If I’m wrong about God then I’ve wasted my life; If you’re wrong about God then you’ve wasted your eternity.” Not only is this sentiment oddly aggressive and sanctimonious, it also reveals a problematic underlying theology. According to this meme, the purpose of believing in (or being right about) God is to secure a happy afterlife, and it would be OK to appear to “waste” this life as long as one was prepared for the next.

There was a time when I was deeply committed to that logic, but now it makes no sense to me. In addition to a strong moral sense that this is a flawed and dangerous way to look at life, I also find that this is out of line with the way Jesus talked about God, humanity, and the world’s future. Jesus never separated eschatology from ethics, and neither should we.

You Got Ethics In My Eschatology!

“Eschatology” simply refers to an idea, view, or belief about where the world is heading. This is not so much about predicting the future as it is about diagnosing the present. It’s about seeing the handwriting on the wall and calling for change in light of it. The eschatology of Jesus was centered around what he called the “kingdom of God,” a spiritual and ethical reality into which he invited his followers. In the kingdom espoused by Jesus, life, law, and justice are reoriented away from the familiar machinations of power and domination and toward love, empathy, and forgiveness. The kingdom is radical, political, and social as well as spiritual. It is both present and future, it comes from heaven but is already inside and among us.

Jesus’ eschatology employed (and subverted) the language of Jewish apocalypticism which insisted that God’s kingdom was actually becoming a reality, on earth, in history. This is not “just a metaphor” or some future disembodied experience in an alternate dimension, it is a vision for the real and tangible future of humanity and creation. For Jesus, time and experience are not to be divided between life and afterlife, this doomed world and “eternity,” but between the world as it is and the world as it must soon be. And far from teaching people to sit on their hands while they wait for a postmortem reward, Jesus invites us to live out the reality of the kingdom. 

Divorcing ethics from eschatology has left many Christians with an unhelpful bifurcated view of time and the universe. The present and its concerns are seen as pale and irrelevant, and the future as a disconnected dimension where life will really begin. This is not the vision of Jesus. This is not how the kingdom of God works. The kingdom is forever but it starts now, and it is only as real and visible as our love for each other. The ethical vision of Jesus is not a set of suggestions for killing time until the apocalypse comes, it is the content of his eschatology. Because apart from love and forgiveness today, “eternity” is a pretty grim prospect. 


The Narrow Path

While some teachings of Jesus are overlooked or obscured, others get used so often out-of-context that they take on a mutated meaning. In Matthew 7 (again), Jesus says:

13 Enter by the narrow gate. For the way is wide and easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. 14 For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.

In American Christianity, these verses are too often read through a prism of exclusivity and right belief. Groups obsessed with doctrinal certainty and cultural supremacy find in Jesus’ words an endorsement of their own agenda and a condemnation of all outsiders. I have seen these verses used to shut down young Christians with questions about the narrow beliefs of their particular church tradition. “Jesus told us that the way would be narrow, and that only a few of us would be saved!”

This way of thinking can bolster unhealthy certainty in abstract beliefs and poison the way believers perceive and interact with the world outside their church. It’s us (the redeemed, the faithful remnant) versus them (the unbelieving hordes). And for many American denominations, “them” does not consist merely of non-Christians, but also of the millions of Christians who do not profess the same configuration of belief that we do. Extremely narrow is the way, our way.

In context, however, Jesus’ words are not about religious belief, church, or exclusivity. They come at the end of Matthew’s “Sermon on the Mount,” a collection of ethical teachings given by Jesus to his students and a crowd of their Jewish neighbors. Having just described an ethically ideal worldview (and alternate reality) he calls the “kingdom of God,” Jesus issues a challenge and a warning: Not everyone will choose this narrow way of humility, empathy, and peace! In fact, most will hold to their course of violence, greed, and selfish living. One way leads to life, the other to self-destruction. It was a typically didactic (and Jewish) assessment of humanity’s dilemma, not a threat that God would only choose to favor a lucky select few. It aptly described the religious climate Jesus observed in his own moment, and it still hits home today.

The “narrow path” of Jesus doesn’t conform to the boundaries of religion or doctrine, in fact it cuts through all segments of humanity. Consider also Jesus’ parables of judgment (eg. Matthew 25:31-46). In the end, says Jesus, people from all nations and tribes are judged on ethical grounds, not according to how much they believed in correct religious ideas. In reality, we all know remarkable people from diverse traditions and walks of life who have chosen the narrow way, and many from our own tribe who have not.

As Christians, we “believe in Jesus,” but we must decide what this means for us. Does it mean belonging to an exclusive religious club which boasts Jesus as its mascot? Or does it mean trusting that the Way of Jesus truly does lead to life, wherever and by whomever it is embraced? Jesus did not teach and heal and die and rise so that there would be Christians, but so that humanity would be called loudly to the path that leads to life. Those who call ourselves his followers need to hear the call as much as anyone. We cannot imagine that religious affiliation or assent to doctrine places us on the narrow way.