Blast from the past: beliefs eleven – sin, heaven and hell

This is part of a series in which I’m reposting old blog posts to explore my current thinking on the ‘big stuff’. They were first posted in 2011/12. I’m aiming to write a reflection after each topic commenting on any evolutions since this point in history. 

One of my goals through this series has been to try and give an explanation of how I’ve come to understand some of the key aspects of Christian belief, in an attempt to help others articulate or explore their own views…both those within and outside of the Jesus movement. I hope it’s been useful…it’s certainly helped me to articulate this stuff, to get a sense of where I am in my own journey.

So – here we are. A real biggy. Nice and chewy. Sin.

If I use that word, I wonder what comes to mind for you?

I find it fascinating to be working amongst young people for whom it has absolutely no meaning beyond perhaps something a little naughty but ultimately worthwhile (eg eating a chocolate, or having a bit of a gossip etc.). It’s another one of those examples of how we in the church have clung on to a vocabulary that has little or no relevance to anyone else.

I imagine that one of your responses might have been an image of a militant bunch of Christians hurling abuse at those they disagree with (abortionists/gays/significant other ‘sinner’ category), usually accompanied with a “you’re going to hell” type statement. When asked to explain what’s hoped to be achieved the response is often ‘to get them to realise the folly of their ways, confess their sins and turn to Jesus’. Something like that. Know what I mean? You may even have also heard or used the old “love the sinner, hate the sin” chestnut.

Basically the image is one of judgement, one which is overwhelmingly negative. It speaks of a club like approach where some are in and some are out based on what they get up to. Evangelism – or the process of persuading someone to become a Christian – then becomes a process through which we try to persuade others how rubbish they are, how much they deserve to be punished by God, and therefore that they’d better sort themselves out fairly sharpish. By which we mean becoming a Christian, just like us.

What a weird place to start if we’re trying to bring a message of hope and transformation to our world.

Perhaps we have to wrap our minds around a much more basic point which might then inform how we share our faith with others.

What is sin? That’s pretty basic…

Well, I believe ‘sin’ could be described fundamentally as ‘selfishness’. By this I mean the desire to put ourself, our needs and desires, before everyone else. I see that both in terms of our human relationships, but also our understanding of who and what God is. When we’re selfish, we hurt not only others, but also ourselves. We break relationships, destroy trust. We become deeply isolated, which I see as massively problematic as I believe that we were created to be in community. We’re saying that our needs are more important that the needs of others (the meta-narrative of consumer driven capitalism). Our rights trump the rights of everyone else. You get the picture. Pretty rubbish, really. But even worse, this selfishness can drive us to acts of great evil, damaging not only others but us deeply too.

The creation narrative found in Genesis is a way in which the early Jewish community tried to put together their understanding of literally how they came to be, based on their observations of the world around them, their shared history and their experiences of God. They needed to explain how and why people were fundamentally selfish and thus capable of great evil.

I think that they were trying to express how they could believe that God created, and it was good – and then it all went wrong – the problem of suffering and evil is one that we struggle with even to this day in arguing that there is a good and loving God. And so we have the ‘fall’ – the introduction of ‘sin’ into the world – where Adam and Eve choose to disobey God’s instructions. Their selfishness, against the loving advice of the Creator, sets the template for so much of what is to follow in the biblical narrative. God sets out a world for his people to flourish in, but they screw up time and time again, choosing their own way and not God’s. Even through to the Jesus story, this repeats time and time again – perhaps even up to today.

I guess I introduce this at this point as I wanted to mention that I struggle with the idea of original sin, whereby because of the action of Adam and Eve, every human is born sinful. In some ways, I think it’s a bit of a cop-out for us, a way in which we can shrug our shoulders and say ‘it’s not really my fault, I was born this way’, instead of taking responsibility for our actions. As I explained earlier in this series, I’m not too worried about whether there was an actual Adam and Eve (even if Science tells us we all share a common ancestral pair), but accept that it’s a helpful and deeply powerful way for us to understand how we, for whatever reason, seem to want to ignore the way that God seems to want to world to work.

I do believe that we were created – although however that happened is up for debate – and created with free will, with the ability to choose to do right or wrong. It also seems that the way we were created leaves room for us to choose to be selfish (sinful?) – which at times can seem like a ‘survival of the fittest’ instinct. In other words, we behave selfishly to survive as individuals. But what if this was more of a side effect of the ability to choose between right and wrong? What I’m suggesting is that we were born to be in community and thus to flourish and prosper we need to be able to act altruistically – to be generous, to look to prosper others, which in turn leads to our own ability to prosper as the whole community benefits and grows together. Therefore, our journey into full humanity (as designed by God) is to learn to overcome this ‘instinct’ to be selfish.

So, rather than beginning with us all being inherently sinful, I’d rather start at the point where the Creator says his creation is good, and has unlimited potential. Every baby is born in this way. Their future is not mapped out (although their upbringing can certainly determine this), and although babies and children will often exhibit huge selfishness, this is all part of a basic instinct which is about survival. But survival is not flourishing, and thus as we grow, we learn that to flourish we need others. Selfishness then must be overcome. But, I don’t think that we can do this just on our own. I think that this is the point at which we need to accept that we need to embrace God. To be fully human, to fulfil our potential, I think we need to embrace our creator.

So what does this look like? In terms of our relationship with God, we ‘rebel’ against the way in which we have been created every time that we choose to be selfish. The term ‘repentance’ in the New Testament is metanoia – literally the changing of one’s mind, taking up a new worldview, a God orientated, kingdom obsessed, love soaked worldview. So, when we realise that we need God to embrace this fully-human life that Jesus models, we set aside selfishness, or sin, and take up a way that loves God with everything we are, and loves our neighbour as much as we love ourselves. We are ‘re-born’. We still have many things that we don’t get right, because we’re in the process of being recreated. But we do join in the adventure of God’s mission to recreate. Fundamentally that means a world in which God’s way is the way we live – and we flourish as a result of that. Jesus’ life, death and resurrection (as discussed earlier in this series) is all about this – God decisively acting to put everything back together (because we can’t do it on our own, as the mess we make of it throughout history make clear), and showing us the way in which we should live as part of the new creation.

I do believe fundamentally that those who don’t believe in God, or perhaps another god to the one I believe is the way, the truth and the life, can do good. In other words, goodness is not just a Christian attribute. I think it’s a human attribute, a deep resonance of the way in which we were created by the good Creator. You see, if we were created in his image, we all carry his DNA – his goodness, his love, his mercy, his justice and so on – and so I believe that wherever we see goodness, love, mercy, justice and so on we see a glimpse of God. But to fully embrace that, to fully understand the way the world works – well I think that takes embracing the God I’ve been talking about throughout this series. Jesus gives us the best example of what this is, and thus believing in him, believing that somehow God walked on Earth, is entering this new life. As we live this new life, we bring about the kingdom of God, in effect living ‘heaven’, here and now.

I do believe that this life isn’t the end of the story, that there is something eternal going on, that after death we engage with in a way that we can’t begin to explain before. I think that ‘heaven’ is all about God’s kingdom coming here to Earth, his way being fully established. ‘Hell’, therefore, is being separated from God. I think that’s sufficient punishment for a creation that was designed to be at one with the Creator. I think that to be with God in this heaven is to believe in his plan – Jesus, and to live a life here and now that reflects that. In other words, I guess I’m saying I’m not an universalist (i.e. everyone ends up in), but I’d also say that I think those who live in a way that reflects the Creator’s DNA (living selflessly) yet haven’t embraced the Jesus way, are more likely to be allowed in than those who say they believe but don’t live it out (living selfishly)…if that makes sense?! I suppose the key point that this is a best guess, as basically it’s up to God, after all.

To some degree this helps us to try to work out what is good and right in God’s eyes, and what might be wrong, and therefore lead us to separation from God. I think that this is a constant process, and one that we need to constantly revisit. I’m not suggesting that the boundaries of ‘sin’ or selfishness move, but instead to explore more carefully what we mean when we say that something is definitively ‘good’ or ‘evil’, or perhaps even worse, say that God hates something or someone because of what they do. I don’t think that God hates his creation. I don’t think he wants anyone to end up separated from him, but I do believe that because of the way he has created us he will allow us to choose to be separated from him – which is mirrored in both life and death – because of our selfishness. He wants every human to have a life that flourishes – and wants his people to show what that life looks like. The invitation to join his people is always open – no matter how selfish we may be at the moment. Another way is possible.

Another way is possible. Perhaps that a more effective, more compassionate, more loving way to share the good news about Jesus?

I think that I’m going to end this here…I hope that this (very long) post makes some kind of sense… As ever, I’d appreciate any of your thoughts on this…

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