It’s interesting to me that this blog entry has been so challenging to get my head around; but when you think about it, maybe more than anything else, the concepts of sin, salvation and the afterlife are the most emphasized in fundamental Christianity. Certainly in my Christian upbringing, these concepts were central to everything. I said in one of my first blog entries that if someone had said to me in my early Christian life, that there was proof that there was no afterlife, I would have had no idea why I should be a Christian – getting saved and not sinning SO THAT you could have eternal life was what it was all about.
And a big part of what I grew up with was a guilt factor around sin and a scare factor about salvation and the afterlife. You’d go to church and the congregation would be "preached" at from the pulpit about what awful people we were (i.e. man's fallen nature); we would be asked to think about how we had sinned that past week, month, year, etc.; and we would be challenged about whether we were really saved. And if not, repent…lest you spend eternity in hell. So for me, even though my thinking has changed on a lot of topics (as evidenced in my previous blog entries), I still find it difficult to get out from under the guilt of sin and the scare factor surrounding salvation and the afterlife. So all that to say, this blog entry has been challenging to write.
Let’s start with sin. What is it? Well, most would think of it as disobedience – against God’s commandments and laws. Others would describe sin as being focused on pride or self-centeredness. Others would focus on estrangement or separation from God. Others would say it relates primarily to unfaithfulness (i.e. not loving God with all your heart, mind, etc.). Others would say that sin is not about evil and moral depravity…it is more the actions that result from the survival nature within the human life and is just a part of the reality of humanity’s wholeness (as opposed to resulting from humanity’s fallen nature).
For salvation, most would describe it as “going to heaven” because you’ve believed or done (or not done) what is necessary. As an aside, it’s interesting to me that with such an emphasis in Christianity on faith (i.e. “believe and you will be saved”) and grace (i.e. not works), that everything still seems to come down to WHAT you do (i.e. did you sin and did you get saved). Many would say this isn't the case, but, in my view, the overriding preoccupation in fundamental Christianity is on exactly this topic.
So where am I at on the three concepts of sin, salvation and afterlife topic? Well, let me start with a fourth concept - repentance. From what I’ve read, the Hebrew biblical concept of repentance is more about resolve than contrition. It is about returning “from exile”, reconnecting to God. And in the New Testament, the focus of repentance is on following “the way” of Jesus - that is, the path of transformation (see my blog entry The Way). “The Greek roots of the word combine to mean ‘go beyond the mind you have’…go beyond the mind you have been given or acquired…go beyond the mind shaped by culture to the mind that you can have in/with God. " (1)
In terms of the concept of sin, it seems to me that it is more about mankind’s separation from God (or estrangement from God or lack of centering in God) than it is about disobeying a set of “divine rules”. From the time we are infants, we naturally begin to take on a more self-centered perspective and, by doing so, become less and less centered in God and God’s character (e.g. love, compassion, justice, etc.). If we think of that condition as being in exile from God (or having a life that isn’t centered in God’s character), that is how I would describe the condition of sin. Now, I’m not implying that we should go about doing whatever we like and ignore the implicit moral code that was present in many of the traditional perspectives or teachings on the classic sins. The result of that type of lifestyle would be to continue to hamper one’s ability to be centered in God and God’s character. What I am implying though, is that sin is not about disobeying a set of “divine rules” and suffering the consequences (e.g. eternal damnation).
In terms of salvation, for me it is about a personal transformation that results in a life that is centered in God and God’s character. It is about becoming conscious of our relationship with and connection to God. It is about becoming intentional about deepening our connection with God by experiencing God and trying to center our identity in “the sacred”. “Spirituality is the midwifery process of salvation – it midwifes the process of birthing the new self.” (1) The result of salvation (or the process of salvation, or the process of being “born again”) is a life marked by freedom, joy, peace, love and compassion (or as John Shelby Spong would say a life that fully loves and is fully lived). It is about a life centered in the presence of God.
Finally, the afterlife. I believe there is something after this life. There are enough snippets of thought on the afterlife, as well as experiences and reports of near-death experiences that make me think there is something beyond this life. What will it be like? I have no idea. There are so many versions of what people think it will be like that I don’t see how one can even start to try to decipher which is right. All I know is that we will die. And my hope is that when we do, we die into God’s presence…and if that’s the case, that can’t be a bad thing, now can it?
Will everyone experience an afterlife? Again, I have no idea. But my gut feel is that the answer may be no…I sometimes wonder if the degree to which we “experience God” and achieve a connection to God in this life is preparing some part of our spirit (or soul?) to experience God in the afterlife. I don’t know…just a thought. And if I’m right and some don’t connect with God in the afterlife, I don’t think there is an alternate afterlife experience (e.g. “hell”)…I think there is just eternal separation from God…nothingness...which is how some define hell (although most of the time, there are a set of flames to go with this description).
As an aside, the thing that is really interesting to me is that the concept of the afterlife doesn’t seem to hold the same importance it once did to me within my Christian beliefs. I think that is because I’m no longer scared of “going to hell” if I don’t believe, say and do the exact right things. It’s all up-side...there is a chance I can connect with God both in this life and in the afterlife! Is that just wishful thinking? Again, I don’t know, but I guess that’s part of working out these types of things with “fear and trembling” (or not “fear and trembling” in this case!).
So in summary, where am I at on sin, salvation and the afterlife? If I had to summarize at this point, I think:
(1) The concept of sin relates mainly to mankind’s natural separation from and lack of centering in God and God’s character. It is not about disobeying a set of “divine rules” and suffering the consequences (e.g. eternal damnation).
(2) Repentence is not about contrition and guilt, but about resolving to reconnect to and center oneself in God and God’s character.
(3) Salvation is about a personal transformation that results from a conscious and intentional centering of one’s life and identify in God and God’s character. The result is a life that fully loves and is fully lived; a life that is characterized by love, freedom, peace, compassion and justice.
(4) The afterlife is a great unknown, but I believe there is something after this life, and I’m hoping it is us dying into God’s presence – which would be the ultimate experience of and connection with God.
POSTSCRIPT: 3 YEARS LATER, I PUT MUCH LESS THOUGHT AND EMPHASIS ON ANY OF THESE CONCEPTS. I THINK THEY ARE PRETTY MUCH IRRELEVANT AND HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH LIVING A FULL LIFE...WHICH IS WHAT I THINK IT IS ALL ABOUT. I HOPE THAT THERE IS AN AFTERLIFE, BUT I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT THAT WOULD BE LIKE...THAT'S IT...NO IDEA. AND REGARDLESS, I AM LIVING MY LIFE NOW ASSUMING THERE ISN'T AN AFTERLIFE...SO THE GOAL IS TO LIVE FULLY NOW. AGAIN, THAT DOESN'T MEAN IGNORING BASIC HUMAN MORALS AND DECENCY...BUT I DON'T EVEN THINK ABOUT THE CONCEPTS OF SIN, REPENTANCE AND SALVATION WHEN DECIDING WHAT I WILL DO OR NOT DO.
(1) Marcus J. Borg, The Heart of Christianity (San Francisco, HarperSanFrancisco, 2003).