Americans are a very religious people. For about 50 years, the Gallop Poll has consistently reported that about 95% of Americans say they believe in God. Of these, 85 percent say they are Christian.
81% believe in heaven or an afterlife and 77 percent believe in hell. 75 percent pray to God on a daily basis, 65 percent believe that religion can provide answers to modern problems, and 60 percent say that religion is “very important” in their life.
A majority of Americans are “absolutely certain” that Jesus is the Son of God (68 percent), that Jesus is divine (67 percent), that he rose from the dead (63 percent), and that he was born to a virgin (60 percent).
76 percent of Americans believe the Bible is the “actual word of God,” but they are divided between those who say it should be taken literally (55 percent) and those who do not (45 percent).
60 percent see an active and creative power behind the origins and development of human life. Pollsters get different results when they ask if the Genesis story of God’s creation of earth in six days is literally true. In some polls 40 percent of Americans agree, in others, it’s as high as 61 percent.
59 percent of those polled say that the events in the New Testament book of Revelation will occur sometime in the future. The numbers go much higher (77 percent) among born-again, evangelical Christians and fundamentalists.
62 percent of Americans say they go to church at Christmas or Easter and just over 50 percent attend church at least once a month. 38 percent say they are dedicated Christians but just 33 percent manage to get to church every week.
Unfortunately for clergy, only 30 percent of the adult American population have confidence in the leaders of organized religion.
As we move into a post-denominational era, these strongly-held beliefs form the basis of a popular form of American Christianity that can be found in nearly every church—liberal or conservative, Protestant or Catholic. It crosses all of the old theological boundaries, because popular Christianity is more rooted in a kind of folk religion than it is in orthodox church teachings.
In popular Christianity, the afterlife is what it’s all about. If the vast majority of churchgoers were told that heaven did not exist, they would most certainly wonder why anyone should be a Christian at all. After all, getting to heaven is the sole purpose and point to being a Christian, isn’t it? Perhaps. Perhaps not.
heaven and hell
It is impressive that four out of five Americans (81 percent) cling to an unwavering belief in in the existence of heaven and just over three-fourths of the population (77 percent) still believe in the existence of hell. Evangelical and fundamentalist preachers make it very clear—believe in Jesus Christ and you’ll go to heaven; do not accept Jesus as your Lord and savior and you’ll burn in the eternal flames of hell. The question “Are you saved?” means “Are you saved from eternal punishment?” Conservative Christianity wants to scare people into belief.
The foundation of popular American Christianity is a belief in a divine system of rewards and punishments, often here on earth, but surely in a future heaven and hell. And the majority of Christians are hoping for an eternal reward rather than an eternal punishment.
a folk religion
The widespread belief in heaven is more an expression of human wish-fulfillment than it is a clearly defined biblical concept. There is little in the Bible that confirms this concept. The heavenly afterlife is actually more of a popular folk religion than it is a sound Christian doctrine. There is little valid scriptural basis to support it. (The idea of pets going to heaven is surely confirmation of this.) In fact, I would make the case that the idea of an afterlife in heaven has no biblical basis whatsoever.
In many cases, clergy support this pervasive, if unfounded, belief in heaven. But, after all, clergy are called upon to comfort grieving mourners at the graveside, so there is little likelihood that the majority of pastors or priests would ever debunk the myth of a heavenly afterlife. How likely is it that they would challenge the hope of meeting our loved ones again in the sweet by-and-by?
Strangely, it was Garner Ted Armstrong, a conservative TV evangelist, who challenged Christians to find biblical support for the idea of heaven. Before his death in 2003, he wrote:
“For over twenty-eight years, I have offered a certified cashier’s check for $10,000 to anyone who can come up with the words “immortal soul,” “When we get to heaven,” “I will see you in heaven,” and “we go to heaven when we die” [in the Bible]. Not in all those twenty-eight years, with millions hearing my words, has a single person been able to claim the check. Why not? Simply because such words are not in the Bible!”
the myth of a heavenly afterlife
For centuries, the church was a major force behind creating and sustaining the myth of a heavenly afterlife. From the time of Constantine through the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic church used the threat of hell and the promise of heaven to control the faithful and make them dependent on the power of the church. Then, with the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, the church’s control over people began to diminish.
Today, the myth is so pervasive that it manifests itself in a folk religion that crosses all theological boundaries. The church and its clergy now find that they must give their overt and tacit support to the myth in order to placate the faithful, whether or not there is any credible biblical evidence to support the claim of a heavenly afterlife.
This enduring folk religion is seen in widely-held images of dear Aunt Edna’s soul flying directly from her death bed to heaven and smiling serenely down on her family and friends, or of weird Uncle Louie up in the clouds outfitted as an angel replete with white robes, halo, harp, and wings. Jokes about St. Peter at the Pearly Gates complete this broad caricature of heaven in the popular imagination.
The belief in heaven is rooted in the ancient human belief that the gods—like Yahweh, Zeus and Odin—lived above the clouds in the sky or the heavens. Imposingly tall mountains like Sinai or Olympus that pierced the clouds and touched the heavens became in pre-modern minds sacred places where humans could approach the divine dwelling place. Even Jesus, who was enculturated in that ancient worldview, spoke of God dwelling in the sky: “Our Father in the sky ” was the beginning of the prayer he taught his followers.
a more sophisticated view
For pre-modern people, heaven was a dwelling place of God, or the gods, somewhere above the earth. Of course, many Christians now have a more sophisticated view of heaven. They may see heaven not as a physical place somewhere up in space, but as a metaphysical or existential state of being—an eternal existence in the presence of God, wherever that may be. This vision of heaven was developed by 20th century theologians to accommodate a modern understanding of the structure of the physical universe. When the Russian cosmonauts first went into space, they publicly debunked the idea of a heavenly realm above the clouds. But even with a somewhat more intellectual conception of heaven, it is still difficult to point to anything in thre Bible that supports the concept of heaven as a final destination for the human soul.
what did Jesus say?
Remarkably, the Bible has little to say about a heavenly afterlife. And in spite of nearly universal Christian belief about heaven, Jesus never proclaimed a message about life after death. Heaven was not part of his mission, message, or ministry. Jesus was focused on a transformed life before we encounter death. His proclamation of the kingdom of God was about life in a transformed human society on this side of the grave.
So why this widespread belief, even among clergy, that the message of Jesus was a message about heaven? Being fearful to speak the truth to laity is part of the answer. But a lack of critical biblical scholarship is also part of the answer. Clergy are largely illiterate about the topic.
There are three topics that Jesus talked about that Christians and clergy have often confused with the concept of a heavenly afterlife. They are (1) the kingdom of heaven, (2) eternal life, and (3) resurrection of the dead. These unrelated concepts have been mushed together by Christians in a confusing and non-critical way, leading to a misleading and erroneous conclusion.
confusion 1: the kingdom of heaven
The first layer of confusion about a heavenly afterlife comes from a number of sayings attributed to Jesus in which he speaks about “the kingdom of heaven.” These references are found only in Matthew’s gospel. In the other synoptic gospels—Mark and Luke—Jesus preaches his central message about the “kingdom of God.” The widespread confusion arises from Matthew’s substitution of the phrase “kingdom of heaven” for “kingdom of God.” Scholars believe that Matthew was writing to a Jewish-Christian audience for whom taking God’s name in vain was a major concern (violating the second or third commandment, depending on how you count them). Therefore, to avoid offending God, even accidentally, Matthew substituted God’s dwelling place—heaven—as a replacement for the word “God.”
Still, many preachers have used the phrase “kingdom of heaven” to mislead their listeners and distort Jesus’ message of the kingdom of God. Even though Matthew puts the phrase “kingdom of heaven” on Jesus’ lips, Jesus himself never used that term, and Jesus never talked about heaven as a final destination after death.
confusion 2: eternal life
In several parallel gospel accounts, Jesus was questioned by a rich young man (or a wealthy ruler in some accounts) about how to obtain eternal life. Jesus responded that if we love God with our hearts, minds, and strengths, and if we love our neighbors as ourselves, we will experience “eternal” life—in the here-and-now, not later in the by-and-by.
For Jesus, eternal life was not about life after death, but rather a quality of life experienced here on earth—a life centered in the indwelling presence of God in the present. It is ‘eternal’ because it is a life that reflects God’s love, and God alone is eternal. According to Jesus, we don’t have to die first to experience eternal life. It is available immediately through a different kind of focus, priority, concern, and action.
Moreover, Jesus said, if we really want to experience this quality of eternal living, we should sell all of our excess possessions and share the proceeds with our destitute neighbors. Eternal life reflects a different set of priorities than our acquisitive, self-centered, self-immersed culture.
Although some Christians would concede that eternal life can begin on earth, most still believe that it is all about the afterlife. But Jesus never even hinted at that.
confusion 3: the resurrection of the dead
The third layer of confusion about a heavenly afterlife is the concept of the resurrection of the dead. At the time of Jesus in the first century, this was a fairly recent innovation in Jewish thought, espoused primarily by the Pharisees—including the Apostle Paul. The gospels point to a couple of occasions in which groups of Pharisees asked Jesus to comment on their own intellectual debates about how life would be when the conquering Messiah finally arrived, overthrew the Roman oppressors, and established a glorious new Jewish kingdom. The Pharisees believed that those who had died as martyrs for their faith would be raised by God to experience new life in this messianic kingdom and would be allowed to enjoy the fruits of their martyrdom in a renewed life.
Throughout the Hebrew Bible—the Christian Old Testament—there is no mention of life after death. Unlike the Greeks, the Jews did not separate the human being into two parts—the body and the soul—with an immortal soul that survived the death of the mortal body. For most of the history of the Hebrew people, they believed that when someone died, everything about that person died. Death was total and complete. It is only during what we might call the “inter-testamental period” when the books of the Maccabees (Maccabees 1, 2 and 3) were written, that the idea of a bodily resurrection entered Jewish thought.
When Alexander the Great died in 323 BCE, his empire was divided among his top generals. One of them, General Seleucis, became the ruler of an area that included Syria and the land of Israel. One of the descendants of his Seleucid dynasty, Antiochus IV Epiphanes (215-163 BCE), began a concerted effort to increase the influence of Greek culture—including the Greek pantheon of gods—among his diverse subjects, which included the Jews. The Greeks were generally tolerant of other religions, and regional gods, including Yahweh, were allowed to be worshipped in addition to the Greek gods. Most other religions went along with this inclusive and synchristic approach, but not the Jews. They were monotheistic, which sometimes meant that they believed there is only one God, and at other times meant that they believed “our God is superior to all other gods.” When the Jewish majority refused to acknowledge the Greek gods, Antiochus stepped up his campaign of forced cultural and religious integration.
Antiochus precipitated a Jewish revolt in Jerusalem by placing a statue of Zeus in the Jerusalem Temple and then sacrificing a pig in the Temple precincts. His action created a widespread uproar among the Jewish people. Antiochus then began an intense repression and persecution of resistant Jews in which many people were cruelly martyred. This in turn led to the successful Maccabean revolt and the eventual independence of the Jewish people from Greek control. (At least until the Romans appeared on the scene soon after.)
It was during this period of insurrection and martyrdom that some Jewish thinkers began to propose that if God was just, God would raise the faithful martyrs from the dead so they could experience the new age of freedom after the Greek armies of Antiochus were defeated. The idea of the resurrection of the dead, of course, had been a part of the Zoroastrian religion in Persia for centuries. Jewish thinkers now began to integrate the Persian concept with their ongoing religious development. Initially, the unjust suffering of the martyrs and their reward and vindication through resurrection were closely linked ideas.
By the time of Jesus, this novel theological proposition was part of an ongoing religious debate in the Jewish community. The conservative Sadducees refused to recognize the possibility of resurrection based on their orthodox reading of the Torah. It was not part of their traditional teachings. The more liberal Pharisees, however, accepted, developed, and promoted the idea.
By this point in history, some Jewish theologians began suggesting that all faithful people —not just the martyrs—would be resurrected to a new life when the latest oppressors—this time, the Romans—were defeated and an independent nation was again established. Still others developed the idea that even evil people would be resurrected, so that they could be judged for their past deeds and punished in retribution. This created a satisfying package of ideas: the martyrs and other faithful people would be ultimately rewarded and their persecutors would receive an ultimate punishment. The tables would be turned on the oppressors and retributive justice would be meted out by God.
But in all of this thinking, resurrection of the dead was never connected to an afterlife in heaven. According to its proponents, when the general resurrection occurred, people would be restored to a physical life on earth. This is the entire meaning of the resurrection in the gospels and in Paul’s writings. Presumably, after some period of time, the resurrected people (like the resurrected Lazarus), would die again just like everyone else. There would be no continuing eternal existence. After a short period of temporal joy, the dead would be dead forever.
Jesus on resurrection
On two occasions, groups of Pharisees questioned Jesus about his views on the topic of the resurrection. If the gospel accounts are accurate, Jesus was quite familiar with the Pharisaic position and apparently accepted the concept of a physical resurrection as a possibility, but it was definitely not a central part of his mission or message.
Resurrection, of course, became tightly connected to Jesus in the early church because many of Jesus’ early followers claimed that God had raised him from the dead soon after his execution. He too was seen as a martyr by many in the Jesus movement because of his prophetic stance against a powerful and oppressive political and economic system. His crucifixion as a insurrectionist was seen as an unjust consequence of his bold demonstration and his radical teachings in the Jerusalem Temple.
Paul on resurrection
The apostle Paul, who was trained as a Pharisee, accepted the idea of the resurrection of the dead as a theological given and wove it into his developing theology about the crucified Christ. For Paul, if the claim about the resurrection of Jesus was true, then it was a sign that the general resurrection of the dead had begun. Jesus was simply the first of many martyrs who would be raised, and the rest would soon follow. Paul was emphatic that the general resurrection was immanent. He declared that many who were then alive would witness it, yet Paul himself died waiting for it. Two thousand years later, it has still not occurred.
The resurrection of the dead and an afterlife in heaven are two very different concepts which Christians have managed to mush together without much critical thinking. The idea of resurrected bodies being transported to heaven is simply not a biblical concept and was certainly never espoused by Jesus. It has no biblical basis. It is wishful thinking, not good theology.
Beliefs about a heavenly afterlife are many and varied, and there is little agreement about how the transformation from an earthly life to a heavenly existence will supposedly occur. If you put ten Christians together in a room and asked them about life after death, you would get ten very different answers. And for most Christians, it doesn’t matter that there is no agreement. They are satisfied with their own misguided beliefs.
separation of body and soul
For the ancient Jews, the body and the soul were inseparable. When you died, everything about you died.
In the centuries after Jesus’ death, Christian theologians began to integrate classical Greek philosophy into Christian thought and belief. The idea that the mortal human body is inhabited by an immortal soul was adopted by a church that was rapidly moving away from its Jewish roots. At death—some theologians now speculated—there is a separation between the body and the soul.
But what happens to the soul at that point was open to even more speculation. Does the soul go to heaven immediately? Or does the soul have to wait for a final judgment sometime in the future before it is assigned to heaven or hell? Does the soul go to a waiting place, like purgatory, for a period? Is there a preliminary judgment at death and a final judgment later?
Are the body and the soul reunited when Christ returns? Are they reunited for an earthly existence or a heavenly existence? What kind of bodies will we have in the resurrection? Will our resurrected bodies be perfect? Will my need for orthodontia be resolved? Will I have a perfect Body Mass Index, or will I still be overweight? Will I live with my first wife or my third one? (This was one of the questions the Pharisees asked of Jesus.)
There is no widespread agreement on any of these questions because there is simply no biblical basis for all of this bizarre speculation. Our various understandings of what happens after death are simply human inventions to satisfy a natural human longing that life should not end at death. These understandings also fulfill a basic human need for justice—the need to believe that undeserved suffering on earth will be reversed in heaven, that the evil which flourishes here will be punished there, and that faithfulness in the face of persecution will be rewarded.
heaven versus transformation
For millions of Christians, the Christian faith is primarily centered on what happens after death. It is less centered on what it means to follow Jesus while we are alive. Following Jesus is far too demanding and far too difficult for most Christians. Many churchgoers would rather simply praise Jesus than follow him.
In Popular Christianity, the sole mission of Jesus was to die for the sins of humanity. Period! End of story! His mission and message had little to do with a radical transformation of life on this side of the grave.
The popular view gladly accepts God’s love, grace and forgiveness, but is largely uncomfortable with the call to follow Jesus into a life of self-denial and costly service on behalf of others. German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer called this “cheap grace.” Popular Christianity can be a very selfish faith, concerned solely about one’s own eternal fate rather than the welfare of the rest of humanity, especially the half of the world who are desperately poor, ill, and malnourished.
personal and private Christianity
Too many Christians today seem disconnected from a suffering world. In an age of massive human suffering from poverty, war, unjust social structures, and the quest for world empire, the real mystery is the moral and political complacency of middle-class American Christians.
But it’s really no mystery. It’s a reflection of a theology that places primary emphasis on individual redemption, and is frightened of political and social action on behalf of the least of humanity. It reflects a church that, by its silence and inaction, tacitly supports the status quo of the wealthy and powerful. Moreover, by supporting national wars of aggression, the church acts as a chaplain to the powers and principalities of empire. By urging personal acts of individual charity to the exclusion of acts of social justice, churches have effectively turned their backs to the real needs of the least of our brothers and sisters.
It wasn’t always this way. But since the fourth century, a Christian theology focused on personal salvation has played a significant role in crafting the moral indifference of Christians to those in dire need.
the failure of personal salvation theology
For centuries, personal salvation theology has obscured the deepest meanings of Jesus. Churches have been centered on personal salvation, not on individual or social transformation. The church has focused on individual redemption, not on the redemption of the social order. We have been focused on maintaining and expanding the temporal church, but not on building the inbreaking reign of God.
In many ways, personal salvation theology is self-centered. We often hear conservative Christians asking questions like: “Have you been saved?” “Are you right with God?” “Are you sure you are going to heaven when you die?” “Do you accept Jesus as your personal Lord and savior?” This last question treats Jesus like a personal trainer or a personal shopper—as if he’s only there to meet our personal needs.
Walter Rauschenbusch, author of The Theology of the Social Gospel, has said that the true test of any theology is its social effects. The fundamental question then that should be asked of any theology is “So what?”
What difference does this religious understanding and stance make in the lives of believers? What difference does it made in the way we respond to the needs of the world? Is this theology benign, harmful, or helpful to the society we live in?
Jesus said, “Every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit” (Matthew 7:17) If we look back at the history of the last century—wars, poverty, racism in so-called Christian nations—it is clear that personal salvation theology has been bearing a lot of bad fruit. During the 20th century more Christians died at the hands of other Christians than in all preceding centuries combined. The message of Jesus has not had much of an impact on his followers. There is something fundamentally flawed with our theology.
the Christian paradox
In an article in Harpers magazine called “The Christian Paradox,” author Bill McKibben writes:
“Only 40 percent of Americans can name more than four of the Ten Commandments, and a scant half can cite any of the four authors of the Gospels. Twelve percent believe Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife. This failure to recall the specifics of our Christian heritage may be further evidence of our nation’s educational decline, but it probably doesn’t matter all that much in spiritual or political terms.
Here is a statistic that does matter: Three quarters of Americans believe the Bible teaches that “God helps those who help themselves.” That is, three out of four Americans believe that this uber-American idea, a notion at the core of our current individualist politics and culture, which was in fact uttered by Ben Franklin, actually appears in Holy Scripture. The thing is, not only is Franklin’s wisdom not biblical; it’s counter-biblical. Few ideas could be further from the gospel message, with its radical summons to love of neighbor. On this essential matter, most Americans—most American Christians—are simply wrong, as if 75 percent of American scientists believed that Newton proved gravity causes apples to fly up.
“Asking Christians what Christ taught isn’t a trick. When we say we are a Christian nation—and, overwhelmingly, we do—it means something. People who go to church absorb lessons there and make real decisions based on those lessons; increasingly, these lessons inform their politics.
“And therein is the paradox. America is simultaneously the most professedly Christian of the developed nations and the least Christian in its behavior. That paradox …illuminates the hollow at the core of our boastful, careening culture.”
Dom Helder Camara, the former Archbishop of Olinda and Recife, Brazil, once said, “Watch how you live. Your lives may be the only gospel your sisters and brothers will ever read.”
This mirrors a quote often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, “Preach the gospel at all times. Use words if necessary.”
The essence of following Jesus is a lifestyle—one that reflects his teachings. Nothing else is as important as this in being a faithful follower and disciple of Jesus in our world.