There are two kinds of religion in this world: false religion and true religion. False religion, including much of modern Christianity, is incompetent at helping people live well in a broken world. True religion is uncommon.
In distinguishing false from true religion, I am not drawing a line between Christianity and paganism, or between Christianity and Judaism, or Catholicism and Protestantism. In the following, I will show you where the line should be drawn.
The issue came to the forefront as I reflected recently on the way that Christians tend to think about death. I am fully aware that theologians of various stripes understand death and resurrection differently but, in my experience, the most common line of thinking amongst Christians goes like this: “When it comes my time to die, one minute I will be alive and the next minute I will be with God.” This conclusion is based on the text from 2 Corinthians 5: We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.
Most human beings are uncomfortable with the idea that, for each of us, there will be a day when we will cease to exist. Consider your reaction as you read that last sentence. You probably countered immediately, even if subconsciously, with, “My body will die, but my spirit will continue to live on.” Or, you might think, “Yes, but God will raise me up (sooner or later, depending on your theology) and I will continue to live.” How you react to the possibility of annihilation depends on several factors, including the particular theological theory to which you subscribe, but the fundamental idea is this: “One way or another, I am not really going to die. I believe that, somehow, I will live on.”
Now, I will show how this conclusion is consistent with false religion and ruins your life.
One of the roles that religion plays is to help people deal with fear. Christianity is no exception. Consider how often the Scriptures implore us to “fear not.” Death is the most fearsome enemy of all. Despite the work of Christ thus far, that enemy still exists. For He must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet. The last enemy that will be abolished is death. (Note the future tense of the verb “abolish”.) Along with death, there are many, many other things in life to fear. How a person deals with those fears is what distinguishes false religion from true religion.
It is false religion that tells us not to be afraid, but to simply trust God who will see to it that none of the things we fear will happen to us. This view of life, religion, and our expectations of God is very common, and can be heard in such exclamations as, “Why did God allow this to happen to me?” or “Why doesn’t God do something about my present circumstances?” It also lies behind the view that Christians will somehow escape the horror of death and that death is not the fearful entity that everyone makes it out to be. The statement that “one minute I will be alive and the next minute I will be with God” skips right past the death part, implicitly holding that God simply won’t allow me to be truly dead.
What do I mean by “truly dead”? This is where atheists have it over religious people. Atheists understand death, because they readily admit that when you die, you are all dead, not mostly dead. The heart stops. Breathing ceases. Brain waves go flat. Within 3 minutes, cells begin to undergo necrosis, suffering irretrievable injury. The process is absolutely irreversible. When death occurs, life is no longer present and can never return. All the processes and characteristics of life are gone, permanently. Not only is the body dead, but all those features of life that emerge out of the complexity that we know as the brain are also destroyed: imagination, will, memory. Once death has occurred, there is absolutely no hope whatsoever of life being restored. Life has stopped; it is gone, forever. Once the facts are laid out in this way, it is no wonder that the Scriptures refer to death as an enemy.
Let me be clear that I am not denying any of the various theological theories about what happens to Christians at the time of death. I am not specifically denying that God will raise us up, or that our spirits will go to be with God. I have absolutely no interest in arguing with the theologians. I am saying that there is a strong tendency to focus on only two things: life on earth, followed by life in heaven, with no consideration whatsoever being given to what happens in between. We are happy to believe that death is nothing more than a transition from the “here” to the “hereafter.”
Since, for all of us, death is a future event, this discussion may strike you as being utterly theoretical and of no consequence, that the distinctions I am making have no relevance to the life I now live. I have not focused thus far on death because I want to solve with precision the question of what happens when a person dies. Rather, the belief that, one way or another, God will never allow me to be “truly dead” reveals something very, very important about how a person lives their life now.
The life of Christ is a conundrum for many people. God said, “This is my son in whom I am well pleased.” The next thing we know, a crowd is trying to throw Jesus off a cliff, the Pharisees hate his guts and are plotting his murder, and Pilate tortures and crucifies him. All this happened to a person with whom God is well pleased! Jesus had plenty of things in his life about which to be afraid and he surely trusted God with those fearful things. But, I don’t recall him ever asking the question, “Why are all these bad things happening to me?”
We should make no mistake that bad things really, truly happened to Jesus. People really did hate him. When the Roman soldiers beat and whipped Jesus, it hurt… a lot. His skin ripped. He bled. He screamed in agony. The pain was not only physical but emotional, as well, especially considering that his best friends totally abandoned him. And, he was going through all this torture for them! The nails were real. When Thomas insisted on proof after the resurrection, Jesus was able to show him the holes in his hands made by the nails that soldiers had driven through his flesh before they hung him on a cross. I believe that Mary, standing at the foot of the cross, was relieved when Jesus uttered his last words. Finally, his excruciating suffering was over. Joseph and Nicodemus pulled a real body down from a cross, and placed it in a grave. Jesus, the son with whom God was well pleased, was dead and gone.
False religion fails to make sense of Jesus’ life. False religion cannot make sense of our lives, either. In hard times, we ask how God could possibly have let such-and-such happen. False religion ruins our lives because it forces us to question God’s actions, His motives, and His love. Relationship with our friend, our creator, our only good, goes out the window just at the time that we need Him most.
In contrast to false religion, true religion does not deny the brutal facts about life and death, but looks them square in the face and says, “Do not be afraid.” The Psalmist wrote, Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me. He faced the fact that he had and would walk through valleys. There was no getting around that. Bad things happen. But, there is nothing to fear, not because God prevents bad things from happening, but because God is present with us as we go through hard times. Isaiah wrote, When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you… Fear not, for I am with you. “When you pass…” “When you walk…” It is in those times that you should not fear because “I am with you.” The waters and the rivers and the fires and the valleys are not to be feared. Being without God is to be feared!
True religion tells us that bad things are going to happen to us, but they are nothing to be afraid of.
Understanding why the gospel, the good news, is such a big deal requires a willingness to acknowledge and confront the brutality of our world, including the brutality of death. There can be no really good news unless there is really bad news. The good news does not include an announcement that I will not experience hard times, even death. The good news is that in the midst of the most horrendous difficulties, even in the midst of being dead, God will be there. When I am dead, He will be there until He somehow-or-other, against all odds and reasonableness, restores me to life. The good news is that nothing, not waters, not rivers, not fires, not valleys, not life, not death, can separate me from God. Even when I am dead and gone, God will still have his hand on me. When I am utterly unable to detect or respond to His presence, He will be there. True religion faces life with all its unrelenting, ferocious cruelty and says, “Go. Walk through the fire. There is nothing to fear. I will be right there with you.”
That is not what we want to hear and this is why true religion is not common. What we want to hear is that God will keep us away from trouble and hard times. Surely He is powerful enough to do so, especially for His children! This is why most people pray: they get in trouble and ask God to get them out of it. Here is the test of true religion when someone asks you to pray for them: ignore the predicament in which the person of interest finds themselves; pray that God would leave them in their present circumstance as long as He so desires; but ask that the person would know that God is with them. The fact that so few people pray like this is evidence that true religion is uncommon. True religion requires great courage. True religion requires knowing that God is our friend and our savior, one who simply cannot be touched by anything in life or death. True religion knows that God’s presence is of more value than rescue from the fire.
Christians who believe that they are not really going to die but that they will simply pass imperceptibly into heaven, are at very high risk of using the same reasoning process in life. God will not allow me to experience true death; by the same token, though God may allow hard times in my life, He will not allow impossibly difficult times to come near me. The fundamental issue at hand is not what we believe happens at death, but how we go about living life right now: what I believe about death provides a clue as to my real beliefs about what God will allow into my life today.
False religion expects that we will pass from life here to life hereafter seamlessly, that God will guide the doctors, that there will be no accidents during travel, that God will heal my body, that the things I want most to accomplish in life will be achieved, that if I am doing God’s work then I will be protected from bad things, that my present difficulty will pass quickly.
True religion, in contrast, looks for and finds God in the midst of the fire.
The line between false and true religion does not lie between Christianity and paganism, or between Christianity and Judaism, or between Protestantism and Catholicism.
False religion is about me. True religion is about God. It is not about what I think about God or what I believe about God, because how I live my life and view my life can still be about me, even if I believe all the right things. True religion is about experiencing life, even the valleys and the fires, with God.
I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you… For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior… Because you are precious in my eyes, and honored, and I love you… Fear not, for I am with you.