“If you take time to read and study Christian church history,1 you will discover a common assumption among some Christian traditions that God cares far more about the immaterial world and heaven (in other words, things we can’t see, hear, touch, smell, and taste) than he does about the material world (things we can see, hear, touch, smell, and taste).2
Because of this way of viewing our world, some Christians and Christian churches throughout history have neglected important matters of social justice: things like feeding the poor and working to promote social and economic equality or helping to make our natural environment cleaner and safer. After all, if God doesn’t affirm and value matters of material life, why make this world any better?
Of course, you will also discover (when reading church history) individual Christians, entire churches, and church movements who have believed, oppositely, that God does value and affirm this material world. Not only this, but they have worked (sometimes tirelessly) toward creating a world that matches that belief. Thank God for them. They have been an incredible example to me and inspire me to value this world and work toward its betterment.
Yet, because there have been Christians throughout history who have had such a poor view of this world as we know it—some even adamant about this belief in the political realm—it has left a bad taste of Christianity in the mouths of those who aren’t Christians.
This “bad taste” has left an impression with many in our world that Christianity has a low view of humanity—that somehow becoming a Christian must mean caring less about our world rather than caring more.
In my twenties, the way I thought about our world had very much been influenced by this downgraded view of seeing our world. In the church culture I was part of at the time, our overemphasis of the immaterial world played a huge role in how we interpreted various Bible-based topics like salvation, the gospel, and the Christian life.
God’s salvation was essentially to ensure that we entered the afterlife in heaven. The gospel (or good news of Jesus)—commonly understood as the vehicle for understanding Jesus’s saving work on the cross—had a very otherworldly vibe to it. Going to a place called heaven far away from this earth when we die became the main goal of hearing and embracing the good news, so it was common to frame our entire purpose as “getting to heaven when we die.” The Christian life on earth, while it involved living in this material world, was seen as more or less a necessity of life on earth, something to put up with while we waited for the real, lasting, eternal immaterial world we called heaven. When perceiving heaven in this light, it can be easy to understand why any work or effort to make this world a better place seems arbitrary.
This is an overgeneralization, to be sure. There were plenty of Christians I knew, including myself, who felt that framing our whole existence and purpose on an afterlife that denies any consistent affirmation and value of life on planet earth was very odd to say the least—especially since the culture of the church we grew up in also spoke and advocated for a personal God who desired to be present and involved in our lives. How could such a personable God care very little about the material world?
If the good news is essentially about escaping this world and heading far off to another way up in the sky, how could this be good news to anyone? And how could we trust a God who abandons the very creation he made and once held dear?
So, how does Jesus and news about him relate to people today on earth, right now?
In my twenties, I worked in a restaurant near the top of a hill facing the city of Pomona, California. Like many restaurants it was a fast-paced environment. I bussed tables but would often assist the servers by delivering the meals to our customers when things got too busy for them to do it on their own. I worked hard, treated people equally, and ended up gaining the respect of most of the staff who I worked with directly. Because of this, at least a few coworkers felt they could trust me and opened up about their lives.
I remember one server in particular ask me questions about what I did outside of work, which led to talking about being a student at a local Bible college. Knowing that I went to a Bible college, he asked me questions about Christianity and church. He also shared with me some negative experiences he had with Christians he knew that left him wondering if church, Jesus, or Christianity had anything genuinely helpful to offer him. At the end of the day, he wanted to know if God truly cared about him and his situation in life.
He wanted to know if God would enter his world today or if God simply wanted to make sure his afterlife was well kept and secure.
What good news did I have to offer him?
That conversation with my coworker became a defining one that would propel me into prayer and consideration over what I believed Jesus has to offer people today.
If going to heaven was more or less the whole package deal, then what in the world did God create our universe for anyway?…”
The above content is taken from a section of chapter seven, “When Christians become human,” in Peter’s book Authentic Christianity: Why it matters for followers of Jesus (2018)