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Base Camp for Life: A Spiritual Journey...

Is Christianity a Death Cult? Part 1

In an October, 2006 op-ed piece, Los Angeles Times Columnist Joel Stein mocked Christianity as a "death cult." Stein writes:

"I'd never realized how much of a death cult Christianity is. When we weren't fixating on how awesome Christ's murder was, we were singing about how terrific it was going to be when we bite it. Chipper up, Christians! There's a lot to live for. They're making more of those 'Narnia' movies."

Unfortunately, Stein is not alone in his appraisal of Christianity. A blogger over at Skeptical Eye laments: "What is it about Christians and death? They seem to think everyone should be as obsessed about it as they are. " While many Christian readers recoil at Stein's sardonic appraisal of the Christian faith, a thoughtful appraisal reveals that there is indeed a kernal of truth beneath the sarcasm. Christians often do seem obsessed with death - not only the death of Christ on the cross, but particularly the death of believers as the gateway to spiritual fulfillment and ultimate happiness. For many Christians, the fulfillment of God's promises is something that happens "in the future, when we die," and the goal of the Christian life is ultimately to escape from this mortal coil to "spend eternity with Jesus in Heaven." This is further evidenced by the first of the traditional "Kennedy questions" (named for evangelist James Kennedy, although it's possible Ted might have asked them a few times over a stout bottle of whiskey, too) that have become the de facto model of evangelism for many conservative Christians: "If you died tonight, do you know for sure you'd go to heaven?"

It was this concept that George Orwell mocked in the character of the Raven in Animal Farm, who promises the suffering animals a place called "sugarcandy mountain" after death in return for their endless labors on the farm. And, sadly, it is this version of Christianity that is preached in many churches today and accepted without question as "orthodoxy" by many Christian believers.

As a Christian, I actually agree with Stein in many respects. The problem I have with his humorous critique, however, is that he is focusing on only one kind of Christian belief - one which I find to be alien to the teachings of Jesus. Further, I maintain that a radical re-evaluation of Jesus' teachings on the meaning of salvation can potentially provide a way forward for the Christian church - one that will lead us past our current fixation on death and renew our ability to function as responsible citizens and agents of positive change in the world.

Ask many Christians what the meaning of the "gospel," or "good news," preached by Jesus is, and you will often get an answer that goes something like this: "The good news is that Jesus came to die for my sins. As a result of Jesus' death on the cross, if I put my faith in him and accept his sacrifice, I will be spared from eternal hell when I die and will instead spend eternity with him in Heaven."
Yet Jesus' understanding of his own "good news" seems to be quite different. The oldest of the four canonical gospels, Mark, records: "After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel ("good news") of God. "The time has come," he said. "The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!" (Mark 1:14-15).

The Greek word translated as "kingdom" in this context also carries the meaning of "reign." So for Jesus, the "good news" or "gospel" was the message that the reign of God had begun in human history. This good news was a dramatic call to live out a life narrative that was radically different from those being offered by the world at large - particularly the narrative of power, greed, and unbridled ambition that had often characterized the reign of the Roman Empire in the lives of the Jewish people among whom Jesus lived. While many Jews looked for a military coup against the Roman oppressor and the establishment of a theocratic state, Jesus taught that a person entered God's Reign through faith, rather than through force of arms or political wile.

Naturally, many people at the time of Christ attempted to interpret his teachings in light of a literal revolution that would restore the sovereignty of the Jewish people in their land, but Jesus was careful to delineate the difference between God's spiritual reign and the geopolitical reign of all worldly kingdoms. In Luke 17:20-22, the Pharisees approach Jesus to ask "when the Kingdom of God would come." Jesus' reply is startling: "The reign of God does not come in a way that can be observed, because the reign of God is within you." Some Bibles translate "within you" as "in your midst." Both translations are potentially accurate, and both convey a different shade of meaning. In the first case, Jesus is saying that the reign of God takes place at the personal level, within the life of the believer, while in the second, he is emphasizing the idea that God's reign had already begun - in fact, it was being realized right in the midst of the Pharisees, even though they were unable to see it. Perhaps Jesus meant to call attention to both ideas.

The essential teaching of Jesus, then, is the idea that God's reign in human affairs has, in some sense, already begun, and that you and I are invited to actively participate in it. Through faith, we may be step out of whatever tyranny we are currently enslaved to - whether that's the literal political tyranny of the Roman Empire, or the more subtle tyranny of greed, avarice, addiction, or a broken self-image - and into the freedom of God's radical new way of life. This reign of God provides a radically different framework in which to situate one's life and experiences - a new story or narrative in which to frame the human experience, which is marked by redemption, the triumph of love over hate, and the victory of life (in the fullest sense) over death. Indeed, the entire New Testament may be seen as illustrative of what life under God's topsy-turvey reign may look like: enemies are forgiven and embraced with love; the poor are exalted and treated with respect; slaves and masters, men and women, foreigners and natives find equal place around the King's table. It is a new paradigm of living, one as revolutionary today as it was in the first century A.D.

In the next post, we will briefly examine some of the practical ramifications of a kingdom-centered worldview, and how a re-emphasis on this important teaching could potentially help the Christian church overcome the sort of stereotypes that Stein attacks in his column.

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