A long time ago (almost a year, which is forever in online time), Jeremy Smith wrote the following statement on his blog, Hacking Christianity: “When a former pastor of mine was asked why the church turned a predominantly missions trip into an evangelism trip, he said these words: When we make the planet better, it is temporary. When we save souls to Christ, it is eternal”. That particular blog post was about spiritualism, but I’m using it to talk about Heaven and Hell. I suppose I should say a couple of things up front. I don’t believe in the classical view of the afterlife, where Heaven is sitting on a cloud with halo and harp or Hell is a lake of fire filled with horned, pointy-tailed little demons that carry pitchforks and torment the crap out of you. For me, Heaven is an existence ithe presence of God and Hell is is an existence absent of God’s presence. And, those states can exist right now, as well as in the future. As Rob Bell said in his book, Velvet Elvis, “Because with every action, comment, conversation, we have the choice to invite Heaven or Hell to Earth.” More than a few people would disagree with this.
The problem I have with the statement “When we make the planet better, it is temporary. When we save souls to Christ, it is eternal” is that it’s more concerned with the afterlife than the current life we’re living right now. And, giving any less than 100% to the life we’re living right now is a big old spit-in-the-face to Jesus. Because, as Erwin McManus said in The Barbarian Way, “Jesus came to liberate us so that we could die up front and then live.” Growing up, I can remember my grandparents talking about how much better things were going to be once they were in Heaven. They were willing to settle for less because of some far-off promise of mansions, crowns and streets of gold. And, I have never understood that. A rockin’ case of ADD, coupled with a severe dose of instant gratification causes me break out in a cold sweat at the idea of waiting for anything. So, you can see why I like the idea of Heaven coming to Earth.
Another aspect of this mindset is the idea that spiritual things always trump earthly things. That is to say “saving souls” is more important than making sure people have housing, health care, schools, etc. I don’t think the two can be seperated, though. I know I talk about this a lot, but “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs” that says our needs can categorized and that each level of need must be met before the next level can be achieved. You just can’t talk about God with any success to a person that’s starving, or doesn’t know where they’re going to sleep that night, or that they’re children are safe. Like it or not, things like God and religion are farther up the pyramid. So, in providing for these needs by building houses and schools, providing food and basic health-care or working on the infrastructure, we’re laying the groundwork for later evangelical missions. Albert Schweitzer understood this. Schweitzer, in addition to being a physician and musician, was a philosopher and theologian. In 1905, at the age of 30, he felt the call and went back to college and earned a medical degree. He already held a PhD in Theology and could have served any German Lutheran evangelical mission easily, but that wasn’t the call he felt. He earned his M.D. and went to Africa and spent many years building hospitals and dispensing medical care. I doubt you’ll find many who would marginalize his work because he didn’t spend all his time preaching.
Christianity in general, and evangelism in particular must walk a thin line between the spiritual and the secular. If we don’t keep the secular part of the equation in mind, we run the risk of being seen as irrelevant. If we focus too much on the secular side, the message is corrupted and not worth presenting. Jesus told us to take of the poor. When he said that, he meant all their needs. Taking care of those needs is not an either/or proposition.