I was headed up I-75 the other day and caught sight of a billboard. “Where are you going?” it asked in these big bold letters. “Heaven or Hell?” I thought, “Umm…Dayton?”
You’ve all seen those signs, right? They’re brilliant. There you are in a car traveling down the highway, obviously going somewhere, when a massive billboard asks where you’re really headed. “What’s your eternal destination, my friend?” And viola! Now you’re sweating not about where to eat lunch but about where to spend eternal life.
Just think back to the gospel story we’ve all heard a million times. God creates the world with us in it, but we sin and that throws everything for a loop. Now, sadly, our frustrated God has to send Jesus into the world to die for our sin, but if we believe in him, then we get to go to heaven instead of hell. That’s the gospel in a nutshell, right? Maybe.
Back when Sara and I got engaged, we toyed around with the idea of a destination wedding. After all, who wouldn’t want to get married on the Cliffs of Moher? But in the end, we decided on something a bit closer to home. Why? Because of the people. The real “destination” of our wedding wasn’t some dreamy landscape; it was each other and the relationships we had built and would continue to build along the way.
Looking back at this gospel story of ours, then, I wonder if we’re dreaming about a kind eternal “destination wedding” when what we should be longing for is a deeper relationship with God. Consider John 3:16, which you might even know from memory: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” In the past, I’ve always put the emphasis on the latter half of that verse — if we just believe, we’ll have everlasting life. But what if we emphasize the first half instead? All of a sudden the destination changes.
In John 3:16’s original Greek, that little word “so” has quite a different connotation than the one we tend to give it. It’s not trying to tell us how much God loves us, even though God certainly loves us a lot! Instead, what we have here is the manner by which God loves us. The way God loves the world is by sending his Son into the world to die. In fact, Paul says in Philippians 2, this is precisely the way God has always loved and always will.
The earliest pastors and teachers of the church seemed to have a better grasp of this than we do. They insisted that Jesus’ incarnation was always God’s plan from the beginning. Even before God created the heavens and the earth, God planned for the Son of God to become human in Jesus Christ. Why? Because, from the beginning, the real destination of our lives has always been Jesus himself. We were made to be in Christ — truly in communion with him — but to make that possible, God first had to become human. In other words, God had to become incarnate — in us.
Maximus the Confessor, one of those early church leaders, put it this way:
“Christ is the great hidden mystery, the blessed goal, the purpose for which everything was created. With his gaze fixed on this goal, God called things into existence. Christ is the point to which providence is tending, together with everything in its keeping and at which creatures accomplish their return to God. He is the mystery which surrounds all ages; in fact, it is for the sake of Christ and for his mystery that all ages exist and all that they contain.”
This is a remarkably different vision of the gospel and eternal life than what we originally spelled out. There Jesus was Plan B, God’s response to our sin. There the incarnation of the Son of God was a sad accident. Maximus, however, insists Jesus was no Plan B. He was always Plan A, and he always will be because being with Jesus was God’s plan from the beginning. When we read John 3:16, we think eternal life simply means heaven. It’s our destination. But Jesus himself defines eternal life a few chapters later as knowing God and the one God sent, Jesus (John 17:3). It’s not heaven. It’s not some celestial city. It’s Jesus.
What does this change? Almost everything. It changes not only how we describe and define heaven and hell. It changes how we understand salvation altogether. We can experience eternal life today, right now. Eternal life — life lived in Christ — is not something reserved only for the future. It’s meant to be part of our lives today.
Over the next few weeks, we’re going to be exploring the ways these early Christian leaders, like Maximus the Confessor, talked about this present taste of eternal life. They understood it as a life in communion with God, one born in prayer and a deep engagement with the scriptures. I hope you’ll join me as we follow their lead.
If you’re interested in these early Christian leaders, whom we call our Church “Fathers” and “Mothers,” and their take on our Christian spirituality, I encourage you to check out the podcast, Mysterion, by Wes Arblaster and Ethan Smith. It’s absolutely brilliant and the source for so much of what we will be talking about over the next few weeks.