I went with family this past week to see Clint Eastwood's latest film Hereafter. Advertised as a thoughtful reflection on the afterlife, we found the film to be aimless, uninvolving and with nothing substantial to add to the discussion about what may or may not await us after this present life comes to an end.
The film did, however, motivate me to invite my Sunday morning youth class into a discussion of the topic of the afterlife and what importance it does or does not have in their theology and faith life. I began the discussion by asking the group to share their personal thoughts on heaven and then challenged them to consider how they might react if they discovered tomorrow that there is no afterlife -- that this present life is the gift God gives us and we are to make the most of it. "Knowing this, " I asked, "Would it make any difference for your faith? Would you still choose to be a Christian?" This question knocked some of them off balance a little, perhaps because it challenged them to consider the priority of heaven in their belief system. In other words, are we Christians because we want a reward at the end of life, or is Christianity about something more than that?
We continued the discussion by looking at what I suggested might be the two most controversial sentences of the New Testament: "Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." (John 14:6) We considered the implications of these words which are so often quoted by Christians completely out of context. Does this passage really suggest that John's community believed that Jesus' way is the only way to God? And, if that is true, what then is this "way" that Jesus talks about? I believe this last question is one of the most important we can pose to young people learning about the Christian faith. If Jesus is the way, what is that way beyond simply stating "Believe in Jesus and you get to go to heaven." My suggestion to the youth was that they might start answering that question by looking at the way Jesus lived his own life since the gospel writers spend most of their time writing about that -- not the after life.
What do you think? Is the after life a primary component of the Christian faith? How necessary is it that young people learning about Christianity also develop a belief or understanding of the after life? Is salvation primarily about what happens to us after death or could it have more to do with the life we are living now?