Part Two of the series, “How Reasoning Reinforces My Faith”
This question lies at the heart of so many questions. What happens to us after we die? Why did God put a forbidden tree in the garden of Eden? How can God send people to hell? They all boil down to, “Why did God make us?” Since "purpose" is such a broad topic, I am limiting my writing to the purpose of humanity at large and specifically how, in Christianity, our individual purpose is not something that is fulfilled after we die, but begins the moment we are saved.
Note: As I was working on this series, I heard this podcast by John Piper concerning what he termed "Christian Hedonism". To my surprise and pleasure, I discovered John Piper, an extraordinary pastor with over 30 years experience, has already more fully and more eloquently laid out everything I have so laboriously described here. Even the Wikipedia page is well done. What follows here is, if nothing else, short.
People are self centered. We read the Bible, concerned about "what will happen to me after I die?" Some evangelists even use this question as a conversation opener. While the Bible may have some of these answers, to treat the Bible as a manual for entry into heaven detracts from the more important matters. The Bible is not about you and your purpose is NOT “to get into heaven.” Notwithstanding, Christians and non-Christians alike behave and talk as if their primary purpose is to fulfill a moral duty in order to "make God happy" and avoid "making God angry", treating God like a theatre audience whose review can "send us" to heaven or hell.
From a biblical standpoint, there are several misconceptions in the idea that we are performing for God. First, while terms that personify God, such as "being happy" or "being angry" can help us understand the character of God, they have the unfortunate side effect of limiting him. God is not a person and we cannot "make him" anything; he is above emotional experience. (Numbers 23:19, Malachi 3:6) He knew our sin before we were born (Jeremiah 1:5) so the very idea that you, yourself and alone, can do something to satisfy God is completely unbiblical. (Psalm 53:3) The universe exists to witness what God has done. (Romans 1:20)
Second, our relationship with God is not at all like that of a performer and his audience. There are many biblical analogies describing our relationship, but our actual relationship is the sum of all of them. More accurately: our relationship to God is the one, original, and unique relationship and all others are reflective of some aspect of our relationship with him. While there is much to be said about this, I think Genesis explains it in the simplest terms: We were created by God to be representatives of God in a physical form (“images of God”). The thing is, when God made these little images of himself, their god-like DNA caused them to want to be like God in every way, even in their sovereignty. We believed (and continue to belive) that not always doing what God wants is a way to pioneer a new species, a Man That Doesn’t Need God, and that in our own endeavors we will find a greater happiness. This causes us to deviate from God’s will, effectively separating us from God. God can’t have imperfect beings representing him, but he hasn't stopped wanting us. Therefore our existence since creation is about the reconciliation between us and God, the restoration of his image. (Ephesians 1:3-12) Furthermore, with our restoration comes the restoration of the earth, (heaven) and a delight that will last forever. (Romans 8:20-23) It makes sense that there is a heaven and a hell, but not because God needs to see us be rewarded or be punished. Heaven and hell exist so we can see God as he is. We need to see the fulfillment of his promises, the execution of his justice, and the restoration of all things. (Luke 18:7-8) Heaven is not a place we go to, but the state of things as they were designed to be and something that will be brought back to us, here on earth. (2 Peter 3:13)
Finally, Christian life is not a duty but a freedom. This freedom is a major emphasis in the New Testament. (Galatians 5:1) Something must be wrong with our understanding if it is resulting in a sense of duty. To explain this freedom, I will borrow an analogy from John Piper. In doing so, I will personify God, but I want to direct emphasis on the relationship I am describing, not the people.
My wife and I recently bought a house and as we work on it, we have to be judicious about every dollar we spend. That is why, if I ordered a large bouquet of flowers to be delivered to her on her birthday, she wouldn't just be flattered and surprised, but she would probably say to me, "Thank you so much, they're beautiful! But why did you do this?" I could truthfully respond: "I did this because I felt it was my duty as a husband. I thought, 'that is what a good husband is supposed to do: recognize his wife's birthday and commemorate it with an extravagant symbol.' Please accept them as an expression of my loyalty and affection."
Why would that answer be unsatisfying to my wife? It is all about me: MY duty, MY loyalty, MY affection. As such, the answer spoils the gift. But what if instead I said, "I bought these flowers for you because nothing makes me happier than to see you delightfully surprised and I wanted to celebrate that on your birthday."
This answer, if sincere, enriches the gift and the relationship. Though there is something to be said about the husband's duty and it’s the duty that carries the relationship during times of strife, the marriage doesn't exist so that duty may be served. The marriage exists so that love may be experienced. It is the reason we get married in the first place. Love is best expressed when it flows freely.
Our relationship with God is similar, but it differs in that (to make an understatement) God has much more power and influence over us than a spouse. Just contemplating the threat of death or hell should be more than enough to center our entire life purpose on obeying God. Yet we don't want to live like that and neither does God. In fact, there are people who think that is exactly what faith is about, but those people aren't exactly clawing at the doors of the church to get in. This is the reason for Jesus Christ. He had made it possible for us to know God, not as fearful subjects who act out of duty, but at heirs. (Romans 8:14-17) I am not just arguing that is what God wants but what we ourselves truly want. It is a deeply satisfying purpose.
This is our purpose and it is not an "after I die" thing. It starts now. Jesus said the kingdom of God is here. (Luke 17:20-21, Mark 1:15) Despite the prayer, "if I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take," Christians don't actually wake up every morning, cross their fingers and hope to go to heaven in case they die that day. Christians are living and striving for fulfilling their purpose today: knowing God and living a life that glorifies him. (Romans 6:5-11) Though they continue to live in an imperfect planet, their present sufferings are trivial because their standing with God is right. (Romans 8:18, Romans 5:3-5, James 1:2-4) There is only one example for what this purpose looks like in practice: Jesus Christ.