“Lianne struggled with the idea of God,” Don DeLillo’s narrator says of one of the characters in his novel, Falling Man. “She was taught to believe that religion makes people compliant. This is the purpose of religion, to return people to a childlike state… . We want to transcend, to pass beyond the limits of safe understanding— and what better way to do it than through make-believe?” It’s a contemporary restatement of an oft-repeated criticism of religion—and perhaps of Christianity in particular.
There is a perceived tendency for this kind of faith to draw believers away from life here-and-now, toward longing for a better life in the hereafter, however that may be defined. The criticism is that the focus on another realm of life becomes a form of sanctified escapism, and renders the believer of less benefit to the world and society in which they now live.
In this line of thinking, the promise of the “sweet by and by”—to borrow from the traditional hymn—tends to dull the believer’s sensibilities to the joys and sorrows of present life, perhaps most famously critiqued by Karl Marx in his theory, which states religion was “the opium of the people.” Often believers have left themselves open to such criticism, even at times cultivating, preaching and practising these kinds of attitudes. Many sincere believers, who have been overwhelmed by the quest for holiness or the imminent end of the world, have withdrawn from all active life to ensure their perfection or readiness.
Perhaps Christianity is most open to such disparagement because of the Bible’s strong focus on, and articulation of, the promise of the second coming of Jesus and the hope of eternity in a perfectly recreated world. And, it must be said, there is an important element of escape in these formulations.
In this world view, our world is a fallen, broken and tragic place—and it would be absurd not to have some longing for a world made new. As one Bible writer puts it, “Creation looks forward to the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay…. And we believers also groan, even though we have the Holy Spirit within us as a foretaste of future glory, for we long for our bodies to be released from sin and suffering” (Romans 8:21, 23). So an element of what might be described as escapism seems appropriate for those who embrace these promises. There is nothing wrong or misplaced in longing for the time when God will set the world right, will bring an end to injustice, pain and sorrow, and will replace the current fear-filled disorder with His glorious and righteous kingdom.
In His sermon on the end of the world, Jesus spent the first half—as recorded in Matthew 24 and 25—detailing the need for escape, even getting to the point of saying that “unless that time of calamity is shortened, not a single person will survive” (Matthew 24:22). But this is more in the nature of an introduction to His explanation of the significance of these promises of God. To focus solely—or even primarily—on the “escape” aspect of the Christian hope for the future is incomplete for both the Christian and the critic.
Even in Matthew 24, Jesus repeats the injunction to live alertly in light of the promise of His return and He expands this in the second half of the sermon in Matthew 25, with three stories focused on how the believer should live while “waiting” for Jesus. It quickly becomes clear that this waiting is not passive or escapist; rather it demands active engagement with life, others and the world around us.
The first story is that of the ten bridesmaids, or the wise and foolish virgins (see Matthew 25:1-13). This parable focuses on the need to build spiritual resources and resilience in our lives today, fitting us for everyday life, and ultimately readying us to celebrate and live with God when the world is recreated. But the focus is the present duty, in light of the potential delay of the return of the “bridegroom.”
Jesus’ second story is the parable of the three servants, otherwise known as the parable of the talents (see Matthew 25:14-30). Three men are given different sums of money—representing the material resources and opportunities we are all given in different measures—and left to work with them on behalf of their master until he returns.
Upon his return, they are to account for the use they have made of what they were given. Two of the servants do well, but the other is too afraid to make use of his gift—leaving him open to the rebuke of his master and the shame of being cast out of the household. Again the focus of the story is the time between the master leaving and his return—telling us to make the best use of the resources and opportunities we have while we can.
The third story is commonly referred to as the parable of the sheep and the goats but has nothing to do with sorting or counting livestock (see Matthew 25:31-46). In short, this parable teaches that how we live now, how we treat each other and how we treat the less fortunate among us is important. This is the climax of Jesus’ sermon. At the beginning of Matthew 24, Jesus’ followers asked Him, “How will we know when the world is about to end and that You will return as promised?”—to which Jesus ultimately replies, “What matters most is how you live and how you treat people in the meantime.”
Rather than being tempted to resort to self-centred escapism, the promise of the Second Coming and a recreated world must be a call to a different way of living, serving and relating to those around us. One Australian Christian leader put it this way—Jesus’ promises “fill the present with hope and thus with energy. Because the future fills the present with meaning and purpose, we give ourselves to the needs of others, even to the reshaping of society. The Christian hope has vast social consequences.… We look back to see what the promises are; we look forward to see them fulfilled; we act now in the light of what is yet to be” (Dr. Peter Jensen, The Future of Jesus).
The reality is that what we believe about the future has important implications for how we live now. Belying the caricature of the other-worldly believer focused only on a vague eternal bliss to come, a healthy reliance on the promises of God about His future for our world should be the catalyst for energetic engagement—the spark for a life that is rich and deep, and makes a difference to others. And this impulse is undeniably practical.
Theologian Walter Brueggemann, using “disproportion” as shorthand for all kinds of injustice, oppression and inequality in the world, explains it this way: “Because God will rule, the disproportion in which we live will sooner or later come to an end, because this God will countenance no continuing disproportion. God’s intent for justice and peace in creation cannot finally be resisted.… God’s rule is endlessly destabilising for us” (Finally Comes the Poet).
Because we believe God’s righteous intention will eventually become the ultimate reality for humanity, it makes sense for us to practise this way of living now and order our lives in such a way as to give reality to it. It is also something God’s people will choose to do in the present as those who desire to live in the ways of God.
Knowing that what happens to “the least of these” (Matthew 25:40, 45) matters to God means it also matters to those who are His people. And because we know that the political, economic, cultural and social power structures that perpetuate injustice in all its forms will be overthrown, we are empowered to speak and act against the evil in our world. We know that these forces—and our participation in and benefit from them—are only ever temporary and thus they are always destabilised.
Undeniably, there is an element of escape in Jesus’ promises to come again. In a world with so much pain and sadness, it is appropriate to look forward to a better place and a better way. According to the promises of God, that will eventuate—but it is yet to come.
More importantly, these promises change how we see today and energise how we respond. The promises of God call us to engagement with our world, doing what we can to confront the wrongs we see around us, heal the hurts in our human brothers and sisters, care for the world, celebrate the goodness we discover and share the hope that these promises give us.
As faltering and small as our efforts might be, we work with God to begin to recreate the world as—one day—He will ultimately and gloriously recreate it. When Jesus said, “I am going away, but I will come back to you again” (John 14:28), He was also saying to His followers, “Live like it is true today—and that will make a difference.”
Nathan Brown is book editor at Signs Publishing Company in Warburton, Victoria. A version of this article first appeared on the Signs of the Times Australia/New Zealand website and is republished with permission.