As leaders of the church, we are in the salvation business. The whole of the gospel is intent on deliverance. Our opportunity, and our problem, is making sure we understand exactly what salvation means. All of it. – DALLAS WILLARD
Are we there yet?
Every parent has heard it.
Every kid has asked it.
Every human being has felt it.
We suffer from destination impatience. We rush through life, always in a hurry. To get to where, we do not know.
The late cardiologist Meyer Friedman coined the phrase “hurry sickness” to describe this rushed, worried, preoccupied, time-poor quality of our lives after his upholsterer noted the unusual pattern of wear on the chairs in his waiting room. Apparently, they had only become worn out along the front edge. With nothing to do other than wait to meet with their cardiologist, people were literally sitting on the edge of their seats.
Are we there yet?
Something in us is waiting. For what, we do not know.
Something different? Something better? Sometimes it feels like we’ve been waiting forever.
In the Christian faith, the deepest and most mysterious expression of what we’re waiting for is found in the word eternity. God has “set eternity in the human heart,” we’re told in Ecclesiastes 3:11. We have a haunting sense that there is something more than this transient world. We alone of all creatures know that “all flesh is as grass.” But God has set eternity in the human heart.
Are we there yet?
Most of us think of eternity as an endless duration of time. And yet we hunger for more than just an infinite continuation of life as we now experience it, with all its sufferings and disappointments. In fact, the fear of unending existence carries its own label—apeirophobia—and can be as unsettling as the thought of death.
But in her book Images of Salvation in the New Testament, Brenda Colijn writes that the eternal life the Bible talks about is not primarily marked by its duration. Eternal life is “qualitatively different from mortal human life. It is ‘the life by which God Himself lives.’” It is “primarily qualitative rather than quantitative.” “‘Eternal’ describes the kind of life one has in Christ.”
Which means eternal life isn’t just about the future. We can have it now. It’s not just about there. We can have it here.
Most important, it’s not something we simply receive through a transaction that arranges for our future destination. It’s something we experience now through becoming Jesus’ disciples, which death is then unable to stop.
This means many of us will have to think differently about the Good News that Jesus brought.
According to Boston University professor of religion Stephen Prothero, it is the notion of an “arrangement” for getting into eternal life someday that sets Christianity apart from other religions. In his book God Is Not One, Prothero defines Christianity as “the way of salvation.” He describes the usual Christian message: “Sinners cannot be admitted to heaven or granted eternal life”; therefore, “anyone who hears this story [the gospel], confesses her sins, and turns to Jesus for forgiveness, can be saved,” which results in “go[ing] to heaven.” He goes on to say, “Today the price of admission to the Christian family continues to be orthodoxy (right thought) rather than orthopraxy,” actually doing what Jesus said. In other words, Christians are people who believe the right things and will therefore be allowed into heaven when they die.
This view calls to mind the climax of the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail, when King Arthur and his knights come to the castle they’ve been seeking. Lying between them and the castle is a bottomless abyss, and a wizened old bridge keeper guards the only bridge that allows access. If they can give the correct answer to his questions, they are allowed to cross. If not, they are cast into the abyss.
I believe this is how many people today think about salvation. When we die, we are either headed for the castle (heaven) or the abyss (hell), and “salvation” is knowing the right answer so that God has to allow us to cross the bridge.
The problem is, Jesus doesn’t talk about salvation that way. He doesn’t talk about eternal life that way either. In fact, Jesus—and the entire New Testament, for that matter—defines eternal life only once, with great precision, and in a way that has been largely lost in our day: “This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3, NRSV).
Eternal Life = Knowing God.
Notice that Jesus doesn’t say “that they may know about you.” He says “that they may know you.”
Philosophers distinguish between knowledge by description and knowledge by acquaintance. For example, I might be able to describe Moscow because I’ve read about it in books and seen it in movies, but I know by acquaintance what Rockford, Illinois feels like on a hot August night and what it smells like after a thunderstorm. I know the sound of a tennis ball bouncing on the courts of East High School. I know its hopes and divisions and fears, and I know Stockholm Inn Swedish Pancakes because Rockford was my home.
Knowledge by acquaintance includes description but goes far deeper. It is interactive and participatory and experiential. The kind of “knowing God” that is eternal life is an interactive relationship where I experience God’s presence and favor and power in my real life on this earth.
To know God is to live in a rich, moment-by-moment, gratitude-soaked, participatory life together.
To know God means to know myself as his beloved friend as a gift of grace.
To know God means to know what Paul called “the power of his resurrection” (Philippians 3:10) in the details and tasks and challenges of my daily, ordinary life.
This is eternal life. It is not something far away in outer space that we can only hope to experience after we die. It is not simply being able to give the right answers at church, affirming the right doctrines, or achieving the minimum entrance requirements to cross over the bridge and get into heaven.
Ortberg, John. 2018. Eternity Is Now in Session: A Radical Rediscovery of What Jesus Really Taught about Salvation, Eternity, and Getting to the Good Place. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale Momentum.