Christianity without the living Christ

1.4 An emphasis on Heaven as a present-day expression of ‘cheap grace’

As Bonhoeffer has made clear, there has been a gradual loss or softening of the nature of discipleship. At present, a central issue in this loss is an emphasis on belief in Jesus as a means to receiving the forgiveness of sins and the reward of going to heaven after we die. As a result, there is a loss of urgency in relation to actively responding to Jesus in a way that embodies the reality of new life in the here and now. This represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of Jesus’ teachings, ministry, life, death and resurrection, and of the call that he places upon all those who wish to follow him.

It has been suggested that in the context of modern, Western Christianity, “the hope of popular religion, in distinction from biblical Christianity, is ‘going to heaven when we die.’” Along those lines, Lee C. Camp argues, “Following Jesus has become something one does on Sundays and in one’s quiet time in order to ‘go to heaven’”, with little to no regard for the place of Christ within the real world in which we live. However, according to Willard, “there is absolutely nothing in what Jesus himself or his early followers taught that suggests that you can decide just to enjoy forgiveness at Jesus’ expense and have nothing more to do with him.” The mistake of placing the emphasis on going to heaven after we die at the core of what it means to follow Jesus is that eternal life is seen as an end point as opposed to a new beginning.

While we must uphold the reality of that end point, “the journey to heaven begins not at death but at the moment a person is called to discipleship.The call to discipleship is not one that promotes a dreamy future gaze, solely connecting oneself to Jesus with a view to heaven. The promise of eternal life is indeed something to hold on to, but, as N.T. Wright makes clear, eternal life is better characterized as the following:

the extra dimension, the God-dimension, of all our present reality; and the God who lives there is present with us, sharing our joys and our sorrows, longing as we are longing for the day when his whole creation, heaven and earth together, will perfectly reflect his love, his wisdom, his justice, and his peace.

Within the context of discipleship, then, any discussion of eternal life and heaven must be rooted in the present reality of what God has done and continues to do in the midst of a creation that, through Christ, is slowly in the process of being renewed; those who believe in him are called to be those through whom that renewal is made visible.

Central to any notion of discipleship, then, is, in the words of Bonhoeffer, that “discipleship is commitment to Christ. Because Christ exists, he must be followed.” It is to be noted that Bonhoeffer suggests not simply that Christ must be believed in, but followed. Therefore, to focus on the benefits of believing in Jesus without considering the cost of discipleship and taking a necessary step of obedience negates any notion of truly following him. For Bonhoeffer,

an idea about Christ, a doctrinal system, a general religious recognition of grace or forgiveness of sins does not require discipleship. In truth, it even excludes discipleship; it is inimical to it.

If, as the likes of Hauerwas and Camp suggest, the effects of a coziness between Christianity and Empire is that the masses too easily believe themselves to be Christian, and if the essence of Christianity is an emphasis on a general doctrinal system that focuses on going to heaven after we die as opposed to being engaged in the present realities of this world, then what we have is a Christianity without the living Christ, a Christianity devoid of true discipleship.

The distinction between belief in and the active following of Jesus is summed up in this landmark statement by Bonhoeffer in regards to discipleship:

Christianity without the living Jesus Christ remains necessarily a Christianity without discipleship; and a Christianity without discipleship is always a Christianity without Jesus Christ. It is an idea, a myth.

The emphasis in this statement must be placed on the fact that Jesus is indeed the living Christ, deeply involved in the present realities of this world and constantly calling those who would follow him to come out of their present situation and embody the hope of eternal life in the here and now. In order to fully gain a sense of the magnitude of that reality, however, it is essential that would-be followers understand the origins of discipleship as outlined in Scripture.

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