The Afterlife is a Justice Issue
“‘Just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” – Matthew 25:45-46 (NRSV)
Listening to many Christians today, you might think Jesus preached nonstop about the afterlife and heaven and hell.
In fact, Jesus spoke explicitly about a postmortem heaven and hell, and who goes where, on only two occasions. Both are parables:
- A parable in which a rich person dies and goes to an afterlife of fiery torment for neglecting the impoverished person at his gate, while that same poor person goes to “the bosom of Abraham” upon his death. See Luke 16:19-31.
- A parable in which those who served “the least of these” (the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the sick, the incarcerated) are blessed with eternal life while those who didn’t are sent to eternal punishment. See Matthew 25:31-46.
In each parable, eternal destiny turns on behavior, not belief. Sure, there are verses in the gospel of John where Jesus emphasizes belief as the gateway to eternal life, but in those verses eternal life is a present reality and hellfire is not named as the alternative.
How we talk about the afterlife is a justice issue. As soon as we decide who goes where at death, we have not only created a hierarchy that privileges those with the “correct” beliefs, we have also played God.
Jesus was interested in something else entirely.
Eternal One, may my beliefs shape my heart and life for the work of the kin-dom.