It’s the 1st century AD, around twenty years after Jesus of Nazareth was crucified and reportedly rose from the dead. The Apostle Paul — formerly Saul, the super-educated, hyper-religious, Roman citizen and great persecutor of Jesus’ followers — is travelling throughout the Roman world for the second time to tell people of how he’s encountered the resurrected Jesus and how he sees God and God’s plan for the world in a newer, clearer light. He enters the great, ancient city of Athens. It’s past the prime it reached some 500 years ago, but Paul still sees remnants of a remarkable culture: ornate temples and altars dedicated to a pantheon of gods; statues that commemorate a number of historically great politicians, philosophers, heroes and athletes; the heritage of unprecedented political and academic genius; uncommonly beautiful people; an extraordinary obsession with sexuality; and an abundance of gourmet food and drink.
Paul is from a similar cultured city and knows that all of these things are idols: people, ideologies, material pleasures and objects in which people invest their faith and energy which aren’t reliable or worthy of that investment.If Paul walked with us today in our cities, he would see many of the same idols — images “formed by the art and imagination of mortals” that prevent us from a clearer vision of God. Monumental churches dedicated to various gods? Check. Statues of politicians, thinkers, athletes and coaches? Check. Politics? Double check. An obsession with beauty and sexuality? Check, check. These cultural, societal and personal idols require our devoted mindfulness and prayer. Yet, I’m not as concerned with these idols as I am with the idol that exists at the heart of our Christian religion: an obsession with end-times judgment and confidence about how it will play out.
There will be judgment. God will set every aspect of creation, including humankind’s waywardness and the consequences thereof, in right relationship with God’s self. We know this. Yet we can’t equate our knowing there will be judgment with our knowing how and when there will be judgment. Pretending to know how and when is not only a terrible waste of the time and gifts God has given us, it’s also nowhere to be found in the job description Jesus gives his followers.
Yes, Jesus talks about Hell as a reality, but he never tells us to try and figure out what Hell is like or who will be subject to it. Jesus talks about the end-times, but then he tells us, “But about the day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Mt 24.36). When we spend our time mapping out Judgment Day — whether we’re assigning evildoers to Hell or talking about universal salvation — we inevitably build a shiny, golden idol made of the imagination and art of mortals. And this idol prevents us from seeing what God has given us the ability to see: that we are redeemed now through Jesus’ sacrificial love and that we are to invest everything we have in transforming the world through that love.
In John 15, Jesus says, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” We can spend a lifetime exploring the mystery of how God loved us and how we can love others in a similar way. We should spend all of our time doing just that.