I still have some vivid mental images of that night. It was a Wednesday night in January of 1991. We had our weekly youth meeting but it just so happened to be the same night our country started bombing raids in Baghdad. We were in the basement of the education wing of the church my Dad was pastoring. I don’t remember all that happened during the meeting but at the end my youth pastor gave a very simple invitation that anyone who wanted to make a decision for Christ could just step across the hall and pray with one of the youth sponsors. I knew. I just knew. This was it. Feeling as though some outside force was propelling me, I walked across the hall. She was sitting in the far corner of the room and I simply walked straight towards her. I don’t remember much after that other than both of us praying.
That night was actually the end of a struggle that had been going on for months. I believe I first became aware of it the summer before at youth camp. I can remember feeling like I was having a dialogue with God during some of the services, particularly the end of the services during the “altar calls”. I would feel some kind of tug as though I was supposed to do something but it didn’t feel right. If I could sum up into one word the feeling of what I felt like I was supposed to do, it would be “surrender”. But I didn’t. I just white-knuckled it through the entire week. The struggle continued through the next few months. I even went to a big youth convention where close to 10,000 people attended. The struggle continued but I stood my ground.
I find it interesting that my decision was made during a very simple youth meeting. I withstood the emotional experiences of youth camp and a youth convention. For some reason, that night just seemed like it was time to give in. So on that night, I gave in. A simple decision with profound ramifications was made. At 14 years old, I made the life-altering decision to…..
NOT GO TO HELL, BABYYYYYYYYYYYY!!!!!!!!
(insert noise of a record abruptly stopping)
Oh, what? Were you expecting something more profound? Something with a little more depth? Sorry, but I was 14 years old and, for all I knew, World War III had just started. I had no idea what was going to happen. I just knew that I believed in Hell and I most definitely did NOT want to spend eternity there. Where youth camp and conference speakers had failed (despite their “what if” scenarios about impending death), George Herbert Walker Bush and Saddam Hussein had succeeded.
I’m not trying to make light of what happened that night, but I’m still not sure what actually DID happen. I’ve read many differing opinions from different theologies about how my standing with God changed or my heart changed but I’ve never been fully convinced of any of them. The only thing I know that changed was that I stopped cussing at school. I was a pretty foul-mouthed 8th grader while at school who would supernaturally change into a very well-behaved pastor’s son once I got off the bus. I can’t remember consciously making a decision to stop cussing, but somehow I just stopped (only to start again once I got into my 30’s).
That being said, I don’t know that I actually changed. Other than my speech, nothing about my behavior really improved and in some ways it actually got worse (I was a 14 year-old male. Use your imagination). Was I a Christian? I guess by most people’s standard I was. I had prayed the prayer deemed necessary to be one and, thus, go to Heaven. I read the Bible (occasionally). I was active in church activities (all. the. time). I knew the right answers. I looked the part. But I don’t know what exactly had been made new inside of me.
Interesting, isn’t it, that the description of myself could also be a description of a Pharisee. They had all the appearances of being holy and godly and yet Jesus described them as “whitewashed tombs”. They were still dead inside because they clung to their ability to do all the right things themselves instead of trusting God to actually make them right. They knew nothing of what Jesus was offering: eternal life.
I think I’ve misunderstood eternal life and I’m willing to bet I’m not alone. I thought it was what happened when I died, but if you read what Jesus has to say about it, then I couldn’t possibly be right. In John 5, Jesus said, “Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life.” Notice he didn’t use the future tense. He said “whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life”.
Later on in the same chapter Jesus is talking to Jewish leader and says, “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” Again, he’s using present tense as though eternal life is something he can give us now. Over and over again, Jesus uses the present tense when telling people about eternal life:
“…whoever believes has eternal life“
“I give them eternal life…”
“And this is eternal life”
“Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life….”
Dallas Willard was the one who opened my eyes to the fact that eternal life was not something to simply look forward to, it is something to be had now and was actually the state in which we were always intended to live. In fact, Willard claims in his book Renovation of the Heart that “the first task of Jesus in his earthly ministry was to proclaim God: to inform those around him of the availability of eternal life from God through himself. He made it clear that by placing their confidence in himself, ‘believing on him,’ they could immediately enter into the eternal life enjoyed by those in ‘the kingdom of the heavens.'”
Jesus actually defines eternal life for us in John 17:3: “And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” How amazingly simple is that? Eternal life is just knowing God and knowing Jesus. No tricks. No formulas. No multi-step processes. Jesus lays it out and tells us that if we know him, we have eternal life.
I have to confess that I’m a formula junkie. In my mind, there’s always an explanation for something that happens and it always involves a process, no matter how complex or simple. I tend to apply this to spiritual things as well, especially in regards to what is termed “spiritual growth” or “spiritual formation”. God wants us to have eternal life and not just when we die, but here and now. He wants us to live in the way he had originally planned for us before everything went wrong in the world and he didn’t make that way to be some ridiculous, complex formula. The way is simply knowing Jesus.
How have we made it so hard? How have we made it about going to Heaven and avoiding Hell? How have we made it about doing certain things and not doing other things? How have we made it about praying a prayer and just mentally agreeing that Jesus was God and can save us from our sins? It is no wonder that American Christianity is a mile wide and an inch deep. We have done the same thing that Jesus condemned the Pharisees and teachers of the law for: we have added to the simple message of God and made it less accessible.
Jesus’ message wasn’t about spiritual growth or going to Heaven. His message was that eternal life, the life God originally imagined for us, is available through Him. If we know Him, we have that life. We have peace. We have hope. We have all that God desires for us.
To be honest, I still very much struggle with knowing Jesus. I know a lot about Him. I’ve studied Him, preached and taught about Him, sung songs about Him, but I feel as though I’ve just scratched the surface of really knowing Him. I believe I’ll always feel that way though. After all, if God is really God how could we possibly understand everything about Him? But I believe God loves our seeking. He loves our searching. He loves us coming to Him and asking, “What are you like?” When Jesus taught about prayer in Luke 11, he told his disciples to ask, seek and knock. When children were around, he encouraged them to come to him, despite the objections of the adults. He wants us to audaciously, boldly come to him with curious minds and open hearts, just like a child; leaving behind our pre-conceived notions of who we expect him to be and just being content to be with him. In this knowing and being known is eternal life.
I believe what awaits us after death is simply a continuation of the state of our souls. I have known some who, for them, death simply meant being able to see with their eyes what their hearts had known. I don’t think it was much of a transition for them because eternal life was a way of life already. They had taken Jesus up on his offer and communed with him deeply. It was not just that they spent time praying and reading their Bible. It was so much more. It was as though Jesus had truly taken up residence in them and was an ever-present reality.
Back in 1991, I had no clue that God’s offer was a returning to what should have always been: intimate relationship with our Creator. I was only concerned about my eternal salvation from a place but salvation and eternity is not about where we go. It is about who we are with.