What Is the Goal of the Christian Life?
What is the goal of the Christian life? I mean, what are we doing this Christian life for, and how will we know if we succeed? Until I thought about writing this article, I had never formally asked the question, yet all Christians have an answer to this question lurking back there somewhere. Our answer to this question will drive our lives on a fundamental level, so it behooves us to actually ask this question.
I grew up in an independent Baptist church, and somewhere between that and reading the Bible every day, I came to the conclusion that the goal of the Christian life was to make it to Heaven. Or, rather, that is not quite right. Really, I wanted to not go to Hell. Frankly, an eternal church service of worshiping God sounded pretty boring, but an eternity of torment was definitely an avoid-at-all-costs thing. We see this answer driving a lot of the evangelism in the evangelical church, at least in the U.S. The problem is, after you pray the prayer and get saved, then what? Mission accomplished. So what next? Well, join a church so you grow spiritually. This is uncompelling, because we fulfilled the goal at the beginning.
If the goal is to not go to Hell, then there is also the problem of, how do I know I really got saved, because sooner or sooner, I’m going to be sinning again, so did the prayer not work? So the first thing this model of evangelism does is give people “assurance of salvation” by walking them through verses like “if anyone has Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come.” But in the Baptisty theology, how do you know if someone is really a Christian? You can’t know, only God knows (Jesus says not to judge whether someone is in or out, because we cannot see people’s hearts), so the only way to know is where you end up when you die. What if they prayed the prayer and went to church and seemed like a Christian, or they were a Christian but fell away? Well, apparently they were never actually a Christian in the first place. This is a pretty shaky “assurance.”Another answer I tried is that the goal of the Christian life is to go to Heaven. This is better, because it is positive. However, it suffers from the similar problems as the not-going-to-Hell answer, plus, while Hell is vividly and simply described such that even a child can tell you what it is like, it is not clear what Heaven is going to be like. The descriptions include at least one feast, a mansion with many rooms, worship, and streets of gold, but nothing specific, unless you take Revelation literally. But if you take Revelation’s New Jerusalem literally you get all kinds of weirdness, like a wall even though there are no enemies because they were thrown in the lake of file, streets paved with gold, a soft metal that you would think someone as wise as God would recognize as a poor choice for pavement, and a giant 1000 mile cube-city, where the top of the city is four times higher than the international space station, which orbits 250 miles up! Anyway, a more serious problem is that you cannot “get to” Heaven until you die, which still leaves the question of what the Christian life is all about open.
Jesus did actually exhort people to save themselves from Hell, and he
warned people in no uncertain terms about Hell, so there is a lot of merit
to saving people from Hell. Likewise, Jesus did not come just to save
people from Hell, but rather to bring them to Heaven, so that is an even better
thing to tell people. However, escaping Hell and entering Heaven is
not the goal of the Christian life, it is the goal of the Christian
death. So, right answers to the wrong question.
There are several obvious answers about the goal of the Christian life. The most popular among evangelical circles is obviously evangelism. This sounds really good, until you try to do it. If God made you an evangelist, I suppose it feels really good, but what if God made you an artist, scientist, engineer, farmer, or full-time mother? Most of your time will be spent doing things that are not the goal, which leaves you feeling either like a failure or simply confused.
There are several obvious answers as the the goal of the Christian life. One popular one is obedience, or what I’ll call holy living. This has been popular as the goal of the Christian life since the earliest post-New Testament Christian writings. Many of the recognized saints were people who took this seriously and, in other people’s eye’s, succeeded. However, every saint talks about what a miserable sinner they are. One saint was asked to pray for resurrection of someone who had just died. The saint felt that he was unworthy to pray, but prayed anyway, and the man came back to life. Apparently he actually was worthy, but this seems to have gone unnoticed. If following this goal results in a your view of yourself going down and others’ view of you going up, it seems like there is a problem somewhere. Furthermore, Paul already ruled this out as a goal in the book of Galatians. Keeping the Law is antithetical to Christianity, and holy living as the goal is simply another form of keeping the Law.
One of the answers I tried (all subconsciously, of course) was seeking God’s Kingdom. The Kingdom of Heaven that Jesus talks about cannot be limited to just evangelism, otherwise people would have nothing to do in Heaven (one would assume that Heaven is in the Kingdom of Heaven). This answer opens a wide variety of things to do—do whatever you do as if you were in Heaven. Presumably there will be art, science, farming, and a large part of daily life in Heaven, which gives those things the same meaningfulness in pre-Heaven.1. Some professions might not exist in Heaven, such as doctors and police officers, but God is a healer, and God creates safety, so those professions have deep meaning, too.
Unfortunately for me, what I just wrote was only part of my thinking. Jesus talks about different levels of rewards in Heaven, so I wanted to make sure that I got an ‘A’ in life. The bummer was, I felt like I was getting a ‘D’ and I did not want to have to live for eternity as a pleb when I could have lived my life in such a way as to get an ‘A’ and get put in charge of cities or something. The problem was, I was competing against Moses and Elijah and Paul and Peter and even an ‘A-' seemed unachievable.
Fortunately, I found an even better answer. I think the goal of the Christian life is to build a relationship with God. Jesus said the greatest command is “love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and soul.” He didn’t say “obey” or “do,” but “love God.” Jesus died for our sin, but it seems like that was just a means to an end. I used to think that the tragedy in the Garden of Eden was that we die, but the real tragedy was that Adam and Eve lost the Presence of God. If death were the problem, you would think God would focus His efforts on that. Instead, throughout the Bible we see God progressively being with His people more and more closely.
Moses observes that the distinguishing feature of Israel was that God dwelt among Israel. In the Tent of Meeting, and later in the Temple, God’s manifest presence was between the cherubim on top of a gold-covered box. (Of course, His presence was everywhere, too, but in a different sort of way.) When Solomon dedicated the Temple, he was amazed that God would dwell on earth with men, but dwell He did, although He limited our access to Him.
God was dissatisfied with His interaction with us being limited to one man, once a year, so He came closer. One of Jesus’ names was “Immanuel,” which means “God with us.” God walked among us, and we could interact with Him like we interact with any other person. Yet even that was not close enough. At the Last Supper, Jesus told the disciples that he was leaving, and that it was actually for our benefit that he leave, because then the Holy Spirit could come. Apparently “God with us” was not close enough, God wanted “God in us.” In fact, Jesus’ prayer is that the believers would be one, just as the Trinity is one, and not only that, but that believers and God would have that same oneness. Peter goes so far as to say that we partake in the divine nature.
I submit that the goal of the Christian life is oneness with God. The goal is not building the Kingdom; that is the effect. Another way to look at the ‘A+' Christians is that they were one with God, and that resulting in them building the Kingdom. Their ‘A+' relationship with God resulted in ‘A+' external results. Moses talked with God face to face every day; as a result, he built a nation that endures to this day. Paul built a relationship with God that was so deep he could say that he knew how to be content in good times and bad; as a result, he preached to the entire Roman empire.2 Philip the Evangelist and Stephen the Martyr were both noted to be “filled with the Spirit.” In Philip the result was that he preached to an Ethopian eunuch, who tradition says founded the Ethiopian Church, which endures to two thousand years later, and he preached to Samaria, where many were saved and moved the church to the second stage in the Great Commission (Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth). In Stephen the result was he proclaimed Jesus among the Jewish leaders at the cost of his life, as well as triggering the events that led to the conversion of Paul.
The goal of the Christian life is to be so one with God that participate in the divine nature, whatever that looks like. I have always seen Acts 2:42 used as an example of what the Church should look like, but I think the point is not that they lived communally, but that they were one in spirit, that Acts 2:42 was one expression of Jesus’ prayer in John 17 fulfilled. In Christian history, participating in the divine nature has looked like contemplation for some, for others intercession, worship, service, art, and music, but the list does not end there. But the results are not the goal, but the relationship. This is how Jesus’ yoke is easy and burden is light: all we need to do is become one with God, which is easy because He is the one who gets us there; all we have to do is be led.3
1 This life may not be pre-Heaven, but rather the original design of Heaven, and that our sin caused it to be pre-Heaven.
2 In 1 Clement, Clement of Rome says that Paul went to the farthest west point, so it seems like we can conclude that he made it to Spain.
3 “Easy” does not necessarily mean quick, painless, simple, obvious, or in a linear path, however.