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‘Our ladder’s bigger than yours’: how Christians get Christ wrong

by
29 April 2022

Don’t seek Jesus just to get to heaven, says Sam Wells

istock

CHRISTIANS should have regarded Jesus as someone to be enjoyed, but instead they’ve treated him as someone to be used. “That’s unfair!” many might say. “That’s not true — surely we worship Jesus.” But see how Christians use Jesus. Christians have a project. That project is most simply to get out of life alive.

People don’t talk about death because they fear it might be infectious; but everyone knows about death. We know that having children and building institutions and leaving legacies and seeking celebrity and owning many mansions are all ultimately futile, even though we invest huge efforts in seeking such things. They can’t transcend death.

But Jesus — he offers eternal life. That’s his unique selling point. And eternal life solves the death problem pretty effectively, and more reliably than cryogenics. See how this instrumentalises Jesus. We cease to enjoy Jesus, attend to his character, rejoice in his particular qualities, rest on his words.

Instead, we turn him into a ladder for getting up to the roof — the roof being, in this case, heaven. If a better or more reliable way of getting on to the roof became available, we’d be off after it like a shot. This is the attitude for which Christians need to repent. It treats God as a means to an end.

Peace, harmony, blessing, and communion in this transitory life, and an entry ticket to the next, everlasting one. It looks like very good value. That instrumentalisation has dominated the way “the way, and the truth, and the life” is read.

People quote, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life,” but in practice get only as far as “the way”. We then go down two side tracks.

Side Track One is, “Do you get to heaven if you don’t acknowledge Jesus as your Lord and Saviour?” See how this question is fixated on the ladder analogy. We take for granted that we’re all using Jesus as our ladder, and we want some plaudits for having chosen the best ladder, and we’re eager to tell anyone who’s on any other ladder that they’re a fool and not as wise and worthy as us.

So, we quote these words, “I am the way,” and we say, “Told you — our ladder’s the best and your ladder’s rubbish. I can see the dry rot from here.”

Side Track Two is, “How do people of other faiths get to heaven if they don’t recognise Jesus?” This question is equally fixated on the ladder analogy. Not only do we assume that the point of Jesus is to get us on to the roof, but we take for granted that members of all other faiths are as committed to the roof project as we are, and we regard their traditions through the impoverishing lens of being inadequate ladders.

 

THIS raises an intriguing but absurd spectre: Jesus, sitting at the Last Supper, giving his disciples a quick guide to the inadequacies of other faiths in achieving such a project. The notion is ludicrous.

This shows what ridiculous gymnastics we’re led into by our commitment to instrumentalising Jesus. The way to repent of this tendency is to focus on how Jesus begins this celebrated sentence: “I am.”

Those two words are the most important words in John’s Gospel. Jesus prefaces his seven self-declarations with them. “I am the true vine,” “I am the resurrection and the life,” “I am the good shepherd,” etc.

“I am” is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word for the name of God, usually spelt YHWH and pronounced Yahweh or Jehovah, although it’s so holy that Jews don’t pronounce it at all, often substituting the word “Adonai” or “Lord.”

It’s sometimes said that Jesus’s words in John 14, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father,” and “I am in the Father and the Father is in me,” are radical statements of Christ’s divinity, but, in truth, it’s already all here in these two little words, “I am.”

Jesus is cut from the same cloth as the Father. Everything that the Father is in the Old Testament is now embodied here in Jesus. Which takes us back to what “everything” really is. Rather than get hung up on the first word, “way,” we need to begin with the second word, “truth”.

This is the truth the Old Testament is proclaiming. Israel is in exile. It had land, king, and temple, and was a significant presence in the Near Eastern world — the whole of the then-known world. But it lost it all.

In exile, Israel wrote down its story. It recalled that it found its identity in a covenant. That covenant was made with the source, destiny, and ground of all being, Yahweh, the essence that caused, sustained, and purposed all existence.

 

IN ORDER to make such a covenant, Yahweh had delivered Israel from slavery, having previously saved it from famine. To keep that covenant, Yahweh had given Israel a law, a way of maintaining its freedom.

But what had Israel done? It had allowed that covenant to lapse into a contract, losing the bond of love and reducing it to a transactional process by which Yahweh gave an entitled Israel blessings.

In other words, Israel had turned from enjoying God to using God, and had instrumentalised God as a ladder to attain prosperity and security. In exile, Israel repented. And, in exile, Israel saw a new face of God: a God who was with Israel rather than for Israel, a God of covenant, not contract, a God who longed to be enjoyed, not used.

This is what Jesus means by the word “truth”. I am this truth. I am the God who is covenantally with you, not the instrumental god who is contractually for you. Truth means everything that isn’t instrumental and is, instead, final.

By final, I mean everything that’s an end, indeed the end, the very purpose of creation and the raison d’être of the whole universe. The purpose of creation is that God and humanity be companions for ever.

The utter embodiment of God, and the perfect representative of humanity, are found in the same person: Jesus. Jesus is therefore the raison d’être of everything. Which is why he says, “I am the truth.” Not “the one who speaks the truth” or “the representative of the truth”, but — the truth. “I am” is the truth — and the truth is “I am.”

See how small-minded is the attempt to turn Jesus into a ladder to get us to heaven. There is no heaven that’s not utter relationship with God and restored relationship with one another, ourselves, and the renewed creation.

The absurd idea that we could somehow use God to get out of life alive and let everyone and everything else go hang is precisely the kind of sin that put Israel in exile and jeopardises our own destiny. We experience that utter relationship with God in Jesus only if we let go of any desire other than the desire for that relationship.

 

IF WE seek God because we want heaven, we don’t deserve heaven. If we want God because we want to avoid hell, we’re headed for hell. But if we desire God because we want nothing other than to be in utter relationship with the source, origin, and purpose of the universe, the essence of all things, and if we trust that the God who came in flesh as Jesus and died emptied of all but love and rose because in the end love is stronger than death will ultimately never be separated from us — if that’s what it’s all about for us, all about for ever for us — then God will give us that relationship for ever.

And no virus or terrorist or tragedy or horror will ever change that. Where does that leave the “way” and the “life”? The life is simply living in that truth. The life is that unambiguous, uninhibited, unconstrained relationship with God, ourselves, one another, and the renewed creation that we call heaven.

For a host of reasons, some of our own making, some due to the limitations of our creaturehood, some due to the faults of others, we currently don’t experience that future in all its fullness.

But that’s where the “way” comes in. The way is living God’s future now. The way is to live abundant life. The way is to enjoy the green pastures, still waters, and right pathways that populate the Kingdom of God.

The way is any moment we transcend the envy, anger, bitterness, and malice of existence and glimpse God’s essence, embody true relationship, turn “for” into “with”, and live God’s future now. The second-century theologian Irenaeus of Lyons put it succinctly: “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.”

When are we fully alive? In heaven — when we’re utterly in the presence of the truth. Who alone has been fully alive among us? Jesus, who represents to us life and embodies truth and thus is the way. If, and only if, we enjoy Jesus as the truth, and stop using him as a ladder to eternal life, will we finally have found our way.

This is an edited extract from Humbler Faith, Bigger God: Finding a story to live by by Samuel Wells, published by Canterbury Press at £14.99 (CT Bookshop £11.99); 978-1-78622-418-7.

Read the Church Times review here

Listen to Tom Holland interview Sam Wells about the book on the Church Times Podcast.

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