As I Was Saying is a forum for a variety of perspectives to foster faith-related conversations among our readers with the goal of mutual learning, even in disagreement. Apart from articles written by editorial staff, these perspectives do not necessarily reflect the views of The Banner.
“I just don’t want to see churches pull focus away from their purpose: saving souls,” wrote a minister recently in response to a post calling for Christians to advocate for racial justice. This is a familiar Christian argument. For instance, I’ve read and heard accounts from anti-racism activists that churches resist addressing racism because they want to focus on “the main thing.”
This perspective that justice advocacy is not the role of the church is the natural conclusion of a common Christian assumption: that the soul and spiritual matters are what really matters; the body and this earth, not so much.
However, this dualism isn’t rooted in the Bible. The Greek philosopher Plato promoted the concept that the unseen spiritual dimension is what really matters as opposed to things here on earth. His theories significantly influenced his culture, and throughout Western history, Christians have read Scripture through this platonic lens. In this worldview, we have a hierarchy of the “up there”— eternal, important things—and the “down below”—base, unimportant, physical things, including our bodies.
This theology, sometimes referred to as Neo-gnosticism, creates a strict distinction between the physical and the spiritual. Salvation is understood as rescue from the material world, rather than a biblical vision that sees salvation as rescue for all that God has made and created. The Bible tells a story of Christ reconciling all things, “whether things on earth or things in heaven” (Col. 1:20). God considered the entirety of this good creation—including our culture, families, experiences, and bodies—to be worthy of Christ’s radical reconciliation.
God made humans as holistic, integrated beings. God took humanity and breathed God’s Spirit into the dirt to create Adam (a name derived from the Hebrew word adama, meaning “dirt” or “earth”). The earth itself was worthy of being made into God’s image, united with God’s Spirit. We are not holy souls living in cages of sinful flesh. The different aspects of ourselves are united to make us who we are. We can describe or explore different aspects of our personhood, but we can’t sever them. When we start to dissect the God-breathed human being, we destroy our God-imaged life.
We limit the scope of Christ’s redemption when we view heaven as a distant future realm disassociated from our lives on earth. For Jesus and Paul, heaven is not an ethereal distant dimension, but rather where God’s presence is, where God’s will is done. When Jesus preaches the gospel, he declares, “The kingdom of heaven is here.” God’s kingdom, God’s presence and movement and restoration of all things, is happening presently, on this very earth. In this vein, when Paul calls the church in Colossae to think about “things above, not earthly things” (Col. 3:1-2), his command is to contemplate what Christ’s resurrection means for us as redeemed people in contrast to the identity our culture and society tries to impose upon us. As Christ ascended to the unseen but present realm of heaven, Paul uses the word “above” to refer to heaven, where Christ actively rules over, holds together, and reconciles all things in heaven and on earth (Col. 1:15-19). This verse, which is often taken out of the context of the surrounding verses about living and dying in Christ (who lived and rose in this very world), is not about this world versus the next, but rather the values of God’s kingdom versus our tendency toward the self-serving ways of this world.
Furthermore, when we adhere to a dualistic approach to heaven and earth, we justify our apathy towards injustice here on earth. We conclude God doesn’t really care about our bodies so much as our souls, that God doesn't care as much about this life as the next. As Nicholas Wolterstorff says in Hearing the Call, “Over and over the church, when confronted by social realities that are unjust but that it prefers not to change, retreats into spirituality” (213).
But this is not the message of Scripture. We follow a Savior who took our pain and hurt upon himself, who considered a human body worthy of indwelling and resurrecting. Our bodies are good, blessed parts of this created world. Our sin does not emerge from our physicality, but rather our lived action. We see this concept affirmed in the New Testament as Jesus, Paul, and other epistle writers anticipate the resurrection of the body (for example, Luke 20:36; Phil. 3:21; 1 Cor. 15:41-44). We read a scriptural story that ends not with us floating up to heaven as disembodied ghosts but with us inhabiting a new earth (Revelation 21) in bodies that are raised and redeemed.
We follow a Savior who didn’t tell people to tough it out and suck up their pain and suffering in the hopes of escaping to heaven when they die. When people asked for healing, Jesus didn’t respond, “Your soul is what actually matters.” Jesus cured the leper, cast out demons, raised the dead, fed the masses, and calmed the storm because he cared about this life and this world. Jesus mourned for John the Baptist and Lazarus because life on this side of eternity matters. The Old Testament prophets called God’s people again and again towards justice because, for God’s sake, this life matters.
Jesus created a new community, a new way of being that broke through societal barriers and worldly limits. He demonstrated how eternity could look by taking seriously people’s needs here on earth, forming relationships that radically redefined the world’s values and welcoming and embracing people whose worth had been reduced by the dominant culture. The early church carried on this way of being by embracing all people, sharing their possessions, carrying each other’s burdens, ensuring that “there were no needy persons among them” (Acts 4:34). They prioritized care for the widows and poor in their community, providing food daily (Acts 6:1-6), donating their land and finances generously to the community (Acts 4:32-37), healing the sick and demon possessed (Acts 5:12-16), and eliminating societal barriers based on race, class, and social status (Acts 8:26-40; Acts 10). The gospel spread as the early church responded to the physical, earthly, present needs of the people around them.
Seeking justice and restitution are central to the mission of the church. The whole person is created in God’s image—mind, soul, and body. And when the bodies of people of color are being treated as lesser than others, the church is called to lead in advocating for change. When we are dismissive of contemporary prophetic voices which call us to justice, like Henry’s, we cannot be the kind of community Jesus called us to be.
If we continue to relegate the good news to matters of the afterlife, we not only make the gospel irrelevant to those who long for change in this lifetime; we also limit the scope of the Bible’s message of creational redemption. We cannot claim to be the church and neglect Christ’s radical mission to make all things new, including our legal, political, and societal structures. If we embrace escapist Christianity, we reduce Jesus’ message of hope for this world, we refute the life-changing message of the gospel, and we refuse to truly pray for God’s will on earth as it is in heaven. Redemption starts in this life, on this earth, in these bodies. Heaven starts here.