Back in 1983 when I was a campus minister and grad student in philosophy at the University of Guelph, I teamed up with two fellow-students and another campus minister to write a short booklet called Ten Myths About Christianity. The purpose of the booklet was to engage—and debunk—some of the most egregious misconceptions about Christianity that we had encountered.
When I recently re-read the booklet, the way we addressed some of the myths seemed a bit outdated to my ears. Indeed, myth #5 was originally entitled “Christianity is otherworldly and irrelevant to life in the twentieth century,” and we’re now in the twenty-first century! But it struck me that our response to this myth is still a central and much-needed theological affirmation, and it continues to function as a foundation for my worldview.
A few years after we wrote the booklet our response to myth #5 was published under the title “Are Christians Other-Worldly?” in an anthology called Exploring Apologetics: Selected Readings (1992).
What follows is my updated and expanded version of what we wrote thirty years ago.
Is Christianity Otherworldly and Irrelevant to Life in the Twenty-First Century?
There’s no doubt that many Christians seem otherworldly and even irrelevant by their attitudes and actions. Some Christians seem to care nothing for the suffering of others in situations of injustice; others seem to think the earth is a disposable commodity that will be destroyed when Christ returns.
But this does not reflect the main emphasis of the Bible, which is the foundation of Christian teaching. Far from being otherworldly, biblical Christianity emphasizes the importance of this world in three main ways.
First of all, the Bible claims that the entire universe is created by God and is therefore good and important. Far from negating or devaluing the world, the Bible teaches that God loves his creation and providentially sustains the world as a good place to live. The world (both human and non-human) exists to manifest God’s glory, and God rejoices in what he has made.
But the importance of the world is supported also by the doctrine of the incarnation, the Christian teaching that God became man in Jesus Christ. The authentic humanity of Jesus is constantly affirmed by the Bible. He was not some spiritual manifestation or temporary avatar, but a real-life, flesh-and-blood person, located in a particular time, place, and culture. The coming of God in the person of a first-century Galilean peasant was deeply contextual. Indeed, the incarnation was the culmination of God’s revelation through centuries of Israelite history.
But why the incarnation? Why did God get involved with the world in this way?
Because creation went wrong. Humanity has chosen evil in rebellion against its Creator, and the world is no longer totally good. Corruption has set in, evident both in the individual heart and in the social systems and institutions we have created.
Yet God has not given up on the world. This is the tremendous message of the Christian gospel. God loves us to the point of becoming a human being, even suffering death on a Roman imperial instrument of torture, to free us from evil, to bring salvation.
The salvation God offers constitutes the third way in which biblical Christianity affirms the importance of this world.
Though Christianity is often characterized as a pie-in-the-sky religion, concerned with a hereafter of disembodied existence in an ethereal heaven, this is a gross distortion of its message. There is certainly a future hope of the “kingdom of God.” But this kingdom is also present in the midst of history. Jesus proclaimed the presence of the kingdom (God’s coming rule to restore the world) and enacted this kingdom by healing diseased bodies, casting out demons, challenging the oppressive social order of his time, and offering forgiveness and hope to those in bondage to sin.
Beyond the radical in-breaking of the kingdom into the midst of history, the Bible describes the ultimate goal of this kingdom in the most concrete terms. Scripture promises the resurrection of the body and the renewal of the social order—indeed, the renewal of the entire cosmos (“a new heaven and a new earth”).
Biblical salvation is consistently holistic. Christianity’s final vision is of the eradication of evil from the universe. Christ came to restore the created order to what it was meant to be, and that includes every aspect of human (and non-human) life.
Christians must be otherworldly, in one sense
This means that there is an important sense in which Christians must be otherworldly. Precisely because they envision a world free of evil—as God’s intent from the beginning and as the goal of history—they cannot accept this world at face value. They are otherworldly in that they look beyond the distortions and pretensions of this world (the present age) to the world that is to come. They know there is something better.
Christians are called to be fundamentally this-worldly
But that means that Christianity is fundamentally this-worldly. Christians are called upon to oppose evil in all of its individual and socio-cultural manifestations. They are to work toward healing, love, and justice in this world. In the context of our modern (and increasingly postmodern) civilization of violence, oppression, and narcissism, this calling is certainly neither otherworldly nor irrelevant.
Some Background on Ten Myths About Christianity
When we wrote the booklet Ten Myths About Christianity, all four authors were part of Guelph Christian Fellowship, a local branch of Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF) in Ontario, Canada. We were commissioned to write the booklet for use in a week of Christian outreach at the University of Guelph in Fall 1983.
We kicked off the outreach week with a panel discussion in the Student Centre on four of the myths (one of which was myth #5), and throughout the week we distributed hundreds of copies of the booklet to those interested in reading further. We also had an artist in our IVCF group design a set of ten posters, each representing one of the myths. These posters were on display in a public thoroughfare on campus throughout the week.
The week of outreach, which we called “There Must Be More” (a line taken from a Bruce Cockburn song, “More Not More”), included public lectures and workshops on faith and science, faith and social issues, faith and history, faith and art, faith and philosophy, etc. as well as various cultural/artistic events and a culminating multimedia presentation that used music and visuals to explore questions of ultimate meaning in contemporary culture. The point of the week was to address how the Christian faith could impact life in the real world with integrity and in a holistic way.
The outreach week was so successful in engendering meaningful conversations about Christianity (not to mention some actual conversions) that we did it again the following year, and other campuses in southwestern Ontario followed suit. This led us to revise the booklet in 1984 and we turned the original set of hand drawn posters into a durable set that could be reproduced and owned by different campus ministry groups. Then in 1988 one of the original authors (Gord Carkner, together with theologian Michael Green) expanded the booklet into a short book with the same title (which is now out of print).