In our sermon this morning the preacher introduced us to the idea of this concept. The idea is that we have things that are functionally our hell – the thing we most want to avoid, whether presently experienced or merely feared – and functional heaven – being released from that functional hell thing we most want to achieve. We tend therefore to look for a ‘functional saviour’ – someone or something that will save us from our functional hell and grant us access to our functional heaven.
The problem is that if these hells and heavens are the most important things in our lives, then they become the root of idolatry in our lives, and the functional saviour will be what we worship in the sense of being willing to do anything to achieve the freedom from this ‘hell’ and gain entry into ‘heaven’.
True Christianity is about recognising that God offers us salvation on HIS terms, not on the basis of what we want. Thus His priority is to save us from Hell – but that’s not the same as saving us from our functional hell, which may well be the place where He wants us to learn holiness for a time – which may be the rest of our life. This is HARD. We are always inclined to believe the claim of the Enemy that God doesn’t really want the best for us, but is making us suffer for His entertainment. So we need to be very cautious about what our priorities really are, and ask God to work with us to reveal when we are getting it wrong – as we often will.
But this analysis also helps bring other issues into sharper focus. For example the ‘social gospel’: one late 19th century presentation of it expressed it like this: ‘If cleaner streets, better housing and sweeter homes do not come within the scope of our aims, neither will those who are convinced of their right to these things come within the shadow of our places of worship’. Given that at the core of the gospel is the call to forgo all ‘rights’ except to be children of God, then we are not able to affirm their ‘right’ to these things. Yet of course we want to see them happen – but not at the cost of it being the only focus of what the church does, which is where the danger lies. At its most extreme this logic sees Christians endorsing the violent overthrow of regimes that are as nothing compared with the crudities of the Roman Empire, which the bible clearly indicates was to be accepted as ‘ordained by God’. Of course right involvement in politics with a clear set of policies may be what some Christians are called to, and we need to welcome this IF it is God’s call on a person’s life. But we must actively question such a calling because its effect is likely to make it harder for the person’s political opponents to hear the gospel. However if it is, then we should endorse it clearly.
This analysis also helps in understanding the attraction of the prosperity gospel. To the extent this promises God’s help in avoiding many functional hells, be it poverty or ill health, the danger is that the prosperity message is what is attracting the person to the church, not engagement with God for themselves. If that happens then there is a serious problem; a functional saviour is being offered, rather than our Lord Jesus. Of course it may be God’s blessing to heal people’s diseases and provide them with prosperity in order to serve Him, but the commitment to God must come first. And if the message of the evangelist is that these things WILL follow, then he is lying; this side of heaven there are no absolute promises about what we will experience.
But of course we must start by looking for the plank in our own eye: what is your functional hell and heaven.