An atheist who called the podcast a few weeks ago wanted to reduce Christianity to the avoidance of Hell, saying it’s merely a “carrots and sticks” religion. There may be people out there who view their Christianity that way, but if there are, they’ve missed the point of Christianity.
Christians don’t view Jesus as a means to some other end—not as a way to escape Hell, or to have meaning in our lives, or to make us good people, or to reunite us with loved ones in Heaven, or to give us any other benefit. No, Jesus is the end we’re after. We love Him for Himself. We read the Bible to see Him, not to avoid Hell. We sing His praises to honor Him, not to find meaning in our lives. We learn about Him to know Him, not as a self-improvement exercise. Yes, by being Christians, we avoid Hell; yes, we find meaning and fulfillment; and yes, we do improve as people. But again, those aren’t the ends we’re ultimately after. Rather, we want to avoid Hell so that we can be with Him, we want to improve morally so that our behavior glorifies Him and reveals Him to others, and our desire for meaning is merely a desire to know and follow Him, the purpose for which we were created.
This is not to say we’re not grateful for what Jesus did on the cross to save us from Hell—His actions reveal who He is and make our relationship with Him possible, and reflecting on those things increases our love for Him. But He is the one who is ultimately in view. He’s not a tool we use to achieve something else. Even if there were no Hell, even if no other benefit resulted from being with Him, we would still want to be with Him. The greatest commandment is this: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” We’re to love Him for Himself, not as a means to an end.
Nowhere do we see this more powerfully than in the book of Job. Here’s what Eric Ortlund says in his essay “Five Truths for Sufferers from the Book of Job”:
This is the issue at stake in the book of Job: will human beings continue in a relationship with God in which all they gain from the relationship is God? Or are we just too selfish? Is our piety just for show? Will we ever treat God as anything more than a business partner or a means to an end? The opening chapters of Job show God putting his beloved servant in a position in which he loses every other reason to stay in a relationship with God except God himself. It starts to cost Job dearly to hold on to his relationship with God. As Thomas Merton writes, “if we love God for something less than himself, we cherish a desire that can fail us. We run the risk of hating Him if we do not get what we hope for.”
A time of great loss will reveal whether we’re placing our value in God or His gifts. I say with much grief that I’ve watched a few friends walk away from Him after a tragedy. But if we are valuing God Himself above all else, suffering won’t succeed in driving us away. Rather, Ortlund says, God will use it as a means of revealing Himself more fully to us:
Sometimes God allows pain and loss that have nothing to do with sin in our lives and are not meant to teach us anything. Rather, our loss and bewilderment become an avenue by which God gives himself to us more than he ever could have before, when we were at ease (29:6). When God puts us into a position where we must hold onto our relationship with God for God’s sake only—in which we stand to gain nothing but God—we start to receive him more fully than we ever had before. Job’s amazed cry, “Now my eyes see you,” becomes our own.]
I love Ortlund’s essay—I’ve read it more than once since it was published a few years ago. I encourage you to read the rest here.