One of the things that our philosophy professor has taken great delight in criticizing is the belief in the afterlife. Of course this has significant implications for what sort of meaning we attach to the nature of life itself. So searching for meaning becomes a quest for significance, purpose, and quality. It seems most of us have some sort of expectation as to what life should be like. And if our lives don't seem to match those expectations we get bothered by it. Of course, one of the most significant contributions to understanding the meaning of life has come from religion. Religion of most stripes offer explanations about life as it is related to what happens after life ceases. Christianity says heaven and hell await the soul which continues to 'live' past the biological death of our bodies. Heaven if you make the right choices in this life and hell if you make the wrong ones.
Eternity has become the central feature in the Christian explanation of the meaning of life. Eternity might even be the only foundational aspect of most Christian theological tradition. Here's a little test see if you can come up with a solid explanation of the basic concepts of Christian ideas without talking about heaven or hell. Tough right? And when something seems to take such a dominant role in the formation of thought I get suspicious. But to be sure I don't reject the idea of eternity or its implications – I just don't think any idea deserves a free ride – especially when it seems so central.
Secular thinkers will often point to how eternity thinking has caused Christians to disengage from the present world because their focus is fixed on the life hereafter. And they are right. We refer to this world as embodying all that is wrong. And so this world becomes a training ground for what is to come. It's a throw away world where our actions are essentially inconsequential because of the hope of an eternity where we will be transformed into perfection. And it should not surprise us that materialism (mega-church), and poor environmental stewardship, even anti-immigrant sentiments can all be clearly reflected in many current Christian expressions (one's I have been reminded of recently). Because if this world really doesn't matter that much then who cares if we get things wrong 'down here' as long as our insurance policy is thick enough to get us the perfect retirement in the sky.
That's where it seems to me that the story of Christmas can really shine. God becomes one of us. God makes a statement – we are worth hanging out with. And by living with us he gets to show us how to live this life to its fullest potential – right now!
If God was focused on the afterlife/eternity/heaven as his main focus, don't you think there could have been a better way to motivate humanity than by identifying with us. He could select several humans in each generation to visit heaven and then make a documentary for the rest of us. He could give us samples of heaven – little bits of blinding lights and golden bling. He could make so that one of the confirmations of our assurance of heaven after this life was to get some sort of documentation of the fact.
But Christmas suggests that eternity is not God's focus. We are his focus. Right here – right now.