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I‘ve heard from more than a few young people who have left the faith of their youth that they did so because the answers they were hearing were not for the questions they were asking.

As an official old person (my benchmark is when I voluntarily begin eating salads and fruit for lunch), I was unprepared to hear that one of those questions is “What happens to us after we die?” As a 20-something put it, “My generation doesn’t think that way.”

“WHAAAAAT? Isn’t this the whole point?!”

I’ve pondered that for a while and I now my response would be “good for you.”

Young People Dropping Out of Faith

I see this shift as a corrective to the type of Christianity they and many of us old people were raised in—where the afterlife is the pressing question, the heart of the gospel message—and a move toward a more biblical-looking faith, where (you might want to be sitting down) afterlife seems to be, at best, of occasional interest.

Afterlife is mentioned in the Bible, of course, and perhaps for that reason the correction of this generation is more of a hyper-correction—swinging to the other extreme to balance things out. Such broad swings are needed from time to time as we flawed humans continue to try to come to terms with the mystery of faith and of ultimate reality.

Nevertheless, the idea that a core focus of the New Testament is on the afterlife is certainly an extreme position. The truer focus is on the salvation of God here and now, what difference all this Jesus and kingdom of God business makes now. [PSA: A study of how “save/salvation/savior” are used in the New Testament really drives this point home.]

I think the corrective is needed, and since it’s not coming from the institutional church, perhaps it needs to come from outside of it. These young “nones,” the formerly-Christian-and-now-somewhat-spiritual, have their finger on something. They are deeply concerned about justice, peace, and the value of all human life, regardless of labels we assign or walls we build.

They have lost interest in what amounts to a shallow, quasi-biblical expression of Christian faith, one that focuses far too much on the not yet. Ironically, in their critique they are putting their finger on something: what they are looking for and not finding in the faith of their youth is actually deeply rooted in the biblical story.

Maybe we should listen.

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.

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  • gapaul says:

    At some point we have to grapple with the fact that the mainline church hasn’t been talking about the afterlife and in a fair number of congregations there is a lot of talk about justice and peace. They are losing young people too.

    And at what point do we realize these conversations about “generations” are overly broad? Do some young people yearn for more conversations about justice and peace? Sure. And some were marching with the white supremacists in Charlottesville, while some are big on fraternity drinking parties and some just want to live their lives undisturbed. Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are in the same generation — would we talk about the “older generation” as if it is one monolithic whole? These conversations about young people that make no effort to recognize any differences — even across economic and racial lines, seem doomed to me.

  • mhelbert says:

    Hey Pete! As a bonafide old person, (I am actually a member of AARP!), I’ve been asking similar questions. I spend time reading and listening to people ‘outside the fold.’ And, I hear how they can’t understand much of what the church takes for granted. Like afterlife, Kingdom, Lord, etc. They want to know what good is the church here, now, in 21st century reality. And, like your young folks, the church really has no valid answer for them. Secular people are kind and loving. They care about our environment and oppressed people. They behave and do deeds that put many in the church to shame. So, why believe? I’m currently wrestling with some of this and hope to write something soon to get these ideas out of my head before my head explodes.

    • charlesburchfield says:

      Here is something that Richard Rohr said that has helped me.
      You cannot get there, you can only be there.

  • Scottalan Florida says:

    This is definitely a cringe-worthy article, and at least deserves some kind of reply. I often wonder if Peter Enns is reading the same Bible I read, because one of the major themes running throughout the Bible, cover to cover, is all about the future. The future is what hopefully motivates us to come to Jesus in the first place. Any good works that we do in the here and now are only a result of what God has already done to us and for us, and not a means of appeasing God or of catching some feel-good Kumbayah moment. My suggestion for those of the younger generation who have “lost interest in what amounts to a shallow, quasi-biblical expression of Christian faith”, is to jettison all those peddlers of the feel-good, cheap-grace “gospel”, and to actually pick up your Bibles, pray, and read. Also, make it a goal to find a church that actually teaches the Bible.

    • Pete E. says:

      Future does not equal “afterlife.”

      • Scottalan Florida says:

        Well, in the words of Paul, “I consider that the sufferings of this PRESENT TIME are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” What was Paul looking to?

        • Pete E. says:

          I am not saying that “afterlife” isn’t addressed in the Bible. I am quite clear in my post that it is.

          • Scottalan Florida says:

            Well Pete, I think we are at the same impasse we arrived at last time we spoke; you and I believe in two different gospels. From what you seem to be saying, your’s is an earth-dweller’s belief in this life…this world. To my ears, it sounds very man-centered. If I’m wrong about that, you certainly are not making it very clear to me that you are in agreement with our Hebrews 11 “Hall of Faith” characters who “desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city”. I guess I just don’t see how anyone claiming to be a “Christian” could say the “afterlife seems to be, at best, of occasional interest”.

          • Pete E. says:

            See my last response.

          • Scottalan Florida says:

            I’m confused; wasn’t the whole point of your article about “what difference all this Jesus and kingdom of God business makes now”? Wasn’t your point that the younger generation has made a “hyper-correction”, and is more “deeply concerned about justice, peace, and the value of all human life”, rather than “what amounts to a shallow, quasi-biblical expression of Christian faith, one that focuses far too much on the not yet”? I thought the issue here was all about what a Christian is supposed to be focused on; the “here and now”, or, our future dwelling place with God.

            To my thinking, what you place your hope in makes a huge difference in how you live out your life in this world. One will ultimately lead to disappointment, fear and discouragement. The other will always lead to peace, confidence and courage, which, as I mentioned before from Hebrews 11, we see many good examples of throughout scripture.

          • BMillhollon says:

            I see your point and believe it is an important one. The “already vs not yet” debate surrounding the subject of the Kingdom of God is ongoing and unlikely to be satisfactorily resolved in a blog discussion. But it is an important discussion to have, and the verses that you point out such as Hebrews 11 as well as Paul’s references to the eminent return of Christ and consummation of the age need to be looked at carefully. It does seem to me, however, that our ability to have the discussion and reasonable examine the scripture is subject to the same tension surrounding the topic, namely the fully realized vs progressive nature of revelation. Is revelation ongoing? Do we continue to learn and have new insight into the mystery of the kingdom? Or did Paul and the writer of Hebrews have it nailed and have the final word? is it possible that Paul’s understanding of the end times and the “world to come”, being shaped by his training and experience as a first century jew and the volatility of the period of history he referenced, have a more limited perspective? And if Paul was wrong about the eminent return of Christ (along with many of the disciples) do we toss it all out and say: “It is either all true or the whole bit is worthless”. Or do we grow up and acknowledge that Paul, just like us, experienced true revelation from God, revelation that is to be respected and received as a gift from God. But Paul is not God. And we do a significant disservice to the times we live in if we do not respect and acknowledge the insight and revelation that God is giving to the church now. Even if it creates tension. That is what it means to live in the kingdom – a country that is both already and not quite yet.

          • Scottalan Florida says:

            You have actually illuminated a major divide between people like yourself and people like me; I trust in and really do believe in the inspiration, infallibility, and inerrancy of Scripture. It sounds as if you do not. There really can never be any agreement between us as Christians as long as you hold that position, and therefore, arguing other doctrinal issues is rather pointless, wouldn’t you agree?

    • Marc B. says:

      “I often wonder if Peter Enns is reading the same Bible I read, because one of the major themes running throughout the Bible, cover to cover, is all about the future”

      Perhaps you are not reading the Bible correctly. Ever consider that?

    • Second W. Yang says:

      Generations before did those things: picked up their Bibles, prayed, and read. Here we are though. Those things didn’t “work.” The younger generation is asking pragmatic questions. In order to meet them where they are and to have dialogue we need to listen and not just repeat what was said prior. Their existential questions have shifted. The church must shift with them while tethering answers to the Scriptures. More could be said on this.

  • Mike H says:

    A distinction between “afterlife” and “eschatology” seems necessary.

    I don’t think it’s completely accurate to say that “a core focus on the afterlife is an extreme position” or that it’s just sort of “mentioned” if the two aren’t distinct.

    “Afterlife” in terms of escapism – not really there. Specific details of “afterlife existence” and predicting the future, sure, not a focus.

    But eschatology – an eschatology that sees a telos of all things made new – informs, anticipates and provides the sort of imagination that can “make a difference”. A robust eschatology goes hand in hand with Kingdom-of-God-now sort of talk. I don’t think you can really have one without the other or you end with a confusing dispensationalism at best.

  • Bex says:

    This reminded me of a moment when Kent Dobson, while studying in Jerusalem, asks a rabbi about the afterlife. The rabbi replies, “it’s not an important question.” Dobson elaborates on this in his new book, “Bitten By A Camel.” You’ll get the title when you read it. Dobson would be a great guest for your podcast.

  • BMillhollon says:

    I agree that a lot of the “answers” offered by the church are not to the questions many are asking. I wonder if a significant part of the problem is that the evangelical story of why-things-are-the-way-they-are no longer addresses reality. That story depends on a perfect, immortal first couple living in a chimerical world without death, ragweed, menopause and probable mosquitoes, before they messed it all up. Salvation is getting your plane ticket back to paradise. The idea the God created imperfect humans, mosquitoes, plague, and menopause as part of His perfect and good plan is not in the script. God has written off this cursed universe and only the few blessed soles who say the magic words and “hold on till the end” will get the golden ticket to the sweet by-and-by when everything will be the way it should be -pre menopause.

    But God did create this world. The here and now world. The world that Jesus came to save because it was “so loved”. And if we believe in God and Jesus as the true revelation of the nature of God, our job is to apply all of our passion, strength, creativity and faith to living fully NOW, because we are free to do so. Everlasting life is now. Always.

  • David Boyd says:

    Pete – Just finished reading The Sin of Certainty, and thoroughly enjoyed it. I feel as if we have traveled some similar ground in our spiritual pilgrimage.

    Emerging adults leave the faith for a variety of reasons – some driven by intellectual struggles, some led by different passions and values, and yet others flee from abuse. It is definitely hard to simply describe and define the reasons for the Millennial Exodus that we are seeing from the church.

    Regardless of all the reasons why – you are correct. We should listen to their voices. We must allow them seats at the table where they can be heard. The church must learn better ways to understand, empathize, and minister to the needs of emerging adults. I hope that you will check out my work at http://www.earesources.org.

    If you are ever in Indy, I hope that we can connect.

  • Rena Guerin says:

    Several years ago, the local paper in a town near where I lived did a Mother’s Day interview, asking mothers what they considered their most important job. I remember one mother stated her number one priority was to make sure her children got to heaven. My own daughter, who “accepted Jesus as her own personal saviour” at age 4, grew up and was baptized in a Baptist church as a teenager, left church in her college years saying she was tired of being told what to do. Now she is approaching 50 years of age, I am in awe and proud of the woman she has become. I don’t spend time worrying about her eternal destiny. My son, on the other hand, stayed with the church and now he is a father takes his family to church occasionally, but I’m not sure how much thought he has put into his Christian faith. I remember a newspaper column by a local minister in which he said that every so often Christians should take their faith and spread it out on the floor and discard those aspects and practices no longer relevant to one’s life. I’ve done that, my daughter obviously has, maybe my son has yet to do it.

  • Dave says:

    I think today’s young people (say 18-25s) are more educated and knowledgeable than any previous generation. For them, the anti-intellectualism of some branches of Christianity is a massive turn-off. I’m not just thinking of the subject of origins, but theology in general.

  • Ross says:

    Thanks for the very pertinent post. I am definitely an old person (so old that I don’t know how to use Facebook and only old people use that!).

    My generation grew up in a world which was a different country to my parent’s World. The kids growing up today are probably in a World which is a different planet to mine.

    As someone who helps at “Sunday School” mainly with younger people but occasionally with Teenagers and interacts with my friend’s kids, I really don’t know what to say. Personally i’d rather not say what I think many of their parents would want me to say (I.e. didactically present the “old gospel message”).

    Generally I feel so sorry for the World they are growing up in, “Achievement” is the only message they get, parents are either too knackered from “working for the man” to give them what they need or too knackered from taking them to different activities every hour of every day to make sure they’re “fulfilled”.

    The only thing I can think to say is that they are worth my time to find out who they are and that actually a lot of shit happens and God lets a lot of it happen. “Yes there really is a God, but that doesn’t mean you won’t fail. Yes God is really there but that doesn’t mean you won’t get hurt”.

  • Mike Bull says:

    Good stuff, but I think this problem (which is a form of gnosticism) is actually a result of treating the first and last books of the Bible as ideology instead of history (6 day creation and the destruction of Jerusalem). So Mr Enns’ take on things is really an integral part of the problem. If the Bible is mere “story,” and not also actual history, it is just as much a pie-in-the-sky as “are you going to heaven?”

  • Kendra G Rittenhouse says:

    I would be one of these, even at the young age of 55, if I hadn’t started studying (scholarship) the Bible instead of just reading it. I have found a renewed hope in discovering God’s desire to reconcile the world, bringing heaven to earth. That’s the only afterlife I focus on these days.

  • Al Cruise says:

    Afterlife is a mystery. Can you have consciousness with matter?

  • Pete E. says:

    See my last response.

    • Scottalan Florida says:

      I’m confused; wasn’t the whole point of your article about “what difference all this Jesus and kingdom of God business makes now”? Wasn’t your point that the younger generation has made a “hyper-correction”, and is more “deeply concerned about justice, peace, and the value of all human life”, rather than “what amounts to a shallow, quasi-biblical expression of Christian faith, one that focuses far too much on the not yet”? I thought the issue here was all about what a Christian is supposed to be focused on; the “here and now”, or, our future dwelling place with God.

      To my thinking, what you place your hope in makes a huge difference in how you live out your life in this world. One will ultimately lead to disappointment, fear and discouragement. The other will always lead to peace, confidence and courage, which, as I mentioned before from Hebrews 11, we see many good examples of throughout scripture.

      • Pete E. says:

        Don’t stress so much! I’m sure in time you’ll come around.

        • Scottalan Florida says:

          Several years ago, by the mercy and grace of God, I and my wife escaped the form of doctrine which you promote here, Pete, so I really don’t think I’ll “come around”. And, as an added blessing, because of simply taking the Bible at face value and actually believing what the words in it are saying, my “stress” level has greatly diminished, thank you very much.

      • Pete E. says:

        You also missed the point of my post, making it into an either/or.

        • Scottalan Florida says:

          Ok Pete, let me quote you; “Nevertheless, the idea that a core focus of the New Testament is on the afterlife is certainly an extreme position. The truer focus is on the salvation of God here and now, what difference all this Jesus and kingdom of God business makes now.”

          Correct me if I’m wrong, but that does sound an awful lot like an “either-or” position. And while the NT certainly does speak to both subjects, what one is placing their hope in ultimately does come down to either one or the other…somewhat like the “serving two masters” problem. Again, I refer you to Hebrews 11.

          • Pete E. says:

            Do you really want to prooftext? It serves little purpose. Have you ever read Luke 1-2 and how “salvation” is presented there?

            I think you just want to debate, Scottalan, but I think you’ll need to try a bit hard to assume that we are not biblically illiterate. We know the verses. And posing this as an either-or is your doing. I am talking about “core focus”, not either or. We all know there are passages that speak to afterlife and/or consumption (which are not the same thing, for wha that’s worth)..

      • BMillhollon says:

        I see your point and believe it is an important one. The “already vs not yet” debate surrounding the subject of the Kingdom of God is ongoing and unlikely to be satisfactorily resolved in a blog discussion. But it is an important discussion to have, and the verses that you point out such as Hebrews 11 as well as Paul’s references to the eminent return of Christ and consummation of the age need to be looked at carefully. It does seem to me, however, that our ability to have the discussion and reasonable examine the scripture is subject to the same tension surrounding the topic, namely the fully realized vs progressive nature of revelation. Is revelation ongoing? Do we continue to learn and have new insight into the mystery of the kingdom? Or did Paul and the writer of Hebrews have it nailed and have the final word? is it possible that Paul’s understanding of the end times and the “world to come”, being shaped by his training and experience as a first century jew and the volatility of the period of history he referenced, have a more limited perspective? And if Paul was wrong about the eminent return of Christ (along with many of the disciples) do we toss it all out and say: “It is either all true or the whole bit is worthless”. Or do we grow up and acknowledge that Paul, just like us, experienced true revelation from God, revelation that is to be respected and received as a gift from God. But Paul is not God. And we do a significant disservice to the times we live in if we do not respect and acknowledge the insight and revelation that God is giving to the church now. Even if it creates tension. That is what it means to live in the kingdom – a country that is both already and not quite yet.

  • Dani Patrick says:

    A very valid insight. This is a huge reason why I had pulled away from church life for so long.

  • Stuart Blessman says:

    It’s possible it can be both story and history, and it’s not all that complicated to tell which parts are which. But the question of “are you going to heaven” is still very much pie-in-the-sky, a vague reference to Elysium Fields and eternity.

  • Stuart Blessman says:

    It’s also harder to hide a group’s history and worts. We can prove such and such is bunk and made up or the result of some schism or whatever. So why believe it’s true when clearly a human created it?

  • Stuart Blessman says:

    Thy Kingdom come on Earth as it already is in heaven.

  • sanctusivo says:

    My benchmark is that I get the senior discount without having to ask for it.

    That being said, I’ve let my daughters ask any question they have about life and faith, none of which are actually –
    or ever – broached at the churches we’ve attended (let alone the ones I attended as a kid, in college, or as an adult before becoming a husband and dad). I was in a Sunday school class last week when someone posited that environmentalists were idolaters because they love nature so much that they wanted to protect it. At that moment, I really wanted to get disfellowshipped until I realized that my wife would still be stuck with me.

    My hope is that they have even that mustard seed amount of faith that they find credible. Wish us luck.

  • Graham Irvine says:

    I would suggest that an even more important correction within Christian thouhgt is the move back to the coming of the Kingdom of God on earth as the beginning of the final chapter; though this is a final chapter as the final chapter of the Narnia story, only the beginning of a new tale. If we dismiss the end of the Christian story then we are left with a never ending struggle by each successive generation of Christians to bring justice and faith to the world. If Jesus does not become king in a very real sense then what is the point of the kingdom? And while I agree the New Testament gives little details of “the after-life” it is very clear when you look at the use of the word ‘hope’ in the NT that we are called to hope in the resurrection. The word hope is use over 70 times and in well over 50% of those instances the ‘hope’ that the author is refering to is the hope of the resurrection. Without the end of the story how does the rest of the story have any real meaning?

  • Pete E. says:

    Could it be you “escaped” because you are narrow-minded and couldn’t tolerate a point of view different that what you “know” to be “correct?” Do you have any idea how many people’s lives/faith have been destroyed by the kind of either-or biblicism you promote and have had to find spiritual food elsewhere? Don;t think too highly of yourself, Scottalan. That is a grave sin.

    • Scottalan Florida says:

      Wow! Speaking of making assumptions…but why argue?

      Anyways, yes, I think “escaped” is a good word to describe our rescue from the type of theology you advocate. And I do have personal knowledge of the “lives/faith” of my own family that was damaged (but not destroyed) by the exact type of biblical relativism that you promote daily.

      Look, Pete; I have no delusions of changing your mind here in our discussions. My only hope and prayer is that other believers in the Lord Jesus can see through the smoke & mirrors of this false gospel you are peddling.

      • Pete E. says:

        I do think you’re missing what is happening here, Scott.

        1. I have no doubt that you know people from your context who have been harmed by the “type of theology I advocate,” but that may have less to do with that theology as it does with how some Christian communities train their people to remain in a child like, black and white, faith where the complexities of life and of Scripture are kept at a safe distance. When people are trained to think of the Bible as God’s answer book for life, it doesn’t take much to wreck their faith.

        2. As many people as you can name who have been harmed by “biblical relativism,” I can name many more who have left the faith entirely–or “escaped” to another Christian tradition–because the kind of biblicism you seem to think is normal, orthodox, down-the-middle Christianity ran up against their reason and experience. Your version of the faith is not the salvation as you seem to think, but for many their damnation.

        3. Having said this, I have no doubt whatsoever that people in your world are spiritually nurtured as they are in the world I inhabit. So perhaps you can find it in your heart to humble yourself, concede the fact that the Creator is bigger than even you can imagine, and that people who have good reason for thinking differently than you are not “peddling a false gospel.” You can disagree, of course (which you’ve been doing), but you are no position to make that call.

        At any rate, I think your point of view has been made clear, as has mine. So let’s move on.

  • Pete E. says:

    You don’t really believe in the the I’s but in your interpretation of texts that you *think* stems from those concepts. I wonder if your commitment to your view of the Bible ever allows room for you to be wrong, or to learn from people who have made it their life’s goal to study scripture, it’s history of interpretation, history of Christian thought, etc.

  • Occasional Commenter says:

    Pete, I like this post. The dynamic you describe is like one I experienced, but in a different way. When I was part of a faith community I was, and still am, dealing with a serious issue. I let the “don’t-worry-(i.e. don’t seek treatment) God-will-take-care-of-it-if-you-seek-first-his-kingdom-(i.e. the leaders’ priorities)” types hold sway for too long.

    While I let my own challenges grow and fester, I saw people around me justify debt, troubled marriages, bad grades, poor job performance, etc. as the unfortunate price they had to pay for a supposed kingdom focus. Those who encouraged me to look to my reward in heaven were often simply seeking to distract me while they inventoried my earthly goods for their own possession. What a nightmare. Religion really can be used as the opiate of the masses.

    “Social mindedness” was preached against as worldly(!… “let the dead bury their own dead”); all that mattered was “saving souls” (i.e. bringing more people into the pyramid scheme). As though Jesus never took the time to heal someone around him. Unbelievable. I view those young you describe, who leave church out of concern for others around them, as the type of believer who might have made a difference for someone like me.

    On the topic of “difference,” and “what difference this Jesus and kingdom of God business makes now,” I have to add this: your blog posts, and even your responses to some of the comments, show the difference to me. They have a profound influence on this non-believing reader who returns here frequently, hoping to find something compelling. As do the comments of many of your readers, so many of whom seem willing to give reasons for the hope they have (even when admitting that their hope is weak).

    The ones who manage to express their reasons with gentleness and respect, as you do, make the biggest difference, of course. I feel lucky to have stumbled across all this. Doesn’t James 1 all but define religion as caring for widows and orphans in the here and now? I don’t know – all that stuff James says about how believers use their tongue – maybe his letter has fallen out of fashion since I was last a “student of the word.” Thanks for your work.

  • Ken Orton says:

    Like. Until someone has been there and can convince me that they have, I remain cautiously optimistic.

  • BMillhollon says:

    You may be right. Infallibility and inerrancy are divine attributes. Since, (IMO) there is only one God, this becomes a “my God vs your God” debate. History does not cast a favorable light on those kinds of “discussions”.

  • kendra says:

    Amen, from a fellow Kendra! 🙂

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