Is There Football in Heaven?

Is There Football in Heaven?

Part 1: Christianity and Sports Have a Long History

Superbowl Sunday is coming up. What is the relationship between Christianity and sports? How have Christians embraced or rejected sports in the past? Clint Werezak tackles this question in this first installment of a three-part series.

“Wait a minute. Is there going to be football in heaven? Because if there isn’t going to be football in heaven I don’t want to go there. There is no way I’m going to be in a place forever if there is no football!” I was in the middle of leading a Bible study with some sophomore high school football players in Brooklyn when one of the young men passionately made this statement. It is a question that has stuck with me some ten years later and it always seems to become more relevant as the first week of February rolls around.

On February 5th, 2017, the New England Patriots and the Atlanta Falcons will compete in Super Bowl LI in Houston, TX. But it’s not just a football game. There are 4 LED countdown clocks installed around Houston leading up to the game. A weeklong fan festival is expected to draw one million fans who could not get game tickets. Game day will include a seven and a half hour pregame show, a pregame concert, and the spectacle that is the half time show starring Lady Gaga. The ridiculously priced commercials have become their own institution, and how many parties will convene all over the world centered on the game? Yes, there is a game somewhere in there, but the liturgical ceremony surrounding it seems to point to something much larger than merely a game of football. It is religious in nature, and so it seems natural that a connection between football and heaven should enter into the mind of a high school athlete.

The relationship between sports and Christianity has a fascinating history. Sports have evolved considerably over the past 2,000 years, and Christians have had a wide range of responses to it. What we now know as Professional Sports are relatively new on the stage of history. Sports used to look quite different. While we accept pro-sports as simply a part of life today, sports themselves have been quite controversial in the past. In fact, there have been at least four different Christian responses to sport throughout church history: first, opposition and rejection; second, an embrace as a means of growing in virtue; third, an embrace as a means of evangelism; fourth, and most recently, uncritical acceptance. But to understand these reactions, you need to look at the birth of sports in the ancient world.

When you think of sports in the ancient world, one thing stands out. The Olympic Games. Starting in 776 BCE, the Olympic games became a central part of Greek and Roman culture. Philosophers such as Plato valued the games as a means of growing in virtue, and others like Aristotle saw benefit in training the body as well. But for the average person, the games were an exciting spectacle. Emperors soon saw the appeal of the games and sought to capitalize on people’s’ appetite for the games by turning them into an “opiate for the masses.” By 300 CE, 175 of the 200 Roman holidays were devoted to games and spectacles. Yet these games were not innocent play. They were very religious and often violent. There were sacrifices to gods and corresponding feasts. And the events were brutal. For example, in boxing, the main reason for not killing your opponent was a rule that automatically declared the deceased to be the winner!

As Christianity emerged, so did the only recorded opposition to the games. This is mostly because in times of persecution, Christians were the victims of sport. Among church leaders, Ignatius of Antioch called gladiatorial games “the work of the devil,” and Tatian the Assyrian called them a “cannibal banquet for the soul.” But things came to a head in the late 4th century, specifically surrounding the issue of the Altar of Victory (altar to the goddess Nike) in the Senate House of the Romans. It had been removed by a Christian Emperor, Constantius  II, but a Roman statesman, Quintus Aurelius Symmachus, petitioned to reinstate the rituals at the altar. A controversy ensued which required Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan, to weigh in. He concluded that the Altar of Christ could in no way be shared with the Altar of Nike. That pronouncement would mark the decline of sports in the Roman Empire. Over the next ten years the Olympic games were ended as were the gladiatorial contests. After this opposition to and rejection of sport, it ceased to be of much importance or interest in the western world until the 17th century.

With the Renaissance, a western embrace of the classical world brought with it a renewed interest in sports. Along with this emerged two Christian reactions to it in England. The first response, popular among the Puritans, was rejection. Richard Baxter stated that “recreations are a misspent time.” They conflicted with the Sabbath and were seen as arousing anger. But the Stuarts were actively encouraging sports and the King even published a Book of Sports outlining what was acceptable on the Sabbath. Controversy ensued but by the 19th century, early evangelical Christians had embraced the Puritan’s attitude towards sport and drove it underground. Up to this point, modern sport as we know it did not exist. Sport was considered to be leaping and vaulting, wrestling, bowling, archery and cockfighting. But the seeds of modern sports are found in the alternative Christian response.

The second response to the emergence of sports was acceptance of physicality as a means of growing in virtue. This became a movement known as Muscular Christianity. Evangelicals had led a crackdown on sports, pointing out what was wrong, but had left nothing in its place. In that vacuum, Muscular Christianity linked physicality with virtue and then embraced sports as a means for forming character. Sports were introduced into the schools and parishes. The modern Olympics were launched under this influence. Christian networks like the YMCA were formed. Team sports were introduced. But there were problems with this embrace. The most prominent was its deeply sexist nature. Physicality was understood as masculine, and so sports were only to develop virtue in men. The key ideas used to promote them were chivalry, taming brutality, and using them as the solution to taming sexual desire.

Evangelicals reacted to this muscular embrace of sports. The third response to sports was using them as a means of evangelism. Under the influence of Muscular Christianity, sports grew to be omnipresent in culture. Professional Sports Leagues were created. Spectatorism emerged. Thousands of men quit their jobs to watch pro-sporting events (prior to the invention of outdoor lighting, television and radio). After-school sporting events emerged. And so evangelicals sought to harness the sports movement to try and evangelize people alongside it and sometimes through it. But sports were unleashed on society and began to shape it.

Pro-sports today are a dominant force in society. Events like the Super Bowl become major cultural festivals that blend religious fervor, militaristic national imagery, and consumerism. But it filters out in other ways too. How much of youth sports is dominated by visions of the professionals? How many people can agree with former Liverpool FC manager Bill Shankly when he said, “Football isn’t a matter of life and death, it is more important than that!” (Yes I know he is talking about soccer, but the point stands!) How are we as Christians to evaluate what sports have become? For many Christians, we now uncritically accept sports as given to us and do not give much thought to it. Some of the best moments in life are tied to sporting events and so we instinctively associate it with visions of paradise in the afterlife. But will there be football in heaven? In the next few posts we will dig a bit deeper into Christian responses to sports and take a look at what a Biblical vision of sport may look like. But until then, think about how those Christians who have gone on before us might have reacted to the Super Bowl, or whatever event you choose to watch. Can the Altar of Christ be shared with the Altar of Nike?

     —Clint Werezak is the ACF Campus Minister and Assistant Minister at CCNYC