Advent and Eternal Life

Advent is normally seen as a type of countdown to Christmas.  We have special calendars and wreaths with candles that graphically display the arrival of Christmas and remind us of the first coming of Jesus.

Advent has another aspect, though.  From the beginning, Jesus’ plan was to prominently come into this world twice, though in some form He has always been here.  With His first coming the main mission was to fulfill God’s law for the whole human race and to pay the price for humanity’s sin.  Mission accomplished.  Jesus’ second coming is to judge all of mankind, destroy the tainted creation that this universe is, and to instantly remake it free from sin and the curse.  Advent should also remind us that Jesus is coming again, and that could be at any time.  You should expect this mission to be accomplished as well.

The Christmas holiday is a defined number of days away.  If I am caught unprepared I have no one to blame but myself.  Jesus’ coming again, and for that matter my own death, are coming; but they are an indefinite number of days away.  Both could be today.  How do you prepare for such things?

In Matthew 25, Jesus tells three parables that basically give us two ways to prepare for Jesus’ return and an explanation of what Judgment Day will be like.  The same “preparations” make good ways to be ready for our own deaths at any time.

The first parable is a story of ten bridesmaids waiting for a bridegroom.  In ancient Israel they used to play a game where the bridegroom would not announce when he was going to arrive in town for the wedding.  The goal was to sneak in and catch the wedding party unprepared.  The bridesmaids would have oil lamps burning in case the bridegroom came at night.  The wise ones brought extra oil in case it took a very long time.  In this parable the oil represents faith.  Faith, like oil, can run dry.  This need not happen.  God provides the means for faith to remain vital always.  God’s Word and the Lord’s Supper provide the “oil” necessary to remain connected to Jesus until you meet Him face-to-face.  This is the most critical way to be prepared.

The second parable tells the story of a landowner who leaves three men in charge of differing amounts of money.  The money in this case represents all the different things that God provides that require us to be good managers of it.  This includes our financial means, the time we are given here, our skill set (both learned and spiritual gifts), our opportunities to serve, our relationships with others, the planet itself, our knowledge of the Gospel, even saving faith itself.  God expects a return on this investment.

Judgment Day is a two-fold event like Advent.  On the one hand, it clearly and finally segregates those whose sins are forgiven through Jesus from those who rejected the one and only way to be saved.  On the other, Judgment Day is an evaluation of the works of those who are saved.  Noble deeds without forgiveness are of temporary value.  Standing on the grace of God, God empowered good stewardship gets an additional reward.  What type of reward will it be.  It doesn’t say, but you can bet it will be more than worth any effort we make.

Advent’s annual message is this.  Life is valuable when spent in service to God, but it is short.  Be ready for its end at any time.  Jesus has already put in place a way to eternal joy.  Don’t miss out when the time comes to inherit what He has prepared.

 

 

How Many Will Be Saved?

It’s hard to say how many people have lived since the beginning.  Population growth suggests that a large chunk of those who have ever lived are still alive now.  Add to it those who died in the womb and you have a very large number.  But how many will be saved in the end and how many will be damned?  Speculation varies from a rather small number saved to everyone.  Let’s look at the few Scriptural clues we have.

Let’s start with my least favorite verse in the Bible, Matthew 7:13-14:

Enter by the narrow gate.  For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many.  For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.

“Few” and “many” are relative terms.  At minimum, this passage suggests that a minority find life.  Is this passage about eternal life or just living properly?  I think its wording suggests, at minimum, that destruction refers to entering Sheol.  It probably is speaking about entering Hell, but let’s leave that open for now.

Many argue that a loving God could not possibly damn anyone.  While that seems logical, two passages you must consider on the topic are Matthew 25:41 and as an explanation John 3:19-20:

Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the fire prepared for the devil and his angels.

And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and the people loved darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.

My main point is that a verdict of damnation is spoken to a significant population of human beings.  This happens despite the giving of Jesus (the light) and the promise of forgiveness of sins and eternal life.  Many just prefer evil and they get the consequence of unforgiven evil.

Without Jesus there is no forgiveness.  Without forgiveness there is no Heaven or New Earth.  If the “destruction” referred to in Matthew 7 is Hell, then those “on the left” are a majority of mankind, and there is no way to tell how large of a majority.  If it refers only to “Sheol” then there is a small hope that it could be less, depending on the meaning of 1 Peter 4:6:

For this is why the Gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does.

This is an enigmatic passage without other Scripture to help to clarify it.  It comes in the context of Peter speaking about the descent of Jesus to speak to “spirits in prison”.  Does it tell of the Gospel being preached successfully in Sheol?  Let’s hope so, but let’s also preach the Gospel like this is our only chance.

In the end, whether a minority or not, a large and diverse population of humanity makes it to Heaven.  Revelation 7:9 describes it this way:

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out in a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

Jesus’ self-sacrifice, the “narrow door”, results in the salvation of a great multitude.  Let’s work so as to make it greater.

The Souls of the Martyrs

There are relatively few biblical passages that give us a look into Heaven.  There are even fewer that include human beings.  Revelation 6:9-11 is a short passage that does just that.  What insights does it give?

The first thing to note is that this is part of the unsealing of a scroll within the throne room of God.  The contents of the scroll are unspecified, but a good guess is that this scroll actually unveils God’s good plan for His people.  Unfortunately,  a fair degree of judgment has to fall on mankind before we get to the good stuff.  Seven seals are ultimately broken.  Most bring tragedy to the inhabitants of the Earth.  The strange exception is the fifth seal.  The fifth seal produces a vision for the author of Revelation, John.

John sees the souls of those who have been killed for being Christians.  We are all aware that we will die somehow.  When you are violently put to an untimely death because of your faith those left behind have to wonder “is this worth it”, at least a little.  The vision given is a message for the living.  The martyrs are not gone, they are living.  They are close to God, and God is caring for them.

John says that he sees their souls.  The soul is the immaterial part of our being.  “Immaterial” just means that it is not properly a part of our current universe.  Are souls “material” in Heaven?  In the last verse they are given “white robes”.  This is not apparel.  Pulling on Paul’s language in 2 Corinthians 5, I would conclude that the white robes are actually a Heavenly body.  Or in other words, a physical body in Heaven to pair with the soul.

Their location is also interesting.  They are “under the altar”.  This sounds small, as if they were mice; but the dimensions of the throne room of God are likely very large.  If this throne room is what is seen descending to the New Earth in Revelation 21, then the space under the altar could be the size of Kansas.

The martyrs seem a bit disgruntled but perhaps they are just being curious.  “How long until you judge the inhabitants of Earth and avenge our blood?”  This is not a complaint about being stuck under the altar, but rather a call for justice.  God’s justice will come but not without time for repentance, time for all nations to hear the Gospel, and time for the total number of martyrs to be completed.

The final item seems like a weird criteria.  Martyrdom seems like a bad thing.  Even the martyrs don’t seem particularly fond of it.  But God has set apart special honor for those who are willing to die for Jesus.  He knows who they will be throughout time.  None who are chosen would want to miss the opportunity of this honor.  It is well worth it.  Martyrs for Christ are being made to this day.  Who knows when this will be complete, but each person brings us closer to Judgment Day.  To be a “martyr” means that somebody kills you.  You don’t kill yourself.  The Muslim idea of martyrdom is more suicide and blasphemy than honorable.  A real martyr gives a witness.  That is what the word “martyr” means.  It is a witness that shows I believe and trust God even unto death.  Jesus gave such a witness about His love for us.

The vision is brief but instructive.  In the period between death and Judgment Day, people who belong to God are consciously alive and in Heaven.  Heaven is not their ultimate destination.  Judgment Day will usher in the New Earth. Both Heaven and the New Earth are the gift of Jesus and something to look to with anticipation.

 

 

What Is Death?

We all have to go through it.   This is the “After Death Site”.  So what is death?

If you are a strict materialist, you believe that death is the end of a living creature–nothing more.  This is what it looks like for sure.  But revelation from all corners of religion and near death experiences, let alone just the experience of being conscious suggests that death is something more.

Medically death is easy to measure.  The heart stops. Brain activity becomes immeasurable in a short period of time.   The experience from the inside, as reported by those who went through a near death experience, is very similar for all people.  You experience a tunnel with a light at the end.  The light has proven to be Heaven, or Hell (technically Sheol), or something that appears heavenly but is likely a deception.

What has happened? Not having direct experience myself, I lean on 2 Corinthians 5:1-4 for insight:

For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.  For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked.  For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened–not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.

This passage is a little confusing in that it weaves two metaphors for our bodies–a dwelling and clothing.  When we are “alive” here on Earth our bodies are referred to as a tent because they are temporary and fragile.  We groan while in them, because we are aging, experience pain, and want, and Monday mornings.  That being true, we still have the will to live.  We do not want to be “unclothed”, meaning that our spiritual self would have no connection to our physical self.

Death “unclothes” us for a moment.  Our earthly body is too damaged to go on, and we drift free of it.  It is the nature of our “soul/conscious” to reconnect, but not on Earth.  We don’t reincarnate.  We are drawn away instead and reconnect to a body either in Heaven or Sheol.  This is what the Bible refers to as the “first” death.  Could this process be sloppy, allowing some to reincarnate and others to drift free like ghosts?  I don’t know, but the Bible would suggest not.

For those who have a Heavenly dwelling because of Jesus, death has a two-edged significance.  To be separated from our bodies is part of the punishment for sin.  Our bodies are sin damaged and we must leave them.  So death is bad.  But on the other side, death allows us to connect with our Heavenly dwelling (further clothed), or as 2 Corinthians says, “be swallowed up by life”.  So death is good.

For those who do not have a place in Heaven, they emerge in Sheol (please see the other articles on Sheol in this blog).  This is not good.  You are aware of the judgment that has befallen you and you have a physicality that can experience the harshness of your new environment.  It is not the final judgment, but it much like it.  Those who have experienced this through a near death experience have reported about it with terror and shame.  They did not want to return.

Death can be as scary as Halloween presents it, or it can be the greatest moment of your existence to date.  Jesus is the difference maker.

Let not your hearts be troubled.  Believe in God; believe also in me.  In my Father’s house are many rooms.  If that were not so, I would have told you.  (John 14:1-2)

The New Jerusalem (Part II)

The next thing is to try to imagine is the spectacular beauty of the New Jerusalem.

It starts with the wall.  As mentioned, the wall is not defensive.  It is more like the walls of a spaceship.  It is for moving.  But once this thing arrives on the New Earth, you can also see it is for the sake of beauty.  Most walls are eyesores, but not this one.  Though thick, about 200 feet thick, it is transparent like a crystal. In the case of this city, it is a giant cube with the city clearly visible inside.

The city must have a direction orientation (this side up) because John speaks of the foundation.  The foundation has a beauty of its own with layers that can be described in terms of crystals found on Earth now.  The walls have gates, but only 12.  These are described as being like giant pearls.  I doubt they are the product of massive oysters, but the look is similar.

Another point of contact with the current planet is found in Revelation 21:24:

And the kings of the Earth will bring their splendor into it.

What is beautiful and worthy from this present Earth will find its way into the eternal city.  What will make the cut, only God knows.

The important part is that we “make the cut”.  Our salvation does not rest on being more beautiful or better than others.  It rests on the forgiveness that comes through Jesus Christ.  We can only be there as cleansed and renewed people.

Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.

Touring the New Jerusalem

I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of Heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. (Revelation 21:2)

John was given quite a vision.  He saw Heaven.  He the future of the Earth.  He saw Judgment Day.  All of it was either exciting or terrifying.  It was something from which he could not look away.  But few things in the vision of the Book of Revelation match the arrival of the New Jerusalem.  It is toward the top of the “Wow!” list.  Like, “Wow, what is it?”

First let me tell you what it is not.  It is not some metaphor for the Church.  Many commentators on Revelation say that Revelation 21 is somehow about the church because the word “bride” is used in the passage above, and God’s people, the Church, are collectively described as the bride of Christ elsewhere is scripture.  But this passage doesn’t say that the New Jerusalem is the bride of Christ.  It says it is beautiful, like a bride.  So what John is witnessing is the future arrival of the New Jerusalem on the New Earth.

Why does it have walls?  Cities of the past had walls for defensive purposes.  Now that modern weaponry have rendered walls useless, why build them?  The New Jerusalem will not need to be defended from attack.  All enemies are securely and permanently stuck in Hell by this point.  These walls are part of the packaging.  This city moves.

So it this a spaceship of some sort?  Yes, Star Wars fans.  The New Jerusalem could very well be God’s throne room, described in Isaiah 6 and Revelation 4, now moving to its new location on mankind’s new home base, the New Earth.  It’s big (essentially a cube 1400 miles on a side), it’s stunningly beautiful, and it constructed with the kind of symbolic symmetry that God loves to use.

Will we live inside of it?  No.  No doubt being in the New Jerusalem will be an exciting part of our lives, but our new living space will be far more than that.  If the structure of the New Earth is a spinning globe, then it would have to be massively larger that the current planet to accommodate the New Jerusalem.  We can’t assume it will be a spinning globe, however.  Revelation announces that the old order of things has passed away, so who knows if a globe that spins is part of the new order.  The sun doesn’t seem to be a part of the equation, so spinning might not be necessary.  (Revelation 21:23,25)

The lighting of at least the New Jerusalem seems to be unique.  Without the sun and moon, the city is still aglow, day and night.  This isn’t artificial lighting.  This is the glory (shekinah) of God and we are in the midst of it.

What will there be to see in 2.7 billion cubic miles of the New Jerusalem?  Much more than the Bible has to tell us.  But there are more details that we will go over in my next blog entry (September 25).

Why Did God Even Create the Damned?

One question has always bothered me.  It is the question I will grapple with in this blog.  As time goes on, more and more people are saved by Christ; but this number pales in comparison to the number of those lost eternally.  If God truly loves mankind, wouldn’t He bring an end to the world just to stop the bleeding?

Of course, that reasoning would have ended creation at the very beginning.  God’s people have always been a remnant (a minority).  The love of God for mankind is a love for all.  Jesus died for all.  Through Jesus’ death atonement has been made that, at least theoretically, could cover the sins of every person.  It is the persistent rejection of such a great sacrifice and love that makes the judgment of eternal death just in God’s eyes,  not just the people’s sins or their sinful nature.

It is a wrong conclusion to think that God created certain people to be damned.  Yes, certain people in history were the unlucky people to play infamous roles: Pharoah, Judas, Pontius Pilate to name a few.   But what we are is not just the product of God’s creation.  We are God’s creation plus a distortion that dates all the way back to Adam and Eve.  On top of that, we are partially the product of our environment or our reaction to our environment, and I would include Satan as a part of our environment.  All these factors create a wide array of people.  None of us can choose God all by ourselves. God must do something to open us to Him.  But it seems that many remain closed regardless.

It is my conclusion from the information in the Bible that God can know all of human history and know every human heart.  He knew or could know everyone’s potential reaction to Jesus before anyone came into being.  Jesus said,

Enter through the narrow gate.  For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.  But small is the gate that leads to life, and only a few find it.  (Matthew 7:13-14)

Jesus knew that many have and would enter into destruction.  Is God indifferent about this or is He grieved?

In a very interesting and confusing passage in Genesis 6:6, God expressed regret for creating mankind.  It would seem that God does not always use His foreknowledge if He can experience regret.  It doesn’t seem like a stretch, then, to conclude that God grieves the loss of so many even though He considers their sentence just.

It is impossible for us to know all that has gone into God’s decisions.  We can’t even relate to what it is like to be God.  It is certainly different than our frame of reference.  Consequently, I can’t say why God didn’t or doesn’t cut His losses with mankind.  What I do know is that God wants more to be saved.  That is the motivation for His patience.  All else remains a mystery.