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 24).

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.

What Distinguishes Sheol from Hell?

If you are not familiar with the terms Sheol, Gehenna, etc. please see some of the previous blogs at this site.

The Bible has a number of terms that describe places of after death suffering:  Sheol, Hades, Gehenna and the Lake of Fire.  In many versions of the Bible and in many people’s minds, these all get lumped under the term “Hell”.  More careful study shows you that Hades and Sheol are the same thing (just a different language for each word).  Gehenna and the “lake of fire” are most likely the same as well.  The thing that distinguishes these groups is the Sheol is before Judgment Day and Gehenna is after Judgment Day.  But is that the only difference?

The descriptions used for these places can seem confusingly similar:  fire, worms, anguish.  The similarities between Sheol (Hades) and the Lake of Fire (Gehenna or Hell as we call it) are probably a key reason why they are conflated in most people’s understanding of the destiny of the damned.

The same could be said for Heaven and the New Heaven and Earth.  Both have God’s direct presence and the absence of sin, Satan and suffering, but they are not the same thing.

The fact that Sheol and Hell are different is made by Revelation 20 where Sheol (Hades) is dumped into the Lake of Fire.    A qualitative difference is found in Psalm 139.  Psalm 139 speaks of the presence of God:

If I go up to the heavens, you are there;  if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.

The Old Testament people expected to go to Sheol at their deaths. Part of Sheol, sometimes referred to as “The Bosom of Abraham” or “The Limbo of the Fathers” was a place of comfort, but still outside the visible presence of God.  Psalm 139 may be referring to just this good neighborhood of Sheol or, more likely, the whole thing.  The final judgment involves God forsaking a place and its contents.  So a key difference may be that Sheol is still without the absence of God, even for the damned.  That doesn’t make it nice.  But it certainly suggests Hell is worse.  It is hard to imagine being forsaken by God.  It is not like we are conscious of His presence even now.  But when God is gone so are all good things.  Hope, friendship, happiness, every good thing gone.

Another difference is the company one would have in Hell.  There is no reference of Satan or demons in Sheol.  The classic picture of demons enjoying the tormenting of the damned is non-biblical fantasy.  Sheol seems to be for people.  The Lake of Fire, says Revelation 20, is prepared for Satan, his cohorts, and those in Sheol.  The point is made that their torment is “day and night for ever and ever”.  So no rest or reprieve for them.  They suffer together.

That God would make punishment eternal offends many people.  The suffering seems disproportionate to the sins.  In the end, those who suffer in Hell didn’t want God.  They have rejected His love, rejected His rule and (for people) rejected that great sacrifice made to save them.  Hell is essentially getting that for which you asked.  The eternal nature of Satan, angels and people is simply a part of what we are.

Sheol may also be different in that it holds a dim ray of hope.  Jesus’ post-crucifixion descent into Sheol seems to be for the purpose of saving some who are there. 1 Peter 4:6 makes this point.  What is criteria?  Are those in Sheol capable of faith?  Did Jesus go more than once or reach out to more than “those who disobeyed in the days of Noah?(1 Peter 3:18)  We don’t know.

The differences, though small, point to the importance of Judgment Day.  Judgment Day is the “line in the sand”.  Things change for the worst for those without Christ.  Things change for the better for those who are in Christ.

 

Can Near Death Experiences Be Deception?

What does it mean to die?  It certainly doesn’t mean to slip into non-existence.  When we die what is conscious and immaterial about us breaks from what is material.  People experience this sometimes as hovering above their bodies, or going through a tunnel toward a light, or they experience the horrors of Sheol, but many times the experience is of a joyful, loving Heavenly bliss.  No one who experiences these joys is interested in returning.  Life suddenly loses its interest.  But, as we know, many people are resuscitated and live to tell the story.  But is the story real and accurate?

The majority of reported experiences are of Heaven.  “Reported” may be the key word here.  Most people don’t want to report they experienced “Hell” or for that matter even remember the experience.  Those who experience “Heaven” are more willing to speak, though no one wants to be considered delusional.

I don’t doubt the reality of Heaven nor the possibility that one might experience a bit of Heaven in a NDE.  I do have some doubts that everybody who reports seeing Heaven actually did see it.

A fairly large group of people return proclaiming a message that Heaven is a place of pure love that everyone will experience.  They endorse universal salvation.  This pronouncement runs contrary to those who experience Sheol.  It also runs contrary to what Jesus proclaims in the Bible.  Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.”  He also states, “For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many.”  That’s not universal salvation.  How did people come back to life with a contrary message?

Transcendental Meditation seems to have a similar capability of separating your conscious self from the physical self.  This practice is not benign.  Some practitioners have reported experiencing evil, perhaps Satan himself, in whatever dimension TM puts you.  Could death, even temporary death, also put a person into a dimensional space (not Heaven) to encounter a spiritual being who there to deceive?  I think the answer is “yes”; and all experiences, no matter how positive or blissful, need to be tested.

I would very much wish for universal salvation.  Even God desires universal salvation.  But if universal salvation is not the truth, then a message of universal salvation is extremely dangerous and is exactly the type of misinformation that Satan wants to spread.

The goal of those who experience a NDE and return with a message of universal salvation is not to deceive.  They want to spread hope and remove the fear of death.  But they are the one’s who have been deceived.  We are neophytes when it comes to experiencing death.  We don’t know what we are experiencing and could easily be misled.  Perhaps this is part of the reason why God strongly forbade practices that could lead to such out of body experiences.  A NDE just happens to us, but discerning the reality of the experience takes some caution.

Near Death Experiences Don’t Always Go to Heaven

If you have heard or read about Near Death Experiences (NDE), you are most likely aware of how people experience a beautiful environment of love, deceased loved ones, enchanting music and unparalleled peace.  These experiences are common, and they are commonly reported by those who experience them.

What is not so commonly reported is the experience of darkness, pain, fear and frightening beings.  The people who do report them never want to return.  They claim to experience Hell.

If you have been following this blog, I make a technical distinction between the place of the damned before Judgment Day and the place of ultimate separation from God after Judgment Day.  I prefer to call the post-Judgment Day destination Hell.  The Bible uses the words “Sheol” or “Hades” to describe what one would experience now.  These people experienced Sheol, and didn’t like it.

The very fact that some experience Sheol casts a question mark on the experience of those who come back to life and report that they experienced a place of unconditional salvation for all.  We will address this in my next blog entry.  Also to be questioned is the prevalence of a Heavenly experience in the research of NDEs.  It makes sense that people don’t want to report that they went to Sheol.  In fact, the experience is so negative that it makes sense that people may block it out of their own memory.

Jesus says in my least favorite Bible passage:

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 and narrow is the road that leads to life and, and only a few find it.  (Matthew 7:13-14)

This passage emphasizes the necessity of Jesus to a positive eternal outcome.  He is the narrow gate (John 14:6)  It also suggests that the prevailing experience of people should be of Sheol.

How do people describe their experience of Sheol? Here are some excerpts from the book, THell and Back:

The darkness of Hell is so intense that it seems to have a pressure per square inch.  It is an extremely black, dismal, desolate, heavy, pressurized type of darkness.  It gives the individual a crushing, despondent feeling of lonliness.

The heat is a dry, dehydrating type.  Your eyeballs are so dry they feel like red hot coals in their sockets.  Your tongue and lips are parched and cracked with the intense heat.  The breath from your nostrils as well as the air you breathe feels like a blast from a furnace.  The exterior of your body feels as though it were enchased within a white hot stove..

The agony and loneliness of Hell cannot be expressed clearly enough for proper understanding to the human soul; it has to be experienced.

Actually, I’ll pass.  People do experience others being there.  They even recognize some, but there is no positive relationships.  Sheol seems to have a landscape, and according to the Bible story of Lazarus and the Rich Man, is divided into at least two sections by some sort of “chasm”.  The one side being where the Old Testament righteous lived comfortably until Christ’s victory on the cross.

It is interesting to note that those who experience Sheol describe it in physical terms, as if they had a body.  Our body is a proper part of this universe.  It doesn’t go with someone to Sheol, but that doesn’t mean that you wouldn’t have a body that is a part of Sheol.

The NDEs of Sheol that many people have is warning to us all.   Even Bible believing Christians want to dismiss the existence of eternal judgment, and some do.  The experience of those who go briefly to Sheol tells us that reading about it is as close as we want to be.  It should be taken seriously.

What Should We Think of Near Death Experiences?

Near Death Experiences (NDE) and Out of Body Experiences (OBE) are two similar events where a person is conscious of being separated from their bodies.  Experiences like this have always happened, but because of medical advances they now happen by the thousands.

In the Bible there are visions where the person experiences beyond their physical location, but it is not a true OBE/NDE.  When Daniel sees God on His throne or when Isaiah or John experience Heaven, these would seem to be visions.  The distinction is that God is viewed directly (which should not be possible for a sinful human) and/or much of what is viewed is symbolic.  It is more of a Powerpoint than a field trip.  A biblical exception is reported by Paul in 2 Corinthians 14.  In this passage, Paul speaks of himself going to Heaven and hearing “inexpressible things than man is not permitted to tell.”  Some theorize that this happened after an unsuccessful stoning of Paul.  If true, this was a Near Death Experience.  Paul refers to what he hears as “inexpressible” which could mean that he has no words to convey it, but he also says that he was not permitted to convey it.

Death normally separates body and spirit.  Other, not recommended, procedures seem to do the same thing temporarily.  We will get to that later.   Since we know so little about the interface of body and spirit, it is hard to medically or theologically explain the moment of separation and why it is possible to do this “before our time”.

Skeptics dismiss NDE’s and OBE’s as illusions created by the brain in distress, usually blaming it on hypoxia, a lack of oxygen to the brain.  There are several facts that make the hypoxia argument not credible.  First, hypoxia makes a person confused not hyper-aware.   Many people having a NDE find themselves floating above their bodies and they can recall details of the room or even details outside of the room accurately.  This takes us to the second reason it is not hypoxia.  People can see and hear without having their eyes open and with no discernable brain activity.  It is the soul operating without the body.

Careful recording of the nature of the experience is important before drawing too many conclusions.  People tend to under-report NDE’s.  The reason is that they fear skepticism or judgment.  This is especially true if the experience is bad.  Most reported NDE’s are about a beautiful experience of Heaven.  Some even come back with a message of universal love and salvation.  These collide with experience of many, and perhaps even more than is reported, who experience what is reported as Hell.  Obviously, universal salvation is incorrect if some are experiencing “Hell” (I would reserve the word “Hell” for a post-judgment day place. What they experience is technically Sheol–see my other blogs about this).

I believe the ultimate truth about the afterlife and many other things is the Bible.  Experiences like NDE’s are interesting and exciting but they need to be tested against the facts presented in the Bible.  The Bible itself warns to “not treat prophecies with contempt.  Test everything.  Hold on to the good.” (1 Thessalonians 5:20)  NDE’s could be seen as a type of prophecy.  It is information about the afterlife that gets to us by a different means.  But that doesn’t make the information correct.  It needs to be tested, because intentional deception is possible.

Who would the deceiver be?  I am not laying this on the people who have a NDE.  I suspect Satan has ways to intercept this experience and spin it in a way that disseminates false information.  On the flip side,  I see no reason to conclude that all NDE’s are the “work of the Devil”.

So with a degree of caution, we will examine in later blogs some of the NDEs and OBEs reported in books on the topic to see if there is anything to learn about life after death.

Can You Tell a Person’s Destiny?

Knowing what happened to somebody who died, or knowing what will likely happen to somebody when they die are two pieces of information we can greatly desire.  Sometimes you want to know because you care.  Sometimes you want to know because you want to minister to them appropriately.  Sometimes that knowledge would help you to grieve.

But can you know?  Jesus urges us not to judge in Matthew 7:1.  This command is especially relevant here, because there are many factors that could lead to the wrong conclusion.  Here are a few:

One cannot determine a person’s eternal destiny based on how they died.  It is common to view a peaceful death that is well anticipated as a superior sign over a violent, unexpected death.  But the cause of death says nothing about a person’s eternal destiny.  Jesus confronted this popular misperception when a tower that was under construction collapsed.  People concluded that the workers who died must have been worse “sinners” than others.  Jesus put us all in the same boat.

Nor can we conclude anything based on experiences as one dies.  Some have visions of Heaven.  Some express nothing at all.  My own mother had the experience of “falling” as she was dying.  Sheol isn’t actually down and Heaven is actually up.  So experiences of going up or down are just caused by the failing of the brain.  In my next blog entry, I plan to start to address Near Death Experiences.  While both experiences of Sheol and experiences of Heaven occur, also in the mix are intentional deceptions by Satan.

One cannot make an absolute judgment based on behavior.  When we are connected to Jesus and saved from our sins the Holy Spirit does change us for the good.  This change of qualities and increase in love should be observable.  But even saved people continue to struggle with sinful nature.  As such, the progress of our sanctification (being made into somebody good in our actions) can be slowed with periods of digression along the way.  Don’t get sucked into the “good enough” evaluation.  We are not saved by our deeds.  We are saved by Christ’s deeds.  While good works are valuable, they are neither the source of salvation nor a trustworthy way to evaluate whether somebody is saved.

One cannot make an absolute judgment based on whether a person’s faith is unwavering.  Ephesians 2:8 says we are saved by grace through faith.  This sentence uses the word “faith” to describe a connection that God makes between us and Jesus.  That type of “faith” can produce the “faith” that is certainty in what is unseen but promised by God.

Many solid disciples of Jesus can have frightening doubts as they approach death.  It is common.  You are not saved by your certainty.  You are saved by Jesus.  So do not get sucked into the “faith enough” evaluation either.  Comfort a dying person who is afraid.  Don’t beat them into believing better as if that were possible to do.

In the end, judgment is God’s business alone. Our ministry to the dying should be one of sharing and reaffirming God’s promises of grace.  Our “self-evaluation” can be this simple three-question quiz: 1.  Did Jesus really die and rise again?  Yes or no. 2.  Did God promise eternal life to all who call on Jesus?  Yes or no. 3  Is God a liar?   If you can answer yes, yes, no, it is because God chose you and gave you those answers.

Any other circumstantial evidence should kept at arm’s length.  It probably doesn’t mean anything.