Are You Ready?

We all know that we are going to die someday.  Still, that often seems distant and surreal.  Occasionally, an event may make death, including your death, a little more real.  A pandemic can fill that role.

Most people won’t catch the coronavirus, I think.  Most who do catch it won’t be that sick or even show symptoms at all.  But some will face death and plenty will experience it.  How ready are you?  It is fair question to ask yourself at any age or in any form of health.

Your answer will be very much influenced by your worldview.  If you believe in some form of reincarnation, death may scare you, but the results are not final.  If you believe that you must stand before an almighty, but somewhat unpredictable, Allah; then death is very intimidating. If you are convinced that there is nothing beyond the grave, then death is depressing but unavoidable and not a big deal.  If you believe in some generic form of Heaven for being good enough, then death is again frightening and uncertain.  How convinced are you that any of these worldviews are accurate?

I am personally quite convinced that these worldviews are all inaccurate and that one’s worldview does not shape what happens after death. What comes next comes regardless of what you have believed.   I am also convinced that in the history of mankind only one person gives authoritative insight into what happens next and also provides a good outcome.  That person is Jesus because:

  • He has many credible witnesses that testify that He did miraculous things, including raising people from the dead
  • He has many credible witnesses, including former doubters, that He rose from the dead
  • He fulfilled prophetic writings that were clearly written long before His birth.
  • His teachings fit with our experience of self and the world.
  • Archeology affirms many of the details that surround Him
  • Out of body experiences seem to confirm the existence of both Heaven and Sheol.

Jesus himself states, “I am the way and the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me.”   Jesus and the New Testament authors explain why this would be so.  God requires sinlessness, and none of us meet that standard.  Someone had to be a sinless human being in order to fulfill God’s Law and take the consequences of sin on themselves.  To be sinless, you would have to be born sinless and continue to the end.  The Bible explains that we are all sinful from conception onward.  Jesus’ unusual birth (a virgin birth) allowed him to be born without a sinful nature (genetically distorted to naturally be alienated from God).  Jesus is unique in this way.  Also, if any other process could give us eternal life with God, then Jesus would never have been asked to do what He did.  He not only died on the cross, He was forsaken by the Father as our surrogate.

Connection to Jesus to receive the benefits of His life and the promise of eternal life is both simple and impossible.  In our natural condition we would never believe Jesus’ story or His promises.  That’s what sinful nature does.  It is a good thing that God is working to supersede sinful nature or it would be impossible.  God creates faith.  Some highly unlikely people have come to have faith:  hardcore atheists, very evil people, strong adherents of other worldviews.  God wants to save people.  He wants us to be ready.  We and our children can be connected to Jesus and eternal life through baptism.  That much is simple.

Being Heaven-bound (saved) doesn’t necessarily mean that you won’t have questions or doubts.  When God does get a hold of you there are signs:  growing confidence in Jesus, growing confidence in your own salvation, a love for God, a hunger to learn, etc.  Our circumstances and the remaining flaws of our sinful nature may diminish some of the signs; but we may still be ready, especially if we have been baptized.

It is a great feeling to know that you are ready.  In fact, more than ready–looking forward to it.  As this blog explains, there is much to avoid (Sheol, Hell) and much to look forward to (Heaven, Resurrection and the New Earth).  The greater your confidence is in Christ, the less a pandemic seems like a reason to panic.

Then I Saw a New Heaven

In our minds Heaven is eternal, unchangeable, perfect as is.  The beginning of Revelation 21 declares, however, “Then I saw a new Heaven and a new Earth, for the first Heaven and Earth had passed away…”

I understand wanting a new Earth.  Though this Earth is beautiful in many ways, it has been damaged by sin and the curse.  Its systems work, but not perfectly.  The Earth struggles to keep up with its primary inhabitant–mankind.  Clearly, God can innovate and create something even better.

But what is wrong with Heaven?  First of all, is this even referring to the dwelling place of God?  It is an unfortunate use of language that the word used to describe the universe and the word used to describe the dwelling place of God are the same word.  Usually, the universe is plural and God’s house is singular.  To the ancient mind this use of language made sense.  They viewed reality as concentric circles.  The first heaven being our atmosphere, the second the observable universe and the third being the realm of God.  Paul uses this language to describe an out-of-body that he experienced.  He describes going to the “third Heaven”.

The geometry of concentric circles is not prescribed in Scripture, so we don’t have to think about it that way.  The problem still remains.  To what space is Revelation 21 referring?  While it could refer to any of the above mentioned “Heavens”, I expect the renovation project to encompass all of them.  Revelation 21:5 says, “Behold, I am making all things new.”

We tend to glamorize Heaven, the realm of God, a bit.  We often use the word “perfect” to describe it, but for millennia it was not perfect.  Satan’s rebellion started there and Satan himself remained a part of it.  It took a “war” (Rev. 12:7) to cast Satan out.  While I expect Heaven to be mind-bogglingly beautiful, God probably likes a space with a clean history.  One difference will be where God dwells.  Heaven will not become the New Earth.  The New Earth will become the dwelling place of God.

People seem to insist on conflating the New Heaven and the New Earth.  They are mentioned separately because they are separate.  As I noted in the last blog entry, this doesn’t mean that we won’t have access.  I expect one of the attractions of post-Judgment Day life will be the ability to move both across space and dimensions with ease.  The angels seem to do it, why not us?

Imagine how exciting that would be.  A whole universe to explore and, if that is not enough, one more!  Another planet or the New Heaven itself would be like a day trip away.

Revelation 21:4 says, “the first (or former) things passed away.”  Which things?  Hard to say exhaustively.  The curse and sin will be gone for sure.  Satan and his cohort also gone.  The painful memories of the past are gone.  Only what is sanctified by God will remain.  Possibly many of the physical restraints we now experience will be changed or eliminated completely.  Maybe even certain laws of physics  or “constants” of nature.

We don’t have to know, because God assures us that we will love it.  Still, it is exciting to imagine and such a promise turns our eyes from our current struggles in the sense that we know that they will all be temporary.  We remain engaged in working to improve life and care for the current creation because God desires us to do so, but we understand that a total remodel is not that far away.  Through our connection to Christ we will be a part of it.

We Will Be Made Multi-Dimensional?

No doubt God has some pleasant surprises for us in the eternity He has planned.  Some of these things are kept as surprises because we wouldn’t understand them if He did tell us ahead of time.  What I am writing about in this entry is possibility one such surprise.  I will admit that it is speculation based on very little data, but it still is consistent with Scripture and mentally graspable.  At least I hope you get it.

It confounds many people that the Bible talks about Heaven and a New Earth.  Why would one want a New Earth if we have Heaven?  The tendency is to conflate the two, though this is clearly wrong.  Both are distinct.

What if it where possible to move freely between Heaven, with unique and glorious qualities of its own; and a New Earth, for that matter a New Universe, made perfectly as God intended it from the beginning and now being the official dwelling place of God?  In other words, it would not be one or the other but both.

Part of understanding this idea is having a concept of where Heaven is in the first place.  Is Heaven just far out in the time and space dimensions we know?  I doubt it.  The Bible just describes Heaven as being “up”.  It doesn’t really say where it is.  With a little more sophistication about how reality is structured, other possibilities for the location of Heaven come to light.

With the study of the bizarre behavior of particles at the atomic (quantum) level, the theory that there may be other dimensions has come to light.  Our experience only accounts for three physical dimensions and one time dimension.  With these we can locate any point that has ever existed, or so it seems.  Quantum mechanics suggests that there may be other dimensions that we are currently unable to access with our senses or our instruments. (Do not confuse this with the baseless theory of the “multiverse”)

Could Heaven, Hell, Sheol, the Abyss and who knows what else exist in other dimensions, and the only current way of accessing them is through our death?  I think it is more than possible, but rather likely.  Consider the Biblical account of the movement of angels.  They properly exist in Heaven.  That is their habitat.  But for God’s purposes they also seem to be able to access Earth.  Consider also the account of Satan’s expulsion from Heaven in Revelation 12.  Previously, he had access to Heaven and Earth.  After his expulsion, he only could access Earth (or this universe).  Perhaps the travel between Heaven and Earth is a matter of movement along the dimensions we already experience, but it seems more likely to me that Heaven is from outside of these dimensions.

That is a long explanation to get to my point.  It seems that we can have, through Jesus, a place in Heaven with a heavenly body.  At the point of Christ’s visible return, there is the resurrection of an earthly body and the creation of new dwelling place for us–a new Earth.  Do we just lose Heaven and the heavenly body or do we gain a resurrected body and a New Earth?  2 Corinthians 5:1 says:

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 human hands, eternal in the heavens.

This is referring to our heavenly body.  Or to say it another way, the body that we will have in the dimensional space where Heaven exists.  We will have it eternally.

So what will we be?  We will be beings who can enjoy a perfected earth-like planet with a resurrected body that has new capabilities, and we will have the capacity to move to the Heavenly plane and enjoy the significantly different realm of a new Heaven.

That doesn’t sound boring to me.

We Will All Be Changed (Part 2- Physical Frailty)

When I ask kids what they would like to have changed when they enter Heaven, many choose to have more formidable physical skills.  ” I want to be better at basketball”, for instance. We are all often earth-bound in our imaginations of what a Heavenly or Resurrected body may be.  That said, Scripture does say of the Resurrected body, “It will be sown in weakness, it will be raised in power.”  What kind of power might this include?

Greater speed, strength, impermeable to damage or illness; I expect “yes” to all of them.  Greater beauty, shorter recovery time, more intelligent?  Sure, why not?  According to Genesis people were living for hundreds of years prior to Noah’s flood.  Is this merely mythic?  I see no reason to say so.  There is a branch of science that studies the genome looking for ways to extend human life expectancy.  It is believed that there is a built-in clock within our DNA, and I agree.  In Genesis 6, God seems to adjust that clock so that human life expectancy will slide back to 120 years.  It eventually does so, and remains so to this day.  Can God give us a different genetic code or even use a different means of encoding the construction of our bodies?  I’m sure it is not even hard for Him.  God is able to make us physically immortal. “The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable.” (1 Corinthians 15:42).

I expect our brains will be a vast improvement over current models.  Many people ask if we will recognize each other.  I expect that you will not only recognize those you knew, but you will also know those you never met.  On the Mount of Transfiguration, Peter, James and John knew Moses and Elijah.  They had the gift.  It was not introductions or name tags. I expect we will be capable of vast learning without the frailties and maladaptions of our current brain.

Will there be pain, hunger, thirst, nausea, itching or other unpleasantries.  “No” says Revelation 7 for the Heavenly body and Revelation 21 for the Resurrected body.  Could there be any injury, or will we be like the Terminator?  This is hard to say.  There will be no mortal injury, but there might be a need for healing and the source will be quickly provided.  The Tree of Life exists at least in the New Earth, and I expect also in Heaven.  It is for the “healing of the nations”.

Will we age?  Aging as it currently plays out is part of dying.  It is the wages of sin.  We will not get old and frail or lose our beauty, but there might be a life cycle.  Isaiah 65:17 and following is a strange passage that says it is about the New Earth.  In verse 20 it speaks about infants and old men.  This passage needs to be understood in light of other passages that say that we are eternal.  So how can you be an infant or old man; or is this just a figure of speech?  The “Immortal Jellyfish” might give us a model.  This species goes through stages like a frog or a butterfly, but it can revert from its “mature” stage back to its initial larval stage without dying.  The Isaiah passage would be referring to the Resurrected body.  Perhaps we go from infant to adulthood and back to infancy.  Who knows?  Eventually, we will.

We Will All Be Changed (Part 1)

As we approach New Year’s Day, it is traditional to make resolutions about how we would like to change our bodies, habits and other behaviors.  Rarely do they work.  Establishing a new behavior typically takes about sixty days of reinforcement.  This is the minimum time it takes to re-wire our neurons in the brain.

I am in no way discouraging attempts of self-improvement in this life.  It can be done.  My discussion over the next few blog entries will not be about improvements in this life. Rather it will be about how we will be changed when we leave this life.  As we imagine the version of ourselves that will be discovered when we die, it may inspire you to get a head start and to begin changes while still here.

The first change to ponder is the end of our sinful nature.  Getting rid of this flaw is a primary reason why we need to physically die, since sinful nature is a part of our flesh.

Think about what sinful nature does.  One thing is the drive to self-satisfaction that leads us to cross the line of God’s Law.  Whether an endorphin lift caused by sex, risk taking (like gambling), drugs, or other things; this drive feels good and gives a temporary boost in energy or relaxation, it also distorts the God-given purpose for sex, creates bad stewardship decisions, takes advantage of others and pushes God to the side.  Pleasure is not automatically sinful.  In fact, I expect Heaven and the New Earth to be filled with pleasure.  The change will be the ability to find pleasure in good and godly things.  Our current bodies are wired more for the former than the later.

A new body, at first just a Heavenly body and then a resurrected Earthly body, will operate differently.  I’m sure it will have even a greater capacity for pleasure, but it will not struggle with impulse control or selfish gratification.  Rather, love will likely be the driver of pleasure.

Lack of impulse control is also a big problem with our words.  Anger is ignited and, for many, goes directly to harsh words and sometimes quickly to violent actions.  Heaven will be different.  First, there won’t be things to trip anger, but even if there would, a body that is peaceful, happy and controlled will be without harsh words.  How great will relationships be without the products of sinful nature.

Another thing that I believe is created by sinful nature is a need to compete with others.  It may serve a survival purpose in this world, but it leads to unnecessary damaged relationships and self-loathing.  What would it feel like to be truly and completely happy for others?  Our best efforts at this are at least tainted with jealousy.

A body created by a genome tainted with the corruptions of sinful nature also has a hard time maintaining joy.  Quickly our biology slides back to the feelings and weaknesses of boredom: lack of energy, focus and the like.  Some don’t care to even consider Heaven because their minimal knowledge of it makes it sound boring.  They are bored in a worship service, because they don’t understand what they are doing.  The thought of anything that is “eternal” evokes the thought of eternal boredom.  Ironically, the cause of boredom will not be a part of Heaven or the New Earth.  Existence will be engaging and without the swings we experience here.

No doubt there are many other affects of sinful nature that will not be a part of our eternity.  We don’t recognize them now, so it is hard to imagine what our new lives will be like.  It is fun to try, however.

Some changes are modestly achievable now.  Why not just wait?  Living in ways that are contrary to sinful nature are pleasing to God and good discipleship in many ways.   They may even give some pleasure now, if not insight into how things will be.

 

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.