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.

Are Those Who Die in the Womb Saved?

A pregnancy is a powerfully emotional experience.  If you really want a child, then the baby in the womb in precious and you feel connected to this child very early in the pregnancy.  If you didn’t want a child, the same connection can be felt, but sometimes the desire to be free of the upcoming responsibility can trump any recognition of the pregnancy being your child.

As we know, whether for human reasons or biological reasons, not every pregnancy results in a live birth.  Is the deceased child a person with an eternal existence?  If so, when does it start?  Even more important, what happens to them?

I will be up front.  The Bible doesn’t give us much information about these questions, so definitive answers are elusive.  The Bible teaches that a human is both a body and a soul.  These aspects of ourselves are separable.  Because of sin, our body dies and remains dead until the resurrection.  Our soul assumes a different body in Heaven or Sheol depending on the status of our relationship to Jesus.  Can a body and soul be separate at the beginning of life as well?  We don’t know, for sure.

The Bible speaks of us being “sinful from the time my mother conceived me.” (Psalm 51:5)  This is an acknowledgment that sin is part of our nature and therefore a part of our genetics and body.  Does it automatically mean that we have a soul from conception?  It could, but it’s not clear.  The Bible also speaks of God knowing people in the womb (i.e. Jeremiah, John the Baptist).  You don’t need the Bible to tell you that being born doesn’t make you into a human.  You are a human before you are born.  But when?

Science tells us that the fertilized egg is genetically distinct from the parents.  It is not a “part” of the mother.  But science as a whole struggles with what consciousness is and what is the unique value of a human being.  We have no way to measure a soul.

To fill the void that the Bible leaves on this emotional question, the doctrine of the “Limbo of the Unborn” was created by the Roman Catholic church.  This is a place of comfort, but without the visible presence of God meant for those who die unbaptized.  Such a place is not found in Scripture, but it acknowledges our human conundrum.  We are born sinners.  We are not born saved.  But God is merciful.  That is His character. Still God operates strictly by His Law.  So what does He do?

I can share a bit of anecdotal evidence from a relative of mine.  He experienced an out-of-body experience following a truck accident.  In this experience he met someone in Heaven who identified himself as a biological brother.  The only problem is that he didn’t have a deceased biological brother to his knowledge.  He had arrived at the hospital as DOA (Dead on Arrival) but doctors were able to revive him.  Later, he relayed the experience to his mother.  She revealed that she had a miscarriage of a male child that she had never told to him.

Make of this what you want.  I personally don’t think that all of the unborn are saved.  The Bible shares that a relative few are saved among the living.  However, I also believe that God has His way to reach those who haven’t or can’t be reached by the power of the Gospel during their lives, however brief.  This thinly attested belief will have to do for now.

Is Hell God’s Wrathful Presence or His Absence?

One of my favorite church announcement gaffs is:  Our weekly Bible Study is “What is Hell?” ,followed by “Come early and hear our choir practice.”  We can joke about what would make Hell tormenting, but there is really nothing funny about it.  Hell is eternal suffering.

Hell, the place of final judgment, is described this way in Revelation 20:10, 14:

“and the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever…Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire.  And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.”

The picture of fire and brimstone is a classic one.  Satan and his minions are there, but not to add to the torment.  Rather they are tormented themselves.  A lake of fire that would normally consume someone fails to do so because the resurrected body of a human is indestructible.  The fire only adds to their physical suffering.

The question I am asking today is about the presence of God in Hell.  Some characterize Hell as God continually and intentionally venting an unending wrath against these beings.  While God can be a God of judgment and the biblical warnings about Hell should be taken seriously, is this the type of being that He is?  Does God have a wrath that is never satisfied?

I believe the answer about God’s presence in judgment comes from the story of Jesus on the cross.  Being whipped and nailed to a cross was indeed painful, but the worst of it seems to be something unseen.  Jesus cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Jesus knew the plan.  He knew that He would experience the full judgment on sin which included being forsaken by God.  When that finally happens the experience overwhelms him.  Even Jesus can’t stand being forsaken.

Hell fire sounds bad and I’m sure it is, but the judgment on sin isn’t God battering you for an eternity.  It is God forsaking you.  God being “all-knowing” and “present everywhere” doesn’t mean that God must know everything and be everywhere.  He can intentionally forget and intentionally leave.  The worst part about being damned is that He does.  For this reason, the ultimate judgment for sin can be experience is a space, which we call “Hell” or on a cross.

We don’t realize how “present” God is with us all the time, even for those who deny His existence.  But you would certainly know it when He is no longer present.  It is agony.  That is why it is so good that God wants to be with us.  Jesus’ forsakenness was the main event on the cross.  It is questionable whether the scourging and the torturous form of execution is even God’s idea.  I think it is Satan’s idea to get Jesus to bail out on us.  Forsakeness is the scary part, and since Jesus experienced it for us, we never have to experience it ourselves.  Hell can be spoke of from afar.

Holy Week and Life After Death

For many, Holy Week is a forgotten celebration.  The only remnant of it left in their lives is Easter, and Easter is nothing more than a celebration of Spring and a chance for kids to get candy for some reason.  Talk about missing the boat.

The events of Holy Week are not only historical, they are critical to any of us having life after death versus suffering after death.  Jesus had to do what He did or God’s Law would scoop everyone of us up and drop us in the same bucket with the most evil people who ever lived and Satan himself.  We are all sinners.  Something had to be done about that.  Holy Week is the celebration of the fact that somebody did.

In his life, Jesus did many miraculous and beautiful things.  He fed thousands of people, healed many sick, freed many from demons, gave us clearer insight on God and life after death, laid out a morality based on love and more.  None of these were his main purpose, however.  He was born the way he was (from a virgin mother) so that he could fulfill God’s Law on behalf of the whole species and so that he could bear the required punishment for the sin of all mankind.  To do this he had to be sinless.

The Bible says that we are all born sinful–altered from how God created humans and resulting our in being selfish and hostile to God.  Jesus’ unusual birth allowed him to be without our genetic deformities.  His life stayed within the bounds of God’s Law.  Making Jesus the only sinless human since the beginning.  This is why there is no alternative path to eternal life.  There is only Jesus.  Jesus said of the way to Heaven, “I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me.”

For God, sin demands death.  This is more complicated than it seems on the surface.  Our life includes our physical body which easily becomes non-functioning and decays away; but it also includes our (mind, consciousness, soul).  This is not caused by our physical body.  It interacts with our physical body.  This aspect of ourselves God has made to be eternal.  Death for our soul constitutes being forsaken/exiled from God, and it is miserable.  Such a thing could happen anywhere, but the plan of how this judgment is to be executed is to resurrect/recreate an indestructible body for all and to cast both that body and our soul into Hell.

That sounds harsh, but it seems appropriate when you understand that it takes the rejection of an enormously costly rescue attempt by Jesus.  Jesus was forsaken and physically died for us that first Holy Week.  His voluntary sacrifice makes a whole different narrative possible.

It seems strange to us that one person’s actions could potentially result in the satisfaction of a condemning law for all people.  That isn’t our idea of fairness.  But if you understand that one person’s decision (pick Adam or Eve) resulted in a modification of our DNA to make us sinful, and that this was inherited by everyone; the idea seems less out there.  Jesus was doing what needed to be done to save the people he loved.

If you still celebrate Holy Week, celebrate it again with a fresh appreciation of how much those events have changed your life and eternity.  If you are skeptical or unsure of such things, I exhort you to read one the Gospels’ accounts of Jesus’ death and ask God to keep your sinful nature in check if possible.  Perhaps you will see this story through a different set of “eyes” and understand that God is real, He loves you, and the road to eternal life in joy has been cleared for you by Jesus.

 

 

 

Grieving with Hope

On Sunday night I watched a “60 Minutes” piece on a couple who had lost their daughter in one of the senseless mass shootings that has plagued our world.  Years later they still feel the pain, but they have channeled their grief into an effort to assist other families of mass shootings.  I admired their dedication and compassion.  There task is a difficult one.  No one is unphased when loss, especially unforeseen, untimely death enters our lives; but many people are less prepared than others.

As a pastor I have been privileged to be with many people at the lowest and highest parts of their lives.  I have often asked myself, “How would I handle this?” What understanding of life can prepare you and how should we think about such a tragedy?   I think it is a good thing to ask such questions before having to face your own tragedy.

Let’s start by talking about loss that is a shock and trauma–like a mass shooting.  This kind of grief often is accompanied with ongoing uncontrolled symptoms that we now call PTSD (Post-Traumatic Shock Disorder).  PTSD is a maladaptive attempt by your brain to protect you.  It doesn’t of course.  I gives you an additional problem.  But the neural pathway that develops is supposed to prepare you for a similar tragedy, which most likely won’t happen.  Can we be inoculated at all against PTSD?  I think so.

We need to have a very grounded and complete understanding of how the world is.  There is profound evil in our world. We should not be kept naïve about evil, how bad it can be, and what is possible.  On the flip side, we don’t want or need to live fearfully or be indifferent to pain.  In short, we need a theology about evil and death.  Kids need a theology about evil and death.  If we understand evil and death, they should not surprise us. The shock of the reality of evil in this world causes the involuntary reactions like PTSD.

Death is to be understood as a part of everybody’s life eventually.  The Bible attributes most evil to a corruption that is part of every human being.  It’s called sinful nature.  Ultimately, evil can be traced back to a source, Satan.  It is real and sometimes very ugly.

We also need hope.  In this context, I don’t mean wishfulness.  I mean confidence that God is greater than Satan and good is more powerful than evil.  Hope stands on a promise of eternal life through Jesus, and God is faithful.  When you have this hope, you can know that the evil and ugliness of this world is temporary; and you can have confidence that those who lose their lives but have Jesus are moving on to Heaven.  This kind of hope is key to getting past any type of mourning.

The final part is renewed purpose.  Death changes our lives.  We lose a part of us when we lose a role, whether that was as a parent, child, friend, co-worker or whatever.  Jesus said,

But everyone who hears these words of mine but does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on the sand.  The rain came down, and the streams rose, and the wind blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a mighty crash.  (Matthew 7:26-27)

As much as we love people, our lives cannot depend on our relationship with them for purpose, happiness and meaning.  That is the “sand” in the passage above.  Those things must be founded on our relationship with God.  We will lose relationships, sometimes to death, but we will continue to have a God-given purpose that transcends those relationships.

We recently had some suicide deaths among the survivors of mass shootings in our country.  Survivor’s guilt and an unrelenting sense of loss can drive a person to try to escape the pain by any means.  We should grieve.  Love will eventually necessitate grief.  But if we understand our world, still have hope and have a purpose that is resting on the Word of God; we can grieve, honor the dead and rediscover how to be happy.

Do You Get a Body in Heaven?

Do you like your body?  Probably the majority of people have some complaint about their bodies.  Either they are the wrong shape or size or their functioning is poor.  Or both.  If you have a body that you consider beautiful, that is great.  Don’t get to comfortable with it.  Age comes to everyone.

We will all grow old, unless we die young.  We will acquire physical misfunctions.  That is the way it works in a world altered by sin.  And that is really all we deserve.  It is only by the forgiveness that comes through Jesus’ death and resurrection that we have a promise of more.

This blog has tried to bring out what is promised in the Bible about life after death.  There is Sheol and then, after Judgment Day, the lake of fire for those who remain unforgiven.  There is Heaven and then, at Judgment Day, a resurrection of the body and a New Earth for those who belong to God.  Details are limited.  Questions are abundant.

Do we get a body in Heaven?  The resurrection of the body is for the New Earth, so is Heaven a sort of body-less dream state?  There is surprisingly little said about our heavenly experience, but there is enough said to establish that Heaven is a destination for the Redeemed.  A couple of passages talk about our heavenly “physicality”.  First, 2 Corinthians 5:1-5:

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. 2 For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, 3 if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. 4 For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being 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. 5 He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.

Because Paul is using a metaphor, you might not catch that “the building” is your heavenly body.  Our spirit is “clothed” with a body (house) “eternal in the heavens”.  Now that is confusing.  We know that we will have a resurrected body on a New Earth from the Bible.  How can we have also a body that is eternal, not temporary, in the heavens?  Furthermore, why would you want a resurrected, earthly body if you have an eternal, heavenly body?  What are the differences?

I will be honest, I don’t know.  But I am really excited to find out.  I also have a theory that I can neither test nor substantiate.  More about this in just a bit.  Another passage that seems relevant here is 1 Corinthians 15:39-41:

39 For not all flesh is the same, but there is one kind for humans, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish. 40 There are heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but the glory of the heavenly is of one kind, and the glory of the earthly is of another. 41 There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for star differs from star in glory.

While “heavenly bodies” may refer to the type of thing mentioned in verse 41, but I think it is referring to our heavenly bodies.  The glory of that body is different than the glory of our resurrected earthly body, but we have no details of how they are different.  They both glorious, however.

When we consider the complex creativity of the function of our present bodies, you could say that they have a glory of their own.  It is a glory altered from the original design, accumulating genetic flaws as we move generation to generation, and slowly dying because of sin.  We can count on sin, aging, defect and disease being gone in our future bodies.  Isn’t it exciting to think about what capabilities God has in store for us and what beauty!

A metaphor that comes to mind is the girl who was awkward and a little homely in middle school, who grows up to be a knockout as an adult.  We might be quite a mess at this point, but just wait.

The converse is true for the damned.  There seems to be a body for those in Sheol, for they suffer physical torments.  The resurrection of the body is for all, but the damned are forsaken by God and cast into Hell.

So besides the vague description of differing glories, how can we have an eternal heavenly body and a resurrected earthly one?  My theory is that it has to do with where you are dimensionally.  I think Heaven is in a different dimensional space, so our heavenly bodies are constructed to be a part of that “universe”.  Our resurrected and current bodies are for this dimensional space.  Perhaps, after Judgment Day, we can move freely in both.

You Are Dust and to Dust You Shall Return

The title of this blog are the words we say when applying the ash cross on the forehead of a person on Ash Wednesday.  Which is today.  It is a reminder of something, of which we strangely need to be reminded:  We will die.

Death can seem to be surreal.  We re-spawn in video games.  For all the violence seen on TV, we really don’t look at death but for a moment.  It has the effect of de-sensitizing us about our mortality, more than making us aware of it.  Death happens in hospitals and nursing homes and behind police tape.  Most of us don’t see it nearly enough.

But without a doubt, we will die.  Even if we live to be very old, it will come for us faster than we ever imagined.

Remembering that we will die is important.  It forces us to confront what will come next.  If makes us consider what is the purpose of this brief life we live on Earth.  If we don’t consider that we will die, will we really live correctly?

The Ash Wednesday ritual doesn’t just speak morbid reality at us, and put a black mark on our heads.  The mark is in the shape of a cross.  Ironically, a cross was originally a form of torturous capital punishment.  But God used it to creatively fulfill an unbreakable law on the behalf of everyone who would be connected to Christ.  Jesus was forsaken so that we would not have to be.  The result is eternal life with God.

Yes.  I will die.  My body still has to die and is built to die.  But I won’t have to be exiled from the one source of all good.  More than that, my body, which will decay away, will be resurrected by the power of God.  That is His promise.  It is regrettable that death is a process I must endure.  My sin makes this so.  But Jesus Christ has created a real solution to my dilemma.  Death no longer has permanent power over me.  In fact, I kind of look forward to it.  The best part of my existence is on the other side.

Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent, and, yes, it is a little dark.  But it is a darkness with a very bright light that is following it.  With a black, ugly, ashen cross smeared on my forehead, I am remind and I proclaim that I am dust; but I am dust that will rise again.

If you are in the area and read this today, we invite you to our Ash Wednesday services.  At Redeemer, Evansville, they are at noon and 6pm at 1811 Lincoln Avenue.  At Redeemer, Newburgh the service will be at 6pm at 7811 Oak Grove Road, up on the hill on the south side of the road.