Fearing Death

As a pastor, I have been around death more than the average person.  The experience can vary considerably, but it is never pretty.  Our physical death is part of the wages of sin.  Theoretically, it is something that should never happen, but because of sin it is something that always happens.

Our bodies are geared up to fight in order to continue living.  Consequently,  we often struggle those last few hours.  For many it is most visible in belabored breathing.  I would hate to drown, so struggling to breath is not something I covet. My mother had a dying process that took several days.  I was there for the last three. In the midst of this process, she awoke from a semi-comatose state and said, “I haven’t done anything wrong.”  I asked what she meant.  She was confused as to why death took so long.  She thought maybe she was being punished.

Fear of the process is not the only thing.  In fact, the process is a minor thing.  Morphine can get you through that.  Fear of what is next is the major thing.  Everyone has some angst over the unknown.  We only die once so we can’t claim direct experience.  That is where the promises of God and the description of eternal life come in.  A strong faith can make you fearless.  God is trustworthy and Jesus is the cause of our salvation, so we can simply let go without fear that we need to do something.  That kind of faith takes some time to develop, however.  Most people are a little scared, and that is OK.  Saving faith is not the same thing as absolute, fearless confidence.  Saving faith is a connection that God alone can make between you and Jesus.  It is spiritual, not intellectual or emotional.  Saving faith can produce an intellectual trust that makes you strong through the process of death.  It is a great witness and a source of joy, but not a prerequisite to being saved.

If you have somebody who is dying and they are a baptized child of God and still they are afraid of death, talk to them about Heaven, remind them about Jesus, and assure them that not only will Jesus see them through the process of death, so will you.  I talk about Heaven the same way I would talk about a pending vacation of a lifetime.  It’s exciting.  It is–like no other experience.  There comes a time to stop talking about recovery and to stop holding on to this life.  Let a person know that things will be fine for the survivors.  Give them permission to leave.  And get them exciting about where they are going.

I’ve seen some of my own parishioners go from “wide-eyed scared” to at peace and happy.  They should be.  Thanks to Jesus we all can be.

Can Hell Be Real if God Is Love?

Everybody would really love it if “Hell” were just a concept and not a real place.  I would have no objections if God announced that all were being saved.  In fact,  I’m even for Hell being a destruction where the damned simply ceased to exist.  That is better than the picture painted in the Bible.  I will say this: beware of believing what you want to believe or rationalizing until you arrive at what you want to believe.  It is best to know what is really out there.

I believe that an eternal Hell is a reality only because the Bible speaks of it frequently.  Jesus himself mentions it often and with great warning.  But if that is the case, how can God claim to be a God of love?

Imagine a judge who is a champion of the legal system and justice.  During his career, he fairly executes the letter and intent of the law.  Then imagine that this judge’s son commits murder.    While most judge’s would recuse themselves from the case, this is a small place and he is the only judge around.  He loves his son.  He also believes and follows the Law.  This judge carries out justice even though it breaks his heart.

God’s law is unambiguous.  The wages of sin is both physical death and permanent alienation from God.  This law applies to Satan and fallen angels.  It also applies to human beings–all of them.  Is it love for God simply to exercise his sovereignty and cancel the Law?  If it is, then this is not the kind of love God has for us.  Instead, God’s love is to send his only Son to become a human being, fulfill the law for human beings, and then on behalf of the whole species suffer the consequence of sin.  This is a more costly, more loving and more just approach.  Unfortunately, many people will never take advantage of this.  They will go to their condemnation because they reject God’s ways and His love.

Don’t think that this doesn’t grieve God.  He doesn’t damn people because He hates them and is eager to punish them, even though human action does provoke Him.  God’s efforts on behalf of our species deserve the title “God is love”.  It is just not a love that compromises with sin.

What Will We Be Like in Heaven?

In the course of this blog, I have covered the topics of Sheol, Heaven, Judgment Day, dying, Christ’s descent into Sheol, the Resurrection, the New Earth and Hell.  Use the search box to find any of these topics and more, if you didn’t see the entries as they came out.  We have been on the topic of Hell for awhile, in honor of All Saints Day, which is November 1, let’s go back to the topic of Heaven.

1 John 3:2 raises a question worth thinking about:

Dear friends, now we are the children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known.  But we know that when He appears, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.

What will we be like when we pass from this world, if our destination is Heaven?  As the text suggests, there is a lot we don’t know about that topic.  We will be whatever a glorified human being is like, because Jesus is still both God and human.  While we don’t know much about this, we can say some things.  The first set is more about what we will not be like.

We won’t have a sinful nature anymore.  Our sinful nature is a part of our flesh and we will leave that behind for the time being.  That changes many things.  All our tendencies toward selfishness, anger, lust, sloth, greed, addiction and whatever other sin will be gone.  We may remember what those are, but we won’t feel it.  For the first time ever, we will be able to control our tongue.  We will also have God’s love for others saturating our every moment.  Just think of the fantastic relationships we will have with the other people in Heaven!  Even if we had been conflicted with somebody, if they are saved, there will be a whole new, beautiful relationship with them in Heaven.

Assuming that there will be millions of humans, let alone angels, in Heaven, I wonder who we will know and how much we will relate.  At the Transfiguration, Peter, James and John see and know Moses and Elijah.  There doesn’t seem to be introductions.  I doubt if there were name tags.  They just seem to know who they are.  I think we will just know people.  We will know those who were a part of our lives on Earth and we will know others we had never met.

Our existence in Heaven will not be a ghostly, immaterial existence.  Paul speaks of a “heavenly body” in 1 Corinthians 15.  He is not referring to a planet nor is he referring to somebody who is sexy.  There is a body we will have that is properly a part of Heaven.  It is not our resurrected, earthly body for that is properly a part of this universe.  What will this body be like or look like?  I don’t know.  It may resemble you in some way, it may not.  It may be a set “age”, it may not.  Expect an improvement, however, for another thing we can say about Heaven is that there will be no “curse”.

The Curse is spoken of in Revelation and refers all the way back to the Garden of Eden.  It is responsible for such misery as sickness, aging, accidents, natural disasters, boredom and the frustration that goes inherently with this world.  The way I like to describe the curse is God taking a step back from the controls.  If God didn’t maintain some control, we would all just dissolve into non-existence.  The Bible says, Jesus “holds all things together”.  But with the rejection of God by Adam and Eve, it seems that God relinquished His control of creation in part.  The result is what I listed above.  In Heaven, God takes back control, and that is a good thing.

Now we can ask many more questions.  Do we eat, sleep, work, or poop?  I suspect the answer is yes, but I don’t know for sure.  Is there something like sex? What is the experience of time like?  Is there really no beer in Heaven, or is that just the words to a polka?  We will have to wait on all of that, but what we do know should make you think.  You should imagine past the end of life, because the “hope” we have is not wishful thinking.  It is a certainty based on the promise of God.

The Destiny of Satan

It is a classic picture, found in sources as diverse as Renaissance art and The Far Side, to see the damned trapped in Hell with Satan and demons.  Some of that art seems to suggest that Satan and demons somewhat enjoy it.  They are captives not masters.  Don’t depend on artists or cartoonists to be biblically correct.  The Pre-Judgment Day destination of the damned (Sheol, Hades) has no mention of the presence of Satan or any fallen angel.  The Post-Judgment Day destination of the damned (Hell) does.  We have already seen one quick reference in Matthew 25:41.  The other two are in Revelation.

But the beast was captured, and with him the false prophet who had performed the miraculous signs on his behalf.  With these signs he had deluded those who had received the mark of the beast and worshiped his image.  The two of them were thrown alive into the fiery lake of burning sulfur.    Revelation 19:20

Though the word “Gehenna” is not used in this paragraph, the “lake of fire” would seem to be an obvious reference to the same place.  Where is this place?  No information is given.  With possibly this one exception, it doesn’t seem to be a destination for any human prior to Judgment Day.  The fact the beast (possibly a powerful demon not Satan) and his false prophet go there Pre-Judgement Day, may suggest that Hell exists already somewhere.  The classic ideas of Hell as being at the core the Earth are both the product of confusing it with Sheol and the ancients not having any information about it.  If I were to guess, I would guess Hell is in some dimensional space completely segregated from either Heaven or Earth.  Hell’s distinction is not the endless fire, but rather it is its absence from the presence of God.  It is forsaken.

The other reference to the “lake of fire” happens in Revelation 20:7-10:

When the thousand years are over, Satan will be released from his prison and will go out to deceive the nations in the four corners of the earth- Gog and Magog- to gather them for battle.  In the number they are like the sand of the seashore.  They marched across the the breadth of the earth and surrounded the camp of  God’s people, the city he loves.  But fire came down from heaven and devoured them.  And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and false prophet had been thrown.  They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.

For some reason not shared with us, Satan is allowed a short time of being at full power, and he uses his time to drag a large segment of humanity down with him.  God thwarts his effort to attack those who remain true to God and then Satan is pitched into the lake of fire, also Pre-Judgement Day, but just barely.  His confinement and torment are then permanent.

Judgment Day then commences in Revelation 20 with this conclusion:

Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire.  The lake of fire is the second death.  If anyone’s name is not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.

Hades is a place not a person.  What is death?  Death is a sentence.  It is a sentence pronounced by God’s Law that the unforgiven human must be separated from God forever.  The movement of death to Hell is a victory for the forgiven human but it is the consummation of the Law for the sinner.  Everyone whose name is not found in the Book of Life, which would be everyone not connected to Jesus, is thrown into the lake of fire with a resurrected and indestructible body and soul.  The torment is both physical, by fire, and spiritual by being forsaken by God.

As Jesus said, you really don’t want to end up here.  Jesus gave himself so you don’t have to.

 

The Brochure for Hell

Do you ever look at travel or entertainment brochures?  Sometimes they are found in a big rack in a rest stop or the lobby of a hotel.  Some of the brochures are for places or events to which you would never go in a million years.  This series is, in a way, a brochure for a place written with a goal that you would not go.  It is the Bible’s description of Hell.

I covered two passages from Matthew 25 in the last installment.  There are others right out of the mouth of Jesus.  Why should anyone read about such a place?  Primarily, it is because Jesus talked about it.  It is better to know than to not know.

And if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away.  It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell (Gehenna).  Matthew 18:9

Please don’t take this passage as a literal instruction.  Gouging out your eye or cutting off your foot won’t stop you from sinning, but Jesus uses this gruesome scenario to emphasize how much you don’t want to go to Hell.  Can you imagine this? Here the classic description of Hell as fire is used.  The other descriptor found here is the word “thrown”.  “Gehenna” is a reference to the Valley of Hinnom right outside of Jerusalem.  In the day, it was the city’s garbage dump where fires continually burned.  It is also where pagan worshippers of Molech sacrificed their children on fiery altars.  The damned, who have rejected God’s love and the sacrifice that Jesus made for them, are thrown out.  They are trash at this point to God.

The fact that Hell is fiery, that you are cast there and that it is eternal is substance of many of references to Gehenna in the New Testament.  An additional insight worth discussing is found in Matthew 10:28:

Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.  Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both body and soul in (Gehenna).

Why would the body end up in Hell and how does one kill the soul?  Hell is a post-Judgement Day destination.  So consequently, it is also a post-resurrection destination.  The Bible says everyone, saved or not, will be raised imperishable.  It would seem here that the imperishable bodies of the damned will be cast into a physical fire.  Their souls “die” because they are forsaken by God.  Hell is a total being experience.  The word “destroy”, unfortunately, does not give hope that the person is consumed then the experience is over.  The Greek word translated here does not necessarily have that connotation.

What is the nature of the “fear” that Jesus speaks of in this passage?  It is not a hopeless, consuming fear.  Fear of God is made relative to the fear of others.  People will deny Jesus or withhold information about Him because they fear other people.  This, Jesus says, is having your priorities messed up.  God is the ultimate power and the ultimate judge.  If you are going to fear, fear Him.  Don’t lose sight, however, to the fact that God is trying to spare people from Hell.  God loves people.  That is why Jesus was sent.

Some argue that the love of God and the concept of Hell are incompatible.  That will be the topic of the next entry in the afterdeathsite.

Go to Hell

We have probably all said this to someone or something in anger.  Or we have said its more profane equivalent.  These words flow easily without understanding their literal meaning.  Hell is not a place I would wish on my worst enemy or on the worst of people.

Is Hell real or was it just a fable to control people with fear?  Without a doubt the fear of Hell has been abused by some, but Jesus clearly speaks of its reality.  If you take Heaven seriously, you have no ground for not taking Hell seriously since Jesus spoke of it often, maybe even more than Heaven as a destination for mankind.

To be specific, I make a contrast between two words that are often rendered as “Hell”.  Jesus speaks of Gehenna and Hades.  These are not synonyms, so they should not be translated as the same word.  Hades is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew Sheol.  It is the destiny of those without the forgiveness of sins prior to Judgment Day.  The characteristics of Hades do resemble that of Gehenna, so people have tended to conflate them.  Hades and Sheol constitute the majority of references to Hell in the Bible.

When I, and most people, think about Hell, they are thinking about the final place of judgement, not a temporary one.  Because of this, I prefer to reserve the word Hell for the post-Judgment Day destination of the damned.  That convention would limit the references to Hell to the following passages that I would like to handle a couple at a time over the next few entries.

Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life. (Matthew 25:46)

This passage comes at the end of the Sheep and the Goats story which definitely describes Judgment Day.  Just two words describe Hell here: eternal and punishment.  We will have to look elsewhere to find the nature of the punishment.  The disturbing thing here is “eternal”.  There is no end to it.  I would be more comfortable with “permanent destruction” suggesting that the evil people come to an end, or even “long” punishment.  Eternal is tough.  What could be bad enough to deserve eternal punishment?  The gravity of this has caused some to postulate that Hell doesn’t exist, or it doesn’t exist for any human, or it actually is temporary.  I think this passage is pretty clear.  People are going to eternal punishment.

In the same chapter are these words:

And throw that servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matthew 25:30)

Does this refer to the eternal Hell, too?  It doesn’t expressly say, but a couple of things would make me conclude so.  First, Matthew 25 is all about preparation for Judgment Day, so this seems like an outcome of that.  Then the words “outside” and “darkness” imply a separation from God, which is the ultimate judgment.  When Jesus was forsaken by His Father on the cross, it seemed that was far worse than the nails or other torments.  Jesus being forsaken results in our not needing to be forsaken, if we are connected to Jesus.

The other descriptors are “weeping” and “gnashing of teeth”.  Both sound horrible.  They also sound physical.  The final judgment is a punishment of both body and soul.  More about this later.

I would love for Hell to be either fictional or empty, but I would rather know the truth rather than be surprised by it.  I would also prefer to learn about Hell from afar rather than from experience.  Though unpleasant, please follow me as I look at the other references in the Bible.

 

 

The River of Life

One feature of the New Earth, that hasn’t been mentioned yet is the River of Life.  Once again, I don’t think this is a metaphor, but rather a physical feature running through the New Jerusalem.  That said, this river is not your usual water running downhill.

If you are familiar with the River of Life it is because it is found in Revelation 22.  Just like with magazines, a lot of us like to start at the back; so many people have read Revelation 22–the last chapter of the Bible.  You may be less familiar with Ezekiel 47.  Here is description of what is clearly the same thing.  So what is so strange about this river?

Let’s start with the source.  The river emanates from under the altar of the temple in Ezekiel and from under the “throne of God” in Revelation 22.  The temple was seen as a mini-version of what really existed in Heaven.  This is a reason to equate the future New Jerusalem with the current throne room of God in Heaven.

Water, as it spreads out and flows away, should get shallower.  This water gets deeper until it forms a river.  Along the river are trees which are identified as the Tree of Life in Revelation 22.  A presumably singular Tree of Life is mentioned in Genesis in the Garden of Eden.

This river isn’t the only thing to ever flow from beneath the throne of God.  In Daniel 7:10 a river of fire flows.  So what is this river?  The Holy Spirit manifests himself as many things:  a dove, fiery tongues and Jesus speaks of the Spirit as Living Water.  I think it is fair to understand the river as a manifestation of the Holy Spirit, and all life initiates with Him.  In Heaven and the New Earth, we may experience the Father and the Son as persons like ourselves in many ways.  The Spirit may be experienced in other ways including this river.

The Tree of Life is seen lining the river.  It, too, is an outgrowth, tool or manifestation of the Holy Spirit.  Revelation 22 says, “The leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”  What healing will we need in the New Earth?

The honest answer is, “I don’t know”.   In Genesis, Adam and Eve were not forbidden access to the Tree of Life until after they had been exposed to the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  The reason was so that they would not “live forever”.  Here the reason is so that we will live forever.  Our physical bodies, though recreated, still may need the steady input of the Tree of Life; and not to worry, the Tree of Life is always in season.

I expect that our resurrected bodies will have some type of genetic information within them and some type of chemical metabolism.  Sustaining this metabolism indefinitely is whatever is in the Tree of Life.  It is the Spirit’s way of keeping us whole and alive.