Confusing Heaven and the New Earth

One thing that seems to escape many Christians, even clergy and theologians, is that Heaven and the New Earth are two separate places. The idea that there is just Heaven and Hell has been broadly taught for generations. We have even gone soft on these. “Heaven” is almost never capitalized. Does this mean that the editors of various hymnals and Bible translations consider “Heaven” to be a concept rather than a place with a name? And many Christians don’t believe in Hell.

If you are of the impression that there is only Heaven and Hell, where did you learn that? What Bible passages were used? Or was this just the general description given you as a child by adults who never studied the Scripture for this topic? Such an idea can become entrenched in our mind. We are certain that it must be in the Bible, but it is not.

A couple of linguistic things add to our confusion. First, the Greek word for “Heaven” is used to describe “the atmosphere” (first heaven), “the universe” (second heaven), and the dwelling place of God or what I would describe as “Heaven” (third heaven).

“Hell” an English word with a long history of where it came from, is often sloppily assigned to two Aramaic words, “Gehenna”, which was just transliterated into Greek (so it is a Greek word too), and “Sheol” which is translated into Greek as “Hades”. I think it is interesting that one word is just borrowed by Greek (like the word “hard drive” is rarely changed in other languages) and the other is assigned a word with a lot of meaning. “Hades” is also a place of the dead for the Greek people. From this I would conclude that “Gehenna” and “Sheol” are not synonyms. They are two place names, and the latter conceptually fits with the Greek idea of Hades. The result is the tendency to merge places that exist before Judgment Day with those that only exist after Judgment Day.

Heaven, as most of us would think of it, clearly exists now. It is the visible dwelling place of God, the Cherubim (also called Seraphim) and the angels. It will continue to exist after Judgment Day but will not be the visible dwelling place of God. The New Earth is something spoken of in both Old and New Testaments. It is not Heaven and only will exist after Judgment Day. It becomes the formal dwelling place of God with the arrival of the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21.

Sheol/Hades is a place for the damned (and until Jesus made atonement for sin, the Old Testament righteous) that exists today. What I would call “Hell”, Jesus calls “Gehenna”, and John calls the “Lake of Fire”; does exist until after Judgment Day. That it is something distinct from Sheol/Hades is established in Revelation 20:14 where Hades is thrown into the Lake of Fire. I guess at that point they become the same thing.

So will we be in Heaven forever? With the resurrection of our bodies on Judgment Day, the New Earth will become both our permanent dwelling and the dwelling place of God (Rev. 21:1-4); but there are some clues that Heaven remains in the mix somehow. First there is this:

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 Corinthians 5:1

Does Paul mean “heavens” as the universe or as the current dwelling place of God? Is “heaven” wherever God dwells or a place of its own? I believe Paul is not speaking of the universe and that Heaven is a place, even after God dwells with man on the Earth. Another passage:

According to his (God’s) great mercy he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you.

1 Peter 1:3-4 (NIV 1984)

We do go to Heaven when we die. God and probably the New Jerusalem are a part of Heaven that is eternal, but will move to the New Earth. Still, I think this is saying that part of our eternal inheritance is Heaven, the place. The New Earth and Heaven could be our home eternally. There is the movement of the New Jerusalem, which could be the sum total of Heaven, to the New Earth. This would create a parallel to the merging of Sheol and Gehenna described above, but symmetry is all that interpretation has going for it.

While I can see that some of the questions that can be raised about our eternity are unanswered, merging Heaven and the New Earth doesn’t honor the Scriptures, which clearly describes them as distinct. Either way, these things are ours by grace. God prepares for us a body or bodies and a sin and curse free place of existence where we are with Him.

An Expectation of Sheol

All his sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted and said, “No, I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning.” Thus his father wept for him.

Genesis 37:35 (ESV)

The above quote comes from the story of Joseph. His brothers, in spite, had just sold Joseph into slavery and then reported him as dead to their father Jacob. Joseph was the favorite son of Jacob, and he is crushed by the news. He basically says that he will mourn until he dies, and then he will go where Joseph is–Sheol.

Sheol, the place of the dead, is where every Old Testament person expected to go. They are divided as to whether the experience will be a conscious or unconscious experience. None of them really look forward to it.

There is an expectation of bodily resurrection someday. This can be found in the oldest book in the Old Testament, Job, and it is briefly taught at the end of Daniel. Time will elapse between their death and the resurrection, however.

As mentioned in previous blog entries, translators have struggled with what to do with word, “Sheol”, and its Greek counterpart, “Hades”. Some translations have decided to make it “the pit”, “the grave” or even “Hell”. Usually it is marked with a footnote acknowledging that the word is “Sheol”. Basically, an admission that the translators were not sold themselves on the translation. For this reason Sheol is unknown to most Christians.

Is Sheol Hell? I capitalize both, because both are place names. And no, Sheol is not what I mean when I use the word “Hell” as a place name. “Hell”, for me, corresponds to the final place of forsakeness and suffering reserved for the damned. This corresponds with the word “Gehenna” or the description, “Lake of Fire” found in Revelation 20. Sheol/Hades is dumped into the Lake of Fire in Revelation 20:14. Clearly, it is a distinct place.

Does Jacob expect to suffer after death then? Not necessarily. Sheol is spoken of 63 times in the Old Testament. I am not certain how the people of the Old Testament acquired their knowledge of Sheol. It may have been from revelation from God, but not necessarily. Near Death Experiences and even the forbidden occultic arts could have given to society scraps of information about Sheol. It is allowed to remain in inspired works because it serves God’s purpose in telling the stories. At no place, is there a theological treatise on the nature of Sheol.

In general, Sheol is described as either unconsciousness or unawareness. It is always pictured as the wages of sin and bad. That makes it surprising that all, even the righteous, express an expectation to go there. Sheol is spoken of in poetic terms in Isaiah. It becomes a synonym for death, even though it retains the nature of a place name.

The Old Testament holds only a very modest hope for eternal life. The most detailed description of life after death applies to the New Earth described in Isaiah 65. This description itself is problematic as it describes existence more in terms of long, pleasant life rather than eternal life.

The lack of information about eternal life and the complete absence of an expectation to go to Heaven raises some interesting questions about the nature of revelation. If one sees the religion surrounding Yahweh (whether Jewish or Christian) as the product of humans, then you would explain the doctrine of eternal life as a development–something added later either because it was borrowed from somewhere else or imagined by somebody later. If, rather, you understand both Old and New Testaments as an ongoing dialogue between God and humanity, you understand that God can reveal information when He chooses to reveal information. Theological development is people having more information then they had before.

Sheol is “developed” by Jesus in the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man. No one would have better and more information about such a place than Jesus. In the story, Lazarus, a poor beggar, dies and is carried to Abraham’s side. The story does not immediately identify where Abraham is. From the Old Testament we should expect that this is Sheol. The rich man also dies and is take to Hades. Here the place is named. He is conscious. He is tormented by flames. Still, he is able to converse with Abraham. Lazarus, however, is being comforted. His place in Sheol is not a place of suffering.

Many jump to the conclusion that Abraham and Lazarus must be in Heaven. That is where the righteous go. But Jesus blocks that conclusion in John 3:13 by telling us that no one has gone into Heaven, at least not yet. Abraham and Lazarus are in a separate parts of Sheol divided by a chasm from the rest, but not prohibiting some communication between the two parts.

Some church bodies have given names to the pleasant part of Sheol. The Catholic Church refers to it as the “Limbo of the Fathers.” Others just refer to it as Abraham’s Bosom. Most just ignore it.

Sheol as a destiny for the righteous awaited the atonement for sins that Jesus would complete. I expect “Abraham’s Bosom” to still exist as a place. But it is now an empty place. Our expectations are now happily turned to Heaven. That humans should occupy Heaven awaited not only atonement but the expulsion of Satan and his minions as described in Revelation 12.

While I don’t need independent confirmation of God’s revelation, it does exist. Near Death Experiences include both seeing Heaven and Sheol as briefly described by Jesus. The expectation of the resurrection of our bodies still stands as a future promise awaiting Judgment Day.

The Wages of Sin

You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil you shall not eat, for in the day that eat of it you shall surely die.

Genesis 2:16-17

For us death is the norm. All of us understand that we will one day die; and even if death seems surreal to us now, the day is coming when it will seem quite concrete. It is hard to imagine a world where there was no such thing as death. Death is an integral part of our world now.

Adam and Eve most likely didn’t understand what death was. At least they couldn’t grasp the scope and the gravity of what it meant. One transgression, the only one they could make, would not only be a mistake, it would change the world.

My personal theory is that touching the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil released a means of genetic change. Something like a virus. It infected and changed Adam and Eve and through heredity impacts us all. It also infected and changed, every living thing and made death a part of the “circle of life” which would have been an ongoing line not a circle. Through some other means it also impacted the non-living part of the environment. The world became an unbalanced and dangerous place that didn’t work the way it did at creation. Now it would be far less cooperative. These changes were the direct result of sin. Evil was known because now it was part of the system.

The well-known passage from Romans 6:23, “The wages of sin is death…” has many levels of meaning. The original sin and set of consequences got it all started. This passage is not said to us as if it were something we could really avoid. The story of Adam and Eve is recorded primarily so that we can understand why we, otherwise eternal creatures, live in a system that includes death. We are sinners by birth. The Sermon on the Mount was not given to lay down a list of achievable standards. It is primarily given to convince people that they are sinners. Jesus’ discourse with the “rich, young ruler” was not given to tell people they can save themselves by giving away their wealth to the poor. It was given to convince a man who thought he kept God’s law that he did not. He was a sinner.

The result is death. Genetically we are doomed to die, because genetically we are sinners. Further, as sinners we are doomed to experience ultimate death, spiritual death, exile from God; because that is the way God has made it. His Law requires death. No rebel will share in the good things that God has made for long.

If that were the end of the story, then God should have ended the story right after Adam and Eve’s transgression. Why let the rest of us be born into a hopeless situation? But Romans 6:23 says more, “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Creation was allowed to continue on in its sinful condition because there would be hope of life restored.

The way the “wages of sin” have been paid out has varied over the ages. One aspect of consequences of rebellion has been the aging process. We start moving toward our ultimate physical death immediately. The pace wasn’t always the same. People born before Noah and then tailing off after Noah lived much longer lives. I don’t think this is mythical. Genetic modification done deliberately by God hasn’t the pace. Personally I am not complaining. To live 900+ years in a cursed world is unappealing. In fact, to live the full life expectancy of 120yrs, sounds like 30 years too much to me.

The spiritual aspect has differed too. Before Jesus had made eternal life with God a possibility, humans fell into two categories as they do now. Those who believed God and were claimed by Him and those who remained rebellious. Their fates after death were to be sent to a common place: Sheol (in Hebrew) Hades (in Greek). The only other hope expressed in the Old Testament referred to a resurrection connected to Judgment Day. There was no talk of humans in Heaven at that time. There had been no such promise expressed by God.

As you look for how Sheol fits into the execution of “the wages of sin is death”, it would seem that it was only a partial execution of the Law, especially for the faithful. Though rid of their genetically sinful bodies, the faithful were neither transported into the visible presence of God nor completely banished from God. The story of Lazarus and the Rich Man (Luke 16:19-31) gives the most comprehensive description of what Hades was like. In it, Lazarus is comforted in the “bosom of Abraham”, while the rich man suffers in hellish conditions. The two can communicate but are clearly segregated due to the judgment of their lives that already occurred. The sins of Lazarus, Abraham and other faithful have not yet been paid for by Jesus, neither has a full execution of death. The rich man is suffering a fuller sentence, but has yet to receive full abandonment by God. The experience of the sentence for sin would be radically changed by Jesus’ victory on the cross and then later by Judgment Day.

The wages of sins would fully by paid. It is just of matter of who pays them. For those who believe the judgment of God, that they are sinful, and the promise of God, that their sin can be forgiven, Jesus pays the price. Jesus is forsaken which fulfills the Law. For the rest, Judgment Day brings the final piece. They are put outside of any aspect of God’s presence. This is the ultimate sentence of death. To arrive at this point it takes more than to be born sinful, it takes rejecting God’s own effort to remove the sentence.

The Way That We Are Made

What makes a human being special, if anything? A Materialist would say that nothing is special. We are just a biological robot doing what chemistry is forcing us to do with no specific purpose. Materialism is a very disparaging philosophy that doesn’t fit our experience. I don’t believe it at all. I experience myself making choices, contemplating my existence, living with purpose; and even though I have not died and returned from the dead yet, I have a sense that I am not limited to my physical lifespan. That may lack scientific vigor, but the atheistic claims of a Materialist do as well, and are clearly rubbish.

Human beings are more than interesting chemistry. Complex chemistry is a part of our being, but not the whole of it. Most people have thought so. The dissenters have a clear bias–they don’t want God to exist.

The Bible says something different about humans. It says we were created in the “image of God”. What does that mean? I don’t think it is the common meaning of the term “image”. The Bible declares several times that God is a spirit or is spirit. While the meaning of “spirit” is also vague, I would gather from usage that it means that God is not set in his appearance by a defined physical form. Part of being created in the “image of God” is having a part of our being not connected to a defined physical form.

Our bodies are a “defined physical form” the way I am using the phrase. The Bible speaks of humans as also having a “spirit”. Our spirit may be what we experience as consciousness. But our spirit is not the whole of us. We are body, and possibly bodies, and spirit. Our spirit can be liberated from connection to our body. That is what death is. Our spirit can interact with our body. That is why we can control it and that is what is observed when mapping brain activity.

We know that our earthly body can die and decay. Our spirit cannot, which is another aspect of being made in the image of God. We are eternal. While I do not believe in reincarnation, I understand the Bible to say that we can have a heavenly body (1 Corinthians 15:40, 2 Corinthians 5:1). In that case, our spirit is interacting with a body made for the physical dimensions of Heaven. I also know from the Bible that we will have a “resurrected” body. In this case, our spirit is interacting with a recreated, indestructible body built for the physical dimensions of this universe. Being eternal, we will never lapse into non-existence.

Being created in the image of God means, among still other things, that we have an eternal, non-material part that can interact with material bodies that can exist within their respective physical realms. This is theorizing that Heaven is a parallel universe to this universe rather than a remote part of it. The same can be said for Hell. How we will spend eternity depends on our relationship with God.

Humans were not created by God to be in an antagonistic or forsaken relationship to Him. We were created for Him, to be with Him. But that relationship was broken a long time ago. When we come into being at our conception, we do not arrive with a good relationship and with an unblemished image of God. God creates us, but in the sense that He created the biological system of reproduction that makes us. We do not start from scratch. As such, we inherit physically a nature that is antagonistic to God and under God’s judgment. (Romans 7, Psalm 51:5 et al). The only fix for us is Jesus. Jesus’ actions created the opportunity to repair our relationship with God. God seeks us out to connect us to Jesus; and, if successful, to restore us to what we were originally intended to be.

Would we know this without being told about it by God? I doubt it. We would only experience a vague sense of something amiss. We would see a troubled and often ugly world made painful by human actions. We would walk blindly into our own deaths, perhaps expecting the end of our existence. Finding instead a far worse continued existence.

Created in the image of God is what we are for better or worse. Thank God, He did not abandon us to a hopeless fate.

The Unique Perspective and Mission of Jesus

If you wanted to know something about life after death, who would you consult? The obvious answer is someone who has died. Clearly, this answer has a problem. Death is typically a one way street. You don’t die and then come back to tell people about it. But throughout history there has been some exceptions, especially lately. There has also been work-arounds, though forbidden. And then there is Jesus, the one who not only died but rose again; the one who has created “all things unseen” and bridged an otherwise unbridgeable gap to eternal joy.

Near death experiences (NDE) are on the rise because of advances in modern science. They are intriguing accounts. For the most part they are brief. There is some consistency in the reports. There is also decent proof that these are not the memories of dying brain.

It seems that most people experience an ecstatically joyful experience with great beauty, heightened senses, and often meeting people that they know who are deceased. Some have experienced the opposite, encountering a place of agony, hopelessness and anger. These accounts clash with a common message that comes from NDEs, that all will be saved. This message also is contradicted by Jesus. So what does this say about the message and what does it say about the experience of an NDE?

We are definitely in unfamiliar territory when we cross over death. Is it real? Is it a vision? Can we be misled? It is exciting that people can report on heavenly experiences but we cannot give our trust to the information unreservedly.

Even less so what I termed as “work-arounds”. From Old Testament times the Bible reported practices of consulting the dead. These were forbidden by God. Why? These were also widely practiced. Were they real? If practices of consulting the dead were strictly forms of fraud, I could understand God forbidding them but not attaching such seriousness as we find in Deuteronomy 18:9-12:

“When you come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not learn to follow the abominable practices of those nations. 10 There shall not be found among you anyone who burns his son or his daughter as an offering, anyone who practices divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, or a sorcerer 11 or a charmer or a medium or a necromancer or one who inquires of the dead, 12 for whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord. And because of these abominations the Lord your God is driving them out before you.”

Deuteronomy 18:9-12

Similarities between the after death beliefs in various religions are often attributing to copying between cultures. While this could happen, could not inquiries of the dead produce some similarities with possible distortions?

A current day practice called (TM) Transcendental Meditation produces out of body experiences. This might be just an altered state of mind, but we have to consider whether it accesses some type of space beyond our current dimension and that it could fall into the condemnation mentioned above. Are these work-arounds forbidden because the power used to do them is not from God, and/or does it leave the individual exposed to deceptions that will poison society if they are shared?

Jesus is something completely different from NDEs and forbidden procedures. Jesus has unique claims about himself. First, he claims to pre-exist his birth and to hail from Heaven.

13 No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.

John 3:13

As far as understanding the place of joy that exists beyond death, Jesus makes this unique claim and then backs it up with very public miracles involving health issues, control over the laws of physics and even raising people from the dead. Who else comes close to having authority on this topic and proving it?

With this quote He is not dismissing the possibility that others could have had visions of Heaven (like Daniel and Isaiah) or that others who came after His resurrection could have actual travel there. But I bounce everything reported to be information about Heaven and getting there off of the words of Jesus. He alone has the credentials for truth.

Then there is His mission. Jesus does a lot of good during His earthly ministry, but He is clearly the Son of God in human flesh for one reason-to change the course of what happens to us when we die. Jesus can tell us about life after death because He is making real life after death possible by fixing our relationship to God’s Law which would condemn us. I can trust a being who made such a great sacrifice for me.

Because of how God worked His plan, when I read about Jesus’ death on the cross I am looking at my death and forsakeness under God’s Law. Also, when I read of Jesus’ resurrection, I am reading about something that happened for me and will happen to me. I will be physically resurrected, and it will be a resurrection to a new level of glory.

If other sources of information are preferred they need to show why. Jesus is the source of our information, and its interesting and serious stuff.

Why Believe In Eternal Life?

You go to a funeral or visitation and there lies the body of a person you know. There is no movement, no sign of life. None of your senses tell you that this person still exists. There is just observable death and with it grief. Perhaps you want to believe that they are “in a better place”, but it could be just wishful thinking that we desperately need at this moment.

In another instance, you are sitting with a person in the process of dying. They seem to be having a vision. “I see Grandpa!” “The angels are coming for me!” ” I see Jesus!” You, of course, don’t see any of this. Is it real or is this just the expected delusions created by a dying brain? The same might be asked about people who have more terrifying visions. “I see fire!” “Help me!”

The sensory experience or even instrumental readings available at the time of death, all carry with them a large degree of doubt. Short of being able to freely move back and forth from this life to the next, all accounts are questionable. While I would put some weight behind the testimony of those who have had Near Death Experiences, I would consider our ability to measure or experience life after death to severely limited. Maybe someday we will have an instrument that can peer beyond death, but the current scientific orthodoxy has already decided that such a thing doesn’t exist.

That leaves us with two further means of information: one I can endorse and one I cannot. God can give to people the truth of what lies beyond the grave, if He so desires. And to a limited extend, that is exactly what He has done. When you are unequipped to investigate on your own, you are dependent on revelation. The other is a type of stolen revelation. Dabbling in the occult is tapping into the knowledge and power of other beings, evil beings, that can span the gap of death. God strictly forbids it. Why? He knows them to be prolific liars and deceivers. He knows them to hate our species, but that hasn’t kept people away.

The people of Israel were strictly warned against this type of inquiry. The people who occupied Canaan where deeply into these practices along with other disgusting forms of worship. For these reasons, they were being dispossessed of the land.

“When you come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not learn to follow the abominable practices of those nations. 10 There shall not be found among you anyone who burns his son or his daughter as an offering, anyone who practices divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, or a sorcerer 11 or a charmer or a medium or a necromancer or one who inquires of the dead, 12 for whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord. And because of these abominations the Lord your God is driving them out before you. 13 You shall be blameless before the Lord your God, 14 for these nations, which you are about to dispossess, listen to fortune-tellers and to diviners. But as for you, the Lord your God has not allowed you to do this.”

Deuteronomy 18:9-14

Such practices and the desperate demand for such contact has also created a cadre of con-men and women who prey on sorrow. It leads many people to doubt that such capabilities even exist. But God was not warning about hucksters.

Revelation from Jesus, who is God incarnate, is our most trustworthy source of information. Others sources provide modest, secondary affirmation. Jesus promised to be straight with us.

“Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?

John 14:1-2

If we were limited to just this life, then Jesus would have said so. There was no motive to lie. But Jesus’ whole mission was to prepare a place for us. It already had been determined and revealed that people would face a Judgment Day and experience a resurrection from the dead. Jesus was preparing a further place and a better resurrection. He was going to become the way to have Heaven as a destination at death, and a New Heaven and New Earth as a home after the resurrection.

Jesus proved his reliability on such grand promises to his contemporaries by raising people from the dead, three in all; and then rising from the dead himself. Do you have someone with better credentials?

It is true that there is nothing like experience. I can guarantee that you will get you chance at that. But listening to the revelation that God has given us is more than just interesting information. It is critical and relevant to all. It is information intended for you and truthful. It prepares you for death and guides you in life. It can make you certain of things you cannot see or measure.

Reward In Eternity

The idea of receiving some sort of reward, honor or earned responsibility in either Heaven or the New Earth really bothers some people. It should make us uncomfortable a little. It is a fundamental truth that we don’t deserve to experience the joys of Heaven or the freedom of a new creation. We are sinners and we can only gain access to these places as a gift.

Still, the Bible (primarily Jesus) speaks of reward, treasure, and commendation frequently. So how can being saved by grace and receiving an earned reward go together?

It starts with serving as a disciple. One cannot even be a true disciple of Jesus without understanding that we are so chosen by grace. The same is true of being a “steward”. You don’t have the job unless you’ve been hired by God. So for a successful disciple/steward the right attitude is required. Jesus puts it this way:

So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, “We are unworthy servants, we have only done what was our duty.”

Luke 17:10

There is no room for entitlement, competition, or pride. We serve Jesus because we love Jesus, we believe in Jesus’ work, we are commanded to serve, and if we receive nothing for it, it was still the appropriate reaction to how Jesus has served us by His life and death. That said, it doesn’t mean that Jesus can’t reward or honor whoever he wishes.

Just looking at the word “reward” as it refers to something that is given after death, we come up with this list:

Matthew 5:12/Luke6:23 Enduring persecution because of Jesus

Matthew 5:46/Luke 6:35 Loving your enemies

Matthew 6:1-4 Giving to the needy secretly

Matthew 6:5-6 Praying secretly (Could be an earthly reward as well)

Matthew 10:40-41 Supporting the workers of God’s Kingdom

Matthew 10:42 Giving a cup of cold water to a child (Indicating the scope of what God rewards)

1 Corinthians 3:14 Building on the foundation of grace in Christ honorably

1 Corinthians 9:17 Accurately and willingly sharing God’s Word

Colossians 3:24 Doing anything well as for the Lord

Speaking generically about God rewarding: 2 John 1:8, Revelation 11:18

Jesus speaks about laying up treasures in Heaven: Matthew 6:19-21, Matthew 19:21 (for giving to the poor)

1 Timothy 6:19 Treasures in eternity by being rich in good works

Receiving a “commendation” from God:

1 Corinthians 4:5

Hebrews 11:2

Matthew 25:21,23

A reward, treasure or commendation is something earned. Entrance into Heaven or the New Earth is something given through the forgiveness of sins, because there is no way we could earn it.

It is clear that for those saved by Jesus, Judgment Day is about reward and not about salvation. Salvation has already been determined. It seems that God’s reward, whatever it is, can be received while living, in Heaven, or after Judgment Day. But what is it?

For good reasons the Bible is not specific. I think our sinful nature would be tempted to abuse thoughts of specific reward. The Bible does refer to honor coming through commendation. It also speaks of heightened responsibility in the New Earth for good stewardship here. (Parable of the Talents) One last idea is that reward can be connected to the people we assist. Paul speaks of the Thessalonians as his “hope or joy or crown of boasting…our glory and joy.” The thought of ongoing joyful relationships as a reward is particularly appealing.

One counterpoint often cited to the idea of reward is the parable of the “Workers in the Vineyard”. (Matthew 20:1-16) In this story workers are hired throughout the day to work in God’s vineyard. At the end of the day, they are all paid the same; giving the idea that eternal life is egalitarian. While equality in many respects will be the feeling in the Kingdom of God, since sinful competition and favoritism will be a thing of the past, this story speaks primarily of grace and love and not reward. Late comers to God’s Kingdom are as valued as those who have been there (as a people) for centuries.

One final verse to bring out on this topic is 1 Corinthians 3:15. This is a picture of Judgment Day for those who are saved. The section speaks of building on the foundation of Christ with gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw. In other words, living in a way that is changed and honors God or simply receiving grace and being largely unchanged. Judgment Day will reveal how well our lives have been spent “by fire”. This describes some sort of supernatural judgment process. Verse 15 concludes the section in a way that shows the value of grace and the value of good discipleship:

If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.

1 Corinthians 3:15

What does awareness of this dynamic of God’s Kingdom do for us? It helps us trust in mercy of God for one. It also shows a value of our lives that does confuse salvation with good living. I take away peace that I belong to God and eternal life with Him is mine, even if I frequently fail. I also take away excitement about having a God-given purpose of life. It is my hope to please God and make a difference. It is my duty.

What Is Eternal Life?

I want to tell you of an encounter I had on Golgotha, the place where Jesus was crucified. I am not speaking metaphorically here. I was in Jerusalem a couple of years ago. We were visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. This is a church in the old city of Jerusalem, where the traditional site of Jesus’ crucifixion and of Jesus’ burial lie within one building. Many people, including me, don’t appreciate that Golgotha and the rich man’s tomb were so close together; but John’s gospel records that the place of crucifixion was in a garden. It was an ugly act placed in a beautiful place near the gate of the city. I expect it was to show Roman dominance.

When you enter at the ground level through the main door, the top of Golgotha (the place of the skull) is just up about the equivalent of two normal floors of a building to your right. The tomb is around a corner to your left. Our group went up to the Chapel on top of Golgotha first. The chapel is a somewhat sad story of in-fighting among the groups that control the church. There are three altars. The far right altar is Roman Catholic, the middle Orthodox, the left Arminian. We were in the middle and a group (presumably Catholic) was in the right portion of the chapel. I couldn’t help but overhear the presentation being made by the priest, who sounded American. To my shock he said, “I don’t know what eternal life is, but I think it has something to do with this Earth; we live on in the memories of people.”

I almost had a stroke. Here we are on the likely place where Jesus died and a member of the clergy suggests that eternal life is being remembered. In reflection on the statement made by the priest, I guess I assumed that everyone is clear about the nature of eternal life; and, clearly, I assumed too much. When we let worldly doubts, fears, and academic criticism get into our heads, we can believe that real existence beyond our deaths is impossible. The Jews also had a group, the Sadducees, who did not believe in the resurrection of the body. When this becomes your worldview, references to eternal life are nothing more than wishful thinking or, as the priest said, memories.

My question is, “What would Jesus’ dying on a cross 2000 years ago have anything to do with whether people remember me or not?” The answer is, “It doesn’t.” On that rock on which we stood Jesus literally suffered being forsaken by His Father. That selfless act enabled a promise of God to work. God extends to humans the opportunity to be connected to Jesus. When connected through baptism in the name of Jesus (not some other ridiculous formula), the forsakeness of Jesus becomes the fulfillment of what God’s law requires of us. Because we have not kept God’s Law, we are required to be damned (forsaken). Jesus takes that sentence for us. Having been made right with God, we can live with God in the joy and glory of Heaven (a real place and thus capitalized) and also in the New Earth (also real and as a proper noun capitalized). If you can’t tell, the failure of many books and bible translations to capitalize both Heaven and Earth when referring to the place is a pet peeve of mine.

It is also important to note here that eternal life does not just mean existence. After your death you will exist regardless of your standing with God. That is how you are made. You will actually exist, not just in memory. It is just that if you exist as a being forsaken by God, the experience will be so hopeless and horrifying that calling such an existence “life” is a gross disservice to the word. The Bible is not even thrilled with called our current existence “life”. Existence in Heaven and the New Earth is real life. Once there you will not care if people remember you. You will be having too much fun. Life after death is not some version of the Disney movie, “Coco”. Maybe that is where the priest learned his theology.

So take heart. Jesus has opened the door to life. This is not some vague concept. It is more concrete that you are now.

Grief and Christmas

As a pastor I can tell you that deaths do not happen evenly over the course of a year. Death seems to be concentrated into the colder months. At my congregation we would typically have 8 to 12 funerals a year. This year, since mid-October we have already had 9 deaths with no doubt more to come before Spring. Covid only partially explains the rise.

This reality means that many deaths happen around the holidays, leaving grief perpetually connected with a day that is supposed to be happy. The same type of association can happen with hymns. We often play a person’s favorite hymn at their funeral, which often ruins it for us. “How Great Thou Art” is a hymn that many people can’t listen to for that reason.

Having a painful association points to having an incomplete and ineffective grieving process. Remembering shouldn’t hurt after a while. If we are still hurting, then we are dwelling on what we have lost versus focusing on the promise of eternal life and a future reunion. This, of course, hinges on having eternal life through Jesus.

The Christmas season will be the source of many cherished family memories. It should be. But the Christmas season is misspent if it is focused primarily on family and not focused on Christ. Celebrating the birth of Christ is celebrating God coming into the world to give a most precious gift.

The Son of God became a human to place himself under the jurisdiction of God’s Law. He came as the child of a virgin so that he would not be born with a sinful nature like the rest of us. Instead, he could remain sinless for life. He then could do something for us that is an incredible act of sacrificial love. When dying on the cross, Jesus was forsaken by his Father as a substitute for his Father forsaking us. To be forsaken, utterly abandoned by God, is the punishment required for sin. If you are connected to Jesus through baptism, your eternal punishment is done.

If your loved one died as a believer in Jesus as their Savior, they are alive with Jesus. Do not look back, look forward. If you also are in Christ, then there are more good times, even better than the best ahead. Let the celebration of the birth of a Savior take you there, at least for awhile. Be sure to also make the most of those who are still alive and with you.

I would say the same for “How Great Thou Art”, or any hymn for that matter. It sure not remind you of loss but rather of gain. Train your brain to do this. Catch yourself when you think about the loss, remind yourself of God’s promise and then imagine what you still cannot see. Do not wallow in loss. It is not forgetting your loved one, it is remembering them properly.

Prepared for Your Death

You are in good health. Maybe you are even young. Why should you think about death? The obvious answer is that all you have to be is alive in order to die. There is no particular age or way that it comes, and you are not guaranteed that you will grow old before death. But there is a better answer for why you should consider your own mortality. That is because living like you will die someday (and you will), will cause you to truly consider the purpose of life and help you to live fully and wisely.

If it were a fact that we just die and cease to exist, then truly life would be without purpose. In that case do whatever you want and can get away with. But that is not the case. Both the Bible and Near Death Experiences around the world confirm that we go on. The Bible also confirms that life has a purpose and it is a purpose often neglected by people.

When you don’t consider your mortality, or more accurately your immortality, you tend to do mostly what pleases you. Your life is measured by the number and quality of your experiences or the accumulation of your wealth. There is a bumper sticker that reflects this default philosophy, it says, “He who dies with the most toys wins.” If that is on your car, you may want to scape it off before I see it. I will mock you.

Wealth simply passes through our fingers. We enjoy it only temporarily. Life isn’t a contest either. You don’t win anything for being the richest or having many toys. Some of the richest people in history have even concluded that dying with massive wealth was a source of shame and not honor. It certainly hasn’t done much for family dynamics as people quarrel over the estate.

Legacy is a concern of those who truly doubt the reality of eternal life. To be remembered well isn’t a bad thing, it is just not something that will enhance your existence. It is like having a great looking monument on your grave. Others will see it and not care. You won’t see it at all.

The most important quality of both life and death is to right with your Maker. Running a course independent of that chosen by God may feel like freedom but it is actually slavery to our inherent evil. If our death deposits us into the judgment of a Being we have denied and rebelled against, then nothing else matters. We are doomed. If on the other hand, we move from a life that has always been tainted into the arms of a Being that loves us and has compensated for our inherent evil, then that is the most fundamentally important thing in life. The meaning of life is connected to whatever comes next.

The good news is that God does favor the human race. We aggravate Him. We provoke Him. We do our best to write Him out of history. But God is a different kind of being. When He has decided to love someone or something, then He loves them regardless of their response. Despite ourselves, God has enacted a plan that puts a joyful, fun, social and unblemished life after death in our laps. He just has to get through our tough defenses to make it a reality for us personally. A connection to Jesus is the most valuable and indispensable asset we can have, and it is a gift that God is trying to give.

If you have a faith in Jesus as a Savior who has given Himself to die for your sins, then God has done it. He has broken through to you. Every other preparation for death is small by comparison, but there are more. The upcoming blogs will talk about how life impacts afterlife when you are connected to Jesus through faith and baptism. I hope you are curious enough to read them.