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.

The Souls of the Martyrs

There are relatively few biblical passages that give us a look into Heaven.  There are even fewer that include human beings.  Revelation 6:9-11 is a short passage that does just that.  What insights does it give?

The first thing to note is that this is part of the unsealing of a scroll within the throne room of God.  The contents of the scroll are unspecified, but a good guess is that this scroll actually unveils God’s good plan for His people.  Unfortunately,  a fair degree of judgment has to fall on mankind before we get to the good stuff.  Seven seals are ultimately broken.  Most bring tragedy to the inhabitants of the Earth.  The strange exception is the fifth seal.  The fifth seal produces a vision for the author of Revelation, John.

John sees the souls of those who have been killed for being Christians.  We are all aware that we will die somehow.  When you are violently put to an untimely death because of your faith those left behind have to wonder “is this worth it”, at least a little.  The vision given is a message for the living.  The martyrs are not gone, they are living.  They are close to God, and God is caring for them.

John says that he sees their souls.  The soul is the immaterial part of our being.  “Immaterial” just means that it is not properly a part of our current universe.  Are souls “material” in Heaven?  In the last verse they are given “white robes”.  This is not apparel.  Pulling on Paul’s language in 2 Corinthians 5, I would conclude that the white robes are actually a Heavenly body.  Or in other words, a physical body in Heaven to pair with the soul.

Their location is also interesting.  They are “under the altar”.  This sounds small, as if they were mice; but the dimensions of the throne room of God are likely very large.  If this throne room is what is seen descending to the New Earth in Revelation 21, then the space under the altar could be the size of Kansas.

The martyrs seem a bit disgruntled but perhaps they are just being curious.  “How long until you judge the inhabitants of Earth and avenge our blood?”  This is not a complaint about being stuck under the altar, but rather a call for justice.  God’s justice will come but not without time for repentance, time for all nations to hear the Gospel, and time for the total number of martyrs to be completed.

The final item seems like a weird criteria.  Martyrdom seems like a bad thing.  Even the martyrs don’t seem particularly fond of it.  But God has set apart special honor for those who are willing to die for Jesus.  He knows who they will be throughout time.  None who are chosen would want to miss the opportunity of this honor.  It is well worth it.  Martyrs for Christ are being made to this day.  Who knows when this will be complete, but each person brings us closer to Judgment Day.  To be a “martyr” means that somebody kills you.  You don’t kill yourself.  The Muslim idea of martyrdom is more suicide and blasphemy than honorable.  A real martyr gives a witness.  That is what the word “martyr” means.  It is a witness that shows I believe and trust God even unto death.  Jesus gave such a witness about His love for us.

The vision is brief but instructive.  In the period between death and Judgment Day, people who belong to God are consciously alive and in Heaven.  Heaven is not their ultimate destination.  Judgment Day will usher in the New Earth. Both Heaven and the New Earth are the gift of Jesus and something to look to with anticipation.

 

 

The Special Status of Martyrs

The word “martyr” gets in the news these days in the context of suicidal Muslim terrorists.  It is ironic that such people are called “martyrs”.  The word actually means “witness”.  What does their actions and their death say about their theology?  I hear, “God is full of hate”, “I am full of hate”, and “I will do anything to advance my selfish ambitions for the afterlife.”  Not exactly a compelling witness.

Christians have long used the word “martyr” for those who lost their lives because of their faith.  They did not commit suicide or even seek death, their lives were taken from them out of hatred for God or his message.  Their witness was “The gift of eternal life is better than this life”, and “I am not afraid to die because I trust God”.  That is a very different witness.

Martyrdom for Christians is not something isolated to the first century.  While the Romans took their share, genuine disciples of Jesus have been killed through the centuries, sometimes even by nominal Christian institutions.  Today, Christians are under the greatest threat of death in Muslim and Communist countries.

A strong theme, maybe even the main theme, of the book of Revelation is that martyrdom for the sake of Christ is well worth it.  Martyrs get special mention in Revelation 6:9-11, 12:11 and 20:4.  What do these passages teach us about this special class of people?

When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had be slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained.  They called out in a loud voice, “How long Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?  Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and brothers who were to be killed as they had been was completed. (Rev. 6:9-11)

This passage is important because it rules out the idea of soul sleep or that we go immediately to Judgment Day at our death.  It also lines out one of the criterion for the timing of Judgment Day–there are a preset or pre-known number of martyrs.  You might think this a strange and morbid standard, but to be a martyr is a high honor.  Those who experience this are chosen for this.  Their location “under the altar” brings to mind where the blood of the sacrifices was poured.  Only the sacrifice of Christ has merit in saving others.  But the death of the martyrs hasn’t historically deterred faith in Christ but it has counter-intuitively advanced it.  They are a sacrifice pleasing to God in the sense that they truly trusted him, and their deaths advanced the Gospel.

The gift of a “white robe” is common for all who die in Christ.  It is probably not clothing but a reference to a heavenly body that is pure.  The desire for judgment may be a surprise.  It doesn’t feel like love for your enemy.  Such judgment is just, however.  It doesn’t preclude the possibility of repentance and forgiveness.

In Revelation 12 the martyrs are honored and their praise is sung.  In Revelation 20 it speaks specifically of souls who were beheaded.  This is probably synecdoche and actually refers to all martyrs.  Here they have the honor of reigning with Christ.  What is that?  In this context, it would seem that they are part of God’s divine council, which actually participates in making decisions executable on Earth.  This honor would make sense since their lifetimes were cut short on Earth.

Our Dependence on Revelation

What happens after our death is terribly relevant to us all.  After all, we are all going to die.  It is not like to get to try it out first to see if we like it, at least not usually.  We approach death blind with the exception of what we know from revelations.  Science, our normal go to, is limited here.  It would tell us that nothing happens, but if certain revelation is correct, then science doesn’t have the tools to test it.

How can you know?  We have purported revelation from every world religion and we also have NDEs (Near Death Experiences) to consider.   NDEs tend to not be consistent.  There could be many reasons for this, from people not having the words to relate their experience, to genuinely different experiences (like heaven or hell), to deceptive experiences, to NDEs not being legitimate experiences of an afterlife at all. In the end, NDEs can be exciting but they don’t provide much guidance except, perhaps, for the person who had one.

What weight can we give to the revelations provided by world religions?  How do you test them?  If there is not only God trying to communicate with mankind, but also an enemy of God trying to confuse mankind, then we are in a difficult spot.  Who are we to sort it out?

I think of Mary, Joseph and Zechariah who all experience an encounter with the angel Gabriel.  Their information would lead us in a very different direction than the reported encounter of Muhammad and Gabriel some 600 years later.  How would any of these people know for sure who they were dealing with, and how would we know whether the events happened at all?  Without a doubt, we will be biased by where we start–if raised Christian, then Christian; if Muslim, then Muslim; if skeptic, then skeptical of it all.

I’m sure each group can provide a line of reasoning that is convincing for them.  Only God can get somebody over this hump of bias if they hold a false doctrine.  Since eternal life is on the line, we all desperately pray that God would do so.

My line of reason is clearly Christian.  In full disclosure, that is how I was raised.  I also think that I am rebel enough to leave the orthodoxy of my youth behind if it doesn’t make sense, especially if it matters this much.

The experiences of Zechariah, Mary and Joseph have supporting evidence in prophecies that clearly pre-date them.  The Old Testament is proven to be written before this time by the Dead Sea Scrolls.  These prophecies have a degree of specificity to them that you couldn’t stage for yourself.  The birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, a virgin birth, and the presence of John the Baptist are all in there.  Isaiah 53 in particular aligns with Jesus’ life.  It is not the life of merely a prophet, but the life of a sacrifice for sin.  Then we must consider the story of Jesus’ life, including clear miracles witnessed by many eyewitnesses who have no clear motive to lie.  All of the disciples of Jesus suffered terribly for their testimony.  I don’t believe people would do this if they knew it wasn’t true.  This is capped with the experience and witness of Paul of Tarsus, who was an admitted persecutor of the early Church.

If this is all a fiction, then when was it written and why?  How could such a fiction survive this long without cultural and military support?  Both existing bible fragments and testimony found in non-Christian sources point to existence of the Christian church to within a lifetime of the Jesus’ ministry.  A fiction could not have been written later.

Then there is the message itself.  The message is that God loves mankind, even though, He finds mankind to be sinful and un-saveable based on personal goodness.  So, God’s solution is to fulfill the requirements of the law that governs us and pay the price for the sin himself, by Jesus’ being forsaken and then dying on the cross.  That is love.  Self-sacrifice for the benefit of others is the ultimate love.  That action correlates with what the Old Testament hinted as the plan from the beginning.

Islam changes that plan.  It cannot conceive of God doing something like this or even a prophet being subjected to something like this.  So which is the deception?  Did the disciples of Jesus distort the story or was the story distorted within Islam from the very beginning because “Gabriel” wasn’t really “Gabriel”?  In the end, Islam offers only a legalized way of life and the vague hope that Allah is merciful to you.  It has largely advanced itself through conquest.  It doesn’t shy away from doing so.  Even Muhammed was treated abusively by this so called Gabriel.

We are in a poor position to judge, but the little clues just mentioned make me think that the God who cares about His creation isn’t the one who gave revelation to Muhammed.  Jesus, as Savior of the world, is the revelation for me.