Does Eternal Life Get Monotonous?

They call Disney World “the happiest place on Earth”, but do you know what, after a while I have had enough of it. I enjoy Disney World, but I couldn’t go there every day. I don’t care to go there every vacation. Comedian Jim Gaffigan put it this way: “Do you know what my favorite ride at Disney World was? The ride back to the airport.”

My point is not to bash Disney World. It is to ask a question. Doesn’t even the best place get monotonous? If so, won’t Heaven and the New Earth become monotonous as well? Do I really want eternal life?

There are many ways to address this question. I would like to start with the idea of boredom. We experience boredom because we are damaged creatures. Sinful nature has left us diminished. Our attention wanes, our energy drops and we get bored. Some of us more easily than others. With a Heavenly body and/or a resurrected body the modifications that sin made to us will no longer exist. I expect that it will be fundamentally impossible to be bored. That is hard to imagine. Which points to another problem in understanding eternal life– our limited imagination.

Many people who ask our theme question imagine Heaven to be one unending worship service, and they get bored in worship services. First, if one truly understands what they are doing, is engaged in interaction with God, and understands why God deserves their praise; then even worship services here are not boring. If you fail to have these three things, of course worship is boring. Surgery is boring for me, because I don’t know how to do it. A surgeon, on the other hand, is engaged–at least I hope so.

Heaven will no doubt have periods of group worship. They will be what we look forward to the most. God will be seen in all His glory and beauty. We will praise with heightened senses and abilities. It will be a transcendent experience, but it will not be the only experience.

New experiences, new people and endless new places will fill our lives in a very positive way. The details are limited in the Bible, but what words could you use? God is the creator of all good things, and His creativity is unlimited.

Another thing that cripples our understanding is how we find entertainment and exhilaration now. Much of it tied to what stimulates the brain that our sinful nature has created. We enjoy things more because they are forbidden. For many, fun is not possible without being altered by alcohol or drugs. Don’t expect that to be necessary in Heaven.

Jesus subtly conveys the fun aspect of Heaven and the New Earth by relating to how we use alcohol now. In His first miracle, at the wedding in Cana, He changes water into wine. First, it is at a party. Weddings were the biggest events of his time. Next Jesus creates not just wine, but the finest wine. The best is saved for last. Finally, it was not just a gift bottle. It was between 120-180 gallons–a super-abundance. This little miracle is a prophesy in the form of an action (theologians call them “types”) It is a prophesy of the great party that Jesus will make possible through His self-sacrifice for our sins.

I guess the final thing to say is that we don’t get to pick our own eternal destiny. If we are afraid boredom in Heaven, we don’t get to pick non-existence instead. We have been created to be eternal creatures. Where will we spend that eternity? You have been invited to a party, don’t throw away the invitation.

What Do Jewish People Believe About the Afterlife?

Recently I was watching the movie Silence by director Martin Scorsese. It is a movie about Jesuit missionaries in Japan during a period when the Japanese rulers wanted to eradicate Christianity. It is a disturbing movie as you might guess. The rulers wanted Japan to be Buddhist. They were afraid of losing their culture primarily, so they did some very un-Buddhist things to Christians. In the course of history so called Christians have also done some very un-Christian things to pagans and also to Jews. Early on Jews did the same to Christians.

The covenant that God made through Moses is the centerpiece of Judaism. It is completely focused on prosperity in this life. I have often wondered what Jewish people believed about life after death beyond an expectation of a bodily resurrection, which is clearly promised in the Old Testament.

I came across a recent article in the Jerusalem post by Rabbi Stewart Weiss https://www.msn.com/en-us/lifestyle/mind-and-soul/what-do-jews-believe-about-the-afterlife/ar-AARVwFc?ocid=entnewsntp&pc=U531 It is an interesting explanation of Jewish belief. One thing that sadly didn’t surprise me is that most Jews don’t believe in life after death at all. They don’t believe the Old Testament. They may still cling to the culture and their Jewish identity, but theologically they are less Jewish than I am. Many, I am sure, are agnostic and a fair percentage are oddly Buddhist.

Let me rant for a moment about the value of culture. Many people strongly identify with a religion when they in fact only identify with a culture. Culture is important, but when weighed against whether we have an eternity with God or an eternity exiled from God culture is an insignificant thing. Culture changes all the time. You can have a distinct culture and cultural identity but share the same knowledge of God with people outside your culture. If the rulers of Japan in the movie were interested in being Buddhist, they would not have tortured anyone. The same can be said for the current government of Myanmar. Truth about God is far more critical than anything else. The truth about the God who created us all is that He does not tolerate sin let alone torture. Doing it in His name makes the offense many times worse.

Now back to the question of the Jewish understanding of the afterlife. I found that there are more parallels to my Christian belief than I expected. The article spoke of four phases of existence. The first we are experiencing now. The next is known as Gan Eden (Heaven or Paradise).

The second phase is Olam Haba, or Gad Eden (heaven or paradise). This may be a spiritual paradise where we experience an overwhelming closeness to God, or, in some opinions, a kind of “holding zone” for our souls, awaiting an eventual reordering of the universe.

The Jerusalem Post, Stewart Weiss

This is much like Heaven as I have described it. We enter a paradise in the presence of God. It is “spiritual” in the sense that it is not of this dimensional space. It is also experienced during the Intermediate Period between our death and Judgment Day. I would add that it might also be part of our experience after Judgment Day.

Weiss has a third phase that would equate with the Millennium in some Christian theologies. This is something that occurs on Earth, pre-Judgment Day. It is where the Messiah radically changes humanity for the better. Weiss does not say if this is experienced only by the living. Some Christian theologies sneak an extra resurrection of the righteous in at this point. Others leave it as a primarily Jewish affair. Amillennialists, of which I would count myself, don’t expect a future worldly rule of the Messiah until after Judgment Day. References to a “1000 years”, and to knowledge of God spreading over the world are seen as happening now as the Gospel is spread.

Finally, there is the resurrection of the dead. He does not share details, but I would agree that the Bible both Old and New Testaments speak of this as the final, eternal phase.

The big difference, not mentioned in the article, is how one gets to take part in all of this. Jesus is not recognized as the Messiah or as the necessary atoning sacrifice for sin. Entry into the bliss of Heaven and the Resurrection is based on being good enough and that God will “balance the scales”.

The description of what is to come matters little if we are not a part of it. Redemption has come. The Messiah came to win redemption. Jewish or not, don’t miss out on what Jesus has won for us. Especially, don’t ignore this salvation for the sake of culture.

Does God Reward Us in the Afterlife?

So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, “We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.”

Luke 17:10

These words of Jesus strike at the reason why this topic should feel awkward. As sinners, we don’t deserve a place in Heaven or the New Earth period. Nothing that we can do can compensate for our sins. The very fact that we are saved by grace should eliminate any thought of additional reward. Except it doesn’t. Jesus talks about it frequently, so does Paul.

Another passage that seems to eliminate any thought of individual reward and paint an egalitarian picture of eternal life is the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard in Matthew 20. In this story, workers are added to the workforce every three hours. At the end of the day, the workers who came in last are paid the same as those who worked all day. This is often interpreted to mean that our experience as redeemed people in the afterlife will be essentially equal.

There are two problems with this interpretation. First, the context around the parable shows that Jesus is speaking to the status of the Jews. They will be counted equal with people from other nations that come later. Also, salvation is never counted as a wage or prize that you earn. It is a gift that is beyond our earning.

When Jesus or Paul talks about reward, what could this mean? First, without grace reward is impossible. Our deeds can follow us only because our sin isn’t following us thanks to Jesus.

Then I heard a voice from Heaven say, “Write: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” “Yes,” says the Spirit, “they will rest from their labor, for their deeds will follow them.”

Revelation 14:13

The reward is God’s choice nothing is owed to us. Therefore, the attitude noted above in Luke is part of a rewardable deed. So is love.

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have the faith to move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.

1 Corinthians 13:1-3

When these are in place, some manner of reward is possible.

If any man builds on this foundation (grace in Christ) using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one passing through the flames.

1 Corinthians 3:12-15

This passage indicates that the saved may be rewarded or not. But what is the nature of the reward? Honor is a part of it. The Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25) or the Parable of the Minas (Luke 19) give the accommodation, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Honor is also spoke of in 1 Peter 1:7.

The two parables also speak of expanded stewardship in some form. Faithful stewardship results in being put in charge of more. Whatever the “more” proves to be.

We can also expect that our reward is somehow connected to relationships. Paul speaks of the Thessalonians as his reward:

For what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes? Is it not you? Indeed, you are our glory and joy

1 Thessalonians 2:19-20

Honor, expanded stewardship and people, these are the most detailed description we currently have of our possible reward.

Reward is usually spoken of in the context of Judgment Day. Judgment Day for the redeemed is not to determine whether we are saved or not. That was determined long before that event. It is a judgment of our deeds. The reward is something primarily realized in the New Heaven and New Earth. I say primarily because an “inheritance” kept in Heaven is mentioned in 1 Peter 1:

In His great mercy He has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade–kept in Heaven for you

1 Peter 1:3-4

This could just be the whole environment of Heaven both during the Intermediate period and post-Judgment Day or it could have in view some degree of reward. We will have to wait and see.

A lack of equality in honor, stewardship and relationship leads to jealousy and resentment here on Earth. That is all a product of our sinful natures. This will no longer be an issue during any time in Heaven or the New Earth because sinful nature is gone. It will only be an additional blessing that God chooses to give.

Will We Be Eternally Secure?

As we look at the Biblical narrative about the course of creation from its inception until now, we see a creation with several kinds of high reasoning beings who can either obey God or rebel. The rebellion of such beings has precipitated the less-than-ideal world we live in. The Bible points our hopes to the future when God will make all things new. But if it happened before, could rebellion happen again?

Ezekiel 28:12 and following is a section that may or may not describe Satan. It states that it is about the king of Tyre, but the description seems to not be about a mortal man but rather a “guardian cherub”. Cherubim, literally “living ones”, is the name given to a strange sort of being that lives in the closest proximity to God. There are descriptions in Isaiah 6 (called seraphim or “burning ones” there), Ezekiel 1, and Revelation 4. The Ezekiel 28 passage describes one that is cast out.

You were an anointed guardian cherub.
    I placed you;  you were on the holy mountain of God;
    in the midst of the stones of fire you walked.
15 You were blameless in your ways
    from the day you were created,
    till unrighteousness was found in you.
16 In the abundance of your trade
    you were filled with violence in your midst, and you sinned;
so I cast you as a profane thing from the mountain of God,
    and I destroyed you, O guardian cherub,
    from the midst of the stones of fire.

Ezekiel 28:14-16 ESV

From where did the “unrighteousness” come? Further reading indicates that this being (presumably Satan) became proud and corrupted in his wisdom. It seems to be an act of free will.

Satan tactics with Adam and Eve give insight as well. Adam and Eve don’t know what evil is. They only know that they are not to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and they are capable of following that command or not. Satan feeds them a lie that may be similar to the lie he told himself,

For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.

Genesis 3:5 NIV (1984)

Though naive, humans made an act of the will to rebel against God. Consequently, their will was never truly free again. It is always influenced by a sinful nature and possibly also by evil outside forces.

We have no information about what happened with the angels, only that some of them (possibly as much as a third) also rebelled. Was it also an act of willful disobedience?

With the arrival of a New Heaven and New Earth, we are promised a resurrected body without a sinful nature and the removal of Satan and his angels. Will we have a truly free will? If so, can such a mess restart or can someone be expelled. There is no long biblical discourse to answer this. There is the promise of “eternal” life, and on this we must put our hope given the lack of information.

I would not postulate that we will have a constrained will of some sort. God created His greatest beings to be free for a reason. Love is free. Love is not the output of a pre-programmed mind that cannot deviate. What will prevent deviation? We barely understand what the soul or our will is. It is hard to speculate. Perhaps it will be because of new, more bonded relationship to Jesus. Even now we are somehow part of the body of Christ. This isn’t just a metaphor. It is a mystical relationship.

In the scant information that we are given, there seems to be no anticipation of further falling away or divisions in either cherubim, angels or humans. The question of whether we could fall away is a natural one. But we are thinking of our future situation through the lens of our current situation. Sin exists here. Evil is personified now. And we are corrupted in our wisdom.

Understanding Life After Death

One of the most shocking moments I ever had from a theological point of view happened in Jerusalem, in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, in the Chapel on top of Golgotha no less, where traditionally Jesus was crucified.  I heard a Catholic priest say these words to his tour group:  “I don’t know what eternal life is, but I like to think it has something to do with this world.  I like to think we live on in the memories of those who love us.”

My jaw must have hit the floor.  Did Jesus need to die to help people remember them? Nooo!  This priest was confused to the extreme, but confusion is not limited to him.  What happens after we die confuses many people for some reason.  The result is disagreement.

There are basically four ideas of what comes next. One is caught up in Paul’s use of the word “sleep” (see 1 Cor. 15:51 or 1 Thess. 4:13 for example).  In this model we are unconscious at our death until aroused at Judgment Day.  This model is quickly contradicted by 1 Thessalonians 4:14 which has the righteous dead returning with Jesus as he comes on Judgment Day. 

For since we believe that Jesus rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep.

1 Thessalonians 4:14

It also is in tension with Revelation 6:9-10 where martyrs are conscious, in Heaven, and asking God how long they have to wait for Judgment Day.  For that matter, also Revelation 7:9-17 which shows people in Heaven in a pre-Judgment Day setting.

Another is a time-warp model that doesn’t have you sleeping but going direct to the Judgment Day. The idea is that because God must be transcendent (above the Laws of Nature), that we are also transcendent after our death. While I do believe God can do whatever He wants with us. Assuming transcendence is a jump. This theory also contradicts the same passages as soul sleep mentioned above.

Yet another is a super vague explanation that equates “heaven” with being a part of the body of Jesus.  That doesn’t seem like a bad idea at first, but it is essentially making “heaven” (not capitalized) be a state of mind or being. Essentially, I am in heaven now because I am part of the body of Christ.  It is not Heaven a place where Jesus is. Again, Revelation 6 and 7 speak against this. 2 Corinthians 5 also speaks of our having an independent body in which we are “clothed”. We do not exist as a being assimilated into Jesus until the Resurrection.

Here is what the Scripture tells us.  When we die (like the thief on the cross), immediately we will be with Jesus in paradise (Heaven – capital H), fully awake, fully aware and loving it.  I would argue that this experience comes with a heavenly body (1 Cor. 15:40, 2 Cor. 5:1), you are not formless or ghostly.  Then, when the time arrives, we will return with Jesus from Heaven to Earth.  We will receive a resurrected body, appropriate for Earth, and go through a Judgment Day experience (1 Corinthians 3:10-15).  Judgment Day for the Redeemed is not a determination of salvation, but rather an accounting of our works and an appropriate reward.  (1 Cor. 3:10-15, et al.).  Where then?  Wherever you want.  God dwells with us on Earth, but I wouldn’t guess that Heaven is off limits either.

The Sabbath Rest for the People of God

What is your mental image of Heaven? Is it exciting, relaxing, boring or catatonic? Artists, who are usually bad theologians, have done much to shape the picture of the place. Grabbing on to the image of Jesus coming the clouds, they have formed in our heads an idea of a cloudy Heaven. Heaven is nothing of the sort.

Paul and others may have done a similar unintended thing. To diminish the idea that our physical death is the ultimate punishment, Paul refers to the physically dead as those who “sleep”. The inanimate state of our bodies bolster that image. Adding to this are several passages in the Psalms which are quoted in Hebrews which use the word “rest” to describe our general condition in Heaven. Together they may paint the wrong picture in your head. It may make Heaven seem like a large waiting room with comfortable chairs but not much going on.

The Bible does little to describe what activity we will experience in Heaven outside of worship. This probably leaves people who find a worship service to be boring further convinced that Heaven is a consolation prize that they are not excited about. My point in this article is to not be mislead by an unintended connotation of a word. We have not experienced worship in Heaven. I expect that “boring” will not be a description that anyone will ever use.

I have already spoke about the choice of the word “sleep”, but what is meant by “rest”? The historical reference used in Hebrews 3 and 4 is the people who were with Moses during the Exodus. Their persistent disobedience and impatience drives even a very patient God to distraction. God does declare that these people will not enter into the promised land in Numbers 14, but it is much later in the Psalms that God speaks in terms of rest.

So I declared on oath in my anger, “They shall never enter my rest.”

Psalm 95:11

What “rest” was being talked about? Was it simply that they would not settle down in Palestine and experience God’s favor? As this passage is quoted twice in Hebrews the author sees a parallel between the disobedient people with Moses and those of any time. He speaks of a planned “Sabbath-rest” that is intended for all God’s people. Our question is what kind of “rest” are we talking about?

Hebrews 4 and again in Revelation 14 speaks about this rest as a “rest from our labors:

Then I heard a voice say, “Write: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” “Yes,” says the Spirit, “they will rest from their labor, for their deeds will follow them.”

Revelation 14:13

There is a lot of detail in this passage. First, to “die in the Lord” means that a person goes through physical death while being a part of the body of Christ. They are saved by their connection to Jesus. “From now on” is an interesting phrase for exactly when is this spoken? The context immediately preceding this is that it is in the midst of the tribulations caused by “the beast”. It is immediately followed by a Judgment Day picture.

Here on Earth we have to deal with a number of problems. Through the whole of Earth’s history we must deal with sin and the curse and their effects. During particular times the stress of persecution will make it even worse. To “rest” is to be free of these burdens. To rest is to no longer have particular responsibility for the struggle here on Earth, but the fruit of our time of struggle will “follow us” in the form of some type of reward.

Rest isn’t to become purposeless, for we will have other responsibilities; but they won’t be carried out in an environment of stress, resistance or evil. They will be a joy. Revelation 7:15 speaks of serving God day and night in His temple. Matthew 25:14-23 speaks of being put in charge of much. The details of these activities are not given, but it is clear that it is rewarding, active and pleasurable.

So if you harbor an image of Heaven and the New Earth that is dull and purposeless, think again. What we rest from is difficulty. What we experience is life that is truly life.

Has Anyone Escaped Dying?

The saying goes, “The only things that are certain are death and taxes.” This is more a comment on the ubiquity of taxes than anything else, but I’m sure plenty of people have escaped taxes. Have any escaped death?

There are certain overarching passages that would suggest that answer is “no”:

“The wages of sin is death.”

Romans 6:23

“For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.”

1 Corinthians 15:22

There are many more, but perhaps they are hyperbolic or have a few exceptions. The Bible does use language that way. Even in the above passage, not all will be saved and made alive by Christ. You learn that from other passages.

The utility of death is easy to understand. When Adam and Eve had sinned, God made sure that they could no longer eat from the Tree of Life. As long as they continued to live they would live with a sin altered bodies and suffer all the consequences from aging to illness. Dying allows us to shed our bodies which is where our “sinful nature” resides. Death may be a consequence or punishment for sin, but it is useful in fixing that issue.

The Bible presents us with three strange candidates for skipping death: Enoch, Melchizedek and Elijah. Did this happen or is it simply a lack of reporting?

“Altogether, Enoch lived 365 years. Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him away.

Genesis 5:22b-23

There is clearly nothing usual about Enoch’s life. He is part of period in human history before God dialed us back to a 120 year max (Gen. 6:3). The phrase “Enoch walked with God” is somewhat enigmatic. I would not read this literalistically, but take it to be a comment on his unusual righteousness for a person born with a sinful nature like the rest of us. “God took him away”, could easily be a euphemism for death. Let’s look at the others before hazarding a conclusion.

Melchizedek was king of Salem and priest of God Most High…Without father or mother, without genealogy, without beginning of days or end of life, like the Son of God he remains a priest forever.”

Hebrews 7:1,3

“And what we have said is even more clear if another priest like Melchizedek appears, one who had become a priest not on the basis of a regulation as to his ancestry but on the basis of the power of an indestructible life.

Hebrews 7:17

Melchizedek gets more said about him in Hebrews than he does in the Old Testament (Gen. 14:18-20, Psa. 110:4). The discussion in Hebrews is about how Jesus can serve as our priest before God in Heaven. He is not a Levite by birth, but rather a priest like Melchizedek who pre-dates the Levitical priesthood. Melchizedek seems to be a person who continues to have knowledge of God from Noah. The text does not record any family history or birth and death record. Does that mean that he is not human? If he is, does it mean that he did not die? Jesus is the one with an “indestructible life” after his resurrection. This is not necessarily true of Melchizedek.

“As they were walking along and talking together, suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and Elijah went up to Heaven in a whirlwind.”

2 Kings 2:11

Elijah’s departure is at least recorded. Was his death a form of dying or skipping it all together. Elijah was a great man but also a sinful man, could there be another form of transformation for his flesh?

Jesus who raises from the death with an indestructible form of an earthly body is referred to as the “firstborn from the dead”. From this alone, I would conclude that Enoch, Melchizedek and Elijah all shed their sin-affected bodies in some way. Jesus’ words in John 3:13 would further support that these men did not progress from Earth to Heaven, but rather from Earth to Sheol to Heaven like the rest of the Old Testament righteous. Their descriptions remain mysterious to be sure.

There is one other way mentioned to lose our sinful bodies and gain a resurrected body without the process of death. It is a future process, however.

“Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed– in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound and dead will be raised imperishable, and we will all be changed.”

1 Corinthians 15:51-52

While that sounds very good, there is no need to fret about the normal way to be “changed”. Death as a process is not necessarily pleasant, but short; and it can have some beautiful moments. The result, when you are connected to Christ, is wonderfully transformative. No more sinful nature, no more results of the curse. A serious upgrade.

Examining Near Death Experiences (Part II)

In my last entry I discussed six of the common factors found in Near Death Experiences (NDE) as detailed in the book by Jeffrey Long, MD entitled, Evidence of the Afterlife. Scripture remains the solid proof, promise and explanation of an afterlife; but finding or interpreting the experience of people in light of Scripture can give a connection to real events and broader understanding.

Here are some other common experiences listed in the book:

A sense of alteration of time or space. It is always mind-bending to imagine different scales of time or that time didn’t always exist. God reveals himself to be transcendent. Essentially, beyond the constraints of time or physical laws. A well-known passage that gets at this is:

But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord is day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.

2 Peter 3:8

This statement is not a mathematical formula for converting God time to ours. It refers to God’s transcendence and to possibility that the experience of time will differ from Earth to Heaven to Hell. Science would suggest the same thing. While the measurement of the time difference is vague, the general experience is that there is a change of time and space and that you are aware of a difference.

Life Review. We have all heard the expression “my life flashed before my eyes” in connection to a brush with death. This would seem to be a review of your whole life, but particularly your sins. The Bible speaks of Judgment Day, but there is clearly also a “judgment” made at our death. I don’t think it is the same thing. Judgment Day is a future event. The judgment made at our death would be the determination of what comes next. We will all have failures that flash before our eyes, because we are all sinners. Are the sins that we see flash before our eyes our downfall, or are they what has been covered by the death of Jesus? This is what matters at that moment.

Not all people are saved. Scripture reveals it will be a minority. And not all people experience something heavenly in a NDE. Obviously, people would be reticent to announce, “I went to Hell/Sheol”. Those who return with a universalistic message of everyone is saved find themselves in conflict with both the words of Scripture and the experience of many people. Did they misunderstand something? Or is it possible for a NDE to be a deception?

Either way, to experience a life review fits what I would expect.

Encountering Unworldly (Heavenly) Realms. The Bible recounts several Out of Body Experiences (OBE) that took the writer to Heaven. You can find them in Isaiah 6, Daniel 7, Zechariah 3 and Revelation 4,5 and 7. Paul also refers to an OBE/NDE he had in 2 Corinthians 12. It is often hard for the person to discern exactly how they are experiencing this. They cannot tell if it is a vision or actually being there. They cannot tell if this is out-of-body or in the flesh. The Biblical experiences all show the person the throne room of God. It is not a tour of the whole of Heaven or even just another part. NDE recorded after medical emergencies typically reveal another landscape, a very beautiful one, presumably outside of God’s throne room.

These accounts mesh somewhat with Revelation 7:

They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them nor any scorching heat.17 For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

Revelation 7:16-17

We have a great interest in the landscape and lifestyle of Heaven. A misinterpretation of the Bible leads to art and the idea that Heaven is on clouds, or that we are bodiless or that it is one unending worship service. Clearly from NDE and Revelation 7 it is not in a cloudbank. Everyone experiences great beauty, but the beauty is different from place to place. Some can compare what they see to what God had created on Earth. For others, what they see defies words as it is very different from what is on Earth. Do these descriptions simply project a person’s expectations? I doubt it, for some of those witnesses didn’t expect a Heaven at all.

Why would some experience Heaven even as non-believers and others experience Hell? This is a mystery. God uses it often to turn around a life or point of view. The experience can seem like a mistake with people being told that it is not their time and sent back, but seems to be more complicated than that. Not every NDE happens with prophetic purpose. Perhaps our capabilities to retrieve people medically from death have made the boundary between Earth and Heaven more permeable, but in the end God’s will in done.

There are just a few more common experiences in NDE. I will discuss them next time.

Who Will Be Saved and Who Could Have Been?

The Bible is a considerably large body of knowledge, still there are times when I think, “So little information and so many questions.” I wish the Bible gave me more on a specific topic, but I and everybody else are left with a mystery.

Today’s mystery for your consideration is a seeming contradiction within the pages of Scripture. One set of passages seem to suggest that God will only save a rather small minority of people which He foreknew. Another set of passages seem to suggest that God wants all to be saved and that there is hope that over time a significant portion of those people can be saved. Those are opposing views at least on the surface. They have given birth to different theological traditions with different approaches to ministry. I believe that the Bible doesn’t contradict itself. Apparent contradictions are just failures to understand. How do these passages come together?

Here are some of the passages that suggest a very limited salvation:

13 “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. 14 For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.

Matthew 7:13-14

Jesus doesn’t just give good news. This is arguably the worst news from his mouth. Another to consider:

 But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.

What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened, as it is written,

“God gave them a spirit of stupor,
    eyes that would not see
    and ears that would not hear,
down to this very day.”

Romans 11:6-8

This passage contains the term “elect”. The elect are those God chooses for eternal life and actually foreknows before the creation of the world. Here, speaking specifically about certain generations among the Jews, it also speaks of God shutting down or at least not opening up these people to saving faith.

There are more passages like these, but for the sake of brevity, let’s show some of the opposite.

This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.

1 Timothy 2:3-4

The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.

2 Peter 3:9

The 2 Peter passage has always bothered me. If Matthew 7 above is true, aren’t we not sending more people to damnation the longer God let’s this world move on? Also, does God really desire everyone to be saved when he clearly declared that certain groups of people had crossed a line and would never be included?

The Apostle Paul, author of two of these passages on either side of this issue, declares at one point, “The mystery of faith is great”. Even he struggled to understand how this all goes together. So we should set our expectations of full understanding rather low.

Here are the parts that can be drawn from this mystery. God never created human beings to damn a portion of them. He takes no pleasure in doing it. God is a being who strongly abides by his own law. He doesn’t compromise it because he can. As such, the giving of a truly free will to our common ancestors, Adam and Eve, has resulted in billions of people who cannot know or believe God at all on our own. Further, the majority will not come into a necessary faith in God’s Son even with the help of God’s Holy Spirit. Why not? I know not.

Certain generations or people groups have proven so corrupt and provocative to God that God has declared that he would not even try with them. These blanket disownings are found in the Old Testament, but the main one affecting certain Jews persists until Jesus’ time at least. This suggests that the problem could be genetic at the core of it.

The toughest thing to wrap your mind around is how can God foreknow and call “elect” those who will be saved before the creation of the world and in “real time” act and ask us to act as though anybody and everybody can be saved? This where we have to admit that we cannot fathom what it is like to be God.

It is pretty clear from Scripture that people will be damned even though Jesus died for everyone’s sin. The breakdown in saving everyone comes in making the connection between people and Jesus. Forming that bond has its limits. The result is significant losses and even though it deeply grieves God and everybody who cares, God will not use his unlimited power to fix this.

It is not right to develop a form of fatalism in response to the first set of passages I quoted. Unlike God, I do not know who will believe the promise that a person can have eternal life with God and immediate forgiveness of their sinfulness simply by believing God’s promise and baptism into Jesus’ death. I will only continue to proclaim this to people because I care about them and hope that they can believe.

The way God dealt with the problem of human sin through Jesus was a surprise. Maybe God still has another surprise to deal with unbelief.

May you be one of the elect.

Why Not Reincarnation?

A large chunk of the population of the world expects to be reincarnated. This includes Hindus, Buddhists and many other who have incorporated this idea into their “spirituality”. Reincarnation gives the promise of continued life. While judgment or karma is expected and is meant to motivate an unselfish life, reincarnation gives hope for self-progress and self-redemption in the end. It also gives reason to judge people for their current condition and creates a fatalistic attitude with not much motivation to change the world. It is an interesting idea, but is real?

Experience doesn’t settle the question. All of the Near Death Experiences (NDE) that I am aware of have given the individuals who had them an experience of Heaven or Sheol. None have said, I was a dog, worm or even another person. There are some who claim other “memories” experienced in dreams, flashback type of experiences that do give the impression that the person had a previous life. How can this be explained? Perhaps one experiences what they expect in certain neural states. Either type of experience may possibly be introduced by outside spiritual forces (i.e. God, Satan, angel, demons, etc.) to inform or deceive. Whatever the answer, experience is not conclusive.

The Bible rules out reincarnation by giving us a picture of Heaven or Sheol immediately upon death and by these words:

And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who eagerly wait for him.

Hebrews 9:28

Many people are choosing a mixed, and consequently inconsistent, system of beliefs that merge Jesus and reincarnation. Granted these people are hardly what you would call theologians. It is clear for those who know the Bible, that reincarnation is not a part of the human experience if the Bible is truth. Here you have to look at the weight of evidence and have the help of God to understand why the Bible is to be trusted versus any of the writings of Eastern religion.

Jesus comes from a determined place and time, not some vague story. He backed his teachings with miracles before eye-witnesses. He rose from the dead and was seen by both friends, skeptics, and enemies. His coming was accurately foretold by prophets who lived long before him. I don’t think any other self-proclaimed revelation from God can claim such support.

The biggest difference between what the Bible presents as our eternal destiny versus Eastern religions is not the one life versus many. It is that God saves us out of love and does the work Himself versus a system where you raise yourself through lifestyle and knowledge. Wisdom, knowledge, kindness and good works have their place in Christianity, but not as the cause of being saved. They are the result of being saved. We are motivated by love and a sense of God-given mission.

Ironically, Eastern religions are very do-it-yourself compared to Christianity, but the goal is to cease to exist as an individual. One ultimately merges with an impersonal God. In Christianity, Jesus merges you to Himself for the sake of making you righteous and worthy of eternity. He does so without eliminating you as a person. Rather he emphasizes just how valuable you are.

Do not count on having another life and another chance. Definitely don’t count on your own abilities to merit eternal life. Count on Christ.

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