Is Heaven Somehow Incomplete?

Many people have a biblically naive understanding of the afterlife.  That is one of the motivations for this blog.  It is typical to believe that immediately at death you go to Heaven if you were “good” and Hell is you were “bad”.  Heaven is commonly viewed as “perfect”.  Whatever “perfect” is.  That belief is folk religion, and biblically wrong in so many ways.

Most importantly, you are not destined for Heaven or Hell based on whether you are good or bad.  To God’s standard we are all bad–all tarnished by sin.  We are saved based on whether we have forgiveness or not, and the only way to have forgiveness is to have Jesus’ sacrifice of himself apply to us personally.  Jesus died for all, but God has to also be able to connect us to Christ through faith and baptism.

Popular conceptions of Heaven and Hell are a bit muddled as well.  The Bible makes you aware that there is an intermediate state, which is essentially the time between your death and Judgment Day.  Post Judgment Day the destination of God’s people is a “New Heaven and Earth”  with resurrected physical bodies.  The post-Judgment Day destination of the unforgiven is described as:  a lake of fire, Gehenna (which evokes a picture of a burning garbage dump), and a condition of being forsaken by God.  God won’t hang around to torment you.  Rather, God will permanently forget you.  That place and condition is what I prefer to call “Hell”

So where is Heaven in all of this?  It is the current dwelling place of God and the angels.  It will persist until Judgment Day when Heaven itself will be modified.  It is the immediate destination of those who die (I don’t buy the “soul sleep” paradigm and address that in a later blog), but there are some things incomplete about Heaven and our experience of it.

Don’t get me wrong, the experience of Heaven will leave our experience of life so far in dust.  We will see God, be without sinful nature, have no exposure to Satan, possess a heavenly body and no longer experience the discomforts of the curse.  It is hard to even imagine how good all that will feel compared to current life, so it is even harder to imagine what will be lacking.  While we consciously experience Heaven, our earthly bodies will still be in some state of decay or ash, and our earthly bodies are a part of what makes us.  The final release from the consequences of sin will happen at the resurrection.

For that matter, it would seem that the same is true for Heaven, the place.  Heaven has not been perfect.  Heaven hosted Satan’s rebellion and the corruption of a large minority of angels.  Heaven has experienced war.  God isn’t just going to make a New Earth.  He is going to make a New Heaven.

If you search the internet on the topic of Heaven, you will get a wide variety of interpretations, including mine.  You will encounter quite a few who suggest that we never will see Heaven, rather we are destined only for the resurrection and the New Earth.  They are right in saying that this was the Jewish, Old Testament expectation.  They might also state that the idea of our souls inhabiting Heaven forever is a Greek idea.  I agree in part.  The folk Christian idea is heavily influenced by the Greeks.  The Bible shares God’s revelation, which is the only reliable source on this topic.  It does speak of Heaven, even a Heaven we can inhabit, but it is a temporary dwelling with something even better to follow.

Salted with Fire

You only need to burn yourself once to know that you don’t want it to happen again.  This familiar experience is used by Jesus to describe the experience of those who are cast into Sheol (Hebrew)/Hades (Greek), which is the place of the unforgiven dead prior to Judgment Day; and also to describe part of the experience of Gehenna (Greek), which is the place of the damned after Judgment Day.  He says,

And if anyone causes one of these little ones to sin, it would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a large millstone around his neck.  If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off.  It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands go into hell (Gehenna), where the fire never goes out.  And if your foot causes you to sin cut it off.  It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell (Gehenna).  And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out.  It is better for you to enter the Kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell(Gehenna) where

their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched”

Jesus is making a point about the seriousness of sin and damnation.  Unfortunately, maiming yourself will not keep you from sin, but you get the idea.  We all need a solution for our sinfulness.  Jesus is that solution.  He is the difference between being in Heaven and the New Heaven and Earth versus Sheol and Gehenna.

The passage continues,

Everyone will be salted with fire.

Is that everyone is Gehenna, or everyone everywhere?  I find most study bible explanations of this unsatisfactory.  It is a bit cryptic because Jesus goes from describing something negative to describing something positive, which in this case is salt as a metaphor for godliness.  The godly will not cause one another to sin, but will encourage each other to righteous living.  But what does it mean to be salted by fire?

Some want to make the word “fire” in this sentence into another metaphor, that for persecution or trial.  I think that this use of fire correlates with what John the Baptist says in Matthew 3:11:

He (Jesus) will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.

And also what Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians 3:12-14:

If any man builds on this foundation with 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 by 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 escaping through flames.

Jesus will put all through a Judgment Day trial by fire.  Those who are connected to Jesus will be saved.  Those who are connected to Jesus and have built on the foundation of Jesus in a worthy, Holy Spirit driven, fashion will be rewarded.  Those who have squandered their lifetime but remain in Jesus will be saved but without reward.

Through all the confusing metaphorical and literal language, the message is this.  You can’t save yourself.  If you could, it would be worth any cost.  But you are saved by the death and resurrection of Jesus.  You can build on the foundation of Jesus in a worthwhile way, however.  You can live salty.  Righteous living will have its reward and that is worth it as well.

 

Like the Angels

It is common axiom of what I call “folk Christianity” to believe that when we die we become angels.  This falsehood has been fostered by various movies and TV shows through the years, and probably has deep roots in history.  One such movie is the Christmas classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life”.  In it the character Clarence is some guy who died years ago, but was still struggling to earn his wings.  It’s a feel good movie with absolutely ignorant theology in it.  People don’t become angels.  There is nothing in the Bible to say angels have wings either.  They fly, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they have wings.  The winged creatures of the Bible, who are found in the presence of God, are called Seraphim (burning ones) or Cherubim (living ones).  They are not angels either.

Angels are a species unto themselves.  They appear to be humanlike in appearance, though precious little is actually said about how they look. Nothing to suggest that they don’t look like humans is ever noted.  Angels serve God and help people.  They are often messengers.  In fact, the word “angelos” means messenger, so a person could literally be an angel in that sense.

Today I would like to focus on one particular passage in which angels are mentioned, Luke 20:34-36:

Jesus replied, “The people of this age marry and are given in marriage.  But those who are considered worthy of taking part of that age and in the resurrection of the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage, and they can no longer die; for they are like the angels.  They are God’s children, since they are children of the resurrection.”

Jesus’ reply is to a line of reasoning presented by the Sadducees who did not believe a physical resurrection of the dead was possible.  They reasoned that if a woman had multiple spouses during her lifetime, then at the resurrection there would be an unacceptable mess, because she would have multiple husband’s all at once.  Jesus’ statement says only this:  there will be no marriage after the resurrection and angels don’t get married.

Many people conclude that this means that there will be no sexuality or reproduction.  The text does not say this, nor can it be inferred.  We simply do not know what kind of situation exists with the angels.  Isaiah 65, which is a strange passage, says this about the New Earth (which is after the resurrection):  “They will not toil in vain or bear children doomed to misfortune.”   At least on the surface, this would seem to suggest that there is procreation.

Jesus’ death and resurrection are the means by which we can have the eternal life that God has planned for us.  He is the only way one can be “considered worthy”.  We will not become angels, but angels will be among us.  Much of what life will be like is unknown, and it is difficult if not unwise to read between the lines of Scripture.  We can be sure of this, however, eternal life in Heaven and the New Earth will be awesome.

Thy Kingdom Come (Freedom)

Freedom is a tough word to define.  Sometimes we view it as the absence of constraints, but as creatures who have a sinful nature we often do poorly when unconstrained.  Many people, exercising “freedom”, become helplessly enslaved to addictions.  It would seem that our natural, sinful self is almost set up for an addiction of some kind.  If it isn’t drugs and alcohol, then it is sex, gambling or even video games.  Anything that is too rewarding becomes addicting.

Everyone who sins is a slave to sin.

These famous words of Jesus prove to be too true in life.    Everyone does sin, so everyone is a slave to sin.  We are not free.  Not yet.

So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. (John 8:36)

Jesus sets us free from the condemnation by the Law of our sin, and the mandatory sentencing that would damn us forever.  That is the most important way Jesus sets us free.  But there are others.  Jesus’ victory on the cross also was a death blow to the control Satan exercises over God’s people.  In Heaven and the New Earth, Satan will be completely absent.  He will exercise no influence over us at all.  That too is a huge new freedom.  The miracles of Jesus’ during His earthly ministry foreshadow such a freedom as Jesus cast out demons.

There will also be freedom from our sinful nature.  A freedom from a biology that just can’t seem to handle pleasure without eventual problems.  I believe the sinful nature that the Bible describes is actually genetic mutations that inflicted our common parents (Adam and Eve) and have been passed on to us all (Psalm 51:5, Romans 7:14-25, Genesis 3:6-7).  These mutations do not represent how God created us nor are they what God wants for us.  Sinful nature produces a brain structure that is prone to addiction and resistant to God.  Even if we don’t have an “addictive personality”, we can become addicted with the right exposures.

Imagine life where this is no longer possible.  Imagine a new biology where we can experience every good thing and still be free.  Imagine joy, exhilaration, ecstasy, love, happiness, satisfaction without a crash, without an uncontrollable urge for more.  Freedom combined with all good things.

Far from the boredom that some people attribute to eternity with God, Heaven and the New Earth will be characterized glorious freedom.

Thy Kingdom Come (Health)

You can have everything (money, power, beauty, fame, etc.) but if you don’t have health, you don’t have much.  Certainly, there are those with chronic health conditions who learn to overcome and make big contributions to society and enjoy their existence; but the loss of health has probably more to do with the loss of both productivity and happiness than anything else.  Wouldn’t it be great if there were no such thing as bad health–no infectious, malicious microbes, no breakdowns in our DNA, and no wearing out of our organs?

Jesus demonstrated His dominance over illnesses several times.  He cured the blind, the deaf, lepers and the paralyzed.  Every vector of illness, He proved He could fix immediately.  He used no surgery, no medicines, just the power of His words.  The biblical explanation for illness is the existence of the curse.  What exactly is the curse?  The Bible doesn’t describe exactly how the curse works.  The result of the curse is that a creation that worked flawlessly now seems unbalanced (even though it is still complex and amazing)  The healing miracles of Jesus are physical demonstrations of a promise regarding Heaven and the New Earth.

No longer will there be any curse.  Revelation 22:3

This may seem like a superstitious, impossible dream; but if the creative genius that made all living things in the first place decides to put His original system or even a new system back in place, a system that is not “out of balance”, why should this be hard for Him?  Jesus demonstrated the ease with which He could do it.

The curse must run its course.  God does not promise anywhere that people with “enough faith” can avoid the effects of the curse today.  Freedom from the curse is a future thing.  Nor does God command that we not find ways to bring healing through medical means.  Direct, miraculous intervention by God to undo the impact of the curse requires more than prayer.  It requires a God approved purpose.  Often God can use the negative results of the curse, even illness, to accomplish a good purpose.  He did so with Paul in 2 Corinthians 12.

Wholeness of health, even to the point of the elimination of physical death is a part of God’s plans for the New Earth.  It is definitely something for which to look forward–especially when you are sick.

In Revelation 22, mention is made of the “Tree of Life”.  The leaves of the tree are for the “healing of the nations”.  What sort of healing could be required in a place without the curse?  The Garden of Eden had the Tree of Life as well.  Adam and Eve where permitted initially to eat from this tree.  There was no curse until they disobeyed God.  Something about the tree promoted the eternal sustenance of their bodies even then.  While that may remain true in the New Earth, there is no concern about its absence.  The phrase “yielding its fruit every month” is something similar to “always in stock”.

Many aspects of Heaven and the New Earth are hard to even imagine.  Permanent, flawless health is something we can grasp and hold on to.

 

Thy Kingdom Come (Abundance)

In the Lord’s Prayer we pray “Thy Kingdom Come”.  This petition has several facets;  some that are about present life and some about eternal life.  In this series I will focus on aspects of eternal life (both in Heaven and the New Earth) that will be significantly different from the world as we know it today.  These differences will be also be things foreshadowed in the miracles of Jesus.

Scarcity is part of the world as we know it.  Food, water, energy, raw materials have been at the core reason for which people have gone to war.  When we feel that our existence or even our standard of living is endangered, humans get clannish and fight others for limited resources.

Harnessing fossil fuels and applying scientific methods to farming in particular as eased some of our scarcity.  This temporary abundance may be somewhat of an illusion, however.  Ground water and energy resources will dwindle and a crisis of scarcity could still become a reality for many of us who have only known abundance.  What happens then is beyond the scope of this essay but it is something to consider.

As the crowds followed Jesus to hear Him preach, a scarcity of food became a problem.  Jesus demonstrated His power by turning a few loaves of bread and fish into a meal for thousands of people–a miraculous breach of the laws of physics.  It is important to note that He made no promise to end scarcity during the course of this life.  In Revelation 7, however,  God’s promise about eternal life states:

Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst.

Scarcity is a part of the old (current) order of things and is passing away.  Currently, according to World Hunger.org, 815 million, approximately 10.6% of the world’s population goes to bed hungry.  This is a major improvement since the so called “Green Revolution”, but as I said before, energy and water resources threaten the future of food production at the level we currently maintain. Still, 10% is significant especially if you are part of the 10%.

The U.S. should be significantly better, but it seems that we are not.  Disparity of wealth, especially with families who have children leaves us with similar numbers if not worse.  Currently, enough food exists.  It is more of a problem of distribution and minimizing waste.  Jesus told his disciples to pick up the scraps and let nothing be wasted.  This speaks to the type of stewardship we are expected to maintain in this world.

Scarcity exists because of sin and the curse.  Heaven and the New Earth will no longer have these problems.  Food security is a problem here. Will we even need to eat in Heaven and the New Earth?  It would appear likely.  Isaiah 25:6 says:

On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine–the best of meats and the finest of wines.

This description points to a future “New Jerusalem”–a place of the very best without scarcity.

If you live in abundance today, this difference may not stand out for you.  For many it is something hard to imagine, something to eagerly anticipate.

Do Our Pets Have Eternal Life?

Meet Ricky.  Ricky is my sweet, gentle Havanese.  He turns 13 this week.  That is pretty old in dog years.  When Ricky isn’t in the house, the house seems strangely empty.  We are so accustomed to his being there.  While Ricky is still in good health, it is becoming more a part of our thoughts that he won’t be there forever.  He is getting old, and like the rest of us, his time will eventually come to an end on this Earth.

Does Ricky just disappear at that point?  If you are a materialist, your answer is “of course”.  Dogs like people are just organisms that are here for a short while and then gone.  If you believe in reincarnation you would disagree.  In fact, you and your dog might eventually switch places, so be nice to your dog.

Does the Bible say anything about animals?  I have heard many people, including pastors, say that animals do not have souls because they are not created in the image of God.  I know the Bible pretty well.  I don’t know from where that idea comes.

Without a doubt, the focus of the Bible is on the eternal existence of humans.  We are created in the image of God.  We do have an eternal existence, either with God or forsaken by Him.  It all depends on our connection to Jesus.  But read these words from Colossians 1:19f and tell me what they say about Jesus’ work in relation to the rest of creation:

For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him(Jesus), and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood shed on the cross…This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to ever creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant.

I read that the death of Jesus was not just for the benefit of human beings but rather it reconciles all things.  You could translate this “all (people)” if it were not for the “things on earth and things in heaven” part.

While the death of Jesus reconciles God with the corruption of his creation, that doesn’t quite add up to all being a part of Heaven or the New Earth.  At least, that is certain for people.  Living things, other than people, are clearly a part of the New Earth (see Isaiah 65).  The unanswered question is whether or not our particular pets are a part of that new creation.  While animals are usually not as intelligent as people, we cannot say anything about the existence or non-existence of their spirit from the Bible (see my previous blog on Spirit, Soul and Consciousness).  That said, it is a distinct possibility that our pets may be a part of our eternity, especially the New Earth.

I hope so anyway.