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.

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.

Spirit, Soul and Consciousness

One critical question related to a discussion of life, death, and life after death is, “What exactly are we?”  For example, are we just a physical body whose chemical interactions create the illusion of thought, self-awareness and experience of an external world?  Or are we just a mind (whatever that is) that experiences an external world that is an illusion (Think the movie, “The Matrix” here).  Or does the external world really exist, our brains and their chemistry really exist and our conscious self is really something that is not formally part of this universe, but interacts with this universe via the brain.  The last theory is a dualism favored by scientists who are not wholesale devotees of materialism (the idea that the only real things are measurable things).

The Bible is dualistic.  Body and soul are mentioned many places.  While body and soul were not to be separated, they can be.  I am both my body and my soul.  Hence, the promise of the resurrection of the body and not just an eternal heavenly separation of the soul from this world.

In one passage, Hebrews 4:12, a third category is introduced.  It states, “(the Word of God is) Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even is dividing soul and spirit…”  The words soul and spirit are clearly not synonyms here.  To what do they refer?   “Soul” in Greek is psyche.  “Spirit” is pneuma.  We use these roots in many words, but do we understand what the writer meant, and do these words relate to what we have learned about the brain?

Materialists want us to believe that our whole experience of consciousness is merely brain chemistry.  They point to the fact that electrical stimulation of certain parts of the brain can give us sensory and emotional experiences.  They also refer to imaging from PET scans that show brain activity in certain parts of the brain for any conscious experience.  True materialist devotees then extend this connection to a form of fatalism, suggesting that we have no freewill of any form.  Our bodies simply do what our brain chemistry makes us do, and brain chemistry is strictly cause and effect according to the laws of physics.  It’s the perfect excuse.  “Was I speeding, officer?  I couldn’t help it my brain made me speed.”

Besides being morally absurd and not corresponding at all with our own experience of self, this theory doesn’t explain well the experience of people put in a medically induced coma and cooled down for brain surgery.  They have no PET activity nor access to either their senses or a scientist’s probe, still one Arizona woman experienced being out of her body and accurately described all the activity in the surgical suite.

I personally believe that our brains are the interface between our consciousness and body and not the source of our consciousness.  Our pneuma is something non-physical.  It can experience Heaven or Sheol.  It can even experience the Earth without our bodies in certain conditions.  Our spirit also interfaces with our brains to create chemical and electrical activity (our psyche) driving our body to interact with the world.

Physical death disconnects our pneuma and psyche.  Hebrews 4:12 says God’s Word is powerful enough to kill.  More importantly, it is powerful enough to make alive. We are more than interesting chemistry.  We are a created being with self-awareness for a reason.  We are meant to know ourselves and to know our Creator.  Despite the sin that results in a division of soul and spirit, we have a Savior that values body, soul and spirit and redeems them all.

The Victory that Makes Eternal Life a Reality

We are closing in on another Easter.  For many the meaning will obscured by pretty dresses, candy and the Easter bunny.  These are fun, but we are not merely celebrating Spring.

Easter is a pivotal event for humankind.  Without Easter we have eternal existence but nothing that should be called eternal Life.  Jesus risen from the dead is more than evidence of life after death.  He is the cause.

It may not appear this way to the casual observer, but humans are created to be eternal.  Because of a major screwup on our progenitor’s part, we are all destined to experience the death of our physical body’s.  In fact, we are experiencing it every day as we age.  Our physical death will create a universal but unnatural condition of the separation of our soul (consciousness) and our body.  They were originally designed to be a unit.  This is the least of our problems.  God will exile our conscious self because of our sinfulness.  People have experienced this in Near Death Experiences (NDE) and returned to tell of it.  The Bible describes it in terms of “weeping and gnashing of teeth”.  That exile goes from bad to worse with the advent of Judgment Day when God forsakes us permanently.  It’s bad and we want no part of it.

That’s what makes Jesus’ resurrection such great news and a reason for a truly joyful celebration.  Jesus’ sole mission was to become a sinless human and then fulfill God’s Law’s requirement for the punishment detailed above by himself.  Jesus died without sin and was forsaken by God so that we never have to be.  Because of Jesus there is a way to Heaven and a place for us there.  That’s God’s promise to all who are baptized into Jesus’ death.

You may be skeptical because you typically don’t get a tour before it’s too late.  But prophecy, eyewitnesses of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, the experience of God calling you to faith, and, if you like, many NDEs confirm the story.  The Bible describes life after death with God as “truly life”.  It is as though what we have experienced so far hardly deserves the title of “life”.  In fact, our existence so far may be described in the Bible as the “great tribulation”.

If you would like a further explanation of what the Bible says is coming after death for those who belong to Jesus, please look up some of my previous blog entries on Heaven or the New Earth.  There is much to joyfully anticipate.

Happy Easter.

The Brochure for Hell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The New Earth in Isaiah

The New Earth appears in several passages in the Bible, both in the Old and New Testaments.  One of the weirdest, and hardest to reconcile with the rest of scripture, is found in Isaiah 65:17-25.  I will emphasize that this is my take on this difficult passage and I have more questions than answers.  Prophecy is often purposely unclear.  Some aspects are meant only to be understood when either hindsight or the Holy Spirit unlocks its true meaning.  For prophecies in Isaiah, the mode in which he received them could be a part of the issue.  Isaiah’s prophecies read like verbal descriptions of visions.  Visions that were presented almost like Powerpoint presentations.  What I mean is that one “slide” could be the present, the next Jesus’ first coming, the last Judgment Day; and there is no sense of elapsed time.  Hindsight shows you that there is elapsed time.

With respect to Isaiah 65, Isaiah may be interpreting the vision in terms he and his immediate readers would understand.  We need the rest of scripture to give us “hindsight” into how to understand some the things that he writes.

The section starts with great clarity as to what it is about:

Behold I will create new heavens and a new earth.

This passage is not about Heaven.  It is not about a “millennium”.  It is about a to be created new universe with a new earth.

The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind.

This may make you a little sad.  I don’t think this means that we will forget about our relationships nor that the good God worked through us and for us will be forgotten.  Rather the pain and difficulty inherent in our present time will become a memory that fades away.

But be glad and rejoice forever in what I will create, for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight and its people a joy.  I will rejoice over Jerusalem and take delight in my people; the sound of weeping and of crying will be heard in it no more.

These words stand for themselves, but the next part is where it gets weird.

Never again will there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not live out his years; he who dies at a hundred will be thought a mere youth; he who fails to reach a hundred will be considered accursed.

For people who probably had a life expectancy of 45 years, this might seem like quite an upgrade, but God has promised us “eternal” life.  Verses about eternal life have to inform our understanding here.  Will there be infants and old men?  Living and dying?  Being accursed?  Sin and the wages of sin, should be eliminated with the death of our bodies and the removal of Satan’s kingdom from the system.  No other passage in scripture would lend support to aging, dying, or being accursed.  For this reason, I would have to consider this a literary device, or an interpretation of what Isaiah sees, to make a point–things will be changed for the good.

No longer will they build houses and others live in them, or plant and others eat.  For as the days of a tree, so will the days of my people; my chosen ones will long enjoy the works of their hands.  They will not toil in vain or bear children doomed to misfortune for they will be a people blessed by the LORD, they are their descendants with them.  

Surely they understood that trees die.  But in comparison it must have seemed that certain species lived forever.  A question raised here is whether the reference to children and descendants are also a literary devices.  Maybe.  With resurrected bodies, it is possible that the new earth might include procreation.  A passage in Matthew tells us that “in the resurrection” which means “in the new earth”, that we will be like angels neither married or given in marriage.  Some take the leap to suggest that means we must be asexual in the new earth, but to be honest I don’t know what the angels are like.  If the new earth is a return to Eden in a way, I would have to assume that Adam and Eve were going to procreate with or without the fall into sin.  I think this topic remains a mystery for now.

Before they call I will answer, while they are speaking I will hear.

Like the Garden of Eden, God is there in visible form.  He will live with us.

The wolf and lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox, but dust will be the serpent’s food.  They will not harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.

Some people want to read this metaphorically.  I think it is probably quite straight forward.  God’s plan is to redeem creation, not just people.  While there is no reference to nature in Heaven, there is a reference here.  Also like the Garden of Eden it is a death-free system without predators.  A place of beauty and of peace.  Could our pets be a part of this “nature”?  We will see.

 

Our Oversimplification of Life After Death

Most people, if they believe in life after death at all, would subscribe to a basic Heaven for all or a Heaven and Hell model.  They would also believe the Bible supports these models.  It seems too few understand that the resurrection of the body leads not to Heaven but to a New Earth.  Why is this so?  I have even found pastors not clear about this.

The teaching that post-Judgment Day the saved will inhabit a New Earth is well attested in the Bible.  You can find it in Isaiah 65, 2 Peter 3 and Revelation 21 and 22.  This blog will eventually get around to each of these.  For now, I just want to ponder why were we taught that we will go to Heaven forever.

I starts way back with the first century church.  The Greek idea of the afterlife was a strongly “spirit only” model.  The body was seen as corrupt and worthless and had no part in life after death.  The Jewish understanding was different.  It was focused on the resurrection of the body.  Old ideas can die hard, and for quite a while the Church had to fight a Greek heresy called Gnosticism.  While repudiated, Gnosticism subtly had its influence just as the Greek worldview affected the thinking of Western culture.  Those influences and the scarcity of Bibles to read and for that matter the ability to read gave the common Christian the idea that Heaven was the end goal.  Even the presence of “the resurrection of the body” in the creeds didn’t dissuade people.  They just assumed that the resurrected body was made for Heaven.

Plenty of the Church fathers understood about the New Earth.  In fact, that is what is dominately talked about with respect to the afterlife.  Some question whether the hope of Heaven is biblical.  Heaven does show up in the Bible, however.  It is not part of Old Testament teaching as a destination for people most likely because God didn’t reveal it as a possibility until after Jesus’ death and resurrection.  The teaching of our having a place in Heaven is found in Luke 18:22, 2 Corinthians 5:1, Philippians 3:20, 1 Peter 5:4 and Revelation 6:9-10, 7:9-17.  In fact the 2 Corinthians passage speaks of “an eternal home in Heaven” which might have led some to conflate Heaven and the New Earth.

The conflation of the doctrines of Heaven and the New heavens and Earth seems to be a particularly big problem during the period of the Enlightenment.  I am not sure why.  That period also gives us a number of our hymns about Heaven.  Try to find a hymn verse about the New Earth in Lutheran Service Book.  There are only a few verses, typically something like verse 8 and 9 which you never sing, about the resurrection of our bodies.  This adds to the ignorance of the Bible’s promise of a New Earth.