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.

How Many Will Be Saved?

It’s hard to say how many people have lived since the beginning.  Population growth suggests that a large chunk of those who have ever lived are still alive now.  Add to it those who died in the womb and you have a very large number.  But how many will be saved in the end and how many will be damned?  Speculation varies from a rather small number saved to everyone.  Let’s look at the few Scriptural clues we have.

Let’s start with my least favorite verse in the Bible, Matthew 7:13-14:

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.  For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.

“Few” and “many” are relative terms.  At minimum, this passage suggests that a minority find life.  Is this passage about eternal life or just living properly?  I think its wording suggests, at minimum, that destruction refers to entering Sheol.  It probably is speaking about entering Hell, but let’s leave that open for now.

Many argue that a loving God could not possibly damn anyone.  While that seems logical, two passages you must consider on the topic are Matthew 25:41 and as an explanation John 3:19-20:

Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the fire prepared for the devil and his angels.

And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and the people loved darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.

My main point is that a verdict of damnation is spoken to a significant population of human beings.  This happens despite the giving of Jesus (the light) and the promise of forgiveness of sins and eternal life.  Many just prefer evil and they get the consequence of unforgiven evil.

Without Jesus there is no forgiveness.  Without forgiveness there is no Heaven or New Earth.  If the “destruction” referred to in Matthew 7 is Hell, then those “on the left” are a majority of mankind, and there is no way to tell how large of a majority.  If it refers only to “Sheol” then there is a small hope that it could be less, depending on the meaning of 1 Peter 4:6:

For this is why the Gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does.

This is an enigmatic passage without other Scripture to help to clarify it.  It comes in the context of Peter speaking about the descent of Jesus to speak to “spirits in prison”.  Does it tell of the Gospel being preached successfully in Sheol?  Let’s hope so, but let’s also preach the Gospel like this is our only chance.

In the end, whether a minority or not, a large and diverse population of humanity makes it to Heaven.  Revelation 7:9 describes it this way:

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out in a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

Jesus’ self-sacrifice, the “narrow door”, results in the salvation of a great multitude.  Let’s work so as to make it greater.

Why Did God Even Create the Damned?

One question has always bothered me.  It is the question I will grapple with in this blog.  As time goes on, more and more people are saved by Christ; but this number pales in comparison to the number of those lost eternally.  If God truly loves mankind, wouldn’t He bring an end to the world just to stop the bleeding?

Of course, that reasoning would have ended creation at the very beginning.  God’s people have always been a remnant (a minority).  The love of God for mankind is a love for all.  Jesus died for all.  Through Jesus’ death atonement has been made that, at least theoretically, could cover the sins of every person.  It is the persistent rejection of such a great sacrifice and love that makes the judgment of eternal death just in God’s eyes,  not just the people’s sins or their sinful nature.

It is a wrong conclusion to think that God created certain people to be damned.  Yes, certain people in history were the unlucky people to play infamous roles: Pharoah, Judas, Pontius Pilate to name a few.   But what we are is not just the product of God’s creation.  We are God’s creation plus a distortion that dates all the way back to Adam and Eve.  On top of that, we are partially the product of our environment or our reaction to our environment, and I would include Satan as a part of our environment.  All these factors create a wide array of people.  None of us can choose God all by ourselves. God must do something to open us to Him.  But it seems that many remain closed regardless.

It is my conclusion from the information in the Bible that God can know all of human history and know every human heart.  He knew or could know everyone’s potential reaction to Jesus before anyone came into being.  Jesus said,

Enter through the narrow gate.  For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.  But small is the gate that leads to life, and only a few find it.  (Matthew 7:13-14)

Jesus knew that many have and would enter into destruction.  Is God indifferent about this or is He grieved?

In a very interesting and confusing passage in Genesis 6:6, God expressed regret for creating mankind.  It would seem that God does not always use His foreknowledge if He can experience regret.  It doesn’t seem like a stretch, then, to conclude that God grieves the loss of so many even though He considers their sentence just.

It is impossible for us to know all that has gone into God’s decisions.  We can’t even relate to what it is like to be God.  It is certainly different than our frame of reference.  Consequently, I can’t say why God didn’t or doesn’t cut His losses with mankind.  What I do know is that God wants more to be saved.  That is the motivation for His patience.  All else remains a mystery.

Can You Tell a Person’s Destiny?

Knowing what happened to somebody who died, or knowing what will likely happen to somebody when they die are two pieces of information we can greatly desire.  Sometimes you want to know because you care.  Sometimes you want to know because you want to minister to them appropriately.  Sometimes that knowledge would help you to grieve.

But can you know?  Jesus urges us not to judge in Matthew 7:1.  This command is especially relevant here, because there are many factors that could lead to the wrong conclusion.  Here are a few:

One cannot determine a person’s eternal destiny based on how they died.  It is common to view a peaceful death that is well anticipated as a superior sign over a violent, unexpected death.  But the cause of death says nothing about a person’s eternal destiny.  Jesus confronted this popular misperception when a tower that was under construction collapsed.  People concluded that the workers who died must have been worse “sinners” than others.  Jesus put us all in the same boat.

Nor can we conclude anything based on experiences as one dies.  Some have visions of Heaven.  Some express nothing at all.  My own mother had the experience of “falling” as she was dying.  Sheol isn’t actually down and Heaven is actually up.  So experiences of going up or down are just caused by the failing of the brain.  In my next blog entry, I plan to start to address Near Death Experiences.  While both experiences of Sheol and experiences of Heaven occur, also in the mix are intentional deceptions by Satan.

One cannot make an absolute judgment based on behavior.  When we are connected to Jesus and saved from our sins the Holy Spirit does change us for the good.  This change of qualities and increase in love should be observable.  But even saved people continue to struggle with sinful nature.  As such, the progress of our sanctification (being made into somebody good in our actions) can be slowed with periods of digression along the way.  Don’t get sucked into the “good enough” evaluation.  We are not saved by our deeds.  We are saved by Christ’s deeds.  While good works are valuable, they are neither the source of salvation nor a trustworthy way to evaluate whether somebody is saved.

One cannot make an absolute judgment based on whether a person’s faith is unwavering.  Ephesians 2:8 says we are saved by grace through faith.  This sentence uses the word “faith” to describe a connection that God makes between us and Jesus.  That type of “faith” can produce the “faith” that is certainty in what is unseen but promised by God.

Many solid disciples of Jesus can have frightening doubts as they approach death.  It is common.  You are not saved by your certainty.  You are saved by Jesus.  So do not get sucked into the “faith enough” evaluation either.  Comfort a dying person who is afraid.  Don’t beat them into believing better as if that were possible to do.

In the end, judgment is God’s business alone. Our ministry to the dying should be one of sharing and reaffirming God’s promises of grace.  Our “self-evaluation” can be this simple three-question quiz: 1.  Did Jesus really die and rise again?  Yes or no. 2.  Did God promise eternal life to all who call on Jesus?  Yes or no. 3  Is God a liar?   If you can answer yes, yes, no, it is because God chose you and gave you those answers.

Any other circumstantial evidence should kept at arm’s length.  It probably doesn’t mean anything.

Holy Week and Life After Death

For many, Holy Week is a forgotten celebration.  The only remnant of it left in their lives is Easter, and Easter is nothing more than a celebration of Spring and a chance for kids to get candy for some reason.  Talk about missing the boat.

The events of Holy Week are not only historical, they are critical to any of us having life after death versus suffering after death.  Jesus had to do what He did or God’s Law would scoop everyone of us up and drop us in the same bucket with the most evil people who ever lived and Satan himself.  We are all sinners.  Something had to be done about that.  Holy Week is the celebration of the fact that somebody did.

In his life, Jesus did many miraculous and beautiful things.  He fed thousands of people, healed many sick, freed many from demons, gave us clearer insight on God and life after death, laid out a morality based on love and more.  None of these were his main purpose, however.  He was born the way he was (from a virgin mother) so that he could fulfill God’s Law on behalf of the whole species and so that he could bear the required punishment for the sin of all mankind.  To do this he had to be sinless.

The Bible says that we are all born sinful–altered from how God created humans and resulting our in being selfish and hostile to God.  Jesus’ unusual birth allowed him to be without our genetic deformities.  His life stayed within the bounds of God’s Law.  Making Jesus the only sinless human since the beginning.  This is why there is no alternative path to eternal life.  There is only Jesus.  Jesus said of the way to Heaven, “I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me.”

For God, sin demands death.  This is more complicated than it seems on the surface.  Our life includes our physical body which easily becomes non-functioning and decays away; but it also includes our (mind, consciousness, soul).  This is not caused by our physical body.  It interacts with our physical body.  This aspect of ourselves God has made to be eternal.  Death for our soul constitutes being forsaken/exiled from God, and it is miserable.  Such a thing could happen anywhere, but the plan of how this judgment is to be executed is to resurrect/recreate an indestructible body for all and to cast both that body and our soul into Hell.

That sounds harsh, but it seems appropriate when you understand that it takes the rejection of an enormously costly rescue attempt by Jesus.  Jesus was forsaken and physically died for us that first Holy Week.  His voluntary sacrifice makes a whole different narrative possible.

It seems strange to us that one person’s actions could potentially result in the satisfaction of a condemning law for all people.  That isn’t our idea of fairness.  But if you understand that one person’s decision (pick Adam or Eve) resulted in a modification of our DNA to make us sinful, and that this was inherited by everyone; the idea seems less out there.  Jesus was doing what needed to be done to save the people he loved.

If you still celebrate Holy Week, celebrate it again with a fresh appreciation of how much those events have changed your life and eternity.  If you are skeptical or unsure of such things, I exhort you to read one the Gospels’ accounts of Jesus’ death and ask God to keep your sinful nature in check if possible.  Perhaps you will see this story through a different set of “eyes” and understand that God is real, He loves you, and the road to eternal life in joy has been cleared for you by Jesus.

 

 

 

You Are Dust and to Dust You Shall Return

The title of this blog are the words we say when applying the ash cross on the forehead of a person on Ash Wednesday.  Which is today.  It is a reminder of something, of which we strangely need to be reminded:  We will die.

Death can seem to be surreal.  We re-spawn in video games.  For all the violence seen on TV, we really don’t look at death but for a moment.  It has the effect of de-sensitizing us about our mortality, more than making us aware of it.  Death happens in hospitals and nursing homes and behind police tape.  Most of us don’t see it nearly enough.

But without a doubt, we will die.  Even if we live to be very old, it will come for us faster than we ever imagined.

Remembering that we will die is important.  It forces us to confront what will come next.  If makes us consider what is the purpose of this brief life we live on Earth.  If we don’t consider that we will die, will we really live correctly?

The Ash Wednesday ritual doesn’t just speak morbid reality at us, and put a black mark on our heads.  The mark is in the shape of a cross.  Ironically, a cross was originally a form of torturous capital punishment.  But God used it to creatively fulfill an unbreakable law on the behalf of everyone who would be connected to Christ.  Jesus was forsaken so that we would not have to be.  The result is eternal life with God.

Yes.  I will die.  My body still has to die and is built to die.  But I won’t have to be exiled from the one source of all good.  More than that, my body, which will decay away, will be resurrected by the power of God.  That is His promise.  It is regrettable that death is a process I must endure.  My sin makes this so.  But Jesus Christ has created a real solution to my dilemma.  Death no longer has permanent power over me.  In fact, I kind of look forward to it.  The best part of my existence is on the other side.

Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent, and, yes, it is a little dark.  But it is a darkness with a very bright light that is following it.  With a black, ugly, ashen cross smeared on my forehead, I am remind and I proclaim that I am dust; but I am dust that will rise again.

If you are in the area and read this today, we invite you to our Ash Wednesday services.  At Redeemer, Evansville, they are at noon and 6pm at 1811 Lincoln Avenue.  At Redeemer, Newburgh the service will be at 6pm at 7811 Oak Grove Road, up on the hill on the south side of the road.

Faith Enough?

If questioned, many people would agree that Heaven is real.  Many of those would also agree that they believe that Jesus is their Savior and that we are saved by faith not by works.

A problem can exist in our understanding of what “faith” is?  Is “faith” synonymous with “trust” or “confidence”.  If so, how much “faith” is enough?  There is a reason why God takes into His hands almost every element of our salvation.  If we are left in charge, we mess it up.

I’ve been with many faithful people who have become suddenly terrified when they found out that they were in the process of dying.  New things are scary, right?  We don’t practice dying.  Do their doubts and fears constitute a lack of saving faith?

I’ve met many others from non-Lutheran denominations that have participated in many altar calls.   Each time they were convicted that they hadn’t truly believed in the past.  Do they believe enough now?

I would contend that the Bible uses the word “faith” in more than one way.   Sometimes “faith” does mean “trust” or something close to that.  That is where you get the definition-like verse Hebrews 11:1

Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.  This is what the ancients were commended for.

In the remainder of that chapter, that is what “faith” means.  It can also mean something like “religion”, as in 1 Timothy 4:1, “in later times some will abandon the faith.”  But when Paul says  in Ephesians 2:8, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God, so that no one can boast”, does “faith” mean either of these?

Remove the church-speak and here is the Bible’s message.  We are saved by what Jesus did.  He lived as a representative of the human race and kept God’s law for us all.  On the cross, He experienced the punishment for sin for us by being forsaken by His Father. Next, Jesus working through the Holy Spirit creates a connection between you and Himself.  This connection is not cognitive.  It is something harder to explain, something deeper.  This is what Ephesians 2:8 is calling “faith”.  This connection can only be made by God.  It is “not of yourself”.  It is a “gift of God”.  So when Paul says you are saved through “faith” and James says, “what good is it..if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds”, they are not creating a dichotomy between what you think versus what you do; they are showing the difference between what God does and the proof that God has done it.  Follow me?

You are saved by what God has done for you.  Jesus is the cause.  Being saved produces certain signs, at least usually.  Confidence and trust are signs.  Good deeds are signs.  These are the effects of being saved by God.  Effects are nice.  They build confidence.  They give a good witness.  But they do not save you.  Jesus saves you. So if you are facing death and you have fears or are a little uncertain, this does not mean you don’t have faith enough to be saved.  Less than stellar proof of being connected to Jesus has many causes:  mental health, our sinful nature, blood sugar level, intelligence or lack thereof and more.  If you beleive the Gospel, live like you do.  God knows who are His.  Your certainty must come not from whether you have faith enough but rather on Jesus being enough.