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.

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.

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.

Can Hell Be Real if God Is Love?

Everybody would really love it if “Hell” were just a concept and not a real place.  I would have no objections if God announced that all were being saved.  In fact,  I’m even for Hell being a destruction where the damned simply ceased to exist.  That is better than the picture painted in the Bible.  I will say this: beware of believing what you want to believe or rationalizing until you arrive at what you want to believe.  It is best to know what is really out there.

I believe that an eternal Hell is a reality only because the Bible speaks of it frequently.  Jesus himself mentions it often and with great warning.  But if that is the case, how can God claim to be a God of love?

Imagine a judge who is a champion of the legal system and justice.  During his career, he fairly executes the letter and intent of the law.  Then imagine that this judge’s son commits murder.    While most judge’s would recuse themselves from the case, this is a small place and he is the only judge around.  He loves his son.  He also believes and follows the Law.  This judge carries out justice even though it breaks his heart.

God’s law is unambiguous.  The wages of sin is both physical death and permanent alienation from God.  This law applies to Satan and fallen angels.  It also applies to human beings–all of them.  Is it love for God simply to exercise his sovereignty and cancel the Law?  If it is, then this is not the kind of love God has for us.  Instead, God’s love is to send his only Son to become a human being, fulfill the law for human beings, and then on behalf of the whole species suffer the consequence of sin.  This is a more costly, more loving and more just approach.  Unfortunately, many people will never take advantage of this.  They will go to their condemnation because they reject God’s ways and His love.

Don’t think that this doesn’t grieve God.  He doesn’t damn people because He hates them and is eager to punish them, even though human action does provoke Him.  God’s efforts on behalf of our species deserve the title “God is love”.  It is just not a love that compromises with sin.

Christ’s Descent into Hell (Part 5)

One of the reasons that most people have learned very little about Christ’s descent into “hell”, is a reaction to an overreaction about this part of the story in the early Eastern Church.  “Christ’s descent” became the ancient equivalent of a superhero story.  There are stories about Jesus being swallowed by Sheol and in Jonah-like fashion, Sheol vomited out Jesus and everybody else.  You can still get a very popular story of the time on Amazon, The Gospel of Nicodemus.  I read it on Ibooks.  Stupid book, but it was free.  It is about Jesus saving the Old Testament people from Sheol, but all the characters could only say lines that they had said in the Bible.  Anyway, the fiction around this story became so thick that people couldn’t discern fact from fiction.  Augustine expressed this complaint, and that seems to have carried down to the Reformers.

One idea that arose in the Eastern Church and remains to this day is that Christ’s descent was not only to free the Old Testament righteous, but also to bring a saving Gospel to the unrighteous.  This bothers a lot of people.  Some church bodies have expressed doctrines that your destiny is sealed at your death.  Others basically have that same assumption without enshrining it as a doctrine.

Is there anything biblical to say or even suggest this?  One comes shortly after the passage in 1 Peter mentioned earlier in 1 Peter 4:6:

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

The chapter and verse number system was introduced to the Bible during the Reformation period. It is invaluable in helping us find stuff. But sometimes it gets in the way and makes us break up the context of the Bible in our minds. In this case, if you ignore the big number four and let Peter continue his thought, it seems pretty clear that the preaching to the dead referred to in this passage is the same dead Peter spoke of in 3:19. A more literal translation might be: “For this reason, the dead were evangelized”. The verb rendered here as “were evangelized” is what is called an indicative aorist verb. In Greek, this indicates past continuing action. One common interpretation of this verse is that it refers to the evangelization of people while they were living who are now dead, but that doesn’t quite fit the sentence. What is past is the evangelizing, not the people’s lives. What this sentence seems to propose is shocking. It says the dead were evangelized, and almost all of us assume that once you die the opportunity for evangelism is over.

This makes it sound like the preaching was a second chance for people who had disobeyed God during life and had not had an opportunity to hear the promise of salvation. Peter is acknowledging that the disobedience of these people resulted in their judgment—namely death in the flood and thousands of years in the agony of Sheol. But the purpose of this visit from Christ is that they might live in the spirit.

Obviously, this makes us nervous on one hand and relieved on the other. It has always seemed unfair that some would go to Sheol without the benefit of hearing the Gospel in some form, even though they are sinners and knew right and wrong inherently. All humanity deserves the judgment and cannot earn salvation, but cannot God be gracious to whom He chooses when He chooses? Can we say for certain that physical death marks the end of your opportunity to believe and be saved? Judgment Day could be the end of opportunity.

The main biblical objection to this interpretation is found in Hebrews 9:27:

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 are eagerly waiting for him.

This passage is not primarily about whether there is any chance of being saved after physical death, but it does make a statement about dying once with judgment assumed to immediately follow. This passage is essentially saying, “Just like we live and face judgment only once, Christ lived and died once, not over and over again. This would rule out a reincarnation scenario, but can we really say it precludes Jesus reaching out to someone in Sheol. As noted in an earlier blog about Psalm 139, Sheol is not quite yet forsakenness. The timing of the judgment in relation to physical death is not specified in the Hebrews passage. We just assume it to be immediate and final.

In one sense, judgment upon our death is immediate. The dead found themselves in Sheol and not Heaven. That is a judgment. Their residence in Sheol could be for thousands of years. But is it final? If it is final, then is Judgment Day simply perfunctory?  I will say here that I do not know God to be simply perfunctory about anything. Everything has its purpose. Some treat baptism as perfunctory, for example. It isn’t. Baptism has a definite function.

Establishing that Jesus can, did or even does reach out to the lost in Sheol is a radical enough of a suggestion that one needs more than these somewhat obscure passages in 1 Peter. Another possible reference to Jesus liberating even some of the damned in Sheol is Psalm 107.   Once again these words:

He brought them out of darkness and the shadow of death, and burst their bonds apart. Let them thank the Lord for His steadfast love for His wondrous works to the children of man! For He shatters the doors of bronze and cuts in two the bars of iron.

The phrase “doors of bronze” gets frequent use in non-canonical literature as a reference to Sheol. So if this passage applies, and I think it does, it is speaking about the “disobedient” rather than the righteous. Still other passages, namely Isaiah 42:7b and Luke 1:79, speak of “captives”. These passages are inconclusive, however, because they do not specifically say to whom they are referring.

For some early Eastern Church fathers and for the Orthodox Church, the teaching that Jesus preached the Gospel to perhaps save some of the lost or even all of the lost in Sheol is a big piece of their doctrine and liturgical life. They consider it to be simply logical that this process continues to this day. I will say I hope this is right.

Does this teaching do violence to any other understanding or practice within the Church? It certainly seems in line with the mercy and passion of God. It doesn’t necessarily suggest that everyone is saved in the end. We will see in a later entry that people are eternally damned and in great number. Some argue that a loving God couldn’t and wouldn’t damn someone eternally. They don’t understand the unchangeable nature of God’s Law. God clearly does damn people because of the requirements of the Law, but a loving God could pursue someone up until the last possible moment and that last moment may be Judgment Day rather than death.

If Christ did preach the Gospel in order to save in Sheol, wouldn’t everybody there repent and believe? I mean what sort of idiot would decline such an offer after experiencing such suffering? The rich man in Jesus’ story of Lazarus seems open to a change. Still, we might be surprised. Saving faith is not the result of even overwhelming proof. Faith is the gift of God to people who are able to receive it.

Whether Christ was giving the disobedient in Sheol a chance to hear the Gospel and believe is hard to concretely determine. At best, we can say that it is possible. This shouldn’t rob us of any motivation to share the Gospel among the living. People suffer in Sheol. If we care, we would want them to avoid this. If people become disciples while still living they can carry out their God-given purpose and even realize reward for it. We are rewarded for our faithfulness in this regard. Beyond this both love and Christ’s command compels us.