Grief

Death isn’t meant to be celebrated.  It only exists as the wages of sin.  The body wasn’t initially created to be mortal.  When humanity essentially rejected God, the results of their actions introduced a biology that could die.  We’ve been dying ever since.  To die and have your body undergoing decay, even if your conscious soul is somewhere much better, is a consequence that is tragic.

It is right to grieve.  Many people want their funeral to be a celebration of their life.  Even more, for a Christian, we want it to be a celebration of the fact that we are liberated from our sinful nature and from a body under God’s curse.  But if we were valuable at all to the people we left behind, there will be grief.

How can we survive grief?  The victory over grief starts with an understanding of your own God-given purpose.  Life isn’t the prize.  Life is the time of accomplishing God’s plan for you.  As we navigate through this world, we are blessed to have people we love and who support us on our way.  They are valuable, but they will all die either before us or after us.  They may be dependable, but we can’t depend on them absolutely, because they are mortal.  We must depend on God.  Perhaps through a part of your journey, God will be the only one you have on which to depend.

The second necessary ingredient to surviving grief is hope.  This should be the understanding that you will have eternal life with God through Jesus.  All of life’s losses are temporary.  At least their impact is temporary.  When we leave this life ourselves we will leave behind every loss.  A clear certainty that we have eternal life and that we have a God-given purpose takes most of the sting of grief away.  The rest heals as we walk with God.  Jesus died so that you can have that hope, that reality.  What He has for you will overwhelm all sense of loss.

This is true even if we have reason to doubt that the person we are grieving has been saved.  While we live, we want to do whatever is possible to bring the Gospel of Jesus to those we know and love.  That doesn’t mean that they will believe it.  It is wrong to absolutely judge a person as damned.  You can’t always see what God has managed to do in the soul of a person.  Still, you might have a pretty good idea that there was no connection with Jesus from the words and actions of the person.  I have that situation personally.  I could be wrong.  I hope I am wrong.  What I have found is that God has given me peace.

Unexpected, tragic death can put an extra dimension on grief.  We recently had the tragic death of a beautiful young woman in our congregation.  Her loss is a grievous loss for her parents and the community.  There are many layers to pain that people are feeling, too.  There is grief, guilt, anger, confusion.  In addition to the self-understanding and hope mentioned above, a person needs to talk through their pain and experience the love of those around them.  They need to forgive and be forgiven.  And they need to reimagine life without her.  In this case, that life includes an eventual reunion, thanks to Jesus.

If we get stuck in grief, if we tell ourselves we will never get over this, then we might not.   Grief hurts.  But not progressing through grief does not honor the person you lost, nor does it serve God, nor does it help you.  Be determined to get beyond grief.  It is possible.

Preparing to Die

For sake of full disclosure, I have never died before, but I have observed the process many times.  We may get close and cheat death a couple of times, but even that experience wouldn’t necessarily give you insight helpful to all.

So for what it is worth, this is how I would recommend approaching your impending death, based on the Bible and observation.  The first thing I encourage is for you to talk about dying, if you can.  People try to avoid the subject at all costs.  This is foolish, we all have to die and most likely will all mourn.  What should you talk about?

Mend Fences if Possible  If there are hard feelings or misunderstandings between you and anyone, take the initiative to talk, forgive and repent.  Don’t let pride or stubbornness ruin this for you.  If you must agree to disagree, then do so peaceably.

Express Your Love  Some of us are not good at stating our love for others.  People need to hear this in words.  Say it.  It will mean much to those who will mourn your passing.

Don’t Extract Promises  Guilt trips should not be your legacy.  You may express desires, but don’t twist arms, issue threats or have others make vows that they may not be able to keep.

Share Your Fears  Are you afraid of death or the process of dying?  Tell somebody.  There is no shame in this and it will help.  You don’t have to tell everybody, but share with someone you trust.

Express Your Confidence  Has God given you a strong faith in Jesus’ saving power?  Then make sure that everybody knows.  Be gentle, they may not be at the same place spiritually, but this is your last chance at making a strong witness to people who really matter to you.  Consider even writing a witness to be read at your funeral or doing a video to be shown there.

Support Those Who Are Taking It Hard  Hopefully, people will miss you.  Express your confidence in their ability to carry on.  Remind them of the promise of eternal life and emphasize that you can be together again in Heaven.

Beyond talking to others, make prayer a vital part of your dying process.  Jesus died for your sins so that you can be with Him.  That relationship is about to take a big step, so anticipate that step by praising God, thanking God for things in your life, confessing your sins and asking for His intercession in situations you will leave behind.

If you do struggle physically in the last days or hours, don’t be surprised or interpret the situation as  God’s punishment.  Death is the result of sin.  It isn’t meant to be easy, but because of grace, it is only temporary.  God can bring you safely home.

Our Dependence on Revelation

What happens after our death is terribly relevant to us all.  After all, we are all going to die.  It is not like to get to try it out first to see if we like it, at least not usually.  We approach death blind with the exception of what we know from revelations.  Science, our normal go to, is limited here.  It would tell us that nothing happens, but if certain revelation is correct, then science doesn’t have the tools to test it.

How can you know?  We have purported revelation from every world religion and we also have NDEs (Near Death Experiences) to consider.   NDEs tend to not be consistent.  There could be many reasons for this, from people not having the words to relate their experience, to genuinely different experiences (like heaven or hell), to deceptive experiences, to NDEs not being legitimate experiences of an afterlife at all. In the end, NDEs can be exciting but they don’t provide much guidance except, perhaps, for the person who had one.

What weight can we give to the revelations provided by world religions?  How do you test them?  If there is not only God trying to communicate with mankind, but also an enemy of God trying to confuse mankind, then we are in a difficult spot.  Who are we to sort it out?

I think of Mary, Joseph and Zechariah who all experience an encounter with the angel Gabriel.  Their information would lead us in a very different direction than the reported encounter of Muhammad and Gabriel some 600 years later.  How would any of these people know for sure who they were dealing with, and how would we know whether the events happened at all?  Without a doubt, we will be biased by where we start–if raised Christian, then Christian; if Muslim, then Muslim; if skeptic, then skeptical of it all.

I’m sure each group can provide a line of reasoning that is convincing for them.  Only God can get somebody over this hump of bias if they hold a false doctrine.  Since eternal life is on the line, we all desperately pray that God would do so.

My line of reason is clearly Christian.  In full disclosure, that is how I was raised.  I also think that I am rebel enough to leave the orthodoxy of my youth behind if it doesn’t make sense, especially if it matters this much.

The experiences of Zechariah, Mary and Joseph have supporting evidence in prophecies that clearly pre-date them.  The Old Testament is proven to be written before this time by the Dead Sea Scrolls.  These prophecies have a degree of specificity to them that you couldn’t stage for yourself.  The birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, a virgin birth, and the presence of John the Baptist are all in there.  Isaiah 53 in particular aligns with Jesus’ life.  It is not the life of merely a prophet, but the life of a sacrifice for sin.  Then we must consider the story of Jesus’ life, including clear miracles witnessed by many eyewitnesses who have no clear motive to lie.  All of the disciples of Jesus suffered terribly for their testimony.  I don’t believe people would do this if they knew it wasn’t true.  This is capped with the experience and witness of Paul of Tarsus, who was an admitted persecutor of the early Church.

If this is all a fiction, then when was it written and why?  How could such a fiction survive this long without cultural and military support?  Both existing bible fragments and testimony found in non-Christian sources point to existence of the Christian church to within a lifetime of the Jesus’ ministry.  A fiction could not have been written later.

Then there is the message itself.  The message is that God loves mankind, even though, He finds mankind to be sinful and un-saveable based on personal goodness.  So, God’s solution is to fulfill the requirements of the law that governs us and pay the price for the sin himself, by Jesus’ being forsaken and then dying on the cross.  That is love.  Self-sacrifice for the benefit of others is the ultimate love.  That action correlates with what the Old Testament hinted as the plan from the beginning.

Islam changes that plan.  It cannot conceive of God doing something like this or even a prophet being subjected to something like this.  So which is the deception?  Did the disciples of Jesus distort the story or was the story distorted within Islam from the very beginning because “Gabriel” wasn’t really “Gabriel”?  In the end, Islam offers only a legalized way of life and the vague hope that Allah is merciful to you.  It has largely advanced itself through conquest.  It doesn’t shy away from doing so.  Even Muhammed was treated abusively by this so called Gabriel.

We are in a poor position to judge, but the little clues just mentioned make me think that the God who cares about His creation isn’t the one who gave revelation to Muhammed.  Jesus, as Savior of the world, is the revelation for me.

 

 

Fearing Death

As a pastor, I have been around death more than the average person.  The experience can vary considerably, but it is never pretty.  Our physical death is part of the wages of sin.  Theoretically, it is something that should never happen, but because of sin it is something that always happens.

Our bodies are geared up to fight in order to continue living.  Consequently,  we often struggle those last few hours.  For many it is most visible in belabored breathing.  I would hate to drown, so struggling to breath is not something I covet. My mother had a dying process that took several days.  I was there for the last three. In the midst of this process, she awoke from a semi-comatose state and said, “I haven’t done anything wrong.”  I asked what she meant.  She was confused as to why death took so long.  She thought maybe she was being punished.

Fear of the process is not the only thing.  In fact, the process is a minor thing.  Morphine can get you through that.  Fear of what is next is the major thing.  Everyone has some angst over the unknown.  We only die once so we can’t claim direct experience.  That is where the promises of God and the description of eternal life come in.  A strong faith can make you fearless.  God is trustworthy and Jesus is the cause of our salvation, so we can simply let go without fear that we need to do something.  That kind of faith takes some time to develop, however.  Most people are a little scared, and that is OK.  Saving faith is not the same thing as absolute, fearless confidence.  Saving faith is a connection that God alone can make between you and Jesus.  It is spiritual, not intellectual or emotional.  Saving faith can produce an intellectual trust that makes you strong through the process of death.  It is a great witness and a source of joy, but not a prerequisite to being saved.

If you have somebody who is dying and they are a baptized child of God and still they are afraid of death, talk to them about Heaven, remind them about Jesus, and assure them that not only will Jesus see them through the process of death, so will you.  I talk about Heaven the same way I would talk about a pending vacation of a lifetime.  It’s exciting.  It is–like no other experience.  There comes a time to stop talking about recovery and to stop holding on to this life.  Let a person know that things will be fine for the survivors.  Give them permission to leave.  And get them exciting about where they are going.

I’ve seen some of my own parishioners go from “wide-eyed scared” to at peace and happy.  They should be.  Thanks to Jesus we all can be.

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.

What Will We Be Like in Heaven?

In the course of this blog, I have covered the topics of Sheol, Heaven, Judgment Day, dying, Christ’s descent into Sheol, the Resurrection, the New Earth and Hell.  Use the search box to find any of these topics and more, if you didn’t see the entries as they came out.  We have been on the topic of Hell for awhile, in honor of All Saints Day, which is November 1, let’s go back to the topic of Heaven.

1 John 3:2 raises a question worth thinking about:

Dear friends, now we are the children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known.  But we know that when He appears, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.

What will we be like when we pass from this world, if our destination is Heaven?  As the text suggests, there is a lot we don’t know about that topic.  We will be whatever a glorified human being is like, because Jesus is still both God and human.  While we don’t know much about this, we can say some things.  The first set is more about what we will not be like.

We won’t have a sinful nature anymore.  Our sinful nature is a part of our flesh and we will leave that behind for the time being.  That changes many things.  All our tendencies toward selfishness, anger, lust, sloth, greed, addiction and whatever other sin will be gone.  We may remember what those are, but we won’t feel it.  For the first time ever, we will be able to control our tongue.  We will also have God’s love for others saturating our every moment.  Just think of the fantastic relationships we will have with the other people in Heaven!  Even if we had been conflicted with somebody, if they are saved, there will be a whole new, beautiful relationship with them in Heaven.

Assuming that there will be millions of humans, let alone angels, in Heaven, I wonder who we will know and how much we will relate.  At the Transfiguration, Peter, James and John see and know Moses and Elijah.  There doesn’t seem to be introductions.  I doubt if there were name tags.  They just seem to know who they are.  I think we will just know people.  We will know those who were a part of our lives on Earth and we will know others we had never met.

Our existence in Heaven will not be a ghostly, immaterial existence.  Paul speaks of a “heavenly body” in 1 Corinthians 15.  He is not referring to a planet nor is he referring to somebody who is sexy.  There is a body we will have that is properly a part of Heaven.  It is not our resurrected, earthly body for that is properly a part of this universe.  What will this body be like or look like?  I don’t know.  It may resemble you in some way, it may not.  It may be a set “age”, it may not.  Expect an improvement, however, for another thing we can say about Heaven is that there will be no “curse”.

The Curse is spoken of in Revelation and refers all the way back to the Garden of Eden.  It is responsible for such misery as sickness, aging, accidents, natural disasters, boredom and the frustration that goes inherently with this world.  The way I like to describe the curse is God taking a step back from the controls.  If God didn’t maintain some control, we would all just dissolve into non-existence.  The Bible says, Jesus “holds all things together”.  But with the rejection of God by Adam and Eve, it seems that God relinquished His control of creation in part.  The result is what I listed above.  In Heaven, God takes back control, and that is a good thing.

Now we can ask many more questions.  Do we eat, sleep, work, or poop?  I suspect the answer is yes, but I don’t know for sure.  Is there something like sex? What is the experience of time like?  Is there really no beer in Heaven, or is that just the words to a polka?  We will have to wait on all of that, but what we do know should make you think.  You should imagine past the end of life, because the “hope” we have is not wishful thinking.  It is a certainty based on the promise of God.

The Destiny of Satan

It is a classic picture, found in sources as diverse as Renaissance art and The Far Side, to see the damned trapped in Hell with Satan and demons.  Some of that art seems to suggest that Satan and demons somewhat enjoy it.  They are captives not masters.  Don’t depend on artists or cartoonists to be biblically correct.  The Pre-Judgment Day destination of the damned (Sheol, Hades) has no mention of the presence of Satan or any fallen angel.  The Post-Judgment Day destination of the damned (Hell) does.  We have already seen one quick reference in Matthew 25:41.  The other two are in Revelation.

But the beast was captured, and with him the false prophet who had performed the miraculous signs on his behalf.  With these signs he had deluded those who had received the mark of the beast and worshiped his image.  The two of them were thrown alive into the fiery lake of burning sulfur.    Revelation 19:20

Though the word “Gehenna” is not used in this paragraph, the “lake of fire” would seem to be an obvious reference to the same place.  Where is this place?  No information is given.  With possibly this one exception, it doesn’t seem to be a destination for any human prior to Judgment Day.  The fact the beast (possibly a powerful demon not Satan) and his false prophet go there Pre-Judgement Day, may suggest that Hell exists already somewhere.  The classic ideas of Hell as being at the core the Earth are both the product of confusing it with Sheol and the ancients not having any information about it.  If I were to guess, I would guess Hell is in some dimensional space completely segregated from either Heaven or Earth.  Hell’s distinction is not the endless fire, but rather it is its absence from the presence of God.  It is forsaken.

The other reference to the “lake of fire” happens in Revelation 20:7-10:

When the thousand years are over, Satan will be released from his prison and will go out to deceive the nations in the four corners of the earth- Gog and Magog- to gather them for battle.  In the number they are like the sand of the seashore.  They marched across the the breadth of the earth and surrounded the camp of  God’s people, the city he loves.  But fire came down from heaven and devoured them.  And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and false prophet had been thrown.  They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.

For some reason not shared with us, Satan is allowed a short time of being at full power, and he uses his time to drag a large segment of humanity down with him.  God thwarts his effort to attack those who remain true to God and then Satan is pitched into the lake of fire, also Pre-Judgement Day, but just barely.  His confinement and torment are then permanent.

Judgment Day then commences in Revelation 20 with this conclusion:

Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire.  The lake of fire is the second death.  If anyone’s name is not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.

Hades is a place not a person.  What is death?  Death is a sentence.  It is a sentence pronounced by God’s Law that the unforgiven human must be separated from God forever.  The movement of death to Hell is a victory for the forgiven human but it is the consummation of the Law for the sinner.  Everyone whose name is not found in the Book of Life, which would be everyone not connected to Jesus, is thrown into the lake of fire with a resurrected and indestructible body and soul.  The torment is both physical, by fire, and spiritual by being forsaken by God.

As Jesus said, you really don’t want to end up here.  Jesus gave himself so you don’t have to.