What happens when we die? Is there a way to know? In this post we are fact-checking phrases about salvation and the afterlife:
- We’re all God’s children.
- We need people to pray the Sinners’ Prayer.
- Jesus wants to live in your heart.
- I’m so sorry for your loss. Heaven must have needed another angel.
First, let’s consider the phrase: We’re all God’s children.
When I am writing these posts I have typed the phrase into a Google Image search just to see what results I get. Sometimes I get a background picture that is useful. I also often get surprising results. When I typed the phrase, “We are all God’s Children” into the search bar, I discovered that a lot of people have been quoted as saying it. Dolly Parton. Supreme Court Justice Brett Cavanaugh. Politician JC Watts. I wonder what they mean?
When we say, “We are all God’s children,” who is “we”? All Christians? Or all people everywhere? And what do we mean by “children”? Are we simply talking about the theological principle that God is the creator, and in that sense he is the father of all?
It could be that the person making this statement is not talking at all about salvation and eternal family, but simply about the biblical teaching that all humans are created in the image of God. That is found Genesis 1:26, when God says, “Let us make man in our image and in our likeness.”
In that sense all humans everywhere are created by God, made in his image, and therefore have equal value. So there is a real way, and this is not just symbolic, in which we Christians can say that all humans are God’s children. In God’s eyes we are all equally precious and valuable. Even ISIS fighters, even child rapists, even your jerk neighbor, arrogant coworker, difficult family member or bully classmate. Even the person sitting on the other side of your church’s worship space that you have a hard time with. All are equals in God’s view.
But there is a Christian understanding of the family of God that is unique to Christian theology. Jesus and his followers taught that there is a family of God that not everyone is a part of.
In the Old Testament the Israelites were called the Children of God, which we saw in the Deuteronomy series. Deuteronomy 14:1, for example, says that Israel were “the children of the Lord their God.” But that was not a label that applied to all people at that time. Israel had a special relationship with God. They were in a covenant relationship.
In the New Testament we read that God has entered into a new covenant with the church, and thus God created a new family identity that people can be a part of. But again, not all humans are automatically a part of this new family.
In John 1:1-14, John uses symbolic language to describe Jesus. First he calls Jesus “The Word” and then he calls Jesus “The Light.” Notice what John says in verse 7. He says that John, and here he is talking about another John, John the Baptist, came to testify concerning this Light, so that through the Light, “all men might believe.” As he describes the new family, John is making an important point here: clearly God wants all humanity to be a part of his family.
Continuing the discussion, John says that the Light gives light to every man. There again, God’s intent is to reach all humanity. Every man means “every person.” Then in verses 10-11, John tells us that Jesus came into the world, to his own. Who were his own? They are the people of Israel, the people with whom God had a covenant, which we learned in Deuteronomy. But there is a problem: those people, his family, the Jews, did not receive him, John tells us. Thus God decided to create a new family, and a new way to become part of the family.
Look at verses 12-13. John says that though the Jews did not receive Jesus, it is still possible to receive him and believe in him, and become part of his family. We can become children of God. Clearly John says that this new family is not about human genetics, or natural childbirth. The Old Covenant was like that. You were a part of the Old Covenant as a Jew because you were genetically Jewish. In the New Covenant, anyone can be part of God’s family, anyone can become a child of God, by receiving and believing in Jesus.
One biblical metaphor for this is adoption. We can be adopted into God’s family. I’ve been at three adoption ceremonies over the last few years, and they are amazing. There is incredible joy when a child becomes part of a family! I sat in the courtroom three times just weeping with gratefulness. Much in the same, that is what God has done for us!
Let me reiterate. God loves all. Consider John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.” Also consider what Paul taught in 1 Timothy 2:4, that God wants all to be saved. That 1 Timothy passage is so interesting because of its larger context. In verse 1 he urges Christians to pray for and give thanksgiving for all people, even for kings and all those in authority. Who was the king in authority when Paul wrote this? The emperor Nero, who savagely persecuted Christians. If you ever think that you can’t stand leaders in our country or other countries, imagine living in a country where the leader butchers Christians. Pray for him? Yup, Paul, says, because God desires that all would be saved! Even those we hate.
But will all be saved? We hold to the traditional teaching (as found in the EC Articles of Faith) of eternal destiny, that says not all will be saved. But God has loved us enough to make a way to be adopted into his family. He has made a choice available. The way to be saved came at the great cost of Jesus’ becoming one of us, giving his life for us. So in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, God shows us that he is willing to go to extraordinary lengths to reach out to us because he desperately wants us to be a part of his family.
I recently heard a story about a man who grew up Muslim in Europe. He said that he had a dream where Jesus came to him and called him to follow Jesus. The man decided to follow Jesus. You need to know the ramifications of that man’s decision. This man’s choice to follow Jesus meant that while he was becoming part of God’s family, he faced being shunned and threatened by his own earthly family. But he received Jesus, believed in him, and followed Jesus. He went on to start something like a hundred Christian churches in his nation, so that more people could be part of God’s family.
But not all will choose to be adopted into God’s family.
Therefore, my conclusion about this phrase it that it needs some explaining: We are all God’s children, as he is creator of all, but all humans are not a part of the family of God that is the church.
We’ve talked about receiving Jesus and believing in him, and that leads us to our next phrase.
What is “The Sinner’s Prayer”? Some Christians have said that we need people to pray this prayer so that they can become part of God’s family.
I’ve heard it called the ABC prayer: A – Admit that you are a sinner. B – Believe that Jesus died and rose again to pay the penalty of our sin. And C – Confess your faith in Jesus. This is also sometimes connected to verses in Scripture, particularly in the letter to the Romans, called The Roman Road. The letter A is supported by Romans 3:23, “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” The letter B is supported by Romans 5:8, “While we were yet sinners Christ died for us.” And the letter C is supported by Romans 10:9-10, “If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”
So it sounds good, but is the Sinner’s Prayer in the Bible? No.
Wait. No? How can you say, No, Joel? You just read all those verses from Romans that show it is in the Bible?
Let me explain. The ABC Prayer is not in the Bible; it was created as a way to give people a method for starting a relationship with Jesus. Because it is easy to grasp, some have said that it is good for kids. That very well may be true. We should not, however, give kids or anyone, a false idea that all God wants them to do is say a prayer. The Sinner’s Prayer might actually give them the wrong idea, as if God wants us to say certain words.
So what does God want? Is there one specific way that people come to follow and believe in Jesus? No. People through the ages have come to Christ in so many ways. We need to see that as okay. In the Bible there are many different ways that people come to believe in and follow God. There is no one way.
I recently read the story of James Bryan Smith who, after reading a book by CS Lewis, came to believe in the resurrection of Jesus, and decided to follow Jesus. He and his friends started reading the Gospels, and as a result their lives were changing. Several of their friends also became Christians.
Then Smith met a guy in a college campus ministry who asked Smith if he ever prayed the Sinner’s Prayer. Smith had to admit that he never heard of it. The campus minister was aghast, and responded, “Well, then, you are not saved and doomed to hell.” Smith explained how he had been reading the Gospels, how his life was changing and how he was interacting with Jesus every day. The campus minister said, “Nice story, but if you die tonight, you would go to hell.”
Smith believed the campus minister, and prayed the prayer. As the weeks and months went by, it seemed to him that this version of the Jesus story was all over the place. He describes is as a story of “rotten sinners, an angry God, a sacrificial Son, and the constant battle to make it to heaven in the end.” One day, he writes, he came to the realization that he hated being a Christian. The Sinner’s Prayer was detrimental to Smith. I would suggest that it has been likewise for many others, misleading them about what it means to be in relationship with Jesus.
So if it is not a Sinner’s Prayer, where can we go in the Bible to guide into understanding what it means to begin a relationship with Jesus?
I would recommend that we look at Jesus, and his approach to the disciples. Remember how he started his relationship with them? He said two words: “Follow me.” That was it. The concept of “believe in me” was a part of his teaching to the disciples, which is especially noticeable in the Gospel of John. The disciples’ true belief in Jesus, however, only came after the resurrection. Three years of ministry later!
Think about it. Through the three years they followed Jesus, during which time they were doing all the work of ministry like healing, exorcism, and preaching, they still didn’t fully believe. How do we know this? Because when the end came, at his arrest in the Garden, what do we see? Judas betrayed Jesus; Peter, the leader who boldly proclaimed belief just a few hours before, ended up denying him three times; and all the rest ran away in fear. It was after Jesus’ resurrection when their belief was solidified, and they never turned back, even giving their lives sacrificially to follow him. What that means is that for the disciples, following Jesus came first, believing in him came second.
We so often have it the other way around. Smith writes: “The central question of the gospel is not how can I be saved, but who is Jesus? Your relationship to Jesus unleashes redemptive power. I hear people say, ‘We need to get people to make a commitment to Jesus.’ My response always is, ‘We need to get people to know Jesus.’ If they come to know Jesus, in his beauty, goodness and truth, they will naturally make a commitment to him.”
We don’t need people to pray the Sinner’s Prayer, we need to get them to learn who Jesus truly is. Smith again summarizes Jesus’ mission in a way that I find so compelling: “The Christian story is not primarily about how God in Jesus came to rescue sinners from some impending disaster. It is about God’s work of initiating us into a fellowship and making us true conversation partners with the Father and the Son through the Spirit, and hence with each other.”
In other words, there are many ways to come to Jesus, and one way is not better than the other. It could be a Sinner’s Prayer moment in Sunday School. But it could also be through dreams. For some it is a slow life-long process of parents and churches investing in their kids.
Do we need a specific date that we prayed a prayer? No. Do we need specific words of prayer? No.
We can place too much emphasis on a prayer, date, or event. But maybe you’re wondering, what about the needed emphasis on evidence of a real relationship? Jesus once taught, “By your fruit you will know them.” What he meant was that a real relationship with Jesus will be evidenced by what comes out of our lives. You know it is an apple tree because it has apples growing out of it. As Paul said in Galatians 5, walk in the Spirit, and the fruit of the Spirit will come out of your life.
What does that mean? Walk in the Spirit? Well, it relates to the next phrase we are fact-checking.
Turn to Ephesians 3:16-17 and you’ll read Paul say, “I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.”
There it is. This phrase is right out of the Bible. But what is this talking about? Our actual heart? Our blood pumper?
No. The heart is a common symbol for the center of our will and emotion.
What this means is that Jesus with us. This idea pops up in many places in Scripture:
John 14:23 – If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.
Romans 5:5 – And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.
Galatians 2:20 – I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
But what does this mean? In what way does Jesus live in us? It is a strange concept to think about Jesus being in our hearts, so this phrase needs some explaining.
Paul taught in 1 Corinthians 6 that our body is the Temple of Spirit. In the Old Covenant, the presence of God resided in a physical building, the tabernacle, and then eventually the temple in Jerusalem. But in the New Covenant, God’s Spirit resides in us.
God no longer resides in a building!
Think about that. God, through his Spirit, wants to live with you! Amazing, isn’t it? God created us to have fellowship with him and wants to be so close to us. He loves us, and went to such great lengths to be with us. “God with us” means that he wants to make his home with us for the purpose of human flourishing.
It is vital for us, then, to learn to walk in step with the Holy Spirit who lives with us. How often do you think about the Holy Spirit throughout the day? What could it look like for you to talk with him, listen to him, allowing him to shape you more and more to look like Jesus when Jesus lived on earth? It means we must give attention to our lives, our choices, our thoughts. We must give time to practice developing our relationship with God.
There are habits and practices that we can add to our lives to grow our relationship with God. I would encourage to search this blog for posts like this one that talk about spiritual practices.
Now we have come to the final phrase we’re fact-checking, and it relates to our relationship with God after death.
This is expressed so often in the context of grief, such as loss of a loved one. It sounds like a sweet statement. But at deeper glance, this one has some concerns.
First of all, it can make God the bad guy for taking a life. “Heaven needed?” That phrase insinuates that the person who passed away is now serving a higher purpose. But does God take people out of their earthly existence because they are needed in heaven? Does heaven have needs? There is no biblical teaching to support this idea, and it is dangerous to depict God that way.
But what about the rest of the phrase? Do humans turn into angels when we die? What is the biblical teaching on angels?
Angels are super popular in our culture. Hebrews 1:14 gives maybe the best description: “they are ministering spirits sent to serve those (us) who inherit salvation.” Throughout the Bible, angels are messengers. Psalm 91:11 is where we get the idea of angels protecting humans. Psalm 34:7 is another similar reference. But I would strongly caution us to avoid the idea of individual guardian angels, as if we have an angel assigned specifically to us. The psalms are poetic, and that means they use symbolic or figurative language that should not be interpreted as teaching scientific fact.
In my opinion, this is not a major point of theology, and as a result, it is one that I do not hold with a tight grip. The angelic realm is just too mysterious in biblical teaching, I think, for us to be certain of much. So please know I don’t mean to come across as dogmatic.
Back to the phrase we are fact-checking. Do people become angels when we die? To answer that question, we first need to answer a related question: what happens to our bodies when we die?
Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 15 that Christians who die will be given new bodies. But those new spiritual bodies are not the same as angelic being. Quite frankly we don’t precisely how a human spiritual body might differ from an angelic body. What we do know is that angels and humans are different creations.
Humans who die and are given new spiritual bodies, however, are still humans.
My conclusion is that the phrase “heaven must have needed another angel” is not true, if the person saying the phrase means that humans transform into angels. If the person saying the phrase means “angel” in the symbolic sense, though, referring to humans who are in heaven, then that is totally in keeping with biblical teaching.
I think that a better question to consider is: What should we say when people are experiencing grief?
The reality is that in moments of grief, when we don’t know what to say, but we think we have to say something, what comes out can be word vomit. In those moments we can utter bad theology. What we should do is say nothing and just hug the grieving person and express our love and concerns.
I recently heard an interview of the man who has handled settlements for many of our national tragedies. After 9/11, he was responsible to divvy out money to families that had lost loved ones. As he met with families, one time he tried to express empathy, and said “I know what you are going through.” The family looked back at him across the desk, and said, “You have no idea what we’re going through.” He never said “I know what you are going through” again, because he had to admit they were right. He didn’t know. His heart was in the right place, wanting to comfort the family, but what he spoke was untrue, and thus unhelpful.
Similarly, our hearts are in the right place when we are counseling people in their time of grief, and we so desperately want to make it better. But we need to use self-control and not just let words out. Also when you are the one grieving, and people say ridiculous stuff to you, I know it is hard in that moment of pain, but we can be gracious to them, and remember that they are just trying to help.
Healing through grief takes time, and the process is unique to each situation. So when it comes to salvation and the afterlife, we can praise God that he has made a way for us to be in his family. Let us be a people that warmly, graciously invite people to get to know Jesus.