Tag Archives: hell

What happens after death? (Will God be fair?)

24 Oct

Image result for what happens after we dieIs God unfair?  That’s the question I asked yesterday.  I bring it up because Solus Christus, the fourth of the Five Solas that we are studying this week, very much has a bearing on how we might view this difficult theological situation. If salvation is in Christ alone, by grace through faith, then doesn’t that mean that all those people who do not have the opportunity or capacity to confess Christ will die separated from God forever?  If so, it really seems like God is not being fair, punishing those for no fault of their own.

This doctrine is an emotional one.  It is called the destiny of the unevangelized.

Christians through the ages have come up with many options for explaining how God is fair.  Sometimes these options have led to very heated debates and accusations of heresy.

So let’s review some of the options and their difficulties.

First there is Universalism, which teaches that all go to heaven.  Hell is not real.  The Bible clearly says that God is love and he loves all, and so therefore universalists believe he will save all.  It sure would be nice to believe this, but this view has difficulties.  Simply put, the Bible, including Jesus, clearly talks about eternal punishment in the afterlife.  Also Jesus said a couple different times that the way to God is narrow and few will find it. For those of you from Faith Church reading this, we are a part of a denomination called the Evangelical Congregational Church, and our EC Articles of Faith affirm that there is a hell.  We do not hold to universalism.  But we do hold strongly to the biblical teaching that God is love.

Second there is a relatively small group of Christians who believe in Post-Mortem Evangelism.  This view suggests that after you die and see the options of heaven and hell, God gives you a second chance to choose.  Again, this promotes God’s grace and love, and it removes the unfair element for those who are unevangelized.  No matter what your situation was on earth, whether a tribal person, a Muslim in Turkey, a person with diminished mental capacity or a baby, when you die, you will have a fully capable mind and body to make an informed decision.  God will give you a second chance to choose him.  It might seem that this is basically universalism because who wouldn’t choose heaven at that point?  But in theory some would still choose hell.  This view, however, has some difficulties, the big one being that there is basically no evidence of it being taught in the Bible.  Personally, I’ll be shocked if this is what actually happens after death.  As with universalism, I don’t think it is true, but I hope it is.

Next is Purgatory, which is not just a Roman Catholic doctrine.  Purgatory is the name of a place kind of between heaven and hell. In the Old Testament, there is evidence of this when OT authors used a word called Sheol to describe a place beyond the grave, and it appears to work like purgatory.  Sheol seems to be a place of waiting.  What is unique about the Roman Catholic view of purgatory is that it is a place where people can essentially pay off the debt of their sin. It’s not fun, but after years of waiting, you’ve done your time, and you get to go to heaven.  The difficulty again is that this view is biblically sketchy.

The fourth view is Annihilationism.  This, too, is a minority Christian view that says that believers in Christ go to heaven, the rest are just destroyed.  Annihilated.  Where does it come from?  Well, Jesus one time, said this 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 soul and body in hell.”  This view deals with the trouble many people have with a God who would send people to eternal conscious torment in hell.  Instead of feeling pain forever, like being burned alive but never dying, or the pain of being separated from God, annihilationism says that unrepentant sinners are destroyed.  The difficulty with this view is that we should be exceedingly cautious about making doctrine based on one verse.

Another view is called Predestination/Election. God picks or elects who will saved and who will not be.  It has nothing to do with human free will.  One aborted baby might be elected to go to heaven.  One might not be.  One Yanomami tribesman might be sent to heaven.  Another might not be.  One Turkish Muslim might go to heaven, another might not be.  It is all up to God.  This view is a very strict determinism.  Many people who believe in some form of predestination or election don’t take it that far.  But some do.  The Bible does talk about predestination and election, but most Christians do not believe it is to be understood in this strict sense.  The major difficulty of this view is that the way Jesus and the apostles talk about salvation is that it is a gift that we choose to receive or not receive.

And that leads me to bring up one more view, Free Will.  Those who choose of their own free will to be true disciples of Jesus, after they die, will go to heaven, while the others who have chosen not to believe in and follow Jesus, after they die, are separated from God for eternity in hell.  The difficulty with this view is that it requires that people hear the Gospel.  This view presumes that all have the choice to follow Jesus, but as we saw yesterday it doesn’t seem like all actually do have the choice.  What about tribal people, those is other lands with different religions, or those with a lack of mental capacity to understand the Gospel?

Do any of these views help you think about God’s fairness in salvation by Christ alone?  Which view do you hold to?  Or is there another view that you prefer?

I can’t say that any of these views is completely satisfying to me.  As I tried to show, they all have their pros and cons.  Are there any other biblical passages that might give us some help to understand this?  Yesterday, I mentioned the apostles teaching in Acts 4:12 that “there is no other name by which we are saved.”  They were referring to salvation in Christ alone.  And Jesus himself said in John 14:6 that he alone is the way, the truth and the life, that no one comes to the father, except through him.

Today we have surveyed many options that Christians have employed to try to respond to the question of God’s fairness, but maybe you are thinking that we really haven’t made any headway.  Thankfully, there are more places in God’s word that we can explore to shed some light on this thorny issue of God’s fairness in salvation by Christ alone.

Check in tomorrow as we’ll look further at those passages.

Jesus’ bizarre depiction of heaven and hell – Luke 16:19-31

1 Feb

Do pastors lie at funerals?  Though we sound confident, usually that the deceased is in heaven, do we really know that?  You can read my thoughts on that in the intro post.  The question I asked in that post is: “So, what happens when we die?  Is it possible that we can know now what our eternal destiny will be?  It sure would be nice!”

My sermon yesterday tried to address that question.  We have been studying the life of Jesus as told in the Gospel of Luke, and the sermon was about a really bizarre parable he told in Luke 16:19-31.  Before you read any further, I urge you to read the parable and see if you can discover any details that depict heaven and hell in surprising ways.

So now that you’ve read the story, did you see what I mean?  Did you find anything odd?  Here’s what I found that was surprising:

  1. There is a wide chasm between heaven and hell that is so huge you can’t cross it, but it is not so big that you can’t see across it or have a conversation across it.  And people in heaven and hell can see each other and talk with one another.
  2. When the die, people are carried by angels into heaven.
  3. People in heaven could possibly go back (be raised from the dead) and influence people on earth.

Is he for real?  Is Jesus using a literal approach to his teaching? Did we just get a lesson in how heaven and hell/Hades work? I highly doubt it. Actually, it seems much more feasible to understand Jesus teaching a larger principle that is based in this metaphorical story.  It is possible, scholars tell us, that Jesus is a story form that was commonplace in his day.

What do I mean by a story form?  Well, it is like the stories we tell in our day about going to see St. Peter at the pearly gates of heaven. St. Peter stories are fabled versions of what will happen when we die. And there are plenty of them.  Here’s a good one I found:

A man died and approached the Pearly Gates. St. Peter told him heaven was getting crowded so he had to test people with the point system. If he got to 100 points he could enter. The man told Peter that he gave to the poor. Peter marked him down for 3 points. The man thought again, then said that he gave to the church. Peter added one point. The man, desperately searching his memory, finally said that he never cussed. Peter added 1/2 a point. By now the man got very frustrated and said that at this rate he could only get in by the grace of God. Peter replied, “Come on in!”

It seems Jesus is using a familiar story form like that, adapting it to his purposes.  And what does he teach us through this metaphorical vision of heaven and hell?

First, Jesus is once again trying to address heart attitude.   Compassion for the poor. Being concerned for the position of others. Not following the letter of the law, but the heart of the Law.  Having eyes that see the neighbor who needs help shoveling snow.

Getting involved in community efforts to alleviate poverty in our school district. I continue to be so proud of Faith Church in this regard. Not only do we collect food in our lobby for the food bank at Conestoga Valley Christian Community Services, but we have people who volunteer there every single week. Some are loading food bank shelves, some are working with food bank clients, helping them select groceries. Some are preparing Weekend Blessing bags of food that go out to over 150 children in our school district. Some are delivering food from Faith Church to the food bank. Some are delivering boxes of weekend blessings bags to our schools.

Remember what Jesus says in Luke 14:11? “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”  I see that in action in the people of Faith Church so often!  It’s a beautiful thing.

One scholar says that this parable: “…is mainly a call to the rich to examine how they use their wealth. They should know that God is not pleased with a self-indulgent lifestyle that has little care and compassion for those in need. As such, the parable is a call to the rich to repent of their inappropriate use of wealth.”

Next, the parable teaches about the finality of life. The men in the story made choices in their lives, and they were sealed in eternity. I wish I could tell you exactly how this works. The Bible is not precise.   You might respond by thinking “Well, maybe it happens exactly like this parable suggests?” Maybe, but I would say unlikely. There are too many other passages that speak about eternity differently.

What does happen then? Well, one day after we die we each will find out. But I don’t want to leave you in the dark. The Bible teaches that we can be ready for eternity.

One thing I can say for certain is this: Jesus said in John 14:6 “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the father except through me.” Or as Paul says in Romans 10:9,10 “Confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead and you will be saved.”

Putting them both together, we must surrender our lives to be disciples of Jesus. It is a combination of head, heart and hands that all live for Jesus. Then we can be assured, then, as John tells us in 1 John 5:13, “I write these things to you who believe in the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.”

So I urge you, choose the way of life, which is the way of Jesus. If you are not as certain as what John writes, then I would love to talk with you.

Likewise, eternity is not something that just randomly happens after death. What this parable teaches is that eternity happens now. Did you see how the life choices of the rich man and the beggar impacted their life after death? Eternity starts now.   Our life choices now impact life after death.

This seems to be the heart of what Jesus said in the Lord’s prayer when he prayed “Lord, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Jesus wanted his disciples to understand that they could live out the Kingdom of God in the here and now.   Maybe not perfectly as it is in heaven, but they could strive for ushering God’s Kingdom into the here and now.

Disciples of Jesus are people who have the privilege of ushering God’s Kingdom into their lives now. As you move and live and breathe in your world, you have the wonderful privilege of taking God’s Kingdom with you.  At work, in your neighborhood, in your school, in your homes, wherever you are, you are an agent of the Kingdom of God. You are seeking to infect all of your surroundings, all the people you come in contact with, with the gracious, joyful, abundant life of the Kingdom of God.

Thirdly, then, this parable is an illustration of how to bring the Kingdom of God into the world we live in now. Last week we saw that in verses 16-17 that Jesus is talking about the Law and Prophets. They come up again here in the Parable as Abraham says that the rich man’s brothers can learn about what to do in the Old Testament, the Law or Moses, as he says it, and the prophets. Jesus is giving a bit of indication, as he did in verses 16-17, that saw within the Old Testament something of great value.

In this case, the OT has plenty of important things to say about human relationships, about what it means to pursue righteousness in relationships, especially in loving one another. Remember what Jesus would say in another place about the most important commands in the OT? Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and Love your neighbor as yourself.

This is why the mission statement of Faith Church is Loving God, Loving People. If you could summarize the teaching of the Bible into four words, Jesus tells us that is it.

But there is a problem.

The brothers, the rich man tells us, would not listen to the Word of God. They have major issues. He thinks, however, that they will respond to a radical sign, a resurrection.   But Abraham’s response in verse 31 gets us to Jesus’ fourth main idea in the parable. If their heart is hard, they won’t even respond to a resurrection.

The issue is the heart, and that is the fourth teaching in the parable.

One scholar says this: “Only a responsive heart will listen to God’s message and respond to his great works. No amount of wonder-working can change a heart that is unwilling to be challenged by God’s demand for righteousness. A lack of signs is not why people reject Jesus. Rather, people willfully reject him. The heart cannot see what it is not looking for. Jesus’ message is a call to recognize the need to repent.”

I want to ask you, then, who is your Lazarus? Put yourself in the role of the rich man? Not that you are rich. But put yourself in a position to serve, to give, to love. Who is need around you?

I heard again this past week how Sunday morning is the most ethnically segregated place in America. My school district is at least 25% populated by ethnic minority, why do we not see that here in my congregation?  Perhaps we need to do more to be at a place of readiness to see needs. Eyes wide open. Ready to serve in a moment’s notice.

I recently heard a story from someone at our church who was recovering from surgery in the hospital.  A guy walked into the room and introduced himself as cleaning staff.  But this guy saw his life as much more than cleaning staff.  He struck up a congregation with our church member.  They had great conversation, and finally guy said “can I pray with you”, and it was a great encouragement to our church member.

Can you remember a time when someone reached out to you when you were desperately in need? When the Lord put someone in your life to show interest in you, to encourage you?   Didn’t that feel awesome? What could it look like for you to supply another’s need?

Be willing to provide childcare for free. Mothers with young children could really use the help.

A family from Faith Church who has an elderly neighbor lady, and she lives alone.  A widow. Our church friends will have some extra dessert, which their neighbor lady loves, so they will take it over to her.  Their loves are busy, so they want to drop the dessert off and get back to their tasks at home.  But what the neighbor lady really wants is not dessert.  She loves the dessert.  But what she really wants to do is talk, and talk, and talk. So my church friends will often say to each other, “You give her the dessert this time,” knowing that the person who gives the dessert could be stuck there for a long time.

Sometimes we need to give ourselves in what has been called ministry of presence. The way to care is to be there. To give of yourself. Give of your ears, your eyes, not thinking about what you are going to say next, think next, or eat for lunch. Just being there for people, to listen to them can be so powerful.  I learned of a counselor who said “I think people pay me to be their friend.” Lots of people come in and sit there expecting her to fix their problems. But she waits. Eventually they start talking. And they realize that in her they have a found a person who will truly listen.

So I ask, where is your heart? Are you sensitive to the signs of how God can you use you?  Will you ask him to make you humble, teachable and ready to follow his leading? Will you say, “Lord, examine me. Change me. I want you to use me.”

Finally, are you ready for eternity?

Why pastors lie at funerals

28 Jan

Funerals are a place where we pastors can be guilty of lying…a lot.

Maybe I’m just speaking for myself.  So this is my confession: how to do I lie at funerals?  I almost always talk about the person who passed away as definitely being in heaven.  As if there is no question about their eternal destiny.

Should I say that the person who passed away is in heaven?  Do I really know this?  No, I don’t.  I am not the judge.  Only God knows for sure.  So why do I say that the person is in heaven?

I know why I say it. Oftentimes the family has beat me to it. After the person draws their last breath, almost immediately family members start saying their loved one is in heaven. So it can be very daunting and even offensive for me to say at that moment, or anytime in the coming days, “Well, I know your loved one just died, but you don’t really know for certain that they’re in heaven. So let’s talk about that.”

I don’t do that. Instead I just go along with it. But should I?  Am I promoting a lie?

For many of them, based on the life the deceased lived, it is almost certain that their loved one was a true disciple of Jesus, and we can say with confidence that they are in heaven.  Some of them when they were living may have been very vocal about their faith in Christ, some were obviously committed disciples of Jesus.  But for others we are not so certain.  We wrestle with how much theological hairsplitting we should get into with a grieving family.

My thought is that in their moment of crisis and tragedy, I’m not going to make things worse by trying to suggest that maybe their loved one is not in heaven. Instead I have a strong desire to comfort them as they mourn.  I want to help them walk through sadness in a healthy way.  So I choose not to quibble with them about whether their loved one is in heaven or hell.

I’d like to believe that my choice to avoid the discussion is not actually lying.  Instead I look at it as withholding the conversation for a different time.  In fact, that different time is usually during the funeral, though indirectly.  I don’t address the family of the deceased, in the middle of the funeral, asking them pointed questions about their loved one’s eternal destiny.  But I do share with the entire audience about what the Bible teaches about eternal matters.  From there the family can decide for themselves if they want to engage a further discussion.  And you know, while it has been rare, a few courageous ones have had that discussion with me.  They usually ask “I loved my relative, but I don’t know if they are in heaven or hell.”

So, what happens when we die?  Is it possible that we can know now what our eternal destiny will be?  It sure would be nice!

This week in our study of Luke, Jesus tells us a parable set in eternity.  Check it out at Luke 16:19-31.  Perhaps this parable will help us? Or maybe not?  If you haven’t clicked on the link and read the parable, let me warn you, Jesus teaches some rather bizarre details about heaven and hell.  Is he serious?

Join us at Faith Church this coming Sunday at 9:30am, as we’ll talk about this further!

Q & A with Jesus – How many will be saved?

24 Dec

Every now and then I get to preach on a passage of Scripture that I’ve covered before.  This coming Sunday is one of those times, as we will study Luke 13:22-35.  Last time it gave me the chance to talk about a guy I’d like to think I know pretty well, Bono, the lead singer of the band U2.  At the time, I was preaching the Lectionary texts for Lent.  (You can read all about it here.  And the follow-up post here.  Or listen to the sermon here.)

I try to read back over those sermons each time I preach them again.  If there is material I can use again, I just might, but almost always I find that I need to start from scratch, even if I feel that previous sermon was decent.  Technically, last time I only preached on Luke 13:22-30, and this we’ll add verses 31-35.

Take a look at the passage, as it raises some difficult questions.  Luke sets the scene by telling us that Jesus is continuing his preaching and teaching ministry in the towns and villages he passes through as he is on his way to Jerusalem.  The crowds are big, no surprise, and on this particular day, a person in the crowd starts a little Q & A with Jesus.  The person asks “Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?”

It is a question that comes up often in Jesus’ ministry, and one that people still today ask.  Recently a college friend asked this very question.

The answers are varied.  Some believe all will be saved.  We call that view universalism.  It is quite popular as it depicts a gracious, loving, merciful God who can’t let any of his human sons and daughters perish in hell.

Others believe there is no hell.

Still others believe that there is a hell and people will go there.  Some views depict God placing people there of his own desire and choice.  Others say that humans choose to go there, mostly out of disobedience to God, primarily for failing to believe in him and follow his ways.

What is so interesting to me, as I write this on Christmas Eve, is that tonight at our Christmas Eve Service we will be talking about and celebrating the purpose of Jesus’ birth, and in Luke 13:22-35 Jesus himself, about 30 years into his adulthood, is also talking about his purpose.  What does adult Jesus have to say about why he came?  What he has to say directly relates to the question of how many will be saved!

As is so often the case, he decides to answer the question from the crowd with a story.  A story about a man with a house that has a door.  Then he goes on to liken himself to a chicken, and a female chicken at that!

Join us Sunday at Faith Church, 9:30am, to hear how Jesus answers the question of how many will be saved!