A Compelling Future. Are Heaven and Hell Consistent with a Good and Loving God?

Does Christianity have a compelling vision for the future? It would be odd if you were considering the compelling reasons to trust in Jesus, but then upon asking about the afterlife you are told that you enter an endless cycle of being reincarnated as a bird if you receive Christ, and as a worm, if not. That should strike you as utter nonsense. Now what about Christian teaching? The idea that upon death we either sprout wings and play a harp while sitting in the clouds, or burn in an eternal fire, is for many people, too much to believe. Is the Biblical Christian vision for the future consistent with a good and loving God? Or is it nonsensical? When we hear what the Bible teaches about eternal destination, do we say ‘of course that is what a good God would do”?

Let us look first, to the Book of Revelation;

1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.

Here we have, not a hope of going up into heaven when I die, to spend eternity there, but something much grander. This is a vision of God’s re-creation of all creation. All of creation was negatively impacted by the sin of humanity (see Romans 8:18-23). All of creation will be positively impacted by God’s rescue of humanity.

2 And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.

Here we are told of a city, not in the sense of roads and buildings, but in the sense of people. The holy city is the “bride,” that is, the people of God. Just as people are the focus in the creation account of Genesis, people are the focus of the re-creation account. God created humanity, the only creature we are told he created in his image, for a special relationship. That relationship is what is truly important.

3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;

There is much in the Bible about separation from God being a huge problem for humanity. It begins with Genesis chapter three and the banishment of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. It becomes apparent at Mount Sinai when the people cannot approach the mountain on which God’s presence was made palpable. It is emphasized in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, with the establishment of both the tabernacle and priesthood. While God was willing to dwell among his people, as symbolized through the pitching of his “tent” among them, God needed to remain separated from the people, for their sake. An unholy people cannot approach a holy God without becoming holy first. The sacrificial rigmarole of the priesthood was a constant reminder of separation from God and the need for atonement. The priesthood and the sacrifices pointed forward to something greater; God the Son making people holy through his sacrifice. In Christ the future of God’s people is wrapped up with being at home with God. There is no more separation from God.

The problems of this world, which separation from God creates, also are dealt with;

4 he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.” Revelation 21:1-4 (NRSV)

The consequence of sin and separation from God is death. The consequence of being reconciled to God is eternal life. In Christ death is no longer part of the human condition. However the consequence of God’s grace is not just eternal life, but as we have already seen, eternal life with God.

In sum, the Biblical vision of the future is one of transformation, for all creation, for our bodies, and for our very selves. The transformation within us begins now through the Holy Spirit. The fact that the Christian is to look to God to fix everything in the future is compelling. The fact that the Christian need not wait for Christ’s return to fix everything in us is also compelling. The hope of meaningful change, not into brilliant cloud-sitting harpists, but into good people who dwell with a good God in a good creation, is consistent with a good and loving God.

However, is the future of those who reject God consistent with a good and loving God? The idea of being on fire forever does not seem consistent to many of us. In answering this we must first appreciate that the people of the Bible often speak in poetic ways, just as we do today. We sometimes pick apart the Bible as if we are in math class working out equations. Let us remember our English literature lessons and have an appreciation for the poetic and literary nuances which often escape the math whizzes. We will not dig into this too deeply, but it is best to take the language about hell, with the everlasting fire and torment, as poetic. The least poetic, the most matter-of-fact, the most precise and concise description of hell we have in the Bible is this;

9 These will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, separated from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might 2 Thessalonians 1:9 (NRSV)

What is hell? It is separation from God. What is it like to be separated from God? Thankfully, no one alive can truly tell, for to be alive at all is to experience a measure of God’s grace. However, we do well to remember that “the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23 NRSV). As you read through the Bible, watch out for how often salvation is spoken of as a matter of eternal life versus death. This is consistent with the Genesis account and the promise that death would occur if the forbidden fruit were eaten. What we can say with certainty is that to experience hell is to experience everlasting separation from God.

If hell is separation from God, then is separation from God consistent with a good and loving God? Consider first, the holiness and justice of God. That unholy people cannot dwell with a holy God is made clear in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers; at Mount Sinai, and through the establishment of the tabernacle and priesthood. God did not teach about His holiness and our sinfulness in the Old Testament then come to us in the New Testament and say “it doesn’t matter anymore.” It does matter, but God offers to make us holy in Christ and through his Holy Spirit. If you reject that offer of being made holy, then separation from God is a very natural consequence. The experience of death is a natural consequence of refusing the offer of eternal life. Therefore, the future of those who reject God is consistent with a good and loving God who respects the wishes of those who want nothing to do with him. Of course that is what a good God would do.

The Bible presents a compelling and beautiful vision for the future of those who receive Christ and accept God’s offer of relationship. While we might not use the word beautiful, the Bible provides a vision of the future of those who do not want a relationship with God that is consistent with His goodness and love. The consistency of the Christian vision of the future is yet another aspect of Christianity that is compelling.

(This post is part of a series called “Compelling” which begins here. The full sermon can be heard on the podcast which is found here.)

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A Compelling People. Does the Church Point to the Reality of God?

If Christianity is compelling, should we not expect the Christian Church to be compelling also? If the good and loving God proclaimed by Christianity is real, then would we not expect beauty and not ugliness in the Church? So is it beautiful?

Some would say no. Churches can be marked by politics within, sometimes brutal politics. Church people can also be known for politicking beyond the church, and that can be brutal also. Plus, the Christian Church appears to be greatly divided. Not only are there many different camps, there are even camps within the camps! This can all seem quite ugly to the onlooker. While there is ugliness, is there also beauty? Does the Bible have a compelling and beautiful vision for the Church? There is so much we could say, but let us go to the words of Jesus in John 14 as a starting point.

12 “I tell you the truth, anyone who believes in me will do the same works I have done, and even greater works, because I am going to be with the Father. John 14:12 (NLT) 

The Christian Church is to be a people who do great works. We may be startled by the idea that we, who are Christians, could do “greater works” than Jesus. Perhaps we immediately think of miraculous works of great power and wonder how we could ever match his healing ministry. However, we should note that Jesus’ greatest work was not a health restoring miracle, but a relationship restoring death. While reconciliation to God is something only God can accomplish, the Church is called to participate in God’s work of reconciliation! Consider the words of Paul,

18 And all of this is a gift from God, who brought us back to himself through Christ. And God has given us this task of reconciling people to him. 19 For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. And he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation. 20 So we are Christ’s ambassadors; God is making his appeal through us. We speak for Christ when we plead, “Come back to God!” 21 For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ. 2 Corinthians 5:18-21 (NLT emphasis added)

The Christian Church has been involved in this ministry of reconciliation throughout the world over the past 2000 years or so. This is a great work, and it is beautiful.

We can go on to speak of the many other good works that Christians have been involved in. Alvin Schmidt outlines the great positive impact of the Christian Church on the world in his book, “How Christianity Changed the World.” Consider his chapter titles as an indication of that impact.

  1. People Transformed by Jesus Christ
  2. The Sanctification of Human Life
  3. Christianity Elevates Sexual Morality
  4. Women Receive Freedom and Dignity
  5. Charity and Compassion: Their Christian Connection
  6. Hospitals and Health Care: Their Christian Roots
  7. Christianity’s Imprint on Education
  8. Labor and Economic Freedom Dignified
  9. Science: It’s Christian Connections
  10. Liberty and Justice for All
  11. Slavery Abolished: A Christian Achievement
  12. Christianity’s Stamp on Art and Architecture
  13. The Sound of Music: It’s Christian Resonance
  14. Hallmarks of Literature: Their Christian Imprint
  15. Additional influence: Holidays, Words, Symbols and Expressions

The positive impact of the Christian Church on the world has been massive and beautiful. I encourage you to read the book to discover just how massive and beautiful it has been. Yes, Christians have often got it wrong and brought ugliness and not beauty. But over the centuries, God has used His people for beautiful purposes. Good things have happened and keep happening through the people known as the Church.

Let us consider the next two verses of John 14:

13 You can ask for anything in my name, and I will do it, so that the Son can bring glory to the Father. 14 Yes, ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it! John 14:13-14 (NLT) 

The Christian Church is to be a people who ask in Jesus’ name. To ask ‘in his name’ means that we are to be a people who rally around his purposes. These verses do not indicate that Jesus will bend to our will, something we might desire as we consider what great things we might include under “anything.” Rather in asking ‘in Jesus’ name,’ Jesus’ will is becoming ours.

Very often on a Sunday morning I will choose a tie to go with a shirt. Very often on a Sunday morning my wife will say something like “you are not going out dressed like that, are you?” I might try to bend my wife’s will to accept my clothing choice, but it never goes that way. It is not that my wife wins a battle of wills. It is that I am steered in a better direction. I am not upset with being called out on my tie selections. I am very pleased to be better dressed! When all is said and done I realize that my ultimate desire was not to wear a particular tie anyway, but to be well dressed. This is like our relationship with God. It is not that God wins the battle of wills. It is that we are steered in a better direction. When all is said and done we realize that what God has for us is really what we would have wanted all along and asked for if our eyes had been open to all the possibilities.

The Christian Church is a people who are steered by God, who pray in Jesus’s name, seeking His Kingdom, not our empires, His purposes, not our flights of fancy. This is beautiful!

Let us consider the next verse:

15 “If you love me, obey my commandments. John 14:15 (NLT)

The Christian Church is a people who love Jesus, who have an allegiance to Jesus.

We are to be a people who put the teaching of Jesus into practice. We are to love our neighbours, and love our enemies.. As Jesus points out in the Sermon on the Mount, we are to pay attention to character. We are to make disciples. It is beautiful when a person lives out the teaching of Jesus.

We are to be a people who emulate Jesus. We seek to reflect the goodness of Jesus in the way we relate to people and are relatable. We do good. We live grace filled lives, ready to forgive. The Christian Church is to be a Jesus emulating people. It is beautiful when a person emulates Jesus.

Let us consider the next few verses:

16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, who will never leave you. 17 He is the Holy Spirit, who leads into all truth. The world cannot receive him, because it isn’t looking for him and doesn’t recognize him. But you know him, because he lives with you now and later will be in you. John 14:16-17 (NLT)

The Christian Church is to be a people who are impacted by the Holy Spirit. This means a number of things including the fact that we are being transformed by the Spirit:

22 But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these things! . . . 25 Since we are living by the Spirit, let us follow the Spirit’s leading in every part of our lives. Galatians 5:22-23,25 (NLT)

When people are transformed by the Spirit, this is beautiful.

Conclusion.

The Church can sometimes seem pretty ugly. But the Biblical vision for the Church is beautiful. The Church is to be a people wrapped up in a deep life changing connection with God. When church is ugly, there is always a disconnect from God. When there is connection, truly the Church is beautiful; a people involved in God’s great works, a people who pray in Jesus’ name and rally around his purposes, a people who have an allegiance to Jesus, a people filled with and led by the Holy Spirit. The Biblical vision for the Church is consistent with what you would expect from a good and loving God. The beauty of the Church in that vision is another aspect of Christianity that is compelling.

(This post is part of a series called “Compelling” which begins here. The full sermon can be heard on the podcast which is found here.)

A Compelling Perspective on Humanity. How the Christian Perspective Points to the Reality of God.

Does Christianity lead to a beautiful perspective on humanity? Or is it ugly? If the God of the Bible is real and is love, then we should expect beauty and not ugliness. Some would say it is ugly, setting up some people as better than the rest, creating a people who look down on others. It sets up a hierarchy of worth and value. There is no doubt, that we who are Christians, have sometimes acted or spoken like this is so. But is that accurate? What does the Bible teach that our perspective on humanity should be?

Let us turn first, to the beginning;

26 Then God said, “Let us make human beings in our image, to be like us. . . . .
27 So God created human beings in his own image.
In the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them. Genesis 1:26-27 (NLT)

All people are created in the image of God, without exception. This fact unites us in our humanity.

It might be suggested that while this was true of Adam and Eve, it has not been true of anyone since the Fall, that we no longer bear the image of God because of sin. However, consider this early appeal to justice;

5 “And I will require the blood of anyone who takes another person’s life. If a wild animal kills a person, it must die. And anyone who murders a fellow human must die. 6 If anyone takes a human life, that person’s life will also be taken by human hands. For God made human beings in his own image. Genesis 9:5-6 (NLT)

To paraphrase, “how dare you lift a finger against another person in violence, for people were created in the image of God and that still matters.” Every person has worth and value, even with sin in the equation.

Now let us turn to the ending;

9 After this I saw a vast crowd, too great to count, from every nation and tribe and people and language, standing in front of the throne and before the Lamb. They were clothed in white robes and held palm branches in their hands. 10 And they were shouting with a great roar,
“Salvation comes from our God who sits on the throne
and from the Lamb!” . . . .
Then he said to me, “These are the ones who died in the great tribulation. They have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb and made them white.
15 “That is why they stand in front of God’s throne
and serve him day and night in his Temple.
And he who sits on the throne
will give them shelter.
16 They will never again be hungry or thirsty;
they will never be scorched by the heat of the sun.
17 For the Lamb on the throne
will be their Shepherd.
He will lead them to springs of life-giving water.
And God will wipe every tear from their eyes.” Revelation 7:9,10,14-17 (NLT emphasis added)

The Book of Revelation speaks of an incredible diversity of peoples gathered together, redeemed by God through Christ. From this we learn that all people are redeemable, all people have the opportunity to wash their clothes in the blood of the Lamb.

To sum up what we learn at the beginning and at the end, we will never meet a person who was not created in the image of God, we will never meet a person for whom Jesus did not choose to bear the cross. All people bear the image of God without exception. Without exception, Jesus bore the cross for all people. That is the starting point point of relationship with God, though there is much we could say about where it goes from there and what allegiance to, and trust in, Christ looks like. It is also the perspective on humanity for the Christian and the starting point for our relationship with others.

We see this humanity valuing perspective in the Bible, not only at the beginning and the end, but also from beginning to end. For example,

  • When Abraham is called, that calling is ultimately for the sake of all nations, not just Abraham’s descendants.
  • In the Old Testament there are laws that provide for the well-being of the foreigner.
  • Foreigners were welcomed into the community, as exemplified with The Book of Ruth. We should note, however, that the community was to keep its worship pure from foreign religious influence. While foreign religion was unacceptable, foreign people were accepted.
  • God’s concern for the foreigner is explicitly made clear in The Book of Jonah. Jonah shrank back from God’s call to preach to the enemy, the people of Ninevah, knowing that God would be kind to them. God did indeed show His kindness to them.
  • Jesus loved all kinds of people, even touching “unclean” people, whom no one would touch, before healing them.
  • Jesus taught the importance of love for thy neighbour, then emphasized that the neighbour is anyone and everyone. Your neighbour could even be those dreaded Samaritans, who can act better than the religious elites by the way, as told in the Parable of the Good Samaritan.
  • God called Phillip for a special mission to the Ethiopian eunuch, who was from a different land, likely had a different skin colour, and, being a eunuch, could be described as having a different sexuality.
  • God gave the Holy Spirit to all kinds of people beyond the Jewish people.

From beginning to end, the Bible promotes the value and worth of all people. This covers more than just race, it covers any kind of difference. Consider that in a very patriarchal time and place, there is an emphasis on the equality of the sexes;

27 So God created human beings in his own image.
In the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them. Genesis 1:26-27 (NLT)

Speaking of gender, there is a lot going on with gender in society these days.  Many of us may struggle to understand why a man identifies as a woman, or a woman as a man, or some don’t identify as either. The starting point for relationship, even when people are beyond our understanding, is this: they are created in the image of God and Jesus chose the cross for them. What will we choose to do for them?

All people bear the image of God without exception. Without exception, Jesus bore the cross for all people. This is true for people who are unique for any reason. With each of our pregnancies, my wife and I were offered the opportunity to test for Down syndrome. This would lead to an opportunity to have an abortion. In our minds people with Down syndrome have as much worth and value as any other person. They are created in the image of God. Jesus chose the cross for them. Therefore should a Christian carry on with such a test? Speaking of abortion, in my mind, people in the womb has as much value and worth as people outside. This is why Christians often tend to be pro-life. We should understand that nothing is as simple as it seems, that there is a great need for sensitivity on this topic, and people need reminding of the grace of God. Also we should understand that some people are pro-choice based on their Christian ethic, based on love and concern for Moms and women in difficult circumstances. Nevertheless, every person has value and the question is valid; is a fetus just “tissue,” or a person created in the image of God and for whom Jesus bore the cross?

Given that all humanity bears the image of God, the Christian cannot not look down on people as being worth less for any reason. Rather, we are called to love others with the love of Christ who bore the cross for them. The starting point is not “you are so different from me,” but “we are so much alike, in our creation in the image of God, in our need for grace, and in being given the invitation to a relationship with God.” All people bear the image of God without exception. Without exception, Jesus bore the cross for all people. This is Christian view of humanity, and it is beautiful.

Now consider what can happen when we take God out of the picture. Without the Biblical perspective on humanity, we can easily fall into racism, sexism, or looking down on people because they are different.  If we are indeed evolved, if there is no God, then what is to stop us from thinking that one race has greater value than another? The rat has had just as much time to evolve as the human. We naturally give the human more value and will call exterminators to deal with rat infestations so as to protect humans from disease. What is to stop us from giving greater value to one type of human, even going as far as exterminating other types of humans to protect the more valuable? Indeed this kind of thing happened with Nazi Germany. It was not Bible study and a hunger for God that led the Nazi machine to commit atrocities against the Jews. It was philosophical thinking that applied evolution to society. “We are more highly evolved than you” is ugly. In contrast, “You bear the image of God, Christ bore the cross for you,” is beautiful.

Every single person bears the image of God, regardless of colour, culture, medical conditions, gender, sexuality, or anything else. Jesus bore the cross for every person regardless of colour, culture, medical conditions, gender, sexuality, or anything else. We share this same starting point with every other person without exception. This is a beautiful perspective on humanity which is also helpful to humanity. This is what we should expect if the God the Bible points to, the God the Bible portrays as love, is real. This is yet another reason that Christianity it compelling.

(This post is part of a series called “Compelling” which begins here. The full sermon can be heard on the podcast which is found here.)