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.)

Compelling Religion. Why Christianity Provides a Compelling Account of, and Vision for, Religion.

Religion often gets a bad rap. From the infamous saying by Christopher Hitchens “religion poisons everything,” to my own disdain for religion and anything religious. Yes, I am a Baptist pastor, and yes, I sometimes agree with Christopher Hitchens that religion can poison everything. Religion has destroyed many lives.

However, when it comes to the topic of religion, Christianity is compelling for two reasons.

Christianity provides a compelling account for why there is religion in the first place. While walking through Athens, Paul was impressed and disturbed by the amount of religious devotion he saw:

16 While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. . . .Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you. Acts 16,17:22-23 NIV

Walking through Athens is much like taking a walk through all the world throughout history; being religious has been the default for humanity. There is a religious impulse, a desire, a reaching to grasp hold of something greater than ourselves. You might think otherwise if you are a Westerner, but even here in secular Canada, spiritualities and religions are still very popular despite an education that is very much slanted toward scientism.

Why is there such a religious impulse among people? Why do we seem to be different from animals in this respect? C.S. Lewis, in his book “Mere Christianity,” points out that we have desires that correspond to things that exist. So for example, we desire food, and food exists. We desire sex, and there is such a thing as sex. So too with our spiritual longings. Our longings for something greater than ourselves point to there being something, or Someone greater than ourselves, namely God. If we evolved from a purely natural process and there is no God, then why do we have any spiritual inclination at all? Christianity provides a compelling reason as to why religion exists; because God exists and He created us for relationship with Him.

Christianity provides a compelling vision for religion. Not all religion is created equal. Again, Christopher Hitchens is sometimes correct in saying that “religion poisons everything.” But only sometimes!

Among various world-views there are different visions for religion, that is, what religion is supposed to do or accomplish.  Some religious people are focused on escape. The purpose of religion is to help you escape the troubles of this world and enter Nirvana, or heaven. Other religious people, however, are focused on rules, regulations, and the consequences of obedience or disobedience. Sometimes those rules and regulations make no sense, but if a deity has given them, they must be obeyed, no matter who gets hurt. The purpose of religion is to keep people in line and ensure everyone gets their just deserts whether through bad karma or divine punishment. So where do Christians find themselves in these two differing visions for religion?

Some will point to the apostle Paul’s famous expression, “salvation by grace through faith” (see Ephesians 2:8) and say that escape is the vision for the Christian religion. The Christian will therefore say “I’ve got my golden ticket gotta here, I’m forgiven!”. Others will point to the famous expression of James, “faith without works is dead” (see James 2:17) and say the vision for the Christian religion is rules, obedience, and punishment. The Christian will therefore either say “I have failed yet again,” or, “look at how good I am.” Why do Paul and James have differing visions for religion? Which is correct?

Actually those two visions for religion we outlined miss the mark for what Christianity is about. Paul and James are not giving competing visions for religion, they are looking at two different aspects of our relationship with God. Let me give the example of a marriage relationship. When Paul says of our relationship with God that “salvation is by grace through faith,” it would be like Paul saying to me “you are married, not because you deserve Sandra, nor because you chose to be married, but because she said ‘yes.’ She chose to be married to you!”. When James says of our relationship with God that “faith without works is dead,” it would be like James saying to me “a marriage with no time spent together, no communication, and no serving of one another, is dead.” It is as if Paul is speaking about the marriage covenant signed on the wedding day and how we got to that place, while James is focused on how marriage is lived out every day since.

Now consider the two competing visions for religion we spoke of earlier. Suppose my wife said to me on our wedding day, “I love you and want to be married to you today, but on the day in which you are less than perfect, we are done.” I would not be married for very long! So too, a relationship with God that is focused on our performance would not last long at all. Now suppose I said to my wife on our wedding day, “go on the honeymoon without me,” then on her return said “good, I’m glad you are back, I now need to go on a fifty year mission trip and will not be able to be in touch too often. See you on our 50th!” That would not be a marriage, that would be an arrangement. So too, a relationship with God that is focused only on one’s technical standing before Him, one that is focused only on escape and getting to heaven. Being forgiven so as to get to heaven without an ongoing relationship with God is not a covenant relationship so much as an arrangement. Marriage is life-changing and is to be for life. The vision for religion as expressed by Christianity is a life-changing relationship with God that extends into eternity. This is neither escape, nor performance.

Paul and James are not promoting different visions for Christianity, they are speaking about different aspects of our relationship with God. What is the Christian vision for religion, then? An everlasting relationship with God that changes everything. We experience God’s love in Christ. We learn to love like Christ. We experience God’s life-changing presence through His Spirit. We learn to keep in step with the Spirit.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. 24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Galatians 5:22-25 NIV

So much religion is about our reaching God. Christianity is about God reaching us, in fact reaching right into our hearts and massaging them back to life.

Many translations use the word religion in James 1:27:

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. James 1:27 NIV

Here the Christian religion is not poison, but a solid example of the expression of love, the fruit of the Spirit. It is what happens through a relationship with God. This is a very positive thing in our lives, and in our world. The Christian vision for religion is compelling. It is more compelling than religion that is focused merely on escape or obedience. It is more compelling than a vision of no religion which recognizes the need for goodness in our world, but cannot provide an anchor for such. Religion certainly can poison everything. Atheism can poison everything too. A life-changing relationship with God, however, can heal anything.

The yearnings for a higher power point to the reality of God. The love of God enables us to enter into a life-changing, society-changing, world-changing covenant relationship with Him. Christianity provides a compelling account of, and vision for, religion.

(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 Messy Story with a Good Ending (or Rather a Great New Beginning)

stairway_to_heavenWatching the news we quickly get the sense that the world is in a mess. Pick up the phone and you can quickly find out that a loved one’s life is in a mess. Get out of bed and you can quickly realize that your own life is in a mess. And people can point and ask how you can believe in God from within such a mess? First, we want to recognize His presence through the Holy Spirit. God is in the mess with us. But we also want to remember a promise:

And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. (John 14:3 NRSV)

Here is a promise the disciples would need at the crucifixion of Jesus as they pondered their own failings, and wondered if perhaps Jesus had failed too. And here is a promise they would need to remember once Jesus has risen and ascended to the Father. Troubles plagued the early believers, just as they do believers today. And yes, the early believers and every Christian since has had their share of failures. In the midst of our mess of trouble and failure we remember a promise:

And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. (John 14:3 NRSV)

In other words, this is not the end to this story, there is much to come yet! As the first Christian martyr, Stephen, is killed some could have mockingly asked “where is your God to save you?” But Stephen’s story is not finished yet. The thief crucified along with Jesus was in a real mess, and was a real mess-maker himself. Mighty Rome thought it was putting an end to him and his mess. His story is not finished yet though the mess is now behind him. And your story is not finished, no matter how much of a mess you are in, or how much of a mess you are responsible for, your story does not end here. Even when your loved ones place your remains in their final resting place, there is nothing final about it. For the repentant follower the best is yet to come:

And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. (John 14:3 NRSV)

While the story is not over, your story of experiencing God’s grace is not one you will want to fast forward through. Yes, the best is yet to come, but we want to savour, value, and be good stewards of each moment between now and then.

I have met Christians who seem to be solely and wholly devoted to the end-times and escape from the mess of current times. Their studies are devoted to the end, as are their prayers. In fact their very lives seem devoted to the next life. They have a finger on the fast-forward button with an attitude summed up by my one of my brother’s favourite sayings: “beam me up Scotty. This planet sucks!” That cannot be our prayer, for Jesus teaches us to pray:

  • “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name” – our lives are to lead to the honour of his name, right here, right now.
  • “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” – while God has an amazing kingdom future for us, we are to start living those realities right here, right now.
  • “Give us this day our daily bread” – this speaks to desire and contentment for today.
  • “And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” – this is something we are to do in the here and now
  • “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one” – a prayer appropriate for today and every day.

In addition to paying attention to our Lord’s teaching on prayer, living out the Great Commandment, the Great Commission, and the Golden Rule also requires a focus on living in, rather than escaping from, today. This planet may well be in a mess, but that is part of why we are called. We are to be peace makers rather than mess makers. It is not wrong to long for Christ’s Kingdom coming, but we are also to long for God’s Kingdom to be expressed in the here and now.

Then there are others who only value Christianity for how it impacts their future. It is only useful as an assurance of heaven, and is of no earthly relevance to their lives or the messes they live in or create. While Jesus’ promise of eternal life is assuring, your story of experiencing God’s grace is not one you will want to put on hold. You will also want to pay attention to what God can and will do in and through you in the here and now.

It would be interesting to know how many Christians would call themselves Christians if Jesus’ promise, and all other references to heaven and eternal life were not in the Bible. Would people still be Jesus followers? What if the cross was just an example of a Godly life and not a means to an eternal life with God? What if the cross merely pointed us to how to forgive and express grace and love, yet we could expect to die never to live again? Would you still follow Jesus? I hope so, for we do not follow Jesus for reward, but because He is Lord. And when our Lord teaches us how to live in the here and now, full of grace and truth, we should listen. Thankfully, while being an example to follow, Jesus’ death is also an expression and working out of God’s covenant promises to save. Jesus makes the promise, and does what is needed to make it possible:

And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. (John 14:3 NRSV)

The promise is made because this is a love story. The language Jesus uses is reminiscent of a wedding. The groom goes away to prepare the home for the couple to enjoy once they are married. Then he comes back to take his bride to be with him in their home together. This is the kind of love God has for His Church. It goes far beyond that of one person rescuing another from a mess. Heroes are typically strangers. This is love that is focused on relationship. It is a commitment to love in a covenant of love. It is the love of the One who is love. It is love from the One who will keep His promise:

And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. (Revelation 21:2 NRSV)