Sri Lanka & the Hope of the Resurrection

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Church in Negombo, Sri Lanka after the attack on Easter Sunday

Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.” (John 11:25)

Yesterday, as people around the world gathered to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, terrorists attacked three churches in Sri Lanka, killing nearly 300 and injuring over 500. [source]

The irony of the situation is profound: The goal of terrorism is to incite fear by taking lives, but they carried out their attacks on the day when Christians revel in the fact that we can live without fear because of the hope that we have in eternal life.

What Jesus’ resurrection means for Christians, is that not only did Jesus die to forgive our sins, but he rose from the grave to conquer over death forever, so that we can have eternal life.

1 Corinthians 15 tells us that Jesus is the “first fruits” of those who are going to be resurrected to eternal life, and because that is true, death has lost its sting! Death will not have the final word.

As a result of this great truth, we who have this hope of eternal lives are free to live without fear. We are free to be courageous and generous, because we have nothing to lose – and the greatest gain is already ours!

Paul the Apostle put it this way: “If the dead are not raised, then we should just eat and drink for tomorrow we die.” (1 Corinthians 15:32) The idea is that, if this life is all we’ve got, then it would make sense for us to be selfish and short-sighted with the time we’ve got, since this is all we have. However, if Jesus did indeed rise from the dead, and we will too – then “to live is Christ, and to die is gain!” (Philippians 1:21)

If you have the hope of eternal life, then this life isn’t as good as it will ever get for you, rather, this life is as bad as it will ever be for you. If you know that you’ve got a thousand, million, billion years ahead of you, in which you will experience joy, security, adventure and love, then you are truly free to use the little window of time you’ve got here on Earth in the service of others, and in the service of God.

If you have the hope of eternal life, you are free to love sacrificially, and to give without holding back!

In other words: Jesus’ resurrection makes us brave, because it gives us hope.

Jesus’ disciples who saw him after his resurrection were so transformed by it, that they went from being timid and fearful to being bold, to the point where they came out of hiding and publicly proclaimed their faith, unwaveringly – even in the face of violence towards them and their families. As Paul says in Acts 13:31, they became “witnesses to the people”; rather than fearing for their lives, they boldly carried out a mission.

Our hearts break, and our prayers go out for those who are suffering from injuries, as well as for the families who were affected by this horrible act of violence. Our hearts ache as we look around and see the brokenness in the world, manifesting itself in hatred and violence. But as Christians, we must refuse to live in fear.

Instead, we set our hearts and minds all the more on the fact that we are pilgrims in this world, and our purpose here is not comfort or security. The time for comfort and security will come – fully and forever! But our time here on Earth is to be dedicated to courageously doing the will of God and carrying out His mission in the world, to bring to others the love of God and the good news of Jesus: the light of the world, who conquered death, and through whom we can have eternal life.

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Did People Go to Heaven Before Jesus’ Death & Resurrection?

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A reader recently sent in this question:

In John 3:13, Jesus says“No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven-the Son of Man,”

  • Is this saying that people didn’t go to Heaven before Jesus’ death and resurrection?
  • Where had everyone who died gone before Jesus died and rose?
  • Did this change after his death and resurrection?
  • What verses can you share with me about this?

Let me answer each of those questions in order:

Is this saying that people didn’t go to Heaven before Jesus’ death and resurrection?

Yes, I believe so.

Where had everyone who died gone before Jesus died and rose?

The Old Testament talks a lot about “Sheol” which is the dwelling place of the dead. Psalm 139:7-8, for example, says: “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!”

Is this saying that God is present in Hell? No. It’s saying He is present in Sheol. 

It would seem (I’ll give Scriptural justification for this below) that Sheol was divided into two sections: Abraham’s Bosom and Hades.

Abraham’s Bosom was a place of comfort for those who died in faith. Since they had not yet been redeemed through the death and resurrection of Jesus, they could not go to Heaven, so this was a sort of holding place, or waiting room for the souls of the Old Testament believers who died in faith, trusting not in their own works or performance to garner them favor before God, but casting themselves on God’s mercy and grace to save them through the Messiah who was to come.

Hades, on the other hand, was a place of torment for those who died apart from awareness of their shortcomings and apart from faith and trust in God’s mercy and grace. Hades, like Abraham’s Bosom, was/is a holding place or waiting room for the souls of those who have died apart from faith, and though those in Hades suffer torment presently, one day Hades will be emptied into the Lake of Fire, meaning that Hades is not the final destination for those who have died apart from faith.

Did this change after Jesus’ death and resurrection?

It seems that in the time between Jesus’ death and resurrection, Jesus descended into Sheol and released those from Abraham’s Bosom and led them to Heaven. Those who die now in faith in Jesus go to Heaven, i.e. the presence of God.

Hades, on the other hand, remains in tact, and those who die apart from faith still go there.

What verses can you share with me about this?

Luke 16:19-31: The Rich Man and Lazarus

Luke 16:19-31 gives us insight to this through the story of the rich man and Lazarus: Lazarus, a poor man who died in faith, is taken to Abraham’s bosom, whereas the rich man who died apart from faith is taken to Hades. Between the two parts of Sheol, the story tells us, is an uncrossable chasm, and there is no escape.

The rich man desperately wants someone to go and speak to his family members, and plead with them lest they end up in Hades as well, but the man is told that his family members have been given Moses and the Prophets (i.e. the Scriptures), and they should listen to them.

Ephesians 4:8-10: He Led Captives in His Train

In Ephesians 4:8-10 we read this: Therefore it says, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives (in his train), and he gave gifts to men.” (In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.)

The Apostles Creed, one of the oldest Christian creeds, includes this phrase:

He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to hell.
The third day he rose again from the dead.

Going back to Jesus’ apostles, who spoke with him after his resurrection, there seems to have been an understanding that Jesus descended into Sheol, and did two things:

  1. Released those “captives” from Abraham’s Bosom and led them to the immediate presence of God (Heaven). (Ephesians 4:8)
  2. Preached to the spirits in prison (1 Peter 3:19-20)

The latter of these was not evangelism, but a pronouncement of judgment upon those spirits in Hades. We know this because of the qualifying text in 1 Peter 3:20.

“Today you will be with me in Paradise”

2 Corinthians 5:8Luke 23:43  & Philippians 1:23 tell us that when a believer dies today, they are taken to the direct presence of God, AKA “paradise”.

Hades will be cast into the Lake of Fire

Revelation 20:11-15 describes how, after the judgement of the living and the dead at the end of all things, Hades will be cast into the Lake of Fire.

And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.  (Revelation 20:13-15)

A New Heavens and a New Earth

Heaven, as it is now experienced, is different than what will be after the final judgment, where Revelation 21 tells us that there will be a new heavens and a new Earth, for the first heaven and the first Earth will have passed away, and will be no more. (Revelation 21:1)

Jesus said in Matthew 24:35 that Heaven and Earth will pass away, but his words never will.

2 Peter 3:7 says, But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly. 

And 2 Peter 3:10 says, But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.

Thus, after the final judgment, there will be a new heavens and a new Earth, which will be not only the restoration of Eden, but the fulfillment of what Eden would have been had sin not entered in.

In the New Jerusalem, once again, we see humankind together with God, with no sin nor shame, nor any of the destructive effects of sin (i.e. sickness, pain), and that the Tree of Life is there. Whereas Eden was a garden, the New Jerusalem will be a garden city.

Submit Your Questions!

Thanks for these great questions! Keep studying the Word, and feel free to send more questions to me by filling out this form.

Atul Gawande’s ‘Being Mortal’ and the Need for Hope

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I recently finished Atul Gawande’s book Being Mortal. It was given to me by a friend from church who recommended I read it, and I’m glad I did.

The Author and his beliefs

Atul Gawande is an American medical doctor, the son of two doctors who immigrated to the U.S. from India. He was raised nominally Hindu, but by his own admission he is functionally secular and non-religious, and the focus of his book is not at all on giving hope beyond this life, only on dealing with the death from a clinical perspective.

However, I would argue that whatever you believe about the future invariably affects the way you interpret the meaning and purpose of life, as well as how you cope with mortality, and this does come through in some of his conclusions.

Content and Highlights

The book begins with a description of physical changes that happen as people age, beginning at age 35.

Dying Well

Next, Atul Gawande gives a brief history of nursing homes. I found this part very interesting. About 50% of Americans die in nursing homes. Some might say this is very sad, which in some ways it is – however, understanding the way that most people died in the past makes you see that this is actually a great improvement over 100 years ago, when many people died in state-funded “poor houses” which even at their best had awful conditions.

He then goes on to describe the development of “assisted living” facilities, and how many have now deviated from their original purpose and design. He also tells stories of people who have sought to improve these facilities through innovation, such as bringing living things, e.g. plants, animals and children into these homes to improve residents’ quality of life.

While the author does say that the older model of a multi-generational home in which elderly people are cared for at home until they die has some benefits, he also shows its limits and downsides, using his own grandfather as an example.

Palliative Care

Atul also describes the benefits of palliative care for elderly people, which is focused on improving a person’s quality of life rather than on invasive treatments which may reduce a dying person’s quality of life even though they have little to no chance of curing them or significantly prolonging their life.

Even though palliative care has been shown to help improve and often prolong a person’s life, one of the sad things Gawande points out is that many insurance providers have stopped paying for palliative care, but they continue paying for invasive treatments, even if they are unnecessary or unhelpful to patients. This perpetuates a cycle of doing everything possible for patients, even if those treatments are not likely to lengthen their life and will probably make their quality of life worse.

The Big Point

Atul Gawande’s main point is summed up in this statement:

“Over and over, we in medicine inflict deep gouges at the end of people’s lives and then stand oblivious to the harm done.”

He argues that as people live longer and more die of old age, we should be focused on helping people stay in control of their lives as long as possible, achieve their goals, and die with dignity.

A Reason for Living

It is impossible to talk about dying without some sort of existential discussion about what gives life meaning and purpose.

At one point, Atul Gawande references the Harvard philosopher Josiah Royce, who said that “simply existing – merely being housed and fed and safe and alive – seems empty and meaningless to us.” He goes on to explain that we all seek a cause beyond ourselves, and it is in ascribing value to the cause and seeing it as worth sacrificing for, that gives our lives meaning.

Royce said that this reason for living was the opposite of individualism. An individualist puts self-interest first, seeing his or her own pain, pleasure and existence as their greatest concern. For the individualist, self-sacrifice makes no sense, but since their own self is the highest cause for which they live, their life has no meaning other than to make themselves happy. Ironically, it is for this reason that happiness and satisfaction will always elude them. For the individualist death is meaningless and ultimately terrifying.

It is for this reason, Gawande explains, that we all need something beyond ourselves and outside of ourselves to live for, and this is why elderly people who have pets, for example, tend to live longer lives.

The problem with Gawande’s search for meaning

The problem with Gawande’s search for meaning, is that he has identified a real need, and yet he basically says in the end that since he doesn’t believe there is anything beyond this life, therefore it is better to give someone the illusion that their life has meaning and purpose and value beyond themselves, even though no such thing really exists.

He does mention that people want their lives to make a difference after they are gone, but what he fails to answer is: to what end?  Why should anyone care about what happens after they are gone, if life is actually meaningless, and after this light burns out there is only darkness? From this same logic, a totally selfish existentialism could also be argued for – such as that of the Epicureans: “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die!” – in other words #YOLO – since we only live once, who cares what destruction we leave in our wake for others to deal with?! It’ll be their problem, not ours!

The solution which only the gospel gives

In this search for meaning and purpose, I would argue that it is only the gospel message of Jesus Christ which gives a satisfactory answer to humankind’s search for meaning and hope beyond this life.

It is only the gospel which gives us real hope beyond this life, and a real mission in this life which has more than just illusionary results. In the gospel we have hope for life beyond this one, and the effects of our mission are eternal in nature.

As CS Lewis put it at the end of the Chronicles of Narnia:

“For us, this is the end of all the stories…but for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.” – CS Lewis, The Last Battle

In order to truly “die well”, what we need is not just dignity, but HOPE. And this is found only and ultimately in the gospel message of Jesus Christ.

Should you read it?

I would recommend Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal. It was full of important thoughts about the process of dying in Western society today. However, I recommend reading the book with an eye to its one glaring shortcoming: it fails to address the need for and the source of HOPE both for this life and the one to come.

Was Paul Suicidal?

Recently at White Fields I have been teaching through Paul’s Letter to the Philippians in a study titled, The Pursuit of Happiness.

This past Sunday I taught on Paul’s famous saying: “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain” – and I explained how the gospel gives new meaning to our lives and it redefines what death means for us. Audio of that message can be found here.

In that sermon, I didn’t get to what Paul says after that famous phrase. Here’s the rest:

For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again. (Philippians 1:21-26)

A reader of this blog sent me a message this week about this passage:

I have always wondered if Paul was experiencing a period of depression when he wrote this epistle. What he says in verse 1:22, “yet what I shall choose I cannot tell” even makes me consider that he was in some ways considering “suicide”. I know that sounds preposterous, and I’m not suggesting that he actually thought of killing himself but rather maybe purposely doing something that would result in his death. In todays world it might be called “suicide-by-cop”. It seems as he continues through the remainder of the chapter that he convinces himself that it is better to remain for the benefit of others. It could be that he was just experiencing a time when his death seemed imminent and he was preparing the readers for that eventuality, but I think that he was experiencing a great amount of stress during this time. As always, he was able, through the Spirit, to overcome his stress and turn it into a beautiful, encouraging letter. I believe it probable that all men of great faith experience times of doubt or fear brought on by the enemy.

That’s an interesting thought. Certainly Paul was facing dire circumstances, and I fully agree with the final sentence, but I wouldn’t go so far as to agree that Paul might have been having suicidal thoughts – even to the degree of doing something that might provoke someone else to kill him.

To me, the tone of the letter is one of triumph in the face of harsh circumstances, even death.

I believe that what’s going through Paul’s mind as he writes those words is that he wants to explain something important to the Philippians: That although as Christians, the ultimate hope of the Gospel is the hope of eternal life in paradise with God, that should never minimize the purpose that God has for our lives here on Earth.

This seems to have been a problem amongst some of the early Christians. 2 Thessalonians was written, in part, to let the Christians know that Jesus had not yet returned, that the Parausia, the Second Coming, was still to come – but that as we await Jesus’ imminent return, we should not be inactive;  we should still work hard. That’s why he says:

If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. (2 Thessalonians 3:10-12)

The context of that, is that the Thessalonians were eagerly expecting the return of Jesus any day – as all early Christians did, and as it seems that Jesus intended all Christians to do, which is the reason for his vagueness about when his return will take place.

The point is this: We should not have a Christianity in which we encourage people to just believe in Jesus and then hang on and wait for death! I think Paul wanted to Philippians to understand that: that Christianity isn’t only about going to heaven when you die, it’s about living this life for Christ – as much as, and as long as possible.

It’s not only that because of the Gospel, DEATH IS GAIN – but also: because of the Gospel, TO LIVE IS CHRIST!

Another reason why I think Paul was not discouraged when he wrote to the Philippians is because he closes the letter by saying:

Greet every saint in Christ Jesus. The brothers who are with me greet you. All the saints greet you, especially those of Caesar’s household. (Philippians 4:21-22)

What this means is that members of Caesar’s household, including the Praetorian Guard (members of which were chained to Paul 24 hrs a day in 6 hr shifts), were becoming Christians through his being there in jail. I think Paul was feeling particularly encouraged after facing years of discouragement prior to this. Finally he was starting to see some fruit and the purpose for which God must have allowed this series of terrible difficulties and injustices happen to him. Many of us may never get to see that in our difficulties, but when we do it helps to encourage us that God is indeed in control and using all of the frayed strands to create a beautiful tapestry.

 

Advent Meditations: 4 – Set Free

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Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. – Hebrews 2:14-15

Last night I was at the hospital with the family and close friends of a woman who was passing on from this life. She was a wonderful wife, mother and friend, and she will be dearly missed.

But although she has passed from this life, she is not dead – she is alive and we will see her again.

That is the hope of the Gospel, and she and her husband believe and embrace the Gospel.

The verse above sums up the significance of Christmas more succinctly and clearly than almost any other passage in the Bible: because we, God’s children, are flesh and blood, HE took on flesh and blood, that through his death, he might destroy death and the devil and set us free from bondage to the fear of death.

The reason Jesus was born was so he could die. God became a man, because as God he could not die, but as a man he could. Therefore, he had to become human. Good Friday is the reason for Christmas.

Because of his death, we are set free from the power of death, and therefore we can be free of the fear of death. Our ultimate security has an immediate affect on our lives. The happy ending takes away the slavery to fear in the here and now.

When you no longer fear the last and greatest enemy: death, then you are truly free to live a bold, courageous life of pursuing things that really matter and giving of yourself radically in a way that makes a difference in the lives of others and the world, because you have nothing to lose.

Live in that freedom today.

“Always Go To The Funeral”

 

I ran across this article from NPR’s All Things Considered called “Always Go To The Funeral.” It’s worth listening to or reading.

As a pastor, I attend a fair number of funerals. Since our congregation is relatively young, these aren’t usually funerals for our church members, but funerals for their loved ones who pass away.

I think going to funerals is important. There are certain moments and events in life that are worth inconveniencing yourself for; honoring the life of a human being is one of them. 

A lot of people avoid funerals because death is something that we all feel is a foreign imposition on us – something that is inherently wrong. We are right to feel that way actually;  God’s Word makes it clear that we were made to live forever, and that sickness, pain and death are a curse – part of the very curse that Jesus Christ came to set us free from. However, it’s that very reason why it’s a healthy thing for us to attend funerals – to be faced with the ultimate realities that make the hope of the Gospel truly good news.

One thing I’ve realized over the years as a pastor, is that most people aren’t prepared for how to handle those who suffer or grieve. On a recent trip to Hungary I taught a seminar for the church there, whose pastor had recently lost a child, on how to understand grief and how to love and minister to grieving people. This instruction is so helpful, because most people (at least over there) default to either avoiding the situation or saying things which aren’t helpful. In reality, one of the best things you can do for someone who is grieving is not say anything, but just be around – present, available.
Yes, funerals are uncomfortable. Guess who else doesn’t enjoy being at that funeral: the person who lost a loved one. Bless them by being there beside them in their time of loss.