Is There a Difference Between “Soul” and “Spirit”?

Every human being has a physical body, yet clearly who we are is not only defined by our bodies. As our bodies age or are damaged, there is something fundamental to who we are which is distinct from our bodies. The Bible tells us that in addition to our physical bodies, as human beings we possess an immaterial spirit and soul.

What can be confusing, however, is what exactly a person’s spirit is, and what their soul is, and how these two relate to each other.

Two Views: Trichotomy and Dichotomy

The Trichitomous view holds that the soul and the spirit are two distinct things, whereas the Dichotomous view holds that soul and spirit are two words which describe two distinct aspects of the same thing, namely the immaterial part of a human being.

Those who hold a Trichotomous view often claim that this three-part human nature is one of the ways in which we have been created in the “image of God” (Genesis 1:26-27). Just as God is a greater trinity of Father, Son, and Spirit, He has created us in his image as a lesser trinity of body, soul, and spirit, says the thrichotomist. This assertion is usually followed by an explanation of what the difference is between soul and spirit. A common explanation is that the soul refers to the mind, encompassing both cognitive and personality-related aspects, whereas the spirit is the part of a person which connects with God. This, it is commonly said by trichotomists, is what distinguishes human beings from animals, who are not created in God’s image; though they have bodies and cognitive abilities (including emotions and personalities), they do not have a spirit, which makes them capable of relationship with God.

There are several passages in the Bible which suggest that there is a separation between the soul and the spirit (Romans 8:16; 1 Thessalonians 5:23; Hebrews 4:12). However, there are also several Bible verses which use the terms soul and spirit interchangeably (Matthew 10:28; Luke 1:46–47; 1 Corinthians 5:3, 7:34).

Hebrews 4:12 says that “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” This would suggest that there is a dividing point between the soul and the spirit, but that they are so closely connected that the division of them is something which only God is capable of carrying out.

Advocates of the trichotomist position include James M. Boice, whereas J.I. Packer and John Calvin are some examples of those who hold a dichotomist view.

J.I. Packer’s argument for the dichotomous view

In his book “Concise Theology”, Packer explains the dichotomist view in this way:

Each human being in the world consists of a material body animated by an immaterial personal self. Scripture calls this self a “soul” or a “spirit.” “Soul emphasizes the distinctness of a person’s conscious selfhood; “spirit” carries the nuances of the self’s derivation from God, dependence on Him, and distinction from the body.
Biblical usage leads us to say that we have and are both souls and spirits, but it is a mistake to say that soul and spirit are two different things. (J.I. Packer, Concise Theology, pp. 74)

Packer goes on to explain that the trichotomous view tends to define soul as “an organ of this-worldly awareness,” whereas spirit is a distinct organ of communication with God.

This distinction, Packer argues, can lead to an unhealthy pitting of spirituality against intellectualism, in which intellectual engagement with God is considered “soulish”, i.e. unspiritual, while “spiritual perception” which is unrelated to the study of the Bible or rational thought. Furthermore, he adds that the trichotomous understanding of humanity may lead to a low view of the value of the material world, including our bodies, which would be inappropriate since we are embodied souls, and the hope of the gospel is not that we will escape this physical world, but that we will be resurrected to new and everlasting life in physical bodies.

My response to Packer’s view

I agree with Packer that it is wrong to devalue the physical world. As i have written about recently, this life matters! (See: Suicide, Christianity, & the Meaning of Life)

However, I do not believe that we should decide on theological positions based on fear of what they might lead some people to do. This is the kind of thinking that leads people to avoid teaching the scandalous truth about God’s amazing grace because they are afraid that some people might use it as a license to sin.

I do not believe that we should decide on theological positions based on fear of what they might lead some people to do.

Instead, we ought to develop our theological positions based on Scripture first, considering authorial intent as well as how these things were understood by the early Christians, subsequently applying reason (this is called “theological method”).

It seems dishonest, based on Scripture, to not acknowledge a distinction between soul and spirit. However, I am in agreement with Packer that we must not ever believe or teach that an intellectual pursuit of God is unspiritual, or that seeking God’s will in Scripture is less spiritual than seeking it through “spiritual perception”. Yet, the way the words are used in the Bible leads me to believe that soul and spirit are separate, yet intimately connected aspects of human personhood, the latter of which sets us apart from the animal world.

What are your thoughts on this topic? Do you lean more towards the trichotomous or dichotomous view, and why?

Check out this discussion that Mike Payne, worship pastor at White Fields Church and I recently had on this subject for our church’s YouTube channel:

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Suicide & Salvation

monochrome photo of woman sitting on floor

In response to my post, “Suicide, Christianity, & the Meaning of Life”, I received the following question from a reader:

I’m wondering about your thoughts on people who are mentally ill, followers of Christ, and decide to commit suicide. Do you think they go to heaven? In your post you said that suicide is equal to the sin of murder. This is something I’ve wrestled with for a long time now.

Mental Illness, Fallen Nature, and Spiritual Warfare

More people die from suicide than from homicide in America. Sadly, mental illness and suicide touch many lives, not only those who suffer from mental illness or struggle with suicidal thoughts, but also the lives of those who love them and are connected to them.  Mental illness often distorts the thinking and perception of those who struggle with it, leading them to feel alone and without hope, even when this is not the case.

Certainly, in addition to physiological disorders and imbalances in the brain, which themselves are the result of the fallen human condition, our minds are the chief battlefield upon which spiritual warfare is waged, with “the enemy of our souls,” the one who seeks to steal, kill, and destroy, attacking our thought life with lies and destructive suggestions.

The word “satan” comes from Hebrew, and means “adversary”. The word “devil” comes from Greek, and means “accuser” or “slanderer”. One of the ways the devil attacks us is by throwing our sins and shortcomings in our face. Whereas the devil is an “accuser”, Jesus is our advocate before the Father (1 John 2:1). Another way the devil attacks us is by telling us lies; Jesus said about the devil that “there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” (John 8:44)

It is significant therefore, that when Paul talks about taking up the “armor of God” to help us withstand “the schemes of the devil”, he includes the “helmet of salvation”, which protects the believer’s head (Ephesians 6:10-20). One of the best things we can do to combat the lies of the enemy is to become intimately familiar with God’s truth and who He says we are.

Sin and Salvation

Suicide, without a doubt, is a grave sin, equal to murder. However, does such a sin cause a person to lose their salvation? Since salvation is not something that can be earned in the first place by our good actions (or lack of bad actions), it is not something we can lose  by our bad actions.

The Bible teaches that those who have been redeemed by God have been forgiven of all of our sins: past, present, and future (Colossians 2:13-14). This means that I do believe it is possible that if a true Christian were to commit suicide in a moment of extreme weakness, they would be received into Heaven.

What About 1 Corinthians 3:16-17?

1 Corinthians 3:16-17 says, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.”

This verse has sometimes been used to say that those who commit suicide will be destroyed by God, i.e. receive eternal judgment and not salvation. The problem with using this verse in this way, is that this verse is not talking about suicide.

While 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 argues for individual holiness on the basis of the fact that, as believers in whom God’s Spirit dwells, we are the temple of the living God, in 1 Corinthians 3:16-17 Paul is talking about the church corporately as the temple of God. This is similar to what Peter says in 1 Peter 2:5, where he says, “you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” The picture Peter paints is that we are each individual stones who come together to form the temple of God; God, thus, makes his habitation in the midst of the congregation, not in special buildings built by human hands (cf. Acts 7:48, 17:24)

The problem we have in modern English is that we use the same word, “you”, for both the second person singular and the second person plural (y’all or you guys – depending on where you’re from), so a simple reading in our modern vernacular doesn’t tell us if a verse is directed towards us as individuals or to a collective group. 1 Corinthians 3:16-17 uses you in the second person plural, meaning that Paul is speaking of those who destroy God’s temple as those who destroy the Body of Christ, the Church. This is also clear from the context of 1 Corinthians 3, where Paul is talking about the importance of unity in the Body of Christ.

Thus, 1 Corinthians 3:16-17 is a warning about how seriously God takes attacks against the Church, not a warning aimed at those who are considering suicide.

A Word of Caution

My purpose in writing this post is only to bring clarity to a theological question and perhaps some hope to those who have had believing loved ones who suffered from mental illness and/or great spiritual attack, and in a moment of great weakness decided to do something awful and end their lives.

My fear is that in writing this I might give justification to someone who is considering committing suicide, but has been kept from doing so out of fear of Hell.

Let me be clear: what I have written here is my best attempt at faithfully exegeting and making sense of what the Scriptures say. I could be wrong.

I will say this: to entertain suicidal thoughts is sin. It is to entertain ideas of taking your life into your own hands, rather than honoring God as Lord and master of your life. He deserves that role both as a result of creation and salvation; you are not your own, you belong to Him (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).

Furthermore, the markers of person who has been regenerated by God’s Spirit is that their life is characterized by hope and by a mission. While there may be times when a person experiences extreme feelings of hopelessness for various reasons, there is hope, and God has a purpose with your life.

Help is available for those who are struggling. You can contact me directly here, or call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Hotline if you need someone to talk to immediately: 1-800-273-8255

Suicide, Christianity, & the Meaning of Life

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If – as the Bible teaches – when a believer dies, their soul goes to be with God, where there is no longer any suffering, pain or sickness, then why would we not want to speed up the process a little bit? After all, as Paul the Apostle wrote to the Philippians, “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” (Philippians 1:23). Why not take up smoking, stop using sunscreen, and give up wearing seatbelts? Or, to take it even further, why not just go all the way and end your life now, so you can leave this harsh world behind and go to Heaven?

If that sounds preposterous, keep in mind that this was something that actually happened in early Christian history: there was a time when committing suicide became fashionable among Christians, and the church had to respond and try to end this tragic fad.

When Christians Were Killing Themselves

Until the Edict of Milan, AKA the Edict of Tolleration was issued in 313 AD, Christianity’s status in the Roman Empire was that of religio illicita, an “illicit” or illegal religion (as opposed to Judaism, which held the status of religio licita)During this time, Christians throughout the Roman Empire experienced waves of persecution, usually dependent on the attitudes of local authorities, although there were times when persecution was the official policy of the entire empire – such as during the reigns of Nero and Diocletian. Christians also faced persecution outside the Roman Empire.

During this period, many Christians were martyred, and martyrs were highly regarded and respected as those who had been willing to pay the ultimate price for their faith. In fact, martyrdom was so highly regarded, that people began to seek it out and desire it, as a way of expressing their devotion to Jesus. Ignatius of Antioch, for example, wrote about his desire to die as a martyr.

But some people took it even further. Jerome writes about a young woman named Belsilla who flagellated herself so much that she died from her self-imposed injuries. Another woman, Agathonike, upon witnessing the execution of a bishop by burning, also threw herself onto the fire, declaring “this is the meal that has been prepared for me.” She died in the flames, even though she had not been arrested nor charged. There are other accounts of Christians volunteering to be martyred even though they were not even being sought by the authorities. [1]

The Donatists, who considered themselves particularly hard core and dedicated, greatly desired to show their devotion by being martyred, some even going to the point of simply killing themselves to show how spiritual they were, i.e. how much they were not attached to this life and how much they desired to depart this world and be with Christ.

The Response of the Church

Seeking martyrdom and committing suicide became such a big issue with the Donatists in particular that it threatened the credibility, and even the existence of the church in their area of North Africa.

Judaism had always considered suicide to be sinful, whereas in pagan Roman culture it was considered an acceptable way to exit this life, and was practiced mostly by the wealthy, in part because slaves were not allowed to commit suicide since their lives did not belong to them, but rather to their masters.

It was Augustine of Hippo, a native of North Africa himself, who took up the challenge of addressing this issue and clarifying Christian thinking on this subject. In his book ‘The City of God’, Augustine considered what the Bible has to say about suicide and weighed various arguments for and against suicide. His conclusion was that suicide is always wrong as it is a violation of the sixth commandment (“Thou shall not murder”), and is never justified even in extreme circumstances. This became the official position of the church. [2]

The Meaning of Life

This whole issue touches on something which is core to Christian belief, and which sets Christianity apart from other worldviews and religions.

Many world religions view the world negatively, as a place of chaos, pain, and suffering – where the goal is to escape. This is the goal of transcendence and Nirvana in Eastern philosophies and religions, for example.

Christianity on the other hand, views this world positively. Rather than seeing the origin of the world as having come about through conflict or chaos, it is described as the thoughtful and good creation of a loving God. It is described as a garden paradise, given to us as a gift by our loving creator.

Although this good creation has been corrupted by sin and world currently “lies under the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19), the world still retains its fundamental goodness, and God has promised that one day He will redeem His creation.

The purpose of our lives, according to the Bible, is not to escape this world, but to steward this world (Genesis 1:28), as well as our lives and everything we’ve been given, to the glory of God and for the benefit and salvation of others. In other words: the people of God have been given a mission which can only be carried out in this life, and therefore this life matters greatly. Rather than escaping this world, His desire for us is to be about His business as long as we live.

It is an unbiblical an anemic theology of life and the world which leads to the attitude that the most spiritual thing to do is to bide your time as you wait to get out of this world to be with God. True spirituality is rather to value this life and the unique opportunities it affords to do the work of God, and be involved in his saving and redeeming work.

As Paul wrote to the Thessalonians: For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him. (1 Thessalonians 5:19)

Between now and the end of our lives, there is a whole space that is significant. How you live it matters greatly to God. There are things he wants you to do with that time (cf. Ephesians 2:10). The Christian life, in other words, is not simply waiting to die so you can go to Heaven. God has given you this life for a purpose and He wants to use you to advance His Kingdom and to touch lives. He values our lives, and so should we!

 

Do All Babies Go to Heaven?

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A question that many people wonder about is the eternal destiny of children who die in infancy. Furthermore, if we believe that life begins in the womb, what about those babies who are aborted?

Having never had the chance to hear, understand, and believe the gospel – what happens to their souls? Is there some special mercy of God which is available to them?

Aside from the anecdotal evidence from 2 Samuel 12, in which David expresses his belief that he will be reunited one day with his deceased son, from a theological perspective the basic question really comes down to this: While we are all born with a fallen, sinful nature, is it this sinful nature which incurs God’s judgment, or is it rather disobedience, which is based on knowledge?

A decent argument can be made for the latter, from many places in the Bible, not least of which is found in Romans 1-2, where the wrath of God is clearly stated to be incurred by rebellion and disobedience, which are based on knowledge of God and knowledge of right and wrong. Deuteronomy 1:39 also states that infants do not have knowledge of good and evil.

We should also consider how this applies to those with cognitive disabilities.

This brings up several questions, such as whether there is such a thing as an “age of accountability” at which a person becomes responsible for their actions and choices before God? Our human laws certainly deal with people based on knowledge and understanding. If God does also, how is that age of accountabilty determined?

Here is a brief discussion that Pastor Mike and I had on this topic in our Sermon Extra video for one of the messages from our “I Could Never Believe in a God Who…” series:

Do Christians and Muslims Worship the Same God?

concrete dome buildings during golden hour

Recently SBC pastor J.D. Greear received some criticism over claims that he said that Muslims and Christians worship the same God. 

In all fairness, that’s not exactly what J.D. said. In his book Breaking the Islam Code: Understanding the Soul Questions of Every MuslimJ.D. stated that while the Christian and Muslim conceptions of God are irreconcilably different, there are some shared assumptions about God which can be used in apologetic conversations with Muslims, e.g. monotheism, affirmation of the Old and New Testaments, recognition of Jesus as a prophet, etc.

You can hear, watch and read J.D. Greear speak on this subject in his own words here.

Allah and God

Earlier this year I had the opportunity to visit Israel, and during my time there I met several Israeli Christians, including some Arab-Israeli Christians. Arab-Israeli Christians refer to God by the Arabic word for God: Allah. Just as the English word God is of Germanic origin, and is not itself particularly tied to the God of the Bible, but is a “generic” name for deity, Allah is a similar word in Arabic. As monotheists, who believe there is only one God, we use this word to speak of the one supreme God rather than using a personal name for God to differentiate Him from other deities, since we do not believe any other so-called god is a rival to Him. There is precedent for this in the Bible, in which the ancient Hebrew word, with its Mesopotamian origins is used: אל (“El”), and in the New Testament, the Greek word Θεός (“Theos”).

Islam is different than Christianity in their belief that the Quran cannot be translated to any other language other than Arabic. Muslims are required to pray in Arabic, meaning that non-Arabic speakers are not allowed to pray to God in their mother tongue, but must memorize and recite Arabic prayers. Furthermore, when they read the Quran, they must read it in Arabic. There are “interpretations” of the Quran into other languages, but they are not considered scripture; only the Arabic-language Quran is considered valid and legitimate. It is for this reason, that muslims all over the world refer to their deity as Allah and not God in English, Gott in German, Бог in Russian, and so on.

So, the real issue is not: “What is the difference between Allah and God?”, but rather: “What is the difference between the God of Islam and the God of the Bible?” Even though they are both monotheistic supreme deities, they have different attributes, and therefore, even though they are both called “God”, they are not the same.

Why Islam is Like Mormonism

As the above tweet mentions, when Islam first came on the scene in the 7th Century, Christians did not consider it a different religion per se, they originally considered it a Christological heresy, and they considered Muhammed to be a false prophet.

In the Near East at that time, the majority of the population, particularly in urban areas, was Christian. In the Arabian peninsula, where Muhammed was located, polytheism was still practiced by the majority of the population, many of whom were nomadic. Muhammed led the Arabic people into monotheism, but a new and unique form of monotheism, which built on, but changed, the teachings of Judaism and Christianity.

The reason Islam was considered a Christological heresy was because Islam affirms both the Old Testament and the New Testament, considering them both holy scriptures, upon which Islam seeks to build. However, they claim that both the Old Testament and the New Testament have been severely altered and redacted, and therefore are not trustworthy. They argue that as a result, the Quran, which they claim is a new and trustworthy revelation given to Muhammed, the last and greatest in the long line of prophets, is the only trustworthy revelation available to us, and the Quran “sets the record straight” regarding things which have been altered and redacted in the Old and New Testaments.

For more information on why we can be sure that the Bible has not been altered (neither the Old nor the New Testament), check out this article in which I discuss historicity, attestation, and canonization.

Some of the things Islam claims were changed in the Bible: God’s choosing of Isaac instead of Ishmael (they claim Ishmael was the chosen son, since they trace their ancestry through him – and they claim the Jews changed the Bible to say that God chose Isaac). They also claim that what the New Testament says about Jesus was radically changed by Christians in order to claim that Jesus was God, when in fact (as they say), he was only a prophet. They do however, acknowledge that Jesus was sinless, unlike Muhammed.

Thus, Muslims deny Jesus’ deity, and along with that comes a denial of his identity as Savior. As a result, they teach salvation by works, whereas Christianity teaches salvation by grace, through faith, through the atoning work of Jesus on our behalf. The Christian gospel is that God imputes Christ’s righteousness to us, which is the basis for our standing before Him, as opposed to Islam, which claims that you must earn your way before God by trying hard enough to keep the 5 Pillars of Islam, so that hopefully your good works with outweigh your bad works, and then God will allow you into Heaven. These are two radically different soteriologies (doctrines of salvation, i.e. how one is saved).

In a way, Islam is quite similar to Mormonism. Consider the similarities:

  • Both claim to build upon the Old and New Testaments, but claim that both have been corrupted and are therefore not trustworthy in the present form in which we have them.
  • Both claim a “new revelation”: the Quran and the Book of Mormon
  • Both claim a new prophet: Muhammed and Joseph Smith
  • Both change the identity and story of Jesus
  • Both teach a works-based soteriology (doctrine of salvation)

Are there bridges of shared assumptions between Christians and Muslims which can be used for apologetic and/or evangelistic purposes?

I believe there are. My wife and I, before we were married, used to serve together in a refugee camp in Hungary which was populated mostly by Muslims from Asia. We provided humanitarian aid to them, and as we built relationships with them, we got the opportunity to share our faith with them as well. We found that they had an affinity for the New Testament and an openness and interest in reading it, so we provided them with copies of the New Testament in their own languages. Many of them, though they had been taught that the New Testament was one of their holy books, had never had the opportunity to read it, assumedly because of the teaching in Islam that the New Testament has been changed and is not trustworthy. However, as these people read the New Testament, many of them were captivated by Jesus, and decided to become Christians. The inbuilt affinity for the Old and New Testaments, for Jesus, and their monotheistic belief, are great starting points for sharing the gospel.

An example of this in the Bible can be seen in how the Apostle John, in the Gospel of John, begins in chapter 1 by identifying Jesus as the divine Λογος (Logos = “the Word”). The concept of the divine Logos was a Greek philosophical concept, which basically meant: “the grand idea” or “the grand force” of the universe. John identified the Logos (translated: the Word) as Jesus. By doing so, John was tapping into an existing belief for apologetic and evangelistic purposes, like Paul did in Acts 17 in Athens, where he appealed to the Athenians on the basis of their altar to “the unknown god.”

Like Paul and like John, may we be uncompromising in our biblical beliefs, and yet wise to use opportunities to share the gospel with people in ways they can grab ahold of, that they might find love, joy, hope, freedom, and salvation in Jesus.

Reader Questions: People Claiming to Be Christ at the End of the Age

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Earlier this year I added a page on this site where readers can submit questions or suggest topics (click here for that page). Recently I received this question:

“Dear Pastor Nick, I am an avid listener to Hope FM in Baltimore, MD, and love when you host the call in show. I have a question: How will we not be fooled by others that pretend they are the Christ in these days ahead. Maybe even trying to deceive us with signs or wonders. Thank you so much.”

The Text: The Olivet Discourse

The text you are referring to comes from what is called the “Olivet Discourse,” a teaching Jesus gave to his disciples on the Mount of Olives, a hill east of Jerusalem, during his “passion week,” the week Jesus spent in Jerusalem leading up to his crucifixion.

In Matthew 24, Mark 13, & Luke 21, Jesus warns his disciples that a time is coming when many will come claiming to be the Christ, but not to be deceived by them.

As he sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” And Jesus answered them, “See that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray. And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet. (Matthew 24:3-6)

The disciples ask two questions: (1) when will these things be, and (2) what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?

Jesus’ answer to these questions intertwines prophecy concerning the destruction of Jerusalem and his second coming. The nearer event (the destruction of Jerusalem) serves as a symbol and foreshadowing of the more distant event (the second coming).

Jesus warned his disciples from the outset that many people would be deceived as they awaited his return. There have been many times in history in which this has happened, in three main forms:

1. People claiming to be the Messiah

Tragically, those who rejected Jesus when He came to them as Messiah ended up falling after false messiahs who led them into nothing but death and destruction. For example, 100 years after Jesus, a man named Bar Kokhba was considered by many Jews to be the messiah. He led a revolution against the Romans and enjoyed early success, but was soon crushed.

2. People claiming that Jesus has returned, or that they are him

In the First Century, the Christians of Thessalonica had heard a rumor that Jesus had returned, and that they had missed it! Paul the Apostle wrote his Second Letter to the Thessalonians, in part, to dispel this rumor, and assure them that Jesus had not yet returned, and that when he did, they would surely know it.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses claimed that Jesus returned in 1914, invisibly, and began his reign over the Earth from within the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society (official name of the Jehovah’s Witness organization). The problem with this, of course, is that the Bible says that when Jesus returns, it will be visible, and will usher in a time of peace, which clearly the world has yet to see.

There is currently a man in Russia who claims to be Jesus returned: Siberian ‘Jesus’ Vissarion, Former Traffic Cop, Leads Patriarchal Russian Cult That Believes In Aliens

3. People wrongly predicting the date of Jesus’ return

William Miller produced publications which convinced hundreds of thousands in the United States that Jesus would return in 1846. When Jesus did not return, there was great disappointment, with some falling away, and some cultic groups spawned from the prophetic fervor.

Here is a fascinating list of false predictions of the return of Jesus: Predictions and claims for the Second Coming of Christ. You’ll notice that one of them just passed: June 8, 2019!

Trying to predict the date of Jesus’ return is a fool’s errand, since Jesus not only told us not to worry about it (Acts 1:7), and that no one knows the date or the hour, and that  it would happen at a time when we do not expect it. In other words, there is no secret code that anyone is going to crack and figure it out.

How will you recognize Jesus’ return?

When Jesus comes, it won’t be a secret coming. Everyone will know.

The Apostle John tells us in Revelation 1:7: Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him

John did not need a special vision to know that every eye will see Him. John heard Jesus this himself: So, if they say to you, ‘Look, he is in the wilderness,’ do not go out. If they say, ‘Look, he is in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. (Matthew 24:26-27)

So, how can you be sure not to be deceived? Ignore alleged predictions or claims of Jesus’ return. Jesus’ second coming will not happen without you knowing it.

Sources:

Why is Satan Going to Be Released at the End of the Thousand Years?

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Earlier this year I added a page on this site where readers can submit questions or suggest topics (click here for that page). Recently I received this question:

The end sounds so perfect and beautiful but we still have not seen the last of satan because it says he will be released for a short time. Why? Does he finally repent and come back to God or does he get out and give God the finger and go back to hell?

The Text: Revelation 20

The section of Scripture you are referring to is Revelation 20, which describes, in apocalyptic language, a few things that will happen leading up to the final judgment:

1. Satan will be bound for a thousand years. (Revelation 20:1-3)

It’s worth noting that it doesn’t say that Satan will be in Hell, only that he will be bound. Currently, we know that Satan’s abode isn’t in Hell, but that he “roams the Earth” (see Job 1:7). As to how or where Satan will be bound, we don’t know the details.

2. Christians, but not non-Christians, are raised from the dead to reign with Christ for this thousand year period. (Revelation 20:4-6)

In 2 Timothy 2:12, Paul encourages the believers that “if we endure, we will also reign with him.”

3. When the thousand years are ended, Satan will be released from his prison and will come out to deceive the nations and lead a war against the saints in Jerusalem. (Revelation 20:7-9)

4. Satan will be defeated by God and thrown into the lake of fire. (Revelation 20:10)

For more on the difference between Hell (Hades) and the Lake of Fire (AKA “the second death”), check out: Did People Go to Heaven Before Jesus’ Death & Resurrection?

So, to answer one of your questions directly: “Does he finally repent and come back to God or does he get out and give God the finger and go back to hell?” The answer is: No, Satan does not finally repent. He is released from being bound, and then judged by God and cast into the Lake of Fire (so, not exactly back to Hell, since Hades and the Lake of Fire are not the same thing, and the Lake of Fire is the final judgment).

Three Views on the Millennium

There are three main views on the thousand year period of time described in Revelation 20. Here’s a summary of each:

Premillenialism

Believe Christ will return “pre” (before) the millennium (Latin for 1000 years). Premillenialists understands the millennium to be a future time of great peace and justice, a literal 1000-year period which will begin when Christ returns to reign on earth as a physically present King.

Postmillenialism

Believe that Christ will return “post” (after) the millennial period. Postmillenialists think that before Christ returns to earth, the gospel will spread and triumph so powerfully that societies will be transformed and peace and justice will reign on earth for a thousand years (or for a long period of time), after which Christ will return for the final judgment.

Amillenialism

Those who hold an “a” (non-literal) millennial view believe the thousand years described in Revelation 20 is the present church age, and that there will be no future “millennium” before Christ returns for the final judgment.

Related to this is the question of whether the thousand years are to be interpreted literally (most premillennialists hold this view) or symbolically (most postmillennialists and amillennialists, and some premillennialists hold this view).

The nature of the binding of Satan is important to the three millennial views. Premillennialists read this as predicting a complete removal or restriction of Satan from the earth during this golden age of social righteousness, international peace, and physical well-being, with Christ reigning on earth. They argue that the phrases “shut it” and “sealed it over him” picture a removal of Satan from the earth too complete to represent the current age.

Postmillennialists also think this will be a future golden age, but that Christ will not return until the end of that time. Amillennialists believe that the Jesus’ first coming has already bound Satan and brought God’s light to the nations, therefore they argue that this binding of Satan for “a thousand years” refers to the gospel’s spread among all nations during the present age, and to the present restraint of the church’s persecutors until an outbreak of rebellion before Christ’s return.

I would agree with the pre- (and post) millennialists, that it is quite a stretch to say that Satan is currently bound; watching the news for 5 minutes will show you that evil is very present in our current day, and the New Testament speaks about Satan being active, for example: 1 Peter 5:8 says “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him.” If Satan is bound, then why does it say that he prowls around, and he must be resisted?

Each of these views falls within the realm of Christian orthodoxy and are based on different ways of interpreting this text along with other texts in the Bible.

[Source: Adapted from ESV Study Bible]

Why is Satan released at the end of the thousand years?

It seems that the purpose of Satan’s release is one last temptation, to address the question of whether people have been following God because they were not tempted, or because they truly loved God.

The End is Beautiful

You mentioned that the end seems so perfect and beautiful, but we haven’t seen the end of Satan. I guess that depends on what you mean by “the end.” I would say that Revelation 20 doesn’t describe the end, but only the beginning of the end. It is in Revelation 21 that we see the true end, about which we are told:

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. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:1-4)

This is the hope that we hold onto and look forward to, and we rejoice in the fact that the day is coming very soon (James 4:14 says that this life is but a mist which appears for a moment and then is gone) when Satan will be defeated and all evil and suffering will be no more, forever.

That is the glorious hope that we hold onto, which puts everything in perspective!

Is Life Really Worth the Pain and the Risk?

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Earlier this year I added a page on this site where readers can submit questions or suggest topics (click here for that page). Recently I received this question:

My question is the following: What is the benefit of God’s human project?

If all of history since creation to the final day of judgement is in fact a great tragedy in the sense that there are souls which will ultimately be lost despite the absolute best intentions of God. Based on Revelation, the number of God’s children is only a fraction of the lost ones. Therefore what could represent such value for God which is worth this risk? I can’t name or imagine anything worth the sacrifice of eternal human souls. So why were his plans not “cancelled” after the first sin?

Personally, this is important to me because my wife and I are thinking about having children, and I can see no reason why I should take part in exposing another human to the possibility of damnation, even if the chances are minimal. I simply do not want to risk such a thing, regardless of the odds. And to be honest, even without the eternal perspective I would not force existence on Earth to anyone.

I can see however that this reasoning inevitably leads to the conclusion that God is evil and human existence should end as soon as possible in order to avoid further damage, and it is contradicting to the picture we see from other parts of the Bible (however, maybe this problem is somehow connected to issues such as the genocide of other nations like philistines or amalekites).

Are you aware of something which could provide some insight about this problem?

This is obviously not a merely theoretical question for you, and I appreciate the thought you’ve put into it.

Here are some thoughts:

This Life Matters

We must not diminish the goodness of this life. Sometimes Christians, in their focus on eternal destiny (which is appropriate and right), can forget the fact that when God created the world, he looked at it and said, “It is good,” and he looked at the human life that he had created and declared that it was “very good.” Although sin has led to cracks and fissures in the fabric of that good creation, it has not lost all of its original goodness, nor have we as humans ceased to bear the “image of God.”

What this means is that the joys of this life are indeed joys. The Psalmist says, “I would have lost heart, unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.” (Psalm 27:13)

In other words, this life matters and we experience goodness, beauty and truth in this life, despite the fallenness of this world. Life, the Bible describes, is but a mist, but it is a good mist, and a gift from God.

The difference is this: for the person who does not have eternal life, the joys of this life (which are legitimate joys) are the best they will ever experience, whereas for the person who has the hope of eternal life, the sorrows of this life are the worst they will ever experience.

“The Tears of God are the Meaning of History”

You asked the question: Why didn’t God just end it all after the first sin?

That’s a great question which gives us some deep insight into the character of God. I actually have taught on this subject several times. My favorite passage to go to in this, is Genesis 6:5-6, “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.”

That word “grieved,” as describing God’s feeling, is only found in one other place in the Bible: in Isaiah, where it is used to describe the pain that a woman feels when her husband abandons her. Isaiah 54:6, “like a wife, married young, only to be deserted, and your spirit was filled with pain.” This word describes bitter anguish, deep, unfulfilled longing, and profound frustration.

In other words, God not only created us, but he is emotionally invested to the point where he experiences joy and sorrow based on how we are doing. What that means is that the brokenness of the world causes God pain. When people are lost forever, it causes God pain, grief and sorrow.

The question is, like you asked: Why didn’t God just end the whole thing after Adam and Eve sinned, and save himself (not to mention: us) all the pain and heartache, some of which will last for eternity?

This question has been answered with this phrase: “The tears of God are the meaning of history.” (coined by Nicholas Wolterstorff in his book, Lament for a Sonin which he writes about his grief over the death of his son, and considers why God allows pain and suffering in the world)

In other words, God decided to weep, rather than to save himself from the grief. He decided to allow himself to suffer the pain of sorrow and grief, continually. WHY? Because, as you alluded to: there was something which he believed made it worth continuing…

(For more on this, check out a sermon I preached on this topic called: “The Sigh to End All Sighs“)

Which leads us to our next point…

The Treasure Hidden in a Field

One of my favorite parables that Jesus spoke was Matthew 13:44: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.”

This parable involves three elements: a treasure, a field, and a man. The questions are: what is the treasure, what is the field, and who is the man?

Some interpret it this way: The treasure is the kingdom of God and its benefits, and we are the man who must sell everything in order to take hold of the treasure.

I don’t believe that’s the correct interpretation, for a few reasons. One is that in the parable prior to this one, Jesus also uses an example featuring a field, and explicitly states, “The field is the world.” (Matthew 13:38)

The correct interpretation (and the one which fits best with the biblical narrative and the gospel message) is that the field is the world, the man is Jesus, and the treasure? The treasure is us! We are the treasure, which Jesus saw in the field (the world), and sold everything he had (his life), in order to take hold of us.

This changes the thrust of the parable to be from what we need to do to take hold of the kingdom of God to being about what Jesus has done in order to take hold of us.

The other thing it tells us, though, is that God views us as “treasure” – meaning that to him, we have great value, a value so great that he was willing to give everything to take hold of us.

Similarly, Hebrews 12:2 says that it was for the joy that was set before him, that Jesus endured the cross, despising its shame.

In other words, the prospect of saving some was so precious to God, that he considered it worth the pain.

(Here is a sermon I taught on this parable: “Lost and Found“)

The Ultimate Judgment is When God Gives You What You Insist On

In Romans 1:18-33, God’s judgment is described in interesting terms: as God essentially giving people what they insist on. The phrase “God gave them up” – i.e. stopped resisting them and let them have what they wanted, is repeated three times: 1:24, 1:26, 1:28.

CS Lewis and others have posited that when God judges someone, even eternally, he is essentially just giving them what they have insisted on. Having insisted that they do not want a relationship with God, God does not force them to spend eternity in relationship with him. Having stated that they want autonomy from God, God has given them what they desired.

There are indeed examples in the Bible of times when God seems to have intervened against the will of the individual, in order to “open their eyes” (such as Saul in Acts 9), which leads to a change of heart and attitude and a different approach to God. However, these acts are acts of grace, and grace – by definition – is not owed to, or deserved by anyone. In other words, God is under no obligation to show grace or mercy in order to be fair, right or just. Justice is giving someone what they deserve. Mercy is not giving someone what they deserve, and Grace is giving someone something they don’t deserve. The only one of these which we deserve, is justice. If God gives us what we have earned, then it is only fair.

Beyond fairness, however, God offers grace and mercy freely to all who will receive it. May we be those who receive it gladly and eagerly!

Is It Worth Bringing a Life Into This World?

I respect the fact that you are thinking about the well-being of this child as you make this decision. Many people only think of children in regard to themselves, so that is commendable. I wish more people would think of the child first when planning their family.

Personally, I think that it is worth the risk to bring a child into this world, and I believe that God thinks it is worth the risk as well.

Thanks for your question, and may God bless you!

Joaquin Phoenix is Playing Jesus, but Refused to Reenact One of His Miracles

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Joaquin Phoenix is playing Jesus in the film “Mary Magdalene,” which releases this week on Good Friday, and attempts to look at the story of Jesus through the eyes of Mary Magdalene.

Check out: Is Good Friday Actually Good?

The movie takes a few liberties with the story, however. For example, in the case of the healing of the blind man in John 9, the man is replaced by a woman, and Joaquin Phoenix refused to act out how the actual miracle took place: by making mud with saliva and dirt, and rubbing it on the blind man’s eyes.

Having said these things, he spit on the ground and made mud with the saliva. Then he anointed the man’s eyes with the mud and said to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). So he went and washed and came back seeing. (John 9:6-7)

Here’s what Phoenix told CNN about why he wouldn’t reenact this particular miracle:

“I knew about that scene from the Bible, but I guess I had never really considered it. When I got there, I thought, ‘I’m not going to rub dirt in her eyes. Who the f— would do that?’ It doesn’t make any sense. That is a horrible introduction to seeing.”

Instead, Phoenix chose to lick his thumb and rub the woman’s eyes. [source]

However, I think that Joaquin Phoenix, in claiming to know better than Jesus, is actually detracting from a major aspect of what made that miracle significant.

On my recent trip to Israel, I had the opportunity to visit the Pool of Siloam, which is currently being excavated. I even had the chance to teach about this miracle from John 9, right on site to our group.

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Teaching at the Pool of Siloam after having walked through Hezekiah’s Tunnel

One of the key features of the parable is that the way Jesus healed this man required the man to respond in faith to what Jesus did and said. Jesus didn’t simply touch this man and he was healed; he did something which would have seemed odd and confusing (applying mud to his eyes) and then told him to do something which also seemed to not make sense: to go and wash in the Pool of Siloam.

The Pool of Siloam was originally used to provide water for the Temple. Water was brought from outside the city, via the Gihon spring, through Hezekiah’s Tunnel, to the pool, where it was collected. In the time of Herod the Great, other pools were created, closer to the Temple, such as the Israel Pool, and those were used in the service of the Temple instead; the Pool of Siloam was then used as a public mikvah, or ritual bath, used for Jewish purification rites.

Here’s why the way Jesus performed this miracle matters:

1. It required the man to respond in faith and obedience

Faith has been defined as “trusting God enough to do what he says.” This man had probably washed his face many times in his life; how would washing mud off his face on this day help him see? It didn’t make sense, and yet that’s kind of the point: it required faith for him to obey rather than cynically refuse to do so, saying “Why would that help?” or “Why would today be any different?”

2. It communicated a theological message

The theological message implicit in Jesus covering this man’s eyes with dirt and telling him to wash in a ritual bath, was that we need to be cleansed.

But beyond that, here is Jesus – God incarnate – the one who created humankind out of the dirt of the Earth, yet we are now broken and fallen as a result of our sins and failures. And so here is the creator, come to us to heal our brokenness, once again putting his hands in the dirt and re-forming that which has become broken.

It’s a powerful picture. What a shame that Joaquin Phoenix doesn’t get it and robs the audience of it.

3. It was public, not private

When this man was healed in this public pool, many people would have seen it, as John 9 tells us they did. This was not a private thing between Jesus and this man; it was done for all to see, to bring glory to God.

Let’s stick with letting Jesus’ words and actions stand on their own!

Here’s the trailer of the Mary Magdalene movie:

A “Jealous God”? How is that Good?

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A few years ago, in a conversation with a childhood friend of mind, he told me that the thing he can’t accept about the God of the Bible is that he is described as being “jealous.” My friend insinuated that he could never respect a God who had such a petty and insecure character trait.

Several times in the Bible, God refers to himself as a “jealous God.” For example, in the 10 Commandments, God tells his people not to worship other gods, because he is a jealous God.

What’s interesting, is that jealousy is listed in the New Testament as being one of a handful of sins which are called “the works of the flesh” and are contrasted with “the fruits of the Spirit” in Galatians 5.

Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. (Galatians 5:19-21)

How can God have a characteristic which the Bible itself calls sinful?

There are two answers to this question:

1. Two Different Greek Words – With Two Different Meanings

The confusion over the word jealous being attributed to God is really a matter of the weakness of the English language. In Greek, two very distinct words, with distinct meanings, are used to describe these two attitudes:

In Galatians 5:21, where jealousy is listed as a sin, the word is: φθόνος (phthonos) – which is more akin to envy or covetousness: it connotes ill-will towards someone because of something they have which you want for yourself. [1]

In James 4:5, where God is described as jealous, the word is: ἐπιποθέω (epipotheo) – which means to dote upon or desire intensely. [2]

In other words, God is not described as having a sinful characteristic at all. The confusion comes from the deficiency of the English language, or perhaps of the translators to find better words to differentiate these two concepts.

2. Why It is Good that God is “Jealous” for His People

One definition of jealousy in the dictionary is: “fiercely protective or vigilant of one’s rights or possessions”

This is the essence of what the Bible is talking about when it describes God as a jealous God. It means that when it comes to his people, he desires our hearts to be fully his, and he desires exclusivity in that relationship —  hence the first commandment: You shall have no other gods beside me.

Throughout the Bible, God describes his relationship with his people as a marriage – a covenant relationship. God calls himself the husband of his people; in the Old Testament, Israel is referred to as the wife of Yahweh. In the New Testament, the church is called the Bride of Christ, and Jesus is called the Bridegroom. This is why idolatry is compared in the Bible to adultery against God.

It is appropriate for a spouse to be fiercely protective of the exclusivity of their marriage, and be opposed to anything which would try to come in and threaten it.

When we first moved to Colorado, my wife went to a dentist. After that first appointment, Dr. Brian began calling her on the phone and sending handwritten cards. Maybe he was just following protocol, but as a husband, I didn’t like Dr. Brian sending my wife cards and calling her on the phone!

The fact that God is jealous for his people is a wonderful thing. It means that God doesn’t just tolerate you, He doesn’t just put up with you — but He is fiercely passionate about His love for you! 

This kind of fierce, passionate love is described in the Song of Solomon:   Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm, for love is strong as death, jealousy is fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, the very flame of the Lord. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it. (Song of Solomon 8:6-7)

That is the kind of love that God has for you. It is the kind of love that moved the God of the Universe to leave his heavenly throne, and become one of us — to walk our dusty streets, and be despised by the very people he created — and ultimately to be nailed to a cross in order to redeem you. This love is at the very heart of the gospel.