Monday, September 07, 2015

What kind of afterlife can we expect?

Sigh! I guess these sorts of questions are on my mind—I just retired and am looking for a long retirement, yet I am mindful of how fleeting life can be. By the time a man has gotten into his sixties (as I am), he has generally lost his parents, various friends, and perhaps many others of his family. A generation comes and goes, and so the inevitable tide of death and life washes over us, and if we do live to be older we are doomed to see most of our loved ones pass away before our lives. Many of us live and die without any expectations of afterlife, and think the course of these things is just the way it was meant to be. I think it could be called the what-you-see-is-what-you-get philosophy of life. In computer-eze , it is shortened to WYSIWYG.

WYSIWYG refers to the idea that what you see on the computer screen is actually the product that is going to be produced, whether it be a slide show, a document, or something coming out of a printer. For those who are using computers, it is a very useful feature. But not so much when considering afterlife. The Bible says that God banished us from the Garden of Eden, and we can no longer have the visible fellowship with God that we had under Adam and Eve. We have lost sight of what fellowship with God is like and only have the Bible and our vain imaginations to tell us what it might be like. Our vain imaginations do not tell us much and I for one, frequently have had to reteach myself about what heaven might be like when my conceptualization runs counter to the Word of God. I am not the only one with misconceptions and when researching the answers to this question I came across this gem from David Lloyd George: “When I was a boy, the thought of Heaven used to frighten me more than the thought of Hell. I pictured Heaven as a place where time would be perpetual Sundays, with perpetual services from which there would be no escape.”1

I will be using Randy Alcorn’s Heaven to answer many dimensions of this question, and I commend its reading to those of you who want a through and Biblical treatment of the subject. What I like about Alcorn is his carefulness to present what the Bible says, and when he is forced to speculation to make sure that the reader knows it is speculation, even though that speculation may have Biblical roots.

In John 14, Jesus tells us that he goes prepare a place for us, that I will come back and take you with me. The first place that we shall be taken to is the home of God the Son, heaven. Christ will return first for his church and carry his bride back to show off to his Father. I know some do not believe in the Rapture, but for the purpose of this piece, let us leave off of that disagreement, and focus on what the Bible tells us about heaven, no matter when we may get there. What is heaven like? I opened this passage with a reflection on growing older, and I am growing older, in my sixties now. But I am in good health, and hope to be around for a bit longer. Still I cannot help but notice my parents passing, and many others, some indeed in an untimely manner, and it makes me think about the better place that Christ has prepared for us. I have an idea in the back of my head, most likely similar to yours, that the crippled or aged or infirm or blind might at last have a better place to go, but the Biblical concept of heaven goes far beyond that. “No wonder Satan doesn’t want us to learn the truth about Heaven. If we fall in love with the place and look forward to the future that God has for us, we’ll fall more in love with God, and we’ll be emboldened to follow him with greater resolve and perspective.”2

In heaven, likely though not absolutely clear, we will have the marriage supper with the Lamb of God. Conservative Bible scholars are unsure whether the marriage supper is during the tribulation, while we are in heaven, or whether it is just after the tribulation, when Christ returns with his saints to the earth. In either case, we will drink anew with him from the cup, which he promised he would not drink from again until we were together. He will have clothed us, not as I might imagine, with his righteousness, but he will clothe us with white robes, representing the righteous acts of the saints (Rev. 19:8). This does not negate our being made righteous by his sacrifice for us, as that is one of many things that happens to us at the point of conversion. Instead, he uses the righteous acts of the saint to clothe us—meaning I think that everything that we did in the power of God to advance his kingdom will adorn us then. The bride of Christ will be beautiful in God’s sight beyond all of our imaginings.

I am come that you might be free, and you shall be free indeed, proclaims Jesus. Our freedom will be evident on that day, when we are at long last taken from the presence of sin, of our own corruption. We shall become like him, says the scripture, for we shall see him as he is. And it will be complete with new bodies. Scripture says we will have new bodies; Plato did not like the idea of the body “imprisoning” the soul, and so he taught that one day the soul would be free of bodily restraint. However this is foreign to the idea set forth in the Bible; we are to have new bodies, and for a period of time, we will actively reign with Christ on earth. What does that mean? I am not sure, but am willing to be pleasantly surprised. Often people are surprised at the verse in Revelation 22:5, “And they will reign for ever and ever.” Alcorn has met people with this attitude, who say, ““But I don’t want to rule. That’s not my idea of Heaven.” Well, it’s God’s idea of Heaven.”3

I am not sure at all that I should be able to tell you what heaven is like—but I can say this much, you will still be you, be in a completed way. You and I, as long as we are in this life, are unfinished works of God—in that day we will be made complete. I will still have my family—my eight grandchildren will still be my grandchildren, my daughters will still be my daughters. But all of us will belong to God, in a complete sense, made what we were meant to be, and perhaps for the first time completely free.

My wife and I were talking about this very thing once, perhaps because my thinking tends to be rather far-sighted, and looking off ahead to the coming of our Lord I commented to my wife that I couldn’t imagine myself not wanting to be her best friend. I know the teaching of Scripture where Jesus tells us that we neither marry nor are given in marriage, and that I think I can understand. This time is the time for making more people, for building families, and for making marriages. The time to come in heaven will look past that and I believe perhaps that every believer we are caught up with will be exceedingly precious, and that deep relationships will abound. But that does not mean that my daughters will stop being my daughters, nor will my wife stop in being my closest confidant. Everything and everyone will become so much more meaningful to us.

I think for me, anyway, the pull in our world about socialism is putting the wrong ideas about heaven in my head. When I think of that many saints (one billion is a very conservative guess) being altogether, I think of the sameness of socialism. I remember an old episode of Star Trek, where the population is severely overcrowded, and the people are nose-to-nose bumping into each other, and to make it worse, later we learn that all the people come from the same few prototypes. But, if I know anything about heaven, trying to impose that image from Star Trek would border on blasphemy. We have a God who created us all so differently, and we love and worship him acceptably in so many different ways. We all bring so many talents that are so different with us, of course given by the Giver in the first place.

I am quite looking forward to spending time talking deeply with many great people that I just wonder about now. Did you ever want to sit down in a one-to-one with Billy Graham? I certainly have. We will have all of eternity, time without end, to do that. It doesn’t matter that the line to see Rev. Graham is ten miles long. It’s eternity we are talking about! I also have many favorite musicians that I look forward to listening to. (I am trying to refrain from listing them here so you do not find out how hopelessly quaint I am.) Do you think they will all lose their talent in going to heaven? No! They have been given their precious talents from God, and laying them at his feet, will he not allow them to continue? I have quite made up my mind about which concerts I will want to hear. Keith Green concerts will probably head the list. (Oops! I wasn’t going to mention any.) Can you imagine the celebration that we saints will through when we are finally there? I can’t. But in thinking about it, my heart is stirred, and I know that God has more than we can imagine or think.

How then shall we approach our thinking about heaven? First, I would highly recommend Alcorn’s book, Heaven, as it is an honest attempt to bring out all that the Bible tells us about the time to come. In the end, though, you may be like me, and that won’t be enough. Our hunger and thirst for a better place, at the side of our Lord, ought to be a consuming fire within us. For me, the only thing that works when I am wondering about that time to come, is to remember just how precious and personal the love of God is for me. I think being older helps a bit here, because I have walked a long path with him beside me all the way, showing consistently how deep and wide, and how absolutely unfathomable his love is toward me. He tells us that his thoughts about each of us outnumber the sands on the seashore. Do you trust him enough to believe that when Jesus said he goes now to prepare a place for us that it will be better, and indeed more right, than anything we might vainly imagine? Keith Green, in one of his concerts long ago, pointed out that God spent six days and nights making the earth, but when Christ told us that he was going to leave us, but to make us a place, that where he is we may be also, he has now had over two thousand years to make that better place!

Tolkien perhaps has the spirit of it when Sam returns home from the Grey Havens after saying farewell to his best friend: “But Sam turned to Bywater, and so came back up the Hill, as day was ending once more. And he went on, and there was yellow light, and fire within; and the evening meal was ready, and he was expected. And Rose drew him in, and set him in his chair, and put little Elanor upon his lap. He drew a deep breath. ‘Well, I’m back,’ he said.”4 When we get there, there will come a moment, sooner rather than later, when we realize that all we have done, all that God did in our busy worlds, everything that happened us, both evil and good, has been bound into that moment when we step into eternity, sit by the warm hearth in the chair made for us, and say, each of us, to our own wonder, “I’m home.”

Perhaps you are as me and think it cannot get better than that. Well, we are wrong. It is just the beginning of a fairy tale, if you will, that was no ending other than that which every small child knows to be true, “And they lived happily ever after.” The wonders of God will not cease to amaze and thrill us. And the real fairy tale we will find has no end. The “ever after” will not ever stop, is without end. Even so, come quickly Lord Jesus. I just want to go home.

1. Alcorn, Randy (2011-12-08). Heaven (Alcorn, Randy) (Kindle Locations 1449-1450). Tyndale House Publishers. Kindle Edition.
2. Alcorn, Randy (2011-12-08). Heaven (Alcorn, Randy) (Kindle Locations 3122-3123). Tyndale House Publishers. Kindle Edition.
3. Alcorn, Randy (2011-12-08). Heaven (Alcorn, Randy) (Kindle Locations 4105-4107). Tyndale House Publishers. Kindle Edition.
4. Tolkien, J.R.R. (2012-02-15). The Lord of the Rings: One Volume (p. 1032). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.

Thursday, September 03, 2015

Can we trust the Bible?

Wow! Sometimes I sort of regret the questions I get, and this question would be one that I do regret. Not, as you might think, because it is so difficult; rather the opposite is true. It would be difficult for anyone to suggest more evidence for the trustworthiness of the Bible than there is.

I suppose it is true that we do not hear a thunderbolt when we open the Bible, and in that sense it is not verified, but I am not talking about that so much as the reasonable proof that we might expect from history. There are some simple facts to present that within the scope of this short piece should show that the Bible is, indeed, supremely trustworthy. Written by over forty authors in the space of over fifteen hundred years, the Bible has a vibrant unity. The forbidden fruit is eaten in Genesis to the death of mankind, and the fruit of the tree of life is eaten by the redeemed of mankind in Revelation. Thus sin enters in Genesis and is forever taken away in Revelation. Man is separated from God in Genesis, and restored to fellowship in Revelation.

The times of the Gentiles is foretold in Daniel, is continuing, but will be taken away with the restoration of Israel in Revelation. Thus, there is a completeness to the Bible which is amazing when we consider 40 writers were composing the book over 1,500 years. “Even scholars and critics who don’t believe the Bible is historically accurate acknowledge there is a uniqueness to it. There is a similar theme of agreement running through the Bible’s entirety, even though it was written over fifteen hundred years by more than forty authors.”1 And again, “Lewis Sperry Chafer, the founder and first president of Dallas Theological Seminary, put it well: ‘Without violating the authors’ personalities, they wrote with their own feelings, literary abilities, and concerns. But in the end, God could say, That’s exactly what I wanted to have written.’”2

But, you may ask, how reliable are the copies of the manuscripts? Total variations of manuscript are less than 1% of the total. In other words, most fights over the texts are involving 1% of the whole manuscript. Most of these variations are simple spelling variations. And in no case, not one, is a major doctrine affected. There are plenty of other places, not disputed, that establish major doctrine beyond reasonable doubt. Just how many manuscripts are we talking about? ”There are now more than 5,300 known Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. Add over 10,000 Latin Vulgate and at least 9,300 other early versions (MSS) and we have more than 24,000 manuscript copies of portions of the New Testament in existence today.”3 McDowell compares this to Homer, something that most of us would consider to be in concrete as to provable, “No other document of antiquity even begins to approach such numbers and attestation. In comparison, the Iliad by Homer is second with only 643 manuscripts that still survive. The first complete preserved text of Homer dates from the 13th century.”4 Homer is the one manuscript that we have so many copies of, but compare it, 643 manuscripts to 24,000. Sometimes when we are talking of famous classical writers, we are basing our knowledge of them on the basis of one manuscript. Hardly comparable to the Bible!

I have skeptical friends who belittle the Bible, saying that they cannot honestly know from the Bible whether Jesus actually said something. In other words, they are assuming that we do not have great reliability when it comes to the scriptures, and as we have seen, that assumption is shaky at best. We have every reason to have supreme confidence that what was written was exactly what was said.

Other people raise the opposite objection, saying that if Jesus himself did not come out against something then God must really be sort of benevolent towards that something. Not true—listen to the words of Jesus, “Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me” (John 5:39 Italics mine). Now, it is true that the New Testament was not yet written when Jesus said these words. He was pointing to the Old Testament, that which we often think was not much about Jesus; instead he tells us that the Old Testament is full of testimony about himself. The gospel of John begins with some of the most famous words of all the Bible, saying, in the beginning was the word, emphasizing the message part of the gospel being in Jesus himself. John goes on to say that the word was made flesh and dwelt among us, testifying further that the word of God was sanctioned by God to do exactly what God intended it to do—to tell us about God’s Son, Jesus Christ.

Further, we have the testimony of eyewitnesses, over 500 proclaims the Bible. Jesus did not hide his resurrection from people. It was not done on the sly. Over the years critics have purposed a large variety of explanations, trying to explain away the resurrection. One such theory is sometimes titled “the swoon theory”. It tries to suggest that Jesus recovered while buried in the tomb. There is no coherent explanation as to how he unwrapped himself from the grave clothes, or how he moved the stone on the front of the tomb, or how he got past the guards. In addition, such a theory neglects the Roman spear in the side, and the verification by the guards that Jesus was dead. Another theory suggests that the disciples came in the middle of the night and stole his body. Yet, that explanation does not cover how these disciples got past the Roman guard which Pilate had placed upon the grave. And all those witnesses, 500 and more, are testifiers that Jesus indeed came, did, and said the things written in the gospels.

Conan Doyle, not known for any belief in God, made his character, Sherlock, say to Watson (in my own paraphrase), “First we remove the impossible and then what remains, no matter how unlikely, is the explanation.” That principle should be applied here. I do not suggest that miracles like rising from the dead are highly improbable—they certainly are improbable, but having said that, there is no other conceivable explanation that fits the facts as we know them. His body was highly unlikely to have been stolen, and recovering from ordeals that he faced we know that it is impossible that he should have recovered. The only facts that fit the case must accommodate the miraculous. Why do I say that?

Look at these witnesses. Their every utterance was put on the line, that they should be held accountable to all for what they were saying. Some of them directly told the Sanhedrin that they could not be quiet about these things, but that they had to freely proclaim them. Eventually, most of the apostles came to be martyred for their testimony, giving their lives for what, as witnesses of what happened, we have to conclude they deeply believed.

And then there is the testimony of the millions who have come afterwards. Believing God and believing he sent Jesus to die on the cross for our sins. Men like Saul of Tarsus have consistently converted in almost every generation, testifying to that generation that they ought to pay close attention. Unlikely conversions such as happened in Whittaker Chambers or Charles Colson serve as a powerful suggestion that the claims of Christ presented in the Bible deserve closer attention. But beyond the enigma of such men is the salient testimony of untold millions who testify of changed lives upon meeting Jesus, and all give credit to the truths made evident in the Bible.

It is to be admitted, and I freely confess, that a book which portends the many miracles that it does, is a book designed to raise our eyebrows in questions. But it is the very miracles that are told about that make the Bible more likely to be true. In books which the church has rejected, many miracles are accounted there, but it is obvious from an initial reading that the whole piece is suspect, as the miracles are too convenient, and too easily made up. When we come to Christ and his miracles, we are left with miracles that even the enemies thought were true. Notice the people over and again who were healed on the Sabbath. For the Jew work on the Sabbath was an anathema—something that no good Jew would entertain the idea of. But Christ, the Lord of the Sabbath, deliberately did these miracles of healing on the Sabbath as a sign that someone greater than the Sabbath was here, and that they would do well to listen and watch what he was doing. Well did the leaders of the Jews watch, for after his healing on the Sabbath, they sought to kill him. They accepted the fact of his healing—it was demonstrated clearly—to their raised ire, and not at all to their recognition of his Lordship. It is hardly likely that, someone, making up a story would include such miracles in the first place, for miracles performed on the Sabbath would automatically be excluded.

Look at the ones whom he raised from the dead. First, a little girl who had already been pronounced dead, and certified as such by the mourners. Scoffing and laughing and jeering at Jesus, who proclaimed that the little girl was sleeping, they were astounded by the miracle which occurred. Hardly a story which was contrived, for the living witnesses had only to suggest the whole thing was a made up story, and it would collapse under its own weight. The living girl was a proof they could not refute. The silence of hostile witnesses screams of the very validity of the miracles. Lazarus, the one whom John tells us about, is a detailed story, and Lazarus was from a well-known family with many mourners who came to the funeral. Dead four days, and Jesus walks to the tomb and says, “Lazarus, come forth.” The miracle is plain for all to see, and again the silence of the many hostile witnesses screams of the validity of the miracles.

Miracles in themselves cannot be denied on the basis of experience, which many try to do. They say since I have never seen a miracle, therefore miracles must not happen. Even in the Bible, miracles are rare outside of the Son of God, and their very rarity speaks at least of their remarkableness. I have never seen a dark star, yet if I were to deny their existence, no doubt there would be many to correct me. Lewis reminds us, “Those who assume that miracles cannot happen are merely wasting their time by looking into the texts: we know in advance what results they will find for they have begun by begging the question.”5 God spoke audibly about his Son three times during the ministry of Jesus. Some heard an audible voice; others heard thunder; still others heard nothing at all. A great deal of the world that we see about us depends entirely upon our own viewpoint. A favorite quote of mine from the infamous atheist, Bertrand Russell, says that “It has been said that man is a rational animal. All my life I have been searching for evidence which could support this.” I find that I do quite agree with Russell about this, at least. Man is not rational; all the so-called rational arguments that he produces comes from his prior emotional state.

Thus we see, in Darwin’s visit to the Galapagos Islands, he came back with an explanation for what he saw to be godless, while the captain of the ship that went with him, being a believer, came back testifying that the wonders they both saw declared a Creator. Afterward, they famously held debates all over England many times, but my point is this, that they both had made prior decisions which drove their rationality. Man is a very complicated creature, and almost so deep as to be beyond understanding; is this not what the whole scope of modern psychology teaches us? Thus, I think the miracles of Jesus only suffice to convince those of us who would be believers, and seldom not those who assume miracles cannot happen. Thus, I come back to those in our generation, and even prior generations, to the John Newtons, to the Whittaker Chambers, and to the Charles Colsons, all men with prior convictions that God could not be true. And yet they became convinced otherwise, and the skeptics of our generation should pay attention.

Not believing in the miracles of the Bible hardly suffices as a charge against it; any rational person bases his outlook on what he or she sees, and a miracle is supposed to be something that occurs rarely, something that perhaps few of us would ever see in a lifetime. Indeed, an accounting of the miracles of Elijah gets us somewhere in the neighborhood of eight, depending on how we might count them. Eight times over the lifetime of the prophet who performed the most miracles is hardly enough to be seen, even by most in Elijah’s time. The testimony of those who were formerly skeptical is then double the effectiveness of those who were already open to belief.

Remember the naturalist, the one who does not believe in miracles? He is only parroting what he already believes, putting it in the clothes of rationality, but with, if you will, undergarments of emotion. In reality, he only parrots that which he already feels. “What Naturalism cannot accept is the idea of a God who stands outside Nature and made it.”6 That is why I say it is the former naturalist to whom we must look and seriously take his changed testimony, for he is one who has been on both sides.

So perhaps, the question that we are really looking at is not, “Is the Bible really trustworthy?” Instead, the question that we ought to look at is whether our preconceived bias prevents us from seriously looking at the claims of the Bible. Are our preconceptions keeping us from seeing the claims of Jesus? If I know miracles cannot be true, then I will naturally dismiss the rest of what Jesus says as nonsense. Jesus stated this clearly, if somewhat backwards to my illustration, saying, “If you will not believe me, then believe the miracles which I do.” He clearly tells us then to pay attention to what he has said, and then to the miracles which are given to demonstrate the validity of the message.

The Bible does claim to be the only word of God. It claims that we are lost, bereft of all hope, and in a state of rebellion against our Creator. Historically the veracity of the Bible should not be questioned, but as we have seen, men are naturally disposed not to believe it just because of miracles. Thomas Jefferson famously retranslated all of the New Testament, taking out all of the miracles. I think that is our natural tendency—to believe that only which we have seen. But if God really does exist—if he really cares about us individually—if he has chosen to communicate to us through his Son and his Word, then we neglect the message of Jesus at our own peril. Ought we not to at least begin by learning that message, and then, having learned, to let the testimony of miracles convince us that the message is indeed true?

1. McDowell, Josh; Dave Sterrett (2011-01-01). Is the Bible True . . . Really?: A Dialogue on Skepticism, Evidence, and Truth (The Coffee House Chronicles) (Kindle Locations 436-438). Moody Publishers. Kindle Edition.
2. McDowell, Josh; Dave Sterrett (2011-01-01). Is the Bible True . . . Really?: A Dialogue on Skepticism, Evidence, and Truth (The Coffee House Chronicles) (Kindle Locations 504-506). Moody Publishers. Kindle Edition.
3. McDowell, Josh (1992-09-01). Evidence That Demands a Verdict, 1: 001 (pp. 39-40). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.
4. McDowell, Josh (1992-09-01). Evidence That Demands a Verdict, 1: 001 (p. 39). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.
5. Lewis, C. S. (2009-06-03). Miracles (Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis) (p. 4). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
6. Lewis, C. S. (2009-06-03). Miracles (Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis) (p. 11). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.