I don’t often post music, but as I was writing on Jesus and free will this song popped into my head. Released by Benny Hester in 1985, it brought tears to my eyes the first time I heard it, and still does. Have you wandered from God? Then this is for you.
When debating any idea about God, my go-to source is Jesus, and the earliest, most reliable existing source documenting His life and teachings are the biblical Gospels, all of which are generally agreed to be First Century accounts – written shortly after the events had happened and no doubt read by many eyewitnesses of the events themselves.
You can doubt the veracity of the Gospels, or even the New Testament for that matter. If so, that’s your choice. But I know that, comparatively speaking, the Bible is pretty much the most well-documented piece of ancient literature out there, with literally thousands of manuscripts or copies of manuscripts – Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek – from which to choose and compare and verify, not to mention the numerous versions that have been translated. In fact, it was a Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint) from which Jesus and His followers most often quoted.
We also have many confirmed incidental details found in the Gospels and New Testament letters – people, places, even nautical practices and legal proceedings – all lending great confidence that the New Testament collection is a historically accurate and reliable source for the events and teachings within.
So I have no problem accepting the reliability of the Bible, or the Gospels in particular. The Jesus I know is the Jesus of the Bible… what other Jesus is there? And the Jesus of the Bible purports to be the very Son of God Himself. He claimed that He never spoke or acted on His own, but spoke and acted only as instructed by the Father. So much so that to see Jesus was to see God.
This causes me to hold very definite beliefs whenever I discuss or debate the nature of God, or free will, or Heaven, or any other theological question. For example, Jesus strenuously insisted in the reality of Hell (Gehenna). No matter how you choose to define this place, Jesus insisted on its reality, referred to it numerous times, and figuratively declared that we ought to take extraordinary measures to avoid going there, it’s that bad. For this reason, it really doesn’t matter if some find Hell to be morally or theologically offensive. To Jesus it was reality, and so it is to me.
When it comes to sickness, we never see Jesus making anyone sick. We do see Jesus constantly healing the sick. We never hear Jesus telling anyone that their ailment is God’s doing. But we do hear Jesus explaining that sickness and other things that kill and destroy are the works of the devil. For this reason, to state that God is responsible for both, or for any kind of evil, is philosophical nonsense, unless you know better than Jesus.
When it comes to freedom of choice, the Bible is one long document exhorting us to “choose” from beginning to end – from Adam and Eve (who chose wrongly) to Israel – “Choose ye this day whom you will serve” – to Jesus – “Repent!” Jesus was repeatedly amazed and / or frustrated by people’s choice to believe or disbelieve, and He harshly condemned those who chose not to believe or repent. So when I hear theological arguments against free will, I can only assume these folks claim some spiritual insight that was beyond the grasp of Jesus. Seriously.
The same could be said regarding other religions or other “gospels.” It is recorded that Jesus identified Himself as the only way to the Father and that no one knows the Father except the Son (Jesus). His closest apostles testified that salvation is found in no other person or name than Jesus. Paul bluntly told the enlightened members of the Areopagus that all their temples and idols were false, and that all their philosophies fell short of the truth found only in Jesus Christ.
So here’s my point: We know God only by what He has revealed… not by our own cleverness or comprehension, but by God’s choice to reveal some aspects of the Big Picture. His method of doing this was not arbitrary or disordered. From Adam, to Noah, to Abraham, to Jacob, to Israel, to the Messiah, to the Church that bears His name, it’s all there, laid out and in order.
Yet I see so many who want to take a little bit of Jesus, a little Bible, a little eastern mysticism, a little philosophy and a dash of personal opinion, and from all that they envision a god who conforms to their notions of what God must be or has to be, over and above the revelation we have in the Bible, and in Jesus.
You want Jesus, but apparently Jesus was mistaken about many things. He didn’t understand that Hell was impossible and free will was an illusion. He was too narrow-minded by insisting that God had graciously provided one – and only one – way for all mankind to be reconciled to Him. He got it wrong and there really is no devil, and He was naive not to realize that God is responsible for all things evil as well as good.
If that’s what you think, then you understand God better than Jesus. Congratulations.
God’s revealed truth will only be received by those with hearts that are ready… “good soil” if you will. Other hearts might like some of what they hear, but they’re not satisfied and have a lust for more – more secrets, more novelty, more intellectual stimulation. If the absolute teachings of Jesus start to seem foolish to you, it might be wise to examine your heart. Is it possible that some secret pride compels you to think that you have figured out eternal mysteries that even Jesus didn’t understand?
In the final analysis, saving faith comes not to the clever philosopher or theologian, but to anyone who is willing to believe Jesus – to confess, trust in, and rely on Him and His word. So is it Jesus, or not?
I was recently reading a fellow Christian blogger’s take on Hell as defined by the Bible. She had a lengthy and well-researched series of posts, citing various Scriptures and deriving conclusions from them.
Since I recently posted against using Scriptures as mere proof-texts, I want to clarify that to know anything for certain – deep down in our spirit with no room for doubt – requires not only a familiarity with Scripture but the confirmation of the Holy Spirit.
Other matters of doctrine we may have strong opinions about based on our best understanding of what the Bible teaches, but no clear confirmation from the Spirit. That’s ok, because to accurately know and understand everything pertaining to God or Heaven or Hell would require us to be walking as Jesus did – perpetually filled to the fullness of God’s Spirit.
So today I’m going to lay out my beliefs on what happens to Christians when they die, based on my best understanding of Scripture.
What happens to Christians when they die? For me it is Paul who speaks most clearly on this subject. In Philippians 1:21-25 Paul spells out his dilemma of choosing whether he would rather die or go on living:
“For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith.”
Paul says that to die is gain and that to depart means to be with Christ, which is better by far than to go on living. To me this expresses an absolute confidence by Paul that he (his spirit) would immediately be in the presence of the risen Christ upon death, and that this is a wonderful place to be. He confirms this notion again in 2 Corinthians 5 by stating that:
“as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord” and that “we would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord”
Again, leaving our bodies (via death) places us at home with the Lord, and the implication is that this is an immediate occurrence.
A final support for this belief comes from 1 Thessalonians 4: 14-17
“For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.”
Notice that Jesus will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep (died). This implies that they are with Jesus right now, meaning their spirits are with Jesus (their bodies are in the grave). Paul elsewhere states that, “He (Christ) died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him” again affirming that even in death (asleep) we will be with Jesus. (1 Thess. 5: 10)
But what about the phrase fallen asleep? I have never entertained the notion that the dead – righteous or unrighteous – are literally “sleeping” in the earth, or in Hades. Old Testament descriptions of people “asleep in the grave” reveal just how little they understood about the afterlife, not yet having a better revelation in Christ.
In the New Testament, the phrase fallen asleep or fallen asleep in Christ is interchangeable with died or died in Christ. It is akin to us saying politely that a person has “passed away” or “departed” rather than simply saying that they died. It’s a more gentle expression, if you will. Jesus Himself used the phrase fallen asleep to say that Lazarus had died. (John 11: 11-14)
One’s perspective on this may depend on how you define “soul” and / or “spirit.” In my view, the soul of a person is dependent on the body to operate. It is the mind, emotions, and will of the person, operating primarily through the brain. The soul reflects our personality based on human experiences, genetics, and other influences. Our souls get anxious and they can find rest; they may be troubled or at peace.
Our spirits, on the other hand, do not depend on the body to exist or function. They represent our “inner-most being” so to speak, and they come into agreement with God’s Spirit when we are born again. Paul describes the struggle between the desires of his flesh toward sin, and the desires of his spirit to please God, so our spirits have a will and a desire. (Romans 7: 7-25)
It is our spirit that enters the presence of Christ upon our death, and it is the spirits of departed Saints that Jesus will bring with Him at His return. When our bodies are resurrected at the return of Jesus, these spirits will reunite with their (now transformed) bodies in the air. (1 Thess. 4: 14-17; 1 Cor. 15: 51-54)
We were never meant to exist as disembodied spirits. We are a whole being – body, soul, and spirit – and to be separated from any aspect of our being renders us incomplete. This is why Paul stated that we do not desire to be unclothed (without any body) but to be clothed with our permanent, transformed body… our resurrection body, which is no longer subject to death or decay. (2 Corinthians 5: 1-4; see also 1 Thess. 5:23)
That’s my take on what happens to Christians when they die, based on my best understanding of Scripture. Many other passages related to death, the grave, Hades, Hell, and the resurrection fit in with this perspective in one way or another. Maybe I’ll do a post on what happens to non-Christians when they die?
Any opinions that diverge from mine are welcome! What do you think the Bible teaches?
There’s a familiar saying that the Bible can be used to prove anything, or put another way, almost any position on any issue can be supported by selectively quoting and interpreting the Bible. If you want to believe that God is in the rocks and trees and animals (pantheism) you can form a list of Scriptures that seem to support your belief. You believe that Jesus was merely a man and nothing more? Got you covered. You think a person absolutely must be dunked under water to enter Heaven? It’s in there.
Well, not really. The Bible was never meant to be a log book of proof texts for political or theological positions. It was written to progressively reveal God in such a way that men and women would be able to seek Him, and to recognize Him when they found Him. It was meant to bring us into relationship with God through His unique Son. Knowing about God is nice, but knowing God is Life.
Though all Scripture is God-breathed and inspired by the same Holy Spirit, and it is all useful for wisdom and understanding, it is not all equally useful for understanding every aspect of God’s nature, His purpose, or His character.
The Bible is historical (factual); it is poetic (at times metaphorical); it is prophetic (predictive and declarative); and it is morally instructional (law, including the royal law of love). Not every portion of Scripture is suitable for understanding every theological question.
Furthermore, God has purposely revealed Himself in a progressive manner, so that the understanding of Moses is not holistically the same as the understanding of Paul or Peter or John. In fact, the entire Old Testament is full of types and shadows of things that were to come; things now revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. It isn’t easy to discern the details in a shadow… mostly just general impressions.
But anything brought into the light can be viewed far more clearly and accurately. When it comes to future events, Paul says that even now we are seeing as through a darkened mirror, and that we won’t understand fully until we see Jesus face to face. But in the life and teachings of Jesus, we have the most perfect and complete revelation of God – and of reality – that has ever been presented, eclipsing all previous revelations in its clarity and forthrightness.
Let me highlight two keys to interpreting Scripture accurately. The first should be familiar: Examine every Scripture in its own context, setting, intended audience, and time in history. Also ask yourself if Jesus or His apostles ever addressed the issue, and give them the greatest weight. Look at all relevant Scriptures, not just one or a few.
Second and just as important: Listen to the Holy Spirit. This may sound subjective, but it isn’t. Receiving the Holy Spirit is as easy as submitting yourself to the Lordship of Jesus and placing your faith in Him for the forgiveness of sins. Now you’ve got it.
Learning to hear His voice requires spending time in His presence, becoming more intimately acquainted with the person of Jesus. Although God does speak in a variety of ways (I’ll elaborate on that in a future post), the most common is the simple YES / NO. The YES comes as an unmistakable peace, regardless of circumstance or your mind telling you otherwise.
The NO comes as a check in your spirit, an “Uh-oh, something’s wrong” that may come even though you don’t specifically know why. This can happen while reading or listening to someone else’s teaching on God or the Bible. When you hear a teaching and you sense the check in your spirit, that’s a good time to pray and examine relevant Scriptures for yourself until the light of the truth dawns in your heart… you will know that you know what you know. This might happen immediately or over time.
But isn’t this just relying on feelings? No, but it does take time to distinguish between the Spirit and our feelings. And our ability to hear can be compromised by lack of fellowship with Jesus, just as the sound of a friend’s voice can fade over time. And there are other voices out there, including the voice of the deceiver / imposter who likes to impersonate God, and your own head voice that speaks according to your current head knowledge, impressions, and emotions.
There is no substitute for time with Jesus. You may get it wrong sometimes in the beginning, but progressively you will begin to recognize His voice among all others. Once you hear Him speak on a subject, no amount of human reasoning will ever persuade you otherwise.
The Bible can be made to support anything, so be sure to read, pray, and listen carefully.
Politics. I get it. As a thoughtful human being I have very strong and definite political opinions regarding this country in which I was born and raised. I have opinions on our current president, the previous president, and the seven other presidents that have come and gone in my lifetime. Public schools, immigration, taxes, foreign policy? You bet.
At one time I was proud to proclaim my opinions – they were all “right” of course! 🙂 – and this resulted in many vigorous debates and arguments over the years with friends, coworkers and family, not to mention numerous strangers on social media.
With God’s help, I put a stop to it. Oh, I do vote and I do still educate myself on both sides of controversial issues. I continue to have definite political opinions. But I keep them to myself, and that has been a true work of God.
A major emphasis of this blog is that I – like all Christians – am a citizen of Heaven. We are members of God’s family by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. That is an incredible truth, so much so that John the apostle exuberantly proclaimed, “See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!” (1 John 3:1)
Lavish love. That expression doesn’t fit in with any of my political arguments. Becoming overly concerned with politics, or overly vocal in our political opinions, actually serves to drive others away from Christ. Our politically conservative or liberal opinions will drown out God’s offer of lavish love to the world. It’s an ugly thing to drive someone away from Christ over transient opinions.
So I choose God’s message – his gospel of peace – over my politics. I certainly enjoy the many benefits of living in America, but if America should ever decline and fall, my citizenship in Heaven will remain forever.
So love America… a little. Participate in politics… a little. But love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and let that love spill over into the lives of all who cross your path. Your (real) citizenship is in Heaven, and no one can serve two masters.
I know we all like to say that America was founded on “Christian principles” and that most of the Founding Fathers were Christians, and this gives rise to the faulty notion that America was founded as a “Christian Nation.” But the truth is – now brace yourself – the U.S. Constitution does not specify that those seeking Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness must also agree to abide by Christian morals and norms.
It’s true. Although the Founders didn’t foresee the incredible moral decline of American society, they pretty much enshrined “equal rights” for all people into the Constitution, and when you give unsaved, un-regenerate people the right to “pursue happiness” you open the door for many non-traditional, sinful, or just plain whacky behaviors to be tolerated and protected by law.
As fine a document as it is, the U.S. Constitution does not proclaim or support the Kingdom of God, and it is absolutely powerless to curb our human appetite for sin. Rather it enshrines our right to sin, if sinning makes us happy.
Christians today are putting a lot of misguided faith in the Constitution to set things right in America. “If only the President obeyed the Constitution! If only judges would interpret it correctly! If only we passed amendments banning abortion and gay marriage! Then America would be great again.”
But Jesus doesn’t call us Christians to make America great, but to make His Name great among all people. And we can never accomplish that by passing laws that force unbelievers to act like Christians. There was a time when the Church ruled Europe and people were persecuted, jailed, and tortured for disobeying Church laws. Is that our vision for America? Because that is exactly where a “Christian nation” will lead us.
Unbelievers are incapable of living like believers! If you don’t agree, at least consider God’s Word which declares that “The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God.” (Rom. 8:7,8).
You see, it is impossible to establish a “Christian nation” on earth based on God’s Word and His commandments. Israel is the obvious example of this, who having God’s Law and prophets nevertheless descended into immorality and idolatry.
Jesus, on the other hand, never compelled anyone to obey or believe in Him. He showed love and compassion toward sinners, taught them with gentleness and respect, and invited “whosoever will” to believe and follow Him. This is also our job and pattern for building God’s Kingdom. The U.S. Constitution has nothing to do with our calling in Christ. We are fighting the wrong battle to achieve the wrong result.
The Kingdom of God proclaimed by Jesus is not of this world, and we are citizens of that Kingdom. It is not upheld by the force of human documents or laws, or politicians, but by Jesus Himself. It is manifested wherever the Church lives out the radical Kingdom precepts laid down by Jesus.
We manifest and build God’s Kingdom by consistently eradicating lustful and angry thoughts, turning the other cheek when insulted, faithfully loving our spouses, giving to others without expecting any return, always going the extra mile, showing love toward our enemies, always acting as peacemakers, sharing the gospel of salvation. In short, by loving our neighbors as we love ourselves.
This is what it means to be “salt and light.” Not voting Republican or Democrat. Not passing laws and prohibitions. Not changing our Constitution to better suit our Christian morality. And certainly not picketing, protesting, and insulting the very sinners that Jesus died to save. None of these is able to accomplish what Jesus has commissioned us to do.
So Christians of America, if you really want to transform your nation for Christ, then drop the divisive politics, re-read the beatitudes and Sermon on the Mount, and personally start acting like a citizen of God’s Kingdom by obeying the King in every attitude and action. Start fighting the right battle in the right way. Any other approach is not of God and destined to fail.