Seeking the True Christ

There are many distractions in the world that take our attention away from the true Christ.   Paul warns of empty deceit and worldly philosophies that exist and take our attention away from the gospel.  Instead, we must always focus on serving our Messiah, Jesus Christ.

The text for this sermon is Colossians 2:8-15.  I pray that God’s Spirit moves in your heart as you listen.

May God bless you.  May the peace of Jesus Christ reign in your heart.  May the fruit of the Spirit be exhibited in your life.

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Correctly Understanding the Theology of “Heaven is for Real”

I recently had the privilege of watching a great movie.  You might be familiar with the title.  It’s called “Heaven Is for Real.”  I had heard about the book for quite a while but never had an opportunity to read it.  When the movie came out, I put it on my list of films to watch.  But it wasn’t until a few days ago, with my fiancé, that I finally watched this story.

If you’re interested in a movie with lots of action and a suspenseful plot, it’s probably not your type of movie.  But if you’re interested in the gospel of Jesus Christ and learning about one boy’s incredible, God-given vision of eternity, then watch the movie.

Granted, the movie has been adapted to a film version from the book, so I’m sure there were some changes.  However, at the end of the day, the basic story is the same: Colton, at a young age, became sick with appendicitis, and while unconscious on the operating table, had a vision of Jesus Christ and heaven.  He recovered, only to have extraordinary and unexplainable observations and insights.

I have to admit, though, I was a bit skeptical at first.  Trained in theology, I need to be able to think very critically about stories like Colton Burpo’s.  The particular branch of theology that this movie deals with is eschatology – the end times of this fallen creation in anticipation of the coming age in a new creation.  While it doesn’t deal with the “end times” specifically, it does deal with life after death, which is related to eschatology.

That is why I can appreciate an article like Drew Dyck’s, “What Hollywood gets wrong about heaven.”   It is definitely a great article.   Drew reminds us of scriptural accounts of heaven from the prophets Daniel, Ezekial, and Isaiah.

Drew writes, “In Scripture, when mortals catch a premature glimpse of God’s glory, they react in remarkably similar ways. They tremble. They cower. They go mute. The ones who can manage speech express despair (or “woe” to use the King James English) and become convinced they are about to die. Fainters abound.”

He also reminds us of John’s revelation, in which heaven is presented as an awe-inspiring place.  But it is also quite terrifying from the perspective of our fallen and limited human understandings.  I like the text CNN uses for the link: “heaven is for scary real.”  It’s because it is for scary real.

It’s also why I can also appreciate noted Christian leader John MacArthur’s critique, “Heaven is Real; Hallucinations are not,” in which he says he simply does not believe the child at all.

However, as smart as the man is, I, along with many others, disagree with John MacArthur’s theological viewpoint. He is approaching the movie from his system of thinking, which comes from a very rigid Reformed theology.  Don’t get me wrong, though – he makes several legitimate points and has an understandable reason to write what he wrote.  His article should be taken very seriously because there can be such a wide variety of  these types of near-death experiences.  He offers great input as part of the conversation, but as a former professor used to say to me, “What’s the so-what?”

Unlike John MacArthur, coming from the Wesleyan tradition of Christianity, I cannot simply ignore someone’s profound personal experience – especially when the boy’s experience offers such unexplainable happenings like Colton recognizing his great-grandfather as a young man, Colton knowing that his mother miscarried, and Colton recognizing the Christ from a painting done by a little girl, whom he had never met or heard of, on the other side of the world who had a similar experience.

In the Wesleyan tradition, I have to at least try to reconcile a story like Colton’s with Christian tradition, Christian experience, theological reason, and scripture.  We must think a little deeper in order to figure out how this makes sense with a correct understanding of theology and scripture.  We must ask, “What’s the so-what?”  We’re on the right track; we just have to think a little harder.

We must ask how Colton’s story fits in with the greater story of God’s redemption of the creation that is explained in scripture.  The Spirit of God is at work in people’s lives today – even a child’s life – just as much as the Spirit of God was at work in the thousands of years of history that scripture covers.

Moreover, as a Christian I’m asked to believe in the possibility of the miraculous. We have to have faith, after all, in the life, death, and resurrection of a living Jesus Christ!

Perhaps the misunderstanding comes from an overly-simplified version of eschatology in which a person dies and either goes to heaven or hell, and that’s the end of the story.  However, that is not necessarily how it works.  Paul, prophets of the Old Testament, apostles and disciples of the New Testament, and most importantly Jesus Christ, the Messiah, all speak of a resurrection and judgment at the last day and of all things being made new in eternal life with God.  If you’d like to read a little further on this subject, as well as dive a little deeper into the possibilities of immediate life after death, check out a previous post, ““The Great Divorce” and Understanding Eschatology.”  Part of the post summarizes N.T. Wright’s “Surprised by Hope”, which is also an excellent resource on life after death.

What I’ve come to realize is that, most of the time, when people speak of heaven they mean the new creation that God will redeem this world into at the onset of the next age.   This fallen age will come to an end with the return of Christ, resurrection, and judgment unto eternal life or death by Christ.  The earth will be made new, and heaven (God’s dwelling place) will come down to a new Jerusalem.  Those whose hearts Christ judges worthy will dwell in this new creation.   It will certainly be heavenly, but it won’t be heaven proper.

Heaven, properly understood, is God’s dwelling place.  It is not of this earth.  It is the place described in Daniel, Ezekial, Isaiah, and John’s revelation.  It is awe-inspiring and terrifying.

But here’s the key: God did not create humans to dwell in heaven proper.  He created us as the pinnacle of his creation to dwell among the rest of his creation – the beautiful earth described in Genesis 1-3.  It is the beautiful earth we still see today.  And when this creation will finally be fully redeemed, wiped free from effects of sin and fallenness, it will so much more incredibly beautiful!

As people created to be part of a creation, being in heaven proper – a place not ultimately intended for us – would have the exact effect it had on Daniel, Ezekial, Isaiah, and John – trembling, cowering, speechless, and faint.

This quick illustration might help – you were created to drink out of a cup, not from a high-pressure firehose.  A human being in heaven proper is like drinking out of a high-pressure firehouse.  Even a short period of time will most likely produce some extreme consequences for the person!

Or think about this other example – an animal, taken out of its normal habitat, will not do too well; it was designed to function best in its original habitat.  Humans, as creations of God, are designed to function best in God’s creation.  And they will ultimately function greatest in God’s redeemed creation!

Considering everything, we must ask how Colton’s vision fits in with a correct theological understanding of God’s plan for people and his creation.  Ultimately, I just cannot dismiss Colton’s story as hallucination.  Theologically speaking, it cannot be dismissed as such either, as John MacArthur is quick to do.

It can be explained best, however, as a vision from God, given to Colton, of life in this new creation.  It is an incredible experience.  The mystery of God, in all of its greatness, made complete in Jesus Christ, and given to us by the Spirit, has given Colton a vision of God’s new creation – the place so many people call heaven.  Scripturally and theologically speaking, Colton’s vision is actually an accurate experience of the new creation.   Christ has a horse; Christ rides on a horse in John’s revelation.  The new creation is also free from the effects of fallenness; Colton describes everyone as young and with perfect vision (that’s great for me and my fiancé, because we’ve had bad vision our entire lives!).

It is certainly not an event where we can just put our foot down and exclaim with all certainty, “Impossible!”   To do so would be to put the power and mystery of God in a box and limit the work of the Spirit and the risen Christ, which will lead no where good.

God has shown his love to Colton through this vision, and in doing so, has inspired so many countless others to also turn their hearts to the reality of God and Jesus Christ.  And ultimately, hearts oriented and turned toward the love, grace, and glory of Jesus Christ is what matters most.

I pray that throughout the remainder of his entire life, Colton continues to inspire others toward the gospel of Jesus Christ.

“The Great Divorce” and Understanding Eschatology

C.S. Lewis is quite a good storyteller. Now, I know that statement is obvious to anyone who has read any of his fiction. Nonetheless, when we read fiction, we often have a tendency to say, “What a nice story,” and leave it at that. We forget that the metaphor speaks to something greater; there is a legitimate direction of truth in metaphor. It is why, in reading the gospels, one will often find Christ saying, “The kingdom of God is like….” He spoke in metaphors because a metaphor will illustrate the greater truth, reality, and concept behind the words themselves.

The main theme of The Great Divorce says that, often, there is some grain of good desire even at the heart of an act that appears evil; good, even the smallest amount, taken in a selfish direction will be misused and abused and turned into something horrible. But when taken in the right (‘right’ in and of itself is a word that needs to be unpacked in today’s post-modern world!) purpose, right defined here as being used for the purpose and intention of God’s design, that grain of good turns into something beautiful and amazing. Additionally, there are themes and metaphors of heaven, hell, and even purgatory (believe it or not – it is a doctrine that has its basis in some legitimacy!), as well as the examination of the depth of God’s love and victory. These are aspects of what is commonly called eschatology. It is looking at, well, the end. It is trying to understand the end of this age, bonded to death through sin, and the beginning of a new age, with freedom in God to love.

And it begs us to ask questions; some might even call them dangerous questions. What do we believe will happen at the end of this age? And the even more threatening question – what do we believe will happen when we die?

Oftentimes, the quick, easy answer we receive in western, non-Roman Catholic theological traditions (sorry – I don’t like the term ‘Protestant’ very much; I’m not really protesting Rome anymore!) is that you die and your soul goes to heaven or hell. And that’s the type of bottom line, hard and fast answer we receive. Simplistic and easy – but that is the exact problem with that answer. In truth, it’s neither a simplistic nor an easy answer! And it should not be treated as if it were a simplistic and easy answer!

There are all sorts of issues with this answer.

The first issue is that none of us has died and returned. That is, none of us except Jesus Christ. And apart from Christ’s death and resurrection, we do not exactly know what comes after death. Christ is our best guide to understanding life after death. What the resurrection points to, and in line with scripture, is a physical resurrection in a renewed body.

The second issue is the concept of a dualistic eternal soul and non-eternal body; it does not come from Christianity nor the Hebrew Bible. Remove Greek and Platonist influence and you have the unified psychosomatic concept of the person as a whole; body and mind are together. It is the way God designed us to be as people; he did not design us to have a partially separated non-physical ‘soul’ for all of eternity – the person would be incomplete! I encourage you to take a journey through both the Old and New Testaments and explore this on your own.

The third issue is that it does not take into account the physical resurrection of the person, and all people, at the end of this age; again, this is in line with scripture; again, I encourage you to explore the Old and New Testaments. Moreover, in saying that someone will immediately descend into hell upon death turns God into an unjust judge. Scripture is clear that there will be both a day of physical resurrection and a day of judgment; neither has happened yet. It will be at the end of this age. God is not going to condemn a person to eternal damnation before the day of judgment! C.S. Lewis makes a great point here in The Great Divorce – ultimately, it won’t be God’s rejection of the person; rather, it will be the person’s rejection of God and his beautiful love that brings despair.

It should be known that on that day of judgment in the future, it will be God, and God alone, who is truly able to judge the person’s heart. This is not a responsibility that we, as Christians, ignorant of a totality of information, should take on for ourselves; we cannot claim to be God. However, it should make all of us, Christian and non-Christian alike, want to seriously examine the condition of our own hearts and our receptiveness towards God’s grace.

Finally, it downplays the significance and the beauty of a new creation! As I mentioned before, God created us as physical beings, originally designed for good, beauty, life, and love; however we have been corrupted by sin and its effects through death. God did not create us to be an eternal, non-physical soul, yearning to escape a physical realm; that is the heresy of gnosticism. But in living in a new and beautiful creation, it will be a remade, physical world! There will be eternal, physical life available, with freedom in love and freedom from evil. One will not have to worry about needs or wants; there will be no pain or tears of sadness.

That, my friends, sounds absolutely amazing. Imagine the beautiful, remade beings of The Great Divorce. That could be our remade body one day. Imagine the rivers and the mountains, the grass, the apples, and the leaves that Lewis described in his story. Consider, at the very least, the abounding love that conquers all.

Think of hiking through a beautiful mountain path, living in conjunction with God’s Spirit and praising the Father for his works, all the while thanking the Son for making your participation in it possible through his work in this present age. Think of sitting on the most beautiful beach that God has ever made, while enjoying loving fellowship with others. Think of an awe-inspiring sunset or sunrise. Think of entering through the gates of the incredible city of God that John describes in Revelation. Think of walking with Christ, our King but also our friend, and embracing the love that is his very existence.

It will one day be a physical and true reality. It will be God’s beloved world, remade.

Do you see how the answer of saying that one will go to heaven or hell after one dies and that’s the bottom line is not only simplistic and easy, but a bit misleading? This fall-back and default answer, especially when there is a much better, truthful, and scripturally accurate answer, can even be damaging!

This gives us a fairly good picture of the future and where God is taking the world; the incredibly beautiful thing is that God invites each of us to participate in this awesome story! If that is not an expression of love, I am not quite sure what is.

Nor is it the promotion of a selfish ticket to heaven, but an invitation for us and an opportunity to participate in and perpetuate God’s amazing, redemptive love to the world; we continue in the work of demonstrating this kingdom as we respond to God today!

Nonetheless, we still ask the question of what will immediately happen after one dies. The short answer, and probably the best and most honest answer, is we don’t know.

There are a few possibilities, but we can’t talk about it with nearly as much certainty and scriptural accuracy as we can of the new creation.

The first is that one simply dies and then is raised again at the resurrection. At first this might come as a shock and the question is inevitably asked, “What? No heaven?” Well, if you’re really honest with yourself, it’s not that big of a deal. You’ll be dead; and the good thing about being dead is that you won’t know you’re dead! So the time between death and resurrection will fly by in the blink of an eye. It could be a possible reason why, in Luke 23, Jesus told the man next to him on the cross that, “Today, you will be with me in paradise.”

Or, if one absolutely insists on keeping the Platonic idea of an eternal soul not subject to death, then upon death, a soul could go to a type of Hades or Sheol to await the day of reunification with a physical body at the resurrection, when God will examine the person’s heart to bring them into eternal life in the new creation or damnation and eternal death (by the way, this opens a whole new can of worms as to what exactly damnation and eternal death means, which I won’t go into in this article). I explore this idea in one of my stories out of my new book, An Intertwined Reality: Short Stories for the Already but Not Yet. This is perhaps a more accurate understanding of an idea similar to purgatory. The grey town in The Great Divorce could be an illustration of this concept. At any rate, this idea could potentially explain a phenomenon of ghosts; still, supernatural forces that do not come from God are not to be trifled (there’s a good word!) with.

The last possibility is that by Jesus saying, “Today, you will be with me in paradise,” he means that the person’s soul who is in relationship with God will indeed wait in heaven for the day of reunification with a physical body to live in the new creation. Nonetheless, living in the redeemed physical body in the new creation is still the goal! In going with this idea, it does not mean that one who is not in relationship with God will go to hell; the day of judgment has not yet happened! They may either simply die or their soul waits in a type of Hades or Sheol.

Nonetheless, these are not known certainties. They are only ideas and theories. Like I said before, we don’t know! Moreover, we have such a lack of understanding between the concepts of time and space in eternity as opposed to the concepts of space and time as constructs that God has given us in his creation. We only know what we know through Christ, the physically resurrected Savior, a sign of the general resurrection and renewal yet to come!

But does it really matter what may or not happen immediately upon death? Again, if you’re really honest with yourself – no! Because ultimately we have the promise that there will be life again in the paradise of a new creation with God!

Moreover, I pray that we as the Church do not rely on simplistic, easy, or misleading theology. We should faithfully be ready to wrestle and struggle with our challenges, our questions, and even our doubts.

And sometimes, a good story can help offer a better explanation than one might initially think.

Eschatology – it can at first be an intimidating theological word, but it is a word we should be ready to explore. C.S. Lewis, in his imagination, helps us do that in his storytelling. His works of fiction are not simply stories to say, “What a nice story,” and leave it that, but stories to open our imagination to metaphors and illustrations of truth we find in scripture. The Great Divorce is one of those excellent works of fiction.

*A lot of what I discussed in this article can be found in N.T. Wright’s book, Surprised by Hope. He goes into all of the issues I summarized on a much deeper level. Check out the book!

Thoughts on Easter: “Spiritual but not Religious”

A large number of people label themselves as “spiritual but not religious.”   I can understand this viewpoint; for some it is because of bad experiences with a major world religion, such as Christianity, Judaism, or Islam.   For others, it is not necessarily because of a previous experience, but just that they are skeptical of the idea of “organized religion.”   Still, some may want to explore different religions before jumping into one; it is dipping one’s feet into the water before fully diving in.   In any case, and no matter what category a person falls under, the individuals who consider themselves “spiritual but not religious” recognize that there is something more to life than simply going after common and vain pursuits such as money and power.

However, the label “spiritual but not religious” is misleading; it implies that there is also a group of people who are “not spiritual and not religious.”   To be honest, I do not think it is even possible to be “not spiritual.”   The idea that one could not have a spiritual self at all, or that one could completely destroy or kill one’s spiritual self, does not make any sense.

The spirit is a characteristic of the physical body.   It’s like saying one is one; it simply is.   If you’ve read my previous post, “He’s living on the inside, roaring like a lion,” you’ll get a better idea of where I am coming from in stating this.   God created us; God breathed life into us, giving us a spirit.   In this life, the body and the spirit are inseparable.   They are intertwined into one existence – the human being.   What happens to the spirit after death, we do not know exactly (check out N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope); we have many ideas though.   Although, as a minister in Christianity, I believe that at the end of this sinful age there will be a resurrection of the dead and our spirit will return to our body through God’s power; we will live as one existence of the intertwined and inseparable physical and spiritual human being – the way God designed us to be – in a new eternal creation free from the bondage of death.   This is what is supported by Christian scripture and thousands of years of tradition.

There is no one who is “not spiritual.”   It is impossible.   We are all spiritual beings.   Granted, different people may deny or accept the reality of their spirituality on different levels, in effect, respectively, either suffocating or cultivating who they are.   But we are all spiritual on some level.   And as we become more in tune with ourselves, we realize that there is much more to life than simply the pursuit of vain items and materialism.   We begin to realize the importance of the connections that exist within this world.

Jesus summarized it as he echoed the Jewish Shema of Deuteronomy 6: “Jesus answered, ‘The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these'” (Mark 12:29-31).

A few weeks ago in one of my classes at the U.S. Army Chaplain Basic Officer Leadership Course, one of my Chaplain instructors gave us his thoughts on a definition of spirituality: it is a person connecting with the four c’s – the creator, the community, the conscience, and the creation.   Even if it is at a very basic level, we are all making these connections; we are becoming more in tune to the bigger picture of life.   And as a Christian, I believe God made each one of us to have a role in this bigger picture; God created us to be people who are not selfish individuals, but selfless people who are always recognizing the connections we have.

Religion is a vital tool in developing this spirituality.   Through religion, we cultivate and grow these connections and relationships.   And perhaps most importantly, we learn to first develop our connection with God so that we can better develop our connections with the community, the conscience, and the creation.   On our own, it is impossible to cultivate these connections.   But through a connection with God, and with God working in us and changing our hearts, our other connections will grow into something we never believed was possible.

Christianity is based on the person of Jesus Christ; this religion is centered on Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.   Through Christ, we can experience the amazing love of God in his grace, forgiveness, and mercy, despite all that we have done wrong in life.   Through Christ, we can become connected with God.   And through that connection with God, we can learn to truly love one another.   We can begin to understand ourselves, how we fit into the bigger picture of life, and be free from vain pursuits.

During this Easter season, I pray that no matter where we are on our spiritual journeys, whether we are struggling to take the very first step or have already been traveling for a thousand miles, we will begin to see the ultimate form of spirituality as a relationship with Christ.   I pray that we will use the tools that thousands of years of the Christian tradition have given us to develop our connections with the creator, the community, the conscience, and the creation.   I pray that we will explore and reflect on different aspects of what it means to be a Christian in whatever context we find ourselves in today.   I pray that we will begin to learn how to worship God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength.   And I pray that we learn to love our neighbors in the same way that we love ourselves.

This week is Holy Week in western Christianity. Soon our brothers and sisters in eastern Christiany will also be celebrating these Holy days of the Christian calendar.  Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday – this week is the pinnacle event of Christianity.   The significance of these days for our lives is the culmination of what it means to know ourselves and recognize our spirituality.   The life, death, and resurrection of the Christ and the Messiah is the sum of what our connections to the creator, the community, the conscience, and the creation mean in each of our lives.

Happy Easter.   Christ has risen.   Let us celebrate.