Cosmic Eschatology

Christian eschatology must be broadened out into cosmic eschatology, for otherwise it becomes a gnostic doctrine of redemption, and is bound to teach, no longer a redemption of the world but a redemption from the world, no longer the redemption of the body, but a deliverance of the soul from the body. But men and women are not aspirants for angelic status, whose home is in heaven and who feel that on this earth they are in exile. They are creatures of flesh and blood. Their eschatological future is a human and earthly future – ‘the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come’.

Jürgen Moltmann, The Coming of God (1996), 259.

Ascension & Advent, Space & Time

ascensionYesterday was Ascension Sunday, when Christians remember Jesus’s ascension. Hymns on Ascension Sunday tend to focus on Jesus’s reign in heaven, how his crown of thorns has become a crown of stars of light – that kind of thing. But, there’s an undeniable tension with the ascension. In Luke’s ascension account in Acts 1 (of the gospel writers, only Luke shows any interest in the ascension), the disciples are looking into the sky, and two mysterious Men in White appear:

“Galileans,” they said, “why are you standing here gazing into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into the sky, will come back in the same way you’ve seen him go into the sky.”

So, basically, don’t stand around looking up. Why? Because this same Jesus will return. This isn’t about the sky, or heaven. This is about down here. And there’s the tension. The ascension leads to a temporary, intermediate state; Jesus will return. There ought to be a strong, powerful link between Ascension Sunday (and Ascension Day, always on the preceding Thursday) and the season of Advent. It’s a link that’s there in the Apostles’ Creed:

He ascended to heaven, and is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.

The goal of Jesus’s work is not his ascension, or even his ‘heavenly session’, but his reign over the fullness of God’s Kingdom on earth. As Paul writes about the Return of Jesus to earth, in 1 Corinthians 15:24-27, he puts it this way, citing a psalm or two:

Then, the goal: when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For he has put everything under his feet.

And when it comes to citing psalms on Ascension Sunday, we often read Psalms 24 and 47. These psalms, we understand, were originally associated with the triumphal and joyful entry of the Ark of the Covenant into the Temple. Christians have a very long tradition of associating them with the ascension, as an expression of the triumph of Jesus. However, as we heard in the parish church this morning, these psalms rightly ought to point to something else too: to the truest and fullest entry of God’s presence into his temple, at the return of Jesus the Messiah to this earth. Understood in this way, singing and reading these psalms will help to supply that powerful link between Ascension and Advent.

Another question raised by the Ascension, and also addressed in the parish church this morning, is: “Where is Jesus?” That’s also part of the tension of Ascension Sunday. In the account of the event, Jesus goes up into the sky. Of course, that would have made perfect sense to the original readers, and the writer, of the account, as well as to the observers of whatever it was that actually happened. But how on earth can we reconcile that with modern cosmology?

Asking “Where is heaven?” seems a fairly pointless question. Any answer surely has to posit that it’s not a part of our reality, the reality of the visible creation. It must be in some sense another dimension. On the other hand, asking “Where is Jesus?” isn’t actually a pointless or stupid question. It’s more cogent, and difficult to answer, than we might imagine – at least for those with an orthodox view of Jesus Christ, and of humanity.

Human bodies (whether pre- or post-resurrection) belong on earth, in this dimension, not in heaven (wherever heaven is). Ordinarily, the lives of human beings as whole human beings, in mortality or immortality, are lived entirely on earth. We affirm the real humanity of Jesus as well as his divinity. How can a human body that is very much a part of this visible creation, and belongs in it, exist in some other dimension? There’s mystery here, for sure. But it’s clear, to me at least, that whatever the disciples saw that day was an accommodation to their understanding of the cosmos. With the understanding we have now of the cosmos, of space and time, there might be other avenues to follow as we ask “Where is Jesus?” Perhaps.

The mysterious Men in White fundamentally link the Ascension and Return of Jesus. In their message, the intervening period is de-emphasised (as in the Apostles’ Creed). The Ascension and Return are two adjacent acts in the drama of Jesus as King on Earth. Perhaps, and I mean perhaps, the question of “Where is Jesus ?” is better-framed as “When is Jesus?” In the future, in space and time, Jesus is here on earth, reigning in the creation with all his holy ones, who have been redeemed by his life, death and resurrection. In our present time, Jesus is not physically present at all. But he has not left us bereft. He himself has come to us through the gift of the Holy Spirit, also designated as the Spirit of Christ (more mystery). This is what we’ll be remembering on Pentecost Sunday, in a week’s time. Where is Jesus? Not with us. Yet with us, always, even until the very end of the age.

Faith Stands by God

bonhoefferIn CH4, the Church of Scotland hymnal, is a hymn by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I read it on Good Friday, sat in the parish church. I must have come across it before, since it’s in Letters and Papers from Prison, but it was the first time I’d seen this particular translation. As I read it there, on that day and in that place, I found it not only striking, but also deeply moving.

We turn to God when we are sorely pressed;
we pray for help, and ask for peace and bread;
we seek release from illness, guilt, and death:
all people do, in faith or unbelief.

We turn to God when he is sorely pressed,
and find him poor, scorned, without roof and bread,
bowed under weight of weakness, sin, and death:
faith stands by God in his dark hour of grief.

God turns to us when we are sorely pressed,
and feeds our souls and bodies with his bread;
for one and all Christ gives himself in death:
through his forgiveness sin will find relief.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–1945) Letters and Papers in Prison, 1953, SCM Press, translated Compilers.

Love and Forgiveness Against the Grain

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In a previous post I pointed to a definition of forgiveness (from Bryan Maier’s book Forgiveness and Justice) that brings to the fore responsibility, repentance and safety as prerequisites for forgiveness.

But what about when there is no responsibility taken by the offender? What if there is no repentance? What if there isn’t safety in encountering someone who continues to be hostile? And what if we have no contact with an offender whose actions have changed the course of our lives? What then? What does forgiveness then look like? Can it be achieved?

In my experience, many Christians ask these kinds of questions because life brings up  exactly these kinds of situations; they are not uncommon. These Christians are bearing a burden, and some have carried it for many long years. They feel that they are commanded to forgive as an entirely independent act, taken without any reference to the offender, or to the nature of the offence. And that they are commanded to forgive immediately, not only because it is a command of God, but because they will not be forgiven by God if they do not forgive in this way. They also hear many folk saying that not to forgive will be spiritually, emotionally and even physically damaging. I don’t think that Christians are, in fact, commanded in this way. I do think that Christians feel all these things because too much teaching on forgiveness is simplistic, and hasn’t been thought through. And I’d suggest that we often subsume under the title ‘forgiveness’ very different things, which might not be forgiveness at all.

There’s so much that could be written, but I want to offer the following thoughts:

Biblical forgiveness requires repentance. It’s significant that the NT urges us to forgive after the model of God’s forgiveness. God’s forgiveness is not isolated and autonomous, but rather involves the offender – requiring an acknowledgement of the offence, and some kind of commitment not to re-offend. Forgiveness, according to this model, is fundamentally relational. This is how the earliest Gospel opens, with the message of John (Mark 1:4), how Luke’s gospel closes (Luke 24:47), and how Acts opens (Acts 2:38). In fact, it’s the constant pattern (building on the same pattern in the Old Testament). So, it’s important that Paul writes:

Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you. (Eph 4:32, see also Col 3:13)

And very important that Luke records Jesus saying when asked about how often his disciples should forgive:

“And if he sins against you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.” (Luke 17:4)

Luke’s account of this saying is hugely important, certainly instructive, and often overlooked. I think it’s also important that when Jesus is being crucified, he isn’t recorded as saying to his executioners ‘I forgive you’, but rather as praying ‘Father, forgive them’ (Luke 23:34). It may be that here we find a reminder that the repentance required for forgiveness is, from a theological point of view, granted by God.

So, I’m affirming the approach of Maier, and underlining the importance of definitions like his. Biblical forgiveness requires repentance: an acknowledgement of fault, of sin; a taking of responsibility; and, a genuine commitment not to repeat those sins (even if that commitment may be broken). Biblical forgiveness is fundamentally relational. And it needs dialogue, communication. Such forgiveness leads to reconciliation, which sets the relationship on a healthy footing. The process can be long, and difficult, but there is a worthwhile goal. And it is right to pursue it.

 

Repentance doesn’t always occur. However, many contexts for offences don’t quite fit with this neat picture. What if the offender doesn’t believe they have offended? What if the offender has no intention of repentance, but intends to continue offending? Or, what if the offender is unknown to us? What if we had no previous contact or relationship with the offender, and the offence was committed in a random intersection of lives (one might think of a car accident with a drunk-driver, for example)?

For the first two, within the community of Christians, Jesus gives guidance in Matthew 18. Go to the offender, and initiate that dialogue; if there’s no progress, involve others; and, if necessary bring the judgement of the community (whether in the form of leaders, or a more corporate view – it’s debated) to bear. This guidance suggests general principles for those outside of the community of faith too. The aim is to bring repentance and reconciliation, but a possible outcome is intransigence, and in that case no personal or community forgiveness is realised (see Matt 18:17). This passage is really important – the offended person isn’t told that they must continue to live alongside, and in fellowship with, the unrepentant (and therefore hostile) offender. There is judgement, and the victim is protected from the hostility of the unrepentant offender by the expulsion of the offender.

But that still leaves the other contexts above, and plenty of others within which offenders can be unrepentant.

Forgiveness is not always possible. Jesus’s own accounts of judgement (e.g. Matt 25:31ff.) along with the (much-discussed) ‘blasphemy against the Holy Spirit’ (e.g. Matt 12:31-32) make abundantly clear that even God does not always forgive. This isn’t because God is capricious, but rather because offenders do not always repent.

Similarly, in terms of human relationships, Jesus makes clear in his own teaching that there will be people to whom we will not be reconciled. The category of ‘enemy’ (indicating a hostile relationship) is a very real one for Jesus, and in his view (and experience) even those closest to us can become our enemies (Matt 10:36; 26:25).

Maier himself categorises an offender’s refusal to repent as an ongoing act of hostility. Unrepentant offenders can therefore be legitimately thought of under the category of ‘enemy’. Is it significant that Jesus does not urge his disciples to forgive their enemies, but to love them and to pray for them? I think so.

Love for Enemies, and a Forgiveness Offered. Jesus’s teaching on enemies speaks into the kinds of contexts described above.  An enemy is someone distant, not close. Someone whose hostility means that they are held at arms length (or beyond). It strikes me that many offences which are not repented of – whether because there’s no opportunity for contact with the offender, or because the offender is unrepentant – might be best understood in this way.

I’m not saying that all unrepentant offenders can be straightforwardly considered to be enemies – some may be. But the category of ‘enemy’, and Jesus teaching about enemies, is fruitful for considering our response to such offenders. Neither am I at all suggesting that adopting this approach somehow allows us to harbour hatred, to refuse to forgive, or to wish ill on offenders – Jesus doesn’t allow for these things. On the contrary, Jesus’s command concerning enemies requires a demanding reconfiguration of the very concept of enemy.

I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven (Matt. 5:44-45).

What is the biblical answer to unrepentant, even belligerent, offenders, or unknown offenders? It’s not some one-sided, therapeutic, pseudo-forgiveness. It is love for the enemy, and prayer for the enemy. It isn’t pretending the offence hasn’t happened, or hasn’t damaged us, or pretending that the enemy is a friend. It isn’t suppressing anger and pretending there isn’t a burning injustice. It isn’t denying the truth. It is loving the offender, alongside the acknowledgement of all these things. That is demanding. It’s a very difficult tension, but it strikes me that it’s a tension we see in God’s own response to sin.

And Jesus picks out prayer as a concrete expression of this difficult call to love the enemy. Prayer is the way in which we negotiate this tension. And, as we’ve seen, it’s something we see Jesus modelling: “Father, forgive them.”

Miroslav Volf, in his book Free of Charge, wrestles with these issues. He argues for a unilateral and real forgiveness on the part of the victim, with or without the repentance of the offender. This forgiveness can then be realised for the unrepentant offender, or rejected by the unrepentant (p.182ff.). I don’t agree with Volf’s argument at every point, and I disagree that what he describes is really forgiveness – for either party. I think that the picture Volf paints might best be described as a forgiveness offered.

Love and prayer for an unrepentant offender isn’t forgiveness. But it represents a forgiveness offered, an open door for the offender to take responsibility. It must be internalised –  it is to adopt the attitude that if the offender came to us in repentance, and with a commitment to abandon hostility for peace and safety, then we would forgive them. I think this forgiveness offered may be what we see in Jesus’s prayer for his executioners, and there are also parallels here to God’s offer of forgiveness in Jesus Christ to repentant sinners.

And it might also be externalised – in the appropriate circumstances, this attitude would open the door to an offender who showed signs of a change of heart. Opening a door for repentance might sometimes be a very difficult and painful path, with the possibility of rejection. But if rejection happens, and there is no repentance, then we can leave it there. There is no responsibility for us to continue to engage in relationship, in pretending. There is no reason to adopt a one-sided pseudo-forgiveness, or to put ourselves in harm’s way through a continued, forced interaction with the offender – it is entirely appropriate to cease contact. If anger, and thoughts of injustice come to us, we can bring alongside that anger prayers for God to forgive, and hope in love that the offender would find a new path. And a prayer for ourselves for healing and freedom from that anger – for peace. We might seek a gradual letting go, a leaving in the past, the healing of time – but there is no reason to call that forgiveness. And we also need to understand that, in these circumstances, our anger and our sense of injustice are not wrong.

What I’m setting out is not a magic bullet solution, an instant resolution, but it is a path to follow, a path that at least allows us to cast off the burden of guilt that comes from feeling we have failed to respond to God’s (misunderstood) command to forgive.

For What It’s Worth. I would be the first to acknowledge that I do not have the formal training in psychological therapy that others have. But I have been trained to read texts, and to try to put together the biblical data into a coherent picture. To my mind, the suggestions here allow us to move towards a biblical realisation of some of the fruits sought by therapeutic forgiveness (e.g. finding peace and well-being through dealing with anger and bitterness) in the face of unrepentant offenders. And to do that without the burden of guilt arising from misunderstandings of what forgiveness is.

It’s a very difficult tension and path, and I think that for difficult cases psychological therapy (best of all within such a Christian framework) would be helpful. But perhaps the most important part of what I offer here  – for further reflection – is the idea of the coexistence of love and prayer with a straightforward acknowledgment of injustice and hostility. This approach sees a unilateral pseudo-forgiveness as inappropriate, and separation and safety as entirely appropriate. It is Jesus’s teaching on enemies that opens the way for such an approach, and this teaching places demands on us to love, and let go of hatred, and pray for those who have offended.

Love your enemies. Pray for those who harass you, and pursue you. It is far from easy, but it is the way of Christ.

Thoughts on Seeing a Lamb Killed on the Road

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Disintegrated you will vanish,
Out of sight but not to perish;
In some form you will replenish
Nature’s stock,
Could reappear without a blemish
In the flock.

Chosen from among the creatures,
A lamb in our salvation features
With blood so pure that it can free us
From all sin.
Whose body broken down will feed us:
Christ our King.

Thoughts on Seeing a Lamb Killed on the Road, by the bard, the late John MacAskill of Blackpoint, Grimsay. A Christian of great faith, dignity, character and humour (1925-2018).

Bridging

‘[I]f pastors are not ‘up to the job’ of distilling and understanding the writings of scholars in various disciplines, how will our laypeople do it? This is one of the things that parishioners want from their pastors. We are to be a bridge between the world of scholarship and the world of the street and the pew. I’m aware of what a burden this is. I don’t know that there has ever been a culture in which the job of the pastor has been more challenging. Nevertheless, I believe this is our calling.’

Tim Keller, ‘Creation, Evolution and Christian Laypeople’

Defining Forgiveness

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Return of the Prodigal, Robert Barnum

Over the last months I’ve been thinking a fair bit about forgiveness. A couple of years ago, I preached on Jesus’s words about forgiveness in Matthew’s gospel, and the reaction surprised me (although it shouldn’t have). Folk are wary of forgiveness, mainly I think because of cheap and easy definitions of what forgiveness is – what you might call under-developed theologies of forgiveness. These theologies of cheap grace do not seem to to concern themselves with repentance for sin, or notions of justice, when it comes to forgiveness. It ought to at least give us pause for thought that God himself places responsibilities on offenders: ‘if we confess our sins’ writes John, ‘he is faithful and just to forgive us’ (1 John 1:9). There are ideas of repentance and justice right there. If our ideas of forgiveness don’t include these, they easily become charters for further cycles of exploitation, anxiety and damage.

At the other extreme are over-developed theologies of forgiveness that take away the challenge of forgiving the real people in our own lives who have offended against us. Jesus words are clear: if we do not forgive, we won’t be forgiven (Matt 6:15). We can place so many caveats on forgiveness that we are really just concocting get-out clauses for the painful business of forgiving those who have hurt us, damaged us, broken us.

You might put it like this: over-developed definitions of forgiveness produce excuses; under-developed definitions of forgiveness produce abuses.

So, I was really helped by a definition of forgiveness in Bryan Maier’s book Forgiveness and Justice: A Christian Approach (Kregel, 2017). I reproduce it here:

To put it all in one comprehensive statement, my full exposition of “I forgive you” might go as follows:

Because of your repentance and the fact that the price of your sin has been paid (by God), the effects of your sin against me have been substantially healed, and your repentance has stopped the previously hostile messages to me, your sin can no longer damage me. Since you are taking responsibility for your sin I no longer have to make up distorted reasons why it happened, and that is good for both of us. Finally, our relationship is now different and I agree to treat you in light of this new relationship (p.115).

I think that’s really helpful, especially the focus on ‘hostile messages’ and the need for repentance and responsibility. The book sets out the challenge of forgiveness but also sets out, alongside, the need for a framework of repentance, healing, and importantly, safety.

 

 

Dangerous Christianity

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Nero’s Torches, Henryk Siemiradzki

On Saturday, it was great to have around 50 folk gathered for the Conference and Open Day at HTC. At worship, I spoke on Dangerous Christianity.

Firstly, following Jesus Christ is dangerous for disciples in every age as they come into conflict with the world (‘a system organised in opposition to God’ in the words of FF Bruce) and must daily take up their crosses (a commitment to Jesus as Lord that must transcend the fear of death).

But when people follow Jesus it’s also dangerous for the world itself. Disciples are engaged in a Kingdom Struggle (to borrow the language of Marx). Christianity threatens the power-brokers of the world, not through the usual weapons of war targetted at flesh and blood, but through the word and works of the Gospel targetted at the philosophies, attitudes and structures which hold human beings in captivity. And of course, behind these rulers and authorities lie spiritual forces of evil (Eph 6:12), and the evil one from whom we pray to be delivered.

The Kingdom of God in Jesus Christ threatens the Kingdom of this World, because Jesus has overcome this world system (John 16:33), and the One who is in us is greater than the one who is in the world (1 John 4:4). So, Reformed Christianity is, or ought to be, a Christianity relentlessly engaged with the world of God’s good creation, and as part of that, with the world system which opposes God. We need to renew our confidence in Christ, and our focus on the task of destroying arguments and opinions that are set up against the knowledge of God (2 Cor 10:4), as we seek the coming of the Kingdom of God.

To finish, I quoted Iain Provan of Regent College, Vancouver (from a Convocation Speech in 2013):

Be dangerous to those who worship money and material possessions – the idols of mammon. Lay bare the utopianism at the heart of modern economic ideology. Deride the universal expectation of more … be dangerous to all who, in the pursuit of [false] gods, damage other people, and damage God’s good creation. Be dangerous to the powerful who want to use and oppress the weak, and to the rich who want to use and oppress the poor.

Is Billy Graham Dead?

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Don’t speak ill of the dead. It’s good advice. It’s also advice that’s more theologically accurate than some things that have been written in the days following the death of the great evangelist Billy Graham. The dead are, after all, a real category of people.

The following quote was posted on The Gospel Coalition website with links to some of the reaction to Graham’s death.

“Someday you will read or hear that Billy Graham is dead. Don’t you believe a word of it. I shall be more alive than I am now. I will just have changed my address. I will have gone into the presence of God.”

The quote went viral, for a time being posted every 15-minutes on Twitter (apparently) by all kinds of people. It’s been pointed out that the quote actually originated with 19th-century evanglist DL Moody, and that Billy Graham himself did re-appropriate it, which ought not to be a surprise. The quote seems defiant about death – it’s easy to see why it appeals. But, the quote doesn’t, to my mind at least, actually reflect a biblical view of life, death, and salvation.

I write with  great respect for Billy Graham and mindful of some of the ridiculous criticism of him that has appeared over the years. I’m thankful for Graham, for his matchless impact on so many people during his years of ministering the Gospel of Jesus Christ; and for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, whose materials I’ve used in my own ministry. Even in his later years when his strength was failing, you couldn’t help but be impressed with his passion for the Gospel of Jesus Christ. So, to take issue with a single quote is just a small thing – and I don’t want to be speaking ill of anyone. But, the quote going viral has really got me thinking (not for the first time) about how we speak about death – and what we believe about death.

It’s a stark reality that, after so many years of life and service, Billy Graham, like DL Moody (and contra their shared quote), is dead. Those who have died are dead.

Now, don’t get me wrong: that’s not to say that the dead are not existing in some way (that’s why they can be called ‘the dead’). Neither is it to say that they’re not in the presence of God in some sense – I don’t have a problem with that part of the Graham/Moody quote. But it is to say that, according to biblical categories of understanding human existence, they are dead. They are not living, and certainly not ‘more alive’.

[As an aside, whilst writing this I recalled a very powerful sermon almost 20 years ago by evangelist Mike Mellor. He mentioned some of the great Christian preachers of the past, followed by a reminder (in loud and abrupt tones) that they are no longer around… George Whitfield? He’s dead!… John Wesley? He’s dead! Mike Mellor’s point was that for all the talk about these heroes of the faith, we need heroes for our own day. Anyway, I commend Mike on his robust theology of life and death!]

Jesus and the apostles speak consistently about God’s answer to death in the Gospel:  ‘resurrection from the dead’ (e.g. Luke 20:35), or the ‘resurrection of the dead’ (e.g. Matt 22:31). Resurrection is either from the dead (the Greek preposition carries the idea of out from among the dead) or it’s of those who are dead (literally, the dead ones, who receive resurrection). Either way, resurrection is God’s action to bring those who have died back to material life. The idea is so familiar in the New Testament that I don’t think I have to list all of the data here.

The resurrection of Jesus is at the centre of the proclamation of the apostles. For them, Jesus has been raised from the dead (e.g. Acts 3:15). Again, a lot of data. God has, according to Peter in his Pentecost sermon, not allowed the Messiah to remain in Hades (the grave, or the realm of the dead – a point made through the recollection of Psalm 16).

At the return of Jesus Christ it is, according to Paul, the dead in Christ that will rise first (1 Thess 4:16). Those who are alive will meet him at his return (1 Thess 4:17). There are clearly two categories of people here: those who are ‘alive’ are physically alive, not people who have died. People who have died are ‘the dead’. It’s obvious really – but, astonishingly, it needs spelling out.

At the return of Christ, it’s the dead who will be ‘made alive’ – that’s clearly Paul’s understanding of resurrection (1 Cor 15:22). Jesus Christ assumes the role, at his return, of life-giving Spirit (1 Cor 15:45) bringing the dead to life (Paul draws here a striking analogy with God breathing into the nostrils of the cold corpse of Adam in the Genesis account). God is the God of the living (Matt 22:32), and that’s why he raises the dead (2 Cor 1:9).

The New Testament data clearly demonstrate that it is people who have died (Paul sometimes uses the metaphor of ‘falling asleep’ or ‘sleeping’) who are categorised as dead, and that these will remain dead (in a state of death, you might say) until the appearing of Jesus Christ.

For those, like me, in the Presbyterian tradition, it’s good to know that the Westminster Confession shows the usual clarity in its own use of categories at this point:

At the last day, such as are found alive shall not die, but be changed: and all the dead shall be raised up, with the selfsame bodies, and none other (although with different qualities), which shall be united again to their souls forever. WCF 32.2

So, given the data (and I’ve only just given the quickest of summaries), why do we persist in explaining away, denying, or remaining silent about the abiding reality of death? Why do we want to convince ourselves that someone who’s died is, in the words of DL Moody,  more alive than ever? I’m not sure about the whole answer to that. In part, it’s the influence of Platonism in Greek philosophy, through mediaeval Thomist theology, through to modern Roman Catholic and some baptist theologies – where there is still the idea that this world is a transient state of affairs after which we attain a different level of existence. In part, it reflects present-day folk beliefs in the afterlife, and a refusal to accept our creatureliness. In part, it reflects the totally-understandable desire to avoid the reality of death. In the Reformed tradition it’s a result of the influence of Pietistic dualism. And, I also think that our misunderstandings of death are in some way the mirror image of our misunderstandings of life and what it means to be human.

Anyhow, you can see clearly this kind of view in the Christianity Today article that I’ve already linked to:

When it comes down to it, this quote is a 19th century (and later 20th century) paraphrase of … Paul’s characterization of death in 1 Corinthians 15:54: When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”

I entirely disagree with this mis-exegesis. Paul is quite clearly referring in this passage to a future event (‘the saying…will come true’). The consistent position in 1 Corinthians 15 is that the dead will be made alive at the return of Jesus Christ. That’s when death will be swallowed up in victory.

For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death (1 Cor 15:22-26 ESV, my emphasis).

The New Testament is starkly open about the problem of death. It doesn’t describe it as life, or as being more alive. Paul softens things a little with his language of being asleep. But neither Jesus, the apostles, or the other authors flinch from it. It is a problem; it’s a problem answered in the person and work of Jesus Christ; yet, it is a problem that awaits its ultimate and glorious final answer. The dead remain dead until the parousia of Jesus Christ. Then, and only then, will the final enemy be defeated, and those in the grave will hear his voice. And the dead will be raised to life.

George Whitfield, DL Moody, Billy Graham and a vast number of women and men will, in that day, be more alive than they’ve ever been. Mortality will then be clothed with immortality. That is the bliblical Christian hope, and it’s much more hopeful, life-affirming and glorious than belief in a ‘spiritual’ afterlife.

Inauthentic Church

“The last ten or fifteen years, hospitality has been the buzzword for evangelism or church planting, as a way of getting people in the door. A tool, you could say. A trick, you could say. Where it’s like, ‘Don’t you want to be one of us? Aren’t we cool?’ … Hospitality isn’t a trick, it’s not a tool. It has to be genuine. It has to be authentic.”  Pointed, but insightful comment from Jayme Reaves, author of Safeguarding the Stranger speaking on Nomad Podcast N166.