Is Billy Graham Dead?

billygraham

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.

If a few people really believed this…

On Easter Sunday, as on most days at the moment, I finished the day reading something from Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Sometimes, Bonhoeffer is dynamite! Christians often speak about ‘dying well’. They often quote someone (I can’t remember who) who apparently said about Christians: ‘our people die well.’ Or something.
It seems unimportant after reading Bonhoeffer’s critique that Christians wrongly think more about the problem of dying than about the problem of death. He writes, ‘How we deal with dying is more important to us than how we conquer death’ (I Want to Live these Days with You, 111). I’d tend to agree. He points out that we are thinking about the wrong thing: Socrates overcame dying, whereas Christ overcame death. Then come these words, which struck me and quickened my pulse, coming as they did a day after I’d posted my last blog post.

Based not on the art of dying, but on the resurrection of Christ, a new, cleansing wind can blow into the present world…. If a few people really believed this and let it affect the way they move in their earthly activity, a lot of things would change. To live on the basis of the resurrection – that is what Easter means. Ibid.

Bonhoeffer speculates that a time will come when the ‘resolving and liberating’ word of resurrection will be heard in the midst of so much confusion. In this Easter season, my prayer is that the time has arrived for the word of resurrection to be heard afresh in the Church.

You (yes you) probably don’t believe in Resurrection

Whoever you are, you probably don’t believe in resurrection. Yes, if you’re a Christian, I’m including you. You might be upset by that. But, hear me out. By resurrection, I’m talking not narrowly about the resurrection of Jesus (you probably believe in that), but in the sense that the apostles understood it – that is, as an event within history of which the resurrection of Jesus is an anomalous outlier (a gloriously anomalous outlier). Because Jesus has been raised from the dead to eternal life, then all of God’s people will also. It’s what Paul is saying in Romans 8:11 (and 1 Corinthians 15:20-23).
And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you. (Rom 8:11 NIV)
In my last post, I was looking at the numbers in the recently-published ComRes survey into beliefs about the resurrection and ‘life after death’ for BBC Religion and Ethics. In this post I want to look at what people really believe when they say they believe in ‘life after death’. This is, for me, a really important part of this survey – although not really picked up by the mainstream media.
The third question in the survey was: ‘You mentioned that you believe that there is life after death. Which of the following forms, if any, do you believe this takes?’ It was asked of the 46% of the sample who expressed a belief in life after death. Various options were read out (thirteen altogether)! The options themselves are fascinating. I wonder who chose them… (See the data tables here).
You’ve got options which are based around the immortality of the soul, but not the body (including heaven/hell, becoming a ghost, existing as energy of some sort, going to a spiritual dimension) and other options which are specifically Christian (The Rapture/Judgement Day/Armageddon all bundled together (1 option), and the Resurrection/Second Coming of Christ (1 option). You’ve one that’s about existence in a ‘parallel universe’, but this is coupled with the ‘astral plane’ – two entirely different things. And one that talks about bodily existence in another world. Then, you’ve got reincarnation (two options, one straight up reincarnation and the other a combination of reincarnation and immortality of the soul, which is classic Platonism actually). There’s another that’s basically living on as part of the natural world (your atoms I suppose), and something that boils down to a ‘don’t know’.
I’m looking at these options and I’m not really sure how I, an orthodox Christian with a biblical doctrine of resurrection, would answer. No, seriously. I mean, the Christian doctrine of resurrection is not merely the immortality of the soul. It involves the body. Reincarnation isn’t a Christian doctrine (although it is quite close to the biblical doctrine of resurrection in some ways). I definitely believe in the Second Coming of Christ, but not the Rapture. Maybe the option that’s worded ‘I believe in the resurrection/second coming of Christ’ is the one I want. It does contain a statement from the Apostle’s Creed, after all. But there’s not much content in that answer about what kind of life I believe in. I could answer ‘a bodily/physical existence in another world’, but the language of ‘another’ is difficult for me there. So, there are a couple of options which are orthodox anyway.
The troubling thing is, these options polled 1% and 0% amongst Active Christians! Perhaps it’s me? But I don’t think so. Now, the options offered for Question 3 are totally confused in themselves, so you have to take that into account. But, let’s look at the most popular options amongst Active Christians:
86% of Active Christians plumped for ‘Another life where your soul lives on (e.g. heaven/hell)’
16% of Active Christians plumped for ‘Reincarnation (e.g. starting a new life in a different physical body or form after death)’
Then you’ve got a couple of 2%ers (ghosts and ‘don’t know’) and what I see as the orthodox options above. It’s obvious that some people are ticking more than one box, so to speak. But, the headline is that virtually none of the Active Christians chose an option that could be considered orthodox.
The Apostles’ Creed contains the statement: ‘I believe in the resurrection of the body’. This is basic to orthodoxy, whatever your Christian tradition. Orthodox Christian belief is that eternal life is not just the survival of the soul. The concern of the scriptures is not ‘life after death’ anyway, but what Tom Wright calls ‘life after life after death’. Any existence of the soul in heaven is just a temporary state. A biblical doctrine of eternal life also contains the idea of the renewal of creation (or in radical, pietist theology the replacement of the creation with a new one). The resurrection of the human body into this world renewed – that’s the biblical view.
You might argue that the question prompts people to talk about ‘life after death’, rather than ‘life after life after death’. Trouble is, I can well-believe that the average active Christian wouldn’t make that nuanced distinction. In any case, the survival of the soul in heaven is actually a state of death. Christians, in my experience, really don’t like to face up to that. Jesus was raised, on the the first day of the week, from the dead (Acts 4:10). Paul hopes above anything else that he will attain the resurrection from the dead (Phil 3:11). The dead in Christ will rise first (1 Thess 4:16). So, if you want to be accurate, the only type of ‘life after death’ in the Christian hope is resurrection life. But, according to the BBC survey, a tiny, tiny, tiny minority of active Christians really believe that.
And let’s not be too hard on the Re-incarnationers. The description in the brackets (‘starting a new life in a different physical body…after death’) is actually more-or-less the orthodox view (with some caveats around ‘different’). It’s closer to orthodoxy than the soul living on in heaven. I remember explaining the doctrine of resurrection to a Roman Catholic man once. He hadn’t heard of it, and his reaction was: ‘kind of like reincarnation then?’ Well, yes, kind of… In my doctoral thesis I argue that it was exactly this idea of ‘reincarnation, kind of’ that was part of the problem in Corinth, which is why Paul shaped 1 Corinthians 15 as he did.
Anyway, I would hazard a guess, based on the evidence, that the good BBC folk who put the survey together are themselves entirely sketchy on this (and a number of other things). But, the really worrying thing is how many committed Christians are themselves entirely sketchy on it. To come clean, I’m not really surprised. I see it all around, in so many orthodox, evangelical, bible-believing (choose any of these adjectives) churches. So many Christians have little biblical understanding of eternal life, including the doctrine of resurrection. They think that the great Christian hope is to go to heaven, as a soul, after death. The survey figures just bear out the anecdotal evidence.
I’ve written plenty of times on resurrection (try this, this and/or this). It is one of the (perhaps the most) forgotten doctrine of the church. The figures suggest that you (yes, you) probably don’t believe in the biblical doctrine of resurrection. It’s high time we rediscovered the inspiring, grand Christian vision of the (to quote Jesus, or at least a Greek translation of Jesus in Matthew 19:28), palingenesis – the restoration of all things.

Who believes in Resurrection?

A fascinating study was published by ComRes last week. Commissioned by the BBC Religion and Ethics people, the survey of over 2,000 British adults focussed on the resurrection of Jesus and so-called ‘life after death’. My colleague David Robertson has written on the survey here. I want to look at bit more deeply at the figures, and also to bring out the shocking ignorance it reveals amongst active/practicing Christians about the biblical doctrine of resurrection. More on that in a later post – for now, let’s have a look at the numbers (you can get the ComRes data tables here).
In terms of self-identified religious affiliation, the sample worked out at 51% Christian, 9% Non-Christian, and 37% no religious affiliation (with 3% presumably not responding). That’s a little higher for religious affiliation across the board that in the 2015 British Election Survey.
The first question is about Jesus’s resurrection. The top line is that 44% of the sample believe in the biblical story of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead in some way. That’s staggering, especially when just 16% of the sample identified as ‘Active Christians’. The proportion is an aggregation of two answers:

1. it happened word-for-word as described in the Bible;
2. the Bible account has elements which are not to be taken literally.

When you look at the numbers between these, 1. gets 17%, and 2. gets 26% of the sample. Again, that is somewhat amazing – around 1 in 6 people accept the gospel accounts of Jesus resurrection! Really!? I mean, maybe it’s true, but it seems high.
I think that there are probably two things to say. First, how many UK adults would have a good idea of the detail of the gospel accounts of the resurrection of Jesus, word-for-word? Second, the respondents were given the possible options for replies. Methodology has an impact on surveys and any method skews results. When the options were read out, how much wiggle room was 2 giving, in the minds of the respondents? A fair bit, I’d say – and so 2. might seem like an attractive answer for those who were fairly ignorant of the gospel accounts of Jesus resurrection (which I’d guess would be a fairly large proportion). I wonder how the results would look if the respondents had answered unprompted and these replies codified. Anyway, I agree with David Robertson that the numbers are kind of encouraging (more on that later), but I think there needs to be caution. That said, when you see that only 50% answered ‘I do not believe in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead’, that is a surprise to me, even with the caveats above.
Another thing that caught my eye is the gender split. Of those accepting the gospels’ accounts word-for-word (17%), amongst women that was 22%, compared with 13% amongst men. Significant. The sample is split down by age and region, but I think then more caution is needed. Of interest (with caution) are the figures showing that Wales stands out as the region where belief in the gospel account is highest (26%), whereas in Scotland the figure is 18% (fourth highest out of the eleven regions).
When it comes to age, there’s a decline as you go from the elderly to the young, as you’d expect. Almost 60% of the elderly believe in the resurrection of Jesus in some way. Amongst those under 35, the proportion is still over 35%.
But it’s the second and third questions that fascinate me. The second: ‘which of the following statements, if any, best reflect your views on life after death?’ The possible responses were (apart from Don’t Know):

1. I believe that there is life after death (e.g. reincarnation, heaven, hell)
2. I do not believe that there is life after death (e.g. reincarnation, heaven, hell)

The results were evenly split. So, 46% of the sample believe in ‘life after death’. The gender split is again interesting: 36% of males, 56% of females. Pretty informative of the self-identified Active Christians group is the fact that only 85% of them believe in ‘life after death’. The orthodoxy of Active Christians cannot be assumed. When you get down to what kind of ‘life after death’ people believe in, well that’s when it gets really interesting for me. But that’s the next post…
For now, let me throw out some thoughts from the numbers above. First, although David R rightly sees the survey results as encouraging, I see in them a bit of an indictment of the church. In the church we tend to comfort ourselves over our lack of impact in our society with the thought that our message is rejected by ‘the world’. The numbers indicate, at the very least, an openness to resurrection as an idea, and the commonplace view that this life isn’t all there is. We are simply not engaging people with our ways of doing church. We are simply not equipping Christians to engage with people who are probably ready to discuss. If we keep filling our people with fear about the ‘opposition of the world’, then we are failing. Yes, of course, I believe in the opposition of the world, but I also see that these figures are showing opportunity and openness in our culture to the gospel message. If the church could get its act together, and get its message straight on the biblical doctrine of resurrection (rather than itself getting all pagan with its views of ‘life after death’), then I think we would find more of a receptive ear than we imagine.
Second, if you’re a Christian reading this, then you need to realise that people are incredibly interested in what happens after this life. But, if you’re a Christian, I’d guess you don’t feel that confident about explaining your views. That’s because you’ve probably been taught all your life that ‘we don’t really know what heaven’s like’. And you probably feel a bit weird about the whole idea of heaven anyway. Don’t worry, that’s ok (feeling weird about it). Because talk about ‘heaven’ and ‘life after death’ is missing the point of the resurrection of Jesus. Christianity is not about going to heaven. No, really. And the church is too often missing the point. Who believes in Resurrection? Actually, a lot of orthodox Christians don’t really believe in it – as the third question of the survey shows. And so it shouldn’t surprise us that if the church is ignorant about the Christian hope, folk in our communities are too.
Next post soon…

Heaven isn’t a Place on Earth

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I’ve just returned from Positively Presbyterian 2015 where, rumour has it, I was speaking on Heaven. Allow me to disagree! I was actually speaking on ‘Fighting for the Future’, because there’s a battle needed in the Church to recover a biblical theology of the future. One of my main points was that I had little to say about ‘heaven’ compared to my important subject, the new earth of God’s Kingdom. I’m not going to go over everything I spoke about (nor give the plethora of supporting references), but here’s an attempt to clarify a few things:

HEAVEN: In the Bible, in both the Old and New Testaments, heaven is always a place ‘up there’. That’s why in both Hebrew (שמים, shamayim) and Greek (ουρανος, ouranos), the word for heaven is also the word for sky. I’ll repeat for clarity: ‘heaven’ in the Bible is a place ‘up there’, defined in opposition to ‘earth’, which is ‘down here’. So, the phrase ‘heaven and earth’ is just a way of referring to all of creation, shorthand for ‘the cosmos’ (it’s something called a merism). Heaven ‘up there’ is also conceived as the dwelling place of God, located above the earth, above the stars. What defines heaven as heaven is not only that God dwells there, but more fundamentally that it’s ‘up there’. Of course, with our modern cosmological knowledge, we are forced to modify this conception. We have to stop imagining and speaking about heaven as ‘up there’. It’s probably better to envisage another dimension of reality. However, the idea that ‘heaven’ is not ‘earth’ remains fundamentally important.

GOING TO HEAVEN: In the Bible we find very few solid data about what heaven is like. That ought not to surprise us. According to the Bible, heaven is not where we as human beings belong. Heaven is the dwelling place of God. Human beings belong on earth. That’s the fundamental theology of Genesis 1 and 2. Psalm 115:16 puts it succinctly. Nevertheless, the New Testament indicates that the souls of the righteous reside in heaven with the Lord between their death and resurrection. Again, there are very few data on how souls experience heaven. Without a body, how are experiences mediated to our ‘consciousness’ (especially since human consciousness seems to be a function of the brain)? We don’t know. Our experience of heaven certainly won’t be identical to our experience of life. There’ll be no ‘seeing’ or ‘hearing’ as we understand them. However, we don’t need to worry about it: Paul doesn’t (2 Cor 5:8; Phil 1:23). Instead, our entire hope is to be fixed on the day of the resurrection of God’s people. At the return of  Jesus the Messiah the righteous will be raised to dwell again on earth, an earth renewed (Rom 8:11,18-25). Let me repeat: however much we wish (like Paul) to be released from the sufferings of this life, we do not (as Paul says) want to be ‘unclothed’ (2 Cor 5:3-4). We shouldn’t want to be without a body, to be dead. Our hope is rather to be focussed on the return of Christ (1 Pet 1:13), when death will be defeated (it’s not defeated until then, 1 Cor 15:26,54) and we will live again. The Bible does not teach that the goal of our salvation is to be in heaven.

GLORY: The New Testament never speaks of human beings being glorified in heaven. Paul is clear: our being glorified occurs at the resurrection. The Westminster Confession uses ‘glory’ as a cipher for heaven (WCF32.1). This isn’t ideal: God’s glory in the Old Testament is fundamentally linked to the earth as well as to heaven. Nevertheless, we might refer to the deceased as having gone to glory, if by that we mean gone to the place where God is envisaged as ‘dwelling’. But we ought not to talk about the deceased as being ‘glorified’. That directly contradicts both Rom 8:21 and Heb 11:39-40. Human beings cannot be glorified without a body; Psalm 8 (which is important to Paul) shows us that human glory is understood in terms of our discharging the threefold function of the Image of God (relating to our Creator, to one another, and to the rest of created life) in a God-like and righteous manner. That’s why Paul has so much language about Image (Rom 8:29; Col 3:10). As we bear the Image of Christ, we find our humanity as the Image of God fully restored. For Paul, that’s glory (2 Cor 3:18). Without a body, and being present on earth, glorification can’t happen. Glory, and human glorification, happens on earth. That’s how Habakkuk saw it anyway (Hab 2:14; Cf. Num 14:21).

EARTH: In the Bible, earth is where human beings belong. It’s our home. The entire hope of the Bible is that the creation will be redeemed, rescued, cleansed. Our great hope is not heaven. Our great hope is a new earth by God’s redemptive power in Jesus the Messiah. Resurrection will bring us back to the earth to live not as disembodied souls, but as fully human, as the Image of God. In one of Paul’s most important insights, this world (the world in which Abraham lived) is our inheritance (Rom 4:13). Mind you, in saying that, Paul’s simply affirming Jesus’s own words (Matt 5:5; 6:10 Cf. Ps 37:29,34). Going back to where I began, talking about the new earth as ‘heaven’ is not only confusing, it doesn’t reflect the biblical language. Also confusing, and unhelpful, is talking about the new earth as if it was a magical fluffy kingdom of fantasy dreams. Will we be flying, walking on the sea, running up waterfalls? Talking to fluffy pink unicorns? No! It is this world, redeemed. All of the language in the Bible points to this creation being set free from what has spoiled it. Our imaginings of the new earth, which often are quite fanciful, ought really to be rooted in what we experience of God’s good gifts now. If we’re going to imagine, let us begin by imagining this world (and a humanity) set free from war, from injustice, from abuse, from hunger, from poverty, from illness, from sin in all its forms. Let us imagine a world like that, where the People of God will dwell together, enjoying God’s gifts to us. That kind of imagining brings us missional energy today! And let us imagine that world as a place where our communion with God is perfect, and where we will meet Jesus face to face. In that world we will eat and drink with him in the Kingdom of God. That world is this world, redeemed. Which is why we find we have the ‘now’ as well as the ‘not yet’. It’s why we are Living Between Two Worlds.

So, to recap: Christianity is definitively not about us ‘Going Up There’ to be with God. It’s about ‘God Coming Down Here’ to be with us. To correct the well-known hymn (‘It is Well’, which is one of many that send us off in the wrong direction): the earth, not the sky, is our goal.

Belinda Carlisle was wrong. Heaven is not a place on earth.

Meditations on Creation

Early last month, I spoke at the Scottish Christian Outdoor Centres’ All-Team Gathering down at the wonderful Glencoe Outdoor Centre. Over three days we thought about creation in God’s purposes, creation and Jesus Christ, and our place in creation. Here are some brief meditations based on those talks.

forestLiving Between Two Trees. Sitting in a forest, listening to its life, we gain a sense of place. The trees themselves speak of longevity, of permanence. Many generations of animals have come and gone. Yet, these trees have remained, their trunks and branches weathering storms, connecting the life-giving leaves to the life-giving earth year after year. To sit amongst the trees in a forest is to breathe in a sense of time as well as place. As Christians, we are living between two trees. The tree of life appears in Genesis 2, reminding us of God’s intention for a world without death. To us, it is a lost world. But, the tree of life appears again in Revelation 22. It reminds us of God’s purpose to redeem, to bring back the world of God’s intention, a world without sin, without death. Trees stand at the beginning and at the end of our Holy Scriptures. Trees, speaking of the permanence of God’s intention for life. And speaking of the permanence of this creation. We will walk and sit in these forests again after Christ’s return, and remember that the trees pointed us to this.

gannetOur Place in God’s World. We startle the deer in the woods. They pause, their eyes meeting ours briefly. They run, leaping, to find solitude again. Our hearts leap with them. We feel joy… We watch gannets hunting, their keen eyes spying their prey from high up. Then diving below. Graceful, efficient, beautiful. Our hearts swell – these birds are amazing… God’s creatures bring such meaning into our lives. A sense of well-being. All is well… We belong in this world, here with these creatures. God made us from the same earth, on the same day. As the image of God, we humans are not only related to our Creator, but to the rest of his creatures. This is fundamental to our identity, and to our place in God’s world (Gen 1:26,28; Ps 8:3-8). Adam names the animals (Gen 2:19-20), an intimate act. We name our children because they belong with us and we help them, care for them, form their identities. We are to care for God’s creatures. This world is our home, God’s creatures our companions. All is now spoilt, struggling under the burden of the lostness of humanity in sin. But God will set us, and this world, free in Jesus Christ (Rom 8:18-25). Our home will be very good again.

M42 Orion Nebula, M43, and NGC 1977 complexA Speaking Cosmos. The stars speak, and the sun and moon, in every place, every day and every night (Ps 19:1-6). We look up, and we are amazed: at galaxies, nebulae, the milky way. Here below the living creatures alongside us, and the plants and trees, even the landscapes in which we find our roots, they all speak of the Creator. Of his eternal power, his divine nature (Rom 1:20). Why are we not listening? We daily open the Holy Scriptures to hear them speak to us of our God and our Saviour. Yet our ears are less-exercised in hearing the speaking cosmos. Let us each day hear the voice of the sky and the earth. The world was created through the Word, the Logos (John 1:1-3). Before he became one of us, and spoke in human language, he spoke in what he made. Timeless words, woven within a world of intricacy, a world replete with patterns of beauty. This speaking cosmos is made through the Word, and belongs to him, to Jesus, who is Messiah and Word. It is his inheritance (Col 1:15-18), and he will gift it to us finally and fully on the day of his return. Then we will hear the voice of the speaking cosmos more clearly, and the voice of our speaking Lord with our own ears.

Pushing Forward our Horizon of Hope. Do we hope for death? For an end to the burden of a lost world, of war, of lies, of disability? We do hope for an end to these things. Yet, death is unnatural for us. We are created for life. Do we hope to be without the bodies that carry our identity, our human consciousness? To be without the eyes that looked, the ears that heard, the hands that touched – the experiences that made us who we are? To be unclothed is deeply unnatural (2 Cor 5:1-9). Jesus is not unclothed: he died to redeem us and the whole cosmos – to bring salvation of soul, body, time and space – and then he returned from the dead in resurrection life. To be with him is to be safe, in life and in death. Safe, until that day, when we will be clothed with life again, eternal life. To live in our home set free from the burden of sin. Our Horizon of Hope is not the day of our death. Heaven is not our home, or our ultimate goal.  Our Horizon of Hope is the day of our living again, our own resurrection (Rom 8:18-25). To be true to the teaching of Holy Scripture we must Push Forward Our Horizon of Hope. Let us set our hope fully on the grace to be revealed when he comes (1 Peter 1:13). Let us follow Christ in wholehearted faith, and meet him and each other once again here – and know the place for the first time.

Living on the Next to Last Word

Dietrich BonhoefferIn the early hours this morning, unable to sleep, I picked up Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison. What I read didn’t help me sleep! It was one of those moments when you read something that seems to connect at so many levels with your own recent meditations.

It is only when one knows the ineffability of the Name of God that one can utter the name of Jesus Christ. It is only when one loves life and the earth so much that without them everything would be gone, that one can believe in the resurrection and a new world. It is only when one submits to the law and one can speak of grace, and only when one sees the anger and wrath of God hanging like grim realities over the head of one’s enemies that one can know something of what it means to love them and forgive them. I don’t think it is Christian to want to get to the New Testament too soon and too directly… You cannot and must not speak the last word before you have spoken the next to last. We live on the next to last word, and  believe on the last, don’t we? Lutherans (so-called) and pietists would be shocked at such an idea, but it is true all the same. Letters to a Friend, Advent II

There is so much to reflect on here, being at once a word about Christian hope, truth and experience, and a word about hermeneutics – how to read and understand the Bible. Bonhoeffer’s words speak into evangelicalism’s tendency towards Christomonism. He points to the God who has spoken words before the last word: words of creation, of blessing, of promise, of judgement, of hope. The last word can only be understood in the light of these words. It is an irony of today’s church that a zeal to see the Messiah everywhere in the Bible leads to a certain blindness to who the Messiah truly is.

I was particularly struck by these words: ‘It is only when one loves life and the earth so much that without them everything would be gone, that one can believe in the resurrection and a new world’! That statement is to me like a banner high in the wind! A love like that arises from a true vision of, and love for, Jesus the Messiah! Bonhoeffer is correct that the pietist does not understand this. And that is why so many Christians baulk at the idea of loving life and loving the earth in this way. Bonhoeffer’s words express the true hope of God’s word, and are a call to the grand vision of Reformed Christianity.

The Expendable Backdrop

A must-read quote from George B. Caird…

“Too often evangelical Christianity has treated the souls of men as brands plucked from the burning and the world in general as a grim vale of soul-making. It has been content to see the splendour of the created universe … as nothing more than the expendable backdrop for the drama of redemption. One of the reasons why men of our generation have turned against conventional Christianity is that they think it involves writing off the solid joys of this present life for the doubtful acquisition of some less substantial treasure … the whole point of the resurrection of the body is that the life of the world to come is to be lived on a renewed earth … Everything of real worth in the old heaven and earth … will find a place in the eternal order” G.B.Caird

“The Christological Basis of Christian Hope”, in Caird et al., The Christian Hope (London: SPCK, 1970), 22-24.

More Gates of Hades

styxFurther to my previous post on interpreting Jesus’ words in Matthew 16:18b, I’ve come across a Greek inscription which seems to add support my view. Jesus’ words to Peter express the hope of resurrection, that death cannot stand in the way of Jesus’ building of his church:

And I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades shall not overpower it. Matthew 16:18

The ‘gates of Hades’ is a mythic image of a barrier between the underworld and the land of the living. The Gates of Hades prevent the dead from returning. The image represents the irreversible power of death. However, Jesus’ words express his confidence that death will not prevent God’s purpose for a redeemed people (the ekklesia of Jesus), living in a redeemed world from being accomplished.

The Greek inscription that adds weight to my interpretation appears to be anti-Christian polemic from the early years of the Church (Lattimore, Themes in Greek and Latin Epitaphs, 75). It expresses the common ancient view that death is the end – there can be no return to the realm of the living – and paints the Christian hope of resurrection as a fantasy.

This, friends, is it. For what more could come afterward. Not even this remains. For it is the stone and stele that tell you all this, not I. The gates are here, and the trodden ways to Hades by which none can come back to the light. But all pitiful wretches (long) for resurrection.

The important point is that, again, gates are portrayed as preventing a return to life for the dead. Perhaps just as important is that here in this inscription, the imagery is linked specifically with the hope of resurrection. It’s the same imagery that is found in Homer and in the Sibylline Oracles. This is the imagery that Jesus employs: the power of death over the bodies of the deceased will be broken. The grave will not overpower the Church.

A few important points can be briefly made:

  • Matthew has Jesus speaking of Hades, not hell. It’s most likely (despite the word play on Πέτρος/πέτρα) that Jesus speaks in Aramaic here, so the Greek word Hades (ᾅδης) is a translation of Aramaic. Hades therefore represents the Hebrew view of Sheol as the grave, the destination of the dead. Jesus is not referring to a place of eternal punishment here. Translations of Hades as hell often lead to confusion.
  • This emphasis on the necessity of the defeat of death through resurrection reminds us that the Church, the ekklesia of Jesus, is not merely something for this life, an organisational necessity whilst we wait for salvation. The ekklesia is the People of God, an entity destined for a new earth.
  • The ekklesia of Jesus is not merely a spiritual reality, but a physical reality (this dichotomy is not very helpful, but it’s how most Christians tend to think). The human being as human being (body and soul) is the object of God’s redemption.
  • The ekklesia of Jesus is finally an eschatological reality. God’s people are not destined for a ‘spiritual’ existence in heaven, but a salvation that involves the redemption of the human body. Membership of the ekklesia is mediated through the sensory experience of the human body. Death interrupts this. Only at resurrection do we take our place finally and fully in the ekklesia of Jesus.
  • All this has implications for ecclesiology and offers a cogent challenge to the Protestant concept of the invisible church (and the related idea of a spiritual, as opposed to visible, unity). Can there be such a thing?

The Gates of Hades

morgul

In Homer’s Iliad at 8.13 we find the following, on the lips of Zeus:

Or seizing him I will hurl him into misty Tartarus, very far, where is the deepest gulf below earth; there are iron gates and brazen threshold, as far beneath Hades as sky is from earth.

Zeus speaks of the gates of Tartarus, far below Hades. The idea seems to be that there can be no escape from Tartarus – there is no way back to Hades, let alone the heavens (for it is other gods that Zeus threatens to cast down). Tartarus was part of a specifically Greek conception of the underworld. As an interesting aside, Tartarus is mentioned in 2 Peter 2:4, not as the destination for troublesome gods as in the Iliad, but as the destination for fallen angels. However, that must remain an aside.

Homer has Zeus speaking of gates in the underworld. We find the same theme in the words of Jesus, spoken to Peter:

And I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades shall not overpower it. Matthew 16:18

Jesus speaks of the ‘gates of Hades’. The expression is found in the Old Testament and in other Jewish literature (e.g. Job 38:17; Ps 9:13; 107:18; Is 38:10; Wis 16:13; 3 Macc 5:51; Ps Sol 16:2). However, in these cases the ‘gates of Hades’ is the threshold of the realm of the dead (associated with crossing that threshold in death, or in almost crossing it in a near-death experience). In the saying of Jesus in Matthew 16:18, we find the idea of gates overpowering or prevailing. Interpreters tend to find this puzzling, since in the ancient Near East city gates were a defensive, rather than an offensive, feature. However, in the Sibylline Oracles we find imagery that seems to reflect both Homer and the words of Jesus. The context is the resurrection of the dead:

But when the immortal God’s eternal angels Arakiel, Ramiel, Uriel, Samiel, and Azael…will from dark gloom then lead to judgment all the souls of men before the judgment-seat of the great God…then the heavenly One give souls and spirit and voice, to them that dwell beneath and also bones fitted with joints unto all kinds of flesh, And both the flesh and sinews, veins and skin about the body, and hair as before; divinely fashioned and with breathing moved will bodies of those on earth one day be raised. Sib Or 2:214-226

The Oracle goes on,

And then will Uriel, mighty angel, break the bolts of stern and lasting adamant which, monstrous, hold the brazen gates of Hades, straight cast them down, and unto judgment lead all forms that have endured much suffering. Sib Or 2:227-230

In the Iliad, the gates of Tartarus prevent escape. In the Sibylline Oracles above, the gates of Hades are broken down in order to release the dead for judgement. The emphasis in the Oracle is clearly on the raising of the bodies of the dead. Those who are raised include Old Testament saints such as Moses, those killed in the flood, as well as Titans and giants (2.231-248)! Although the late date of the Sibylline Oracles places them after Jesus’s words, the emphasis on gates preventing the dead from being raised reflects the much earlier Homeric portrait in the Iliad of gates preventing the cast-down gods from returning to Olympus.

So, it seems to me that Matthew 16:18 is not really about evil powers frustrating the work of the church in the here and now (the most common interpretation of the verse), but about the victory of God’s people over death through resurrection. Jesus is building God’s new humanity, the church, as a people who will live human lives as human beings, body and soul. The church is a people destined for new life in a new earth. The reality of death will not defeat this purpose. Jesus, when he speaks these words to Peter, voices his mission: he has come to defeat death and to raise the dead – to save people body and soul. He rises from the dead to eternal life – and God’s people too will rise from the dead to eternal life. The fact that no-one has returned from Hades when Jesus speaks these words is about to be over-turned on the first Easter Sunday!