Archive for the ‘Christianity’ Category

HeavenIsForRealI watched the movie Heaven is for Real Friday night. I have not read the book like some others in my family have. I knew about the story line of a young boy, the son of a pastor, who has a near-death experience and then stuns his family and others with descriptions of what he saw while on the operating table. My wife tells me the movie followed very closely the book, so I assume that to be true.

Having read several mixed reviews of the movie months ago when it was released, and having read or heard the positive reactions of friends and family to the book and/or the movie, I entered into watching it with mixed expectations. I feared that even though the overall movie was positive, uplifting and affirming of the eternal realities of my Christian faith, it would lack in some significant ways in terms of the completeness of the message delivered – especially theologically – which is critically important.

To perhaps oversimplify my reaction to the movie, here are some quick thoughts about it – first three positives and then three more substantial negatives:

The Positives:

  1. Watching a movie on this subject is far better than watching so many others that fill the big screen that are littered with violence, foul language, gratuitous sex and nothing of any real redeeming value.
  2. The movie can serve as a discussion starter about the idea or reality of heaven and what must happen in this life in order to live in heaven for eternity.
  3. The movie is based on a true story which can (but doesn’t necessarily) lend credence to the experience.

The Negatives:

  1. There was a gigantic missed opportunity in that the movie asserts that heaven is for real, yet it never presents the basics of the Christian gospel message which answers the question of how one gets to heaven. So the message becomes, “Yes, heaven is for real, and I sure hope you figure out how to get there because we’re not telling you in this movie.”
  2. The one authoritative source of information about heaven is the Bible. We can be assured that whatever the Bible says of heaven is true, and we cannot be certain about any other beliefs about which the Bible is silent. I choose only to believe with certainty what the scriptures teach about heaven, and to take with a grain of salt anything else from other sources.
  3. Neither Christians nor anyone else should give an automatic pass to someone’s near-death or other experience as true just because someone claims to have experienced it. As the psychologist in the movie pointed out, people of different faiths may have very different near-death experiences. Who, then, are you going to believe? It might make for good entertainment, but it isn’t a valid basis for theological belief unless it is supported with scripture. And if anything in one’s “experience” is contrary to what is taught in scripture, then it is to be rejected as false.

HeavenIf you want to know if heaven is for real, and if you are curious about some aspects (though not all) of what it is like, look to the Bible. If you want a very thorough, complete, and well-reasoned look at all that the Bible says about heaven, then read Randy Alcorn’s book Heaven. It is an amazing treatment of every bit of scripture that addresses the topic and will both encourage the reader while also clearing up misconceptions that have their genesis in places other than scripture.

There’s nothing wrong with seeing the movie Heaven is for Real or with reading the book. It is wholesome and far preferable compared to the overwhelming amount of filth produced by Hollywood. But a Christian evaluation of it must begin and end with how it measures up to what the Bible teaches about the subject. We cannot base our faith or theology on what makes us feel good – movie or otherwise.

I may sound like an old curmudgeon who is taking the theological aspect of watching the movie too seriously, and it isn’t my intention to discourage anyone from seeing the movie or reading the book. Just do it alongside the Bible and perhaps Randy Alcorn’s book to make sure that you come away with a clear distinction between what is soundly scriptural and what is unknown this side of heaven. God has revealed in His Word to all of us what He deems important for us to know for the present about heaven. Stories, books and movies that suggest other glimpses may be interesting and thought provoking, but we should not require them to affirm the scripture’s teaching nor to fill in the blanks of what God has yet to make clearly known to all.

rattlesnakeSome of you may have heard about the Appalachian snake-handling pastor who died several days ago from a snake bite. Here are my thoughts on the matter…

While I applaud the exercise of faith in any professing Christian, there is a difference between exercising faith and laying down on the railroad tracks and daring a train to come by. Surely God expects us to use our brain and accumulated knowledge in matters clearly known (such as the fact that poisonous snakes can kill you) and not waste our time putting God to some magic genie test. In fact, Matthew 4 tells Jesus’ response to Satan’s temptation where Jesus was basically asked to prove himself by jumping off the pinnacle of the temple without getting hurt. Jesus replied, “Do not test the Lord your God.” So those who center their faith around such silly tests are not only misguided in their focus, but are, in fact, not following the example and command of Jesus.

Also, while it may make the heads of some of my fellow conservative Christians explode, it is thought by many biblical scholars that Mark 16:9-20 which contains the snake handling passage was not originally part of Mark’s gospel. That is why several translations either omit it completely or place it in brackets to note its uncertain origin. To center one’s faith and practice around some of the very few disputed verses in the Bible is woefully misguided.

And if the passage was considered to be authoritative and taken literally, don’t you think there would be some history of that happening in the first 1900 years of the church rather than strangely appearing in Appalachia a century ago? Here’s a clue, folks: when practices and beliefs emerge a couple thousand years after the history of the church has done otherwise, it is inevitably the new divergence that is astray and not the countless generations that came before.

If the pastor was truly a man of Christian faith – and I have no reason to believe otherwise in spite of our very different take on snake handling – then I believe he has passed from this life to an eternal one in the presence of his Lord. However, I can’t help but wonder if Jesus’ first words to him after death were “What were you thinking?”

image from lyndasgrainsofsand.blogspot.com

image from lyndasgrainsofsand.blogspot.com

Christmas exists to remember and celebrate the first coming of Christ to a world in need of a savior. As a colleague at work said this week, he’d prefer to call it Incarnation Day instead of Christmas, but he’s right in suspecting that won’t catch on. While most biblical scholars agree that Jesus wasn’t born anywhere close to December 25, it’s still fitting to set aside a day to remember his coming and its purpose.

Christ has always existed. He didn’t come into being in that manger in Bethlehem. He always was and he always will be. All that we see and enjoy in this universe was created by him, including humankind.

Because humans willfully chose to rebel against a holy God, we suffered the just consequences of that sin, and our world has suffered death, deterioration and decay ever since. If left separated from a holy God at death, then the judge of the universe gives us the just reward (punishment) for our rebellion. Like wages earned from our jobs, it is the wage we earn for our unforgiven sunfulness.

But the God of the universe created us initially for right relationship with him. God loves us. It is not his will that anyone perish, but that all come to repentance. Therefore, he did what he did not have to do following our separation from him, and he chose to come in the form of a human – fully man and fully God – to live a perfect, sinless life, to suffer a horrible death that we deserved, and to rise again, conquering death.

The manger was never meant to be celebrated without also remembering the cross and what followed.

Through his selfless act, God has provided a way for the great chasm between God and men to be bridged. All that turn from their sin and place their trust solely in what Christ has done on their behalf, surrendering their will to his, can receive forgiveness of sins and the gift of eternal life.

Since today is Christmas, I will receive several gifts. I will take great pleasure in them and be grateful for the gift and the giver. But no gift can ever equal that offered by the Giver of life. His gift is eternal. His gift is truly life-changing. His gift changes one from the inside out. His gift is incomparable.

For those readers who already know Christ and have surrendered their lives to him, my wish for you is to continue growing in holiness and living life faithfully for him day by day. For all others on this Christmas Day – this Incarnation Day – my wish is that you will receive from our Creator his gift of repentance, of faith, of salvation, of eternal life, and that you will begin the transforming journey of becoming who you were created to be.

Now that would make for a very merry Christmas.

In Essentials UnityAround the year 1627 a German Lutheran theologian named Rupertus Meldenius wrote a small tract on the subject of Christian unity. The tract was written, according to an article by Dr. Mark Ross, “during the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), a bloody time in European history in which religious tensions played a significant role.” From that tract written by a theologian otherwise unknown to most of us came a phrase I have heard many times in my life: “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.” It is a wise bit of advice we would do well to remember today, and not just in the context of religious beliefs and practice.

To break the phrase down a bit just to make sure we understand, the first part – “in essentials unity” – assumes that there are some things on which we must agree and around which we must be unified. In the original context, this contains the most basic elements of the Christian faith. This is no small task to define, even for Christians who find themselves divided from other expressions of the Christian faith around the world to varying degrees. The challenge, then, is to define what those non-negotiable essentials are and to hold firm to them regardless of what nonbelievers and others may say. The unity sought is not unity for the sake of unity, but unity around a common core belief and experience.

The second part of the phrase is “in non-essentials liberty.” This means that we must willingly admit that there are some beliefs and practices of lesser importance about which we can legitimately disagree but still get along with one another and not feel compelled to condemn or force others into our way of thinking and behaving. We might call it agreeing to disagree. It is important to note that this is not a replacement for the first phrase above; there is still that core component on which we should agree, but there are many gray areas where people of equal faith and motive should be given the benefit of the doubt and allowed to practice as they deem best.

The final part of the phrase is “in all things charity.” In this case, charity means love and comes from the Latin word for love, caritas. Bottom line: whether we agree or disagree with others in matters of faith or practice, we are to demonstrate love in our attitudes and in our actions. We do not have the biblical option of being unloving.

As I consider the wisdom of “in essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity,” my thoughts first go to application of that wisdom in the Christian context originally intended by Meldenius. For a brief but good discussion from that angle, I refer you to the article by Mark Ross. It seems to me, though, that there is great value in the phrase today apart from a religious context as well.

For example, we just witnessed the failure of both major political parties in the U. S. House and Senate (and White House) as they spent weeks calling each other names and acting like immature children rather than doing the job they are elected and are paid very generously to do. Unity? Not in this political theater. Liberty? No way. The prevailing attitude is “it’s my way or the highway.” Charity (love)? Nothing about political life hints of that. We ought to have the right to expect of our politicians that some core, basic beliefs as Americans unite us. We ought to expect them to be civil as they agree to disagree. They ought to have the decency we try to teach preschoolers to treat others along the way with basic goodness and kindness, if not heart-felt love. Is that too much to ask? I realize that I shouldn’t hold my breath waiting for it to happen, but is it too much to ask? I think not.

My encouragement to you today is to consider those groups, affiliations, memberships, etc. that you share with others and then consider the wisdom of “in essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.” How might your attitude and behavior be positively shaped by following that advice? What would happen if we determined to treat others around us with kindness – even love – in the midst of our differences?

Our world would be a better place.

9-11In times of crisis and tragedy, we often hear questions like “Where was God?” or”How could God allow this to happen?” I’m sure those questions were asked countless times during and following the 9/11 attacks in 2001. Here are my thoughts on the subject…

Where was God on 9/11? Exactly where you can always find him:

  • Indwelling his people, giving them the strength to endure even the most heinous, evil acts perpetrated against them and others;
  • Acting in ways we know nothing about to make sure his ultimate purposes and plans are accomplished;
  • Waiting eagerly for anyone and everyone to call on him for strength, for hope, for peace, for salvation;
  • Working through the actions and prayers of countless people to make a positive difference in a fallen world;
  • Allowing all of his creation the free will we say we want, even when some choose to do unthinkable evil with that freedom.

God did not cause those evil acts on 9/11, nor is he obligated to prevent such things. His human creation has been given and expects to exercise free will to make our own decisions in life. If you think that God is somehow obligated to prevent evil acts, then you are saying that you want God to control your every action, to remove your free will, to make sure that everything is rainbows and unicorns. But I know you don’t really want that. You want to exercise the free will he gave you, even if that means you rebel against him, even if that means others rebel against him.

For love to be love, it must be willing and not coerced. That means God loves us enough to risk having us not love him in return. That means he lets unthinkable things happen at times, not because he wants or causes them to happen, but because humankind is responsible for its own choices, and sometimes we make terrible ones. There are eternal consequences for such choices, but we would shake our measly little fist at God if we didn’t at least have a choice.

We were not made as puppets, so why, when something bad happens, do we suddenly complain as though God is some giant puppeteer causing all the bad? We can’t have it both ways. Either we have free will and we are responsible, or we do not have free will and God is calling all the shots. Yes, I firmly believe he can and does intervene in the lives of humankind, but never to cause evil.

Where was God on 9/11? The same place you can find him today:

  • Indwelling his people, giving them the strength to endure even the most heinous, evil acts perpetrated against them and others;
  • Acting in ways we know nothing about to make sure his ultimate purposes and plans are accomplished;
  • Waiting eagerly for anyone and everyone to call on him for strength, for hope, for peace, for salvation;
  • Working through the actions and prayers of countless people to make a positive difference in a fallen world;
  • Allowing all of his creation the free will we say we want, even when some choose to do unthinkable evil with that freedom.