Friday, May 20, 2011

Will the rapture occur Saturday?

Will the rapture happen tomorrow – Saturday, May 21st ?

Harold Camping guarantees it.  He recalculated the calculations he uses that incorrectly predicted the same event in 1994. Here’s my vote: I’m still preparing a sermon for Sunday!

So, what might really happen?

(a)    Camping is right and the rapture occurs Saturday. Not likely, since the Bible clearly tells us “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, but My Father only” (Matt. 24:36, 24:42-44). Granted, someone could accidentally predict the right day, but not because they calculated it using the Bible, in contradiction to the Bible itself. I tried looking at Camping's calculations, but got lost in the assumptions and details. 

(b)   Skeptics and unbelievers will make fun of Christians in general. Even those of us who don’t agree with Camping (and others like him) will get lumped in. Not surprisingly, this is already happening: “Some of those skeptical of the prophecy are planning on celebrating Saturday with tongue-in-cheek ‘rapture parties,’ LiveScience reports. Tacoma, Wash., non-believer Paul Case told the Seattle Times that he wants to celebrate on Saturday because if the Rapture does happen, and all Christians are lifted to heaven, ‘we know as atheists, we're not going.’” (“PR campaign for the apocalypse seems to be working”, Yahoo! News, posted Thursday, May 19).

(c)    Camping is wrong, and the world will wake up to a normal regular Sunday like it has for centuries.
I vote (b) and (c).
How can believers respond when stories like this pop up in our world?
First, remember Jesus is, in fact, returning some day. I don’t know when He will come, but the Scriptures make it clear that He will return (1 Thess. 4:15, for example). We may disagree on the details of how His coming will unfold (pre-trib, pre-wrath, mid-trib, post-trib, premillenial, post millennial, amillenial, and the list goes on), but not on the fact of His coming!
Second, believing He will return should impact our living today. “But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night, in which the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will melt with fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up. Therefore, since all these things will be dissolved, what manner of persons ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness” (2 Pet. 3:10-11). Knowing the end of the story should influence what we do while we are still someplace in the middle of the story!
Third, when people talk about Camping’s predictions, talk with them. Don’t ridicule Camping (I think plenty of others will take care of that), but instead ask questions about what they believe. Remember the movie, 2012? Not a great movie (I wouldn’t even rank it high enough to be a really bad movie!), but knowing that people went to the movie opened doors to talk with them about the future. Camping’s predictions can do the same. We can use false prophesies about the future to open doors to talk to people about the truth, especially when they start the conversation!

Will the rapture happen Saturday? I don’t think so. See you Sunday!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

What about someone in deepest, darkest, downtown Dallas who has never heard the gospel?

Do I really believe that the only way to eternal life and entering into God’s presence for eternity (whether you call this “heaven”, the “kingdom”, or the “new heavens and new earth”) is by faith in Jesus Christ?


Doesn’t that make me “narrow minded”? What about the person in deepest, darkest, downtown Dallas who have never heard about Jesus? Is that fair for them?

The answer would be “absolutely not” (well, humanly speaking), if not for two crucial truths.  

The first truth is, God in His general revelation reveals Himself to all men so that they are “without excuse”. The second truth is, God can sovereignly send the gospel message to any who want to know the truth. So, let’s say a Dallas native looks into creation, concludes that God must exist and wants to know the truth. God then works whatever details He needs in order to get the message to that person.

How has God revealed Himself to everyone? Look at these two verses from the Bible: 

“The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows His handiwork.” (Psalm 19:1)

“For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse” (Romans 1:20)

The universe around us reveals something about God. About His glory. About His invisible attributes. I think of things like His power, vastness, majesty, and creativity when I stare at the night sky. In fact, God so clearly reveals Himself that people have no excuse for failing to respond to Him as creator. The universe – creation – proclaims that God exists.

Someone might argue – rightfully – that creation does not provide adequate revelation to understand our need for salvation, let alone the means of that salvation. That’s where trust in the character and ability of God comes in. Job learned at the end of his trials that God “can do everything” and not one of God’s purposes can be thwarted. In other words, if the person in deepest, darkest, downtown Dallas responds by wanting to know about the God revealed in the night sky, it is God’s business to ensure the message gets to him or her. And He is perfectly capable of doing so!  

Most often, He uses people to take that message to others (Romans 10:14). Rob Bell, however, overstates this role of the human messenger in salvation (I promise, I’m not really writing just to point out where I disagree with Bell. It’s just that his words touch on my topics): “If our salvation, our future, our destiny is dependent on others bringing the message to us, teaching us, showing us – what happens if they don’t do their part? What if the missionary gets a flat tire?” (Love Wins, p. 9). The subtle error lies in the first part of his statement. Ultimately, our destiny is not dependent on others bringing the message. It is dependent upon God revealing Himself and ensuring the message gets to the person. I am not ultimately responsible for someone’s destiny, although God can use me in the process.

Look at God’s creative working in these four examples from Acts:

God moves Philip to explain the Scriptures to the Ethiopian eunuch, and then beams him out after the Eunuch believes. (Acts 8:26-40)

Jesus revealed Himself directly to Saul on the road to Damascus through a bright light (blinding Saul) and a voice from heaven. Saul responds, “What do you want me to do?” (Acts 9:1-9) 

Cornelius, a “God fearer”, was told in a vision by an angel of God to send for Peter. Meanwhile, God prepares Peter’s heart for this visit with the vision of the sheet with all kinds of animals, declaring the unclean, clean. Peter meets with Cornelius, and Cornelius responds in faith. (Acts 10:1-11:48)

Paul and Silas were imprisoned in Philippi. While incarcerated, an earthquake hit, opening the doors of the jail and loosening chains of the prisoners (not a “routine” earthquake, based on these results). When the jailor wants to know what he must do to be saved, Paul gives him the gospel message.
So, what about the person in deepest, darkest, downtown Dallas who has never heard? He (or she) has no excuse because God revealed Himself to every person through creation. And if he (or she) really wants to know the God of creation, God can (and, in my opinion, will) do whatever He needs to do to bring the message to that person, sometimes doing so very creatively. A flat tire on the freeway will not stop the process.
By no means am I saying we should sit back and do nothing to reach a lost world under the umbrella of “trusting God” to get the message out. He usually uses people to tell the good news, and I should be one of them he uses. Jesus commands us to “go” (Matt. 28:19-20). But the eternal destiny of that other person does not ultimately rest on my faithfulness, but on God’s. If I am not obedient, He can work around my disobedience to accomplish His purposes to get the message out.  I, however, would much rather be used by Him than be a disobedient someone God must “work around”!
What about those unable to believe because they don’t have the mental capacity to understand and respond to the gospel? What about babies or the mentally challenged? That will have to wait for a future post. Before I tackle that one, though, I want to write about something else. Stephen Hawking this week said “I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.” Is the afterlife “a fairy story”? Because if it is, none of this matters.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Computers are man's best friend

Alas, for the last two weeks, my computer decided it needed a hard drive transplant. Needless to say, with no computer, I've been unable to post. I did make some fascinating discoveries (well, may only fascinating to some):

I became so used to using my Bible study software (I won't mention that I uses Logos), that studying without it felt strange.

I realize I so enjoy watching baseball through the eyes of my fantasy baseball teams, that the ESPN Sportscenter updates just weren't enough.

My co-worker at the church discovered sending me an e-mail to ell me my new hard drive arrived was probably not the most efficient way to let me know, since I had no e-mail access.

I discovered I could survive without reading all the "really important" (yeah, right) news that pops up on Yahoo.

Okay, enough trivial banality. I'll get abck to "What about those in deepest, darkest, downtown Dallas" this week... because I have my Bible software back, Microsoft Word back, and internet access back!

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

What the heck is hell?

Some words just don’t sit well in our culture. One is “sin”. Another is “hell”.
What is the destiny of those who do not believe in Jesus in this life? What is “everlasting punishment” (Matt. 25:46)? What the heck is hell?

Some, like Rob Bell, define “eternal” in terms of intensity of time, rather than duration. He seems to see hell as something temporal, something we experience in this life. He says hell “refers to the big, wide, terrible evil that comes from the secrets hidden deep within our hearts all the way to the massive, society-wide collapse and chaos that comes when we fail to live in God’s world God’s way.” (p. 93). He also implies those who die in unbelief will not necessarily remain in unbelief; God provides a “way out” (p. 109-110). He clearly doesn’t see hell as everlasting torment.

Some, like Edward Fudge, believe that the person who dies without believing in Jesus ceases to exist. Unquenchable fire cannot be extinguished and consumes until nothing is left. And “everlasting” simply means “the disintegration of the wicked will never be reversed” (Two Views of Hell, p. 33).
The more traditional view of hell sees it as conscious punishment that lasts forever.
Which is it? What the heck is hell?
To be honest, I find either of the first two views easier to accept than the traditional view. The thought that someone can suffer forever is difficult to swallow! But here’s where we must be careful. I cannot decide the truth of a doctrine based on my emotions or feelings. Never. I must always let the truth of God’s word provide the answer.
Here’s the end result, my answer to the question, based on my understanding of what the Bible says: The fate of those who have never believed in Jesus is unending, conscious torment away from God as the consequence of rejecting God’s solution in Jesus Christ that fully satisfies His holiness and perfectly displays His love. You can stop here, but I’d encourage you to work with me through the process to see how I came to my conclusion. The answer lies in carefully looking at the nitty-gritty details of the Scriptures.
Wherever we end up in our view of hell, we must begin with the character of God and the message of His Word. Many who do not buy the traditional view of hell have in their argument something to the effect of “God is love. He loves us too much to...” The first half of that statement is absolutely true. God is love, and I fear too many believers don’t understand the depths of that love. I applaud ministries that help believers understand and experience God’s love. The second half of the statement can become a problem if we decide what God can or cannot do.
God is love, but God is not only love. A cursory look through the Bible reveals dozens of “God is” statements. Some speak of His relationship to us, like “God is my helper” (Psalm 54:4), and some speak of His character, like “For the LORD is good” (Psalm 100:5). And, we find statements like “The LORD is the righteous one” (Exodus 9:27), “God is a righteous judge” (Psalm 7:11), and “holy is the LORD our God” (Psalm 99:9), or, even stronger, “Holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts.” (Isa. 6:3, Rev. 4:8). “Hebrew uses repetition to express superlatives or to indicate totality. Only here is a threefold repetition found.” (Motyer, The Prophecy of Isaiah, p. 76).
God is love.
But God is also holy.

Because he is holy, He is absolutely pure and separated from any evil.

God can never act according to one attribute in a way that violates another attribute. God cannot act in love in a way that violates His holiness. Nor can He act in holiness in a way that violates His love. I know this principle applies to any combination of His attributes, but we find the answer of eternal destiny most intensely at the intersection of holiness and love. When we apply this to the question of the destiny of those who do not believe in Jesus, the solution God provides must satisfy His love, His holiness, and every other attribute of His. He cannot act contrary to Himself. So, where do love and holiness meet?

In the person of Jesus Christ.

In Him, God satisfies His holiness and His love. John 3:16 begins, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son.” On the cross, Jesus “bore our sins in His body … so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness” (1 Pet. 2:24a). God made Jesus, who was sinless, “sin on our behalf” (2 Cor. 5:21a).  Jesus is the propitiation (or, satisfaction toward God) for our sins (1 John 2:2). God showed His love by sending Jesus; Jesus completely satisfied God’s holiness by dying on the cross for our sin. So, Paul concludes, God is both just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Romans 3:26). So, we receive the benefits (justification, eternal life, forgiveness of sin, etc.) by faith alone in Jesus alone as John 3:16 concludes, “whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”

So, we have two types of people in the world.

Those who have believed in Jesus for eternal life, and those who have not.

If we drop down a couple of verses in John 3, we discover the fate of those who have not believed in Jesus. In verse 18, we read “he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.”

The person who has not believed in Jesus has been judged already. A consequence of their unbelief.

 So, now, let’s look for the pieces that define this judgment.

Let’s start with Matthew 25:41: “Then He will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels’”. Whatever this “eternal fire” may be, we see its original purpose was for Satan and his fallen angels for their judgment. This judgment of the devil is carried out in Rev. 20:10, “And the devil who deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone…”

That leads us to this word “eternal”. How long does the judgment last? The Greek term is aionios (αἰώνιος), which simply means “eternal”. One major Greek dictionary gives these three meanings: (1) without beginning, (2) without beginning or end, or (3) without end. We are left with no choice but to understand this fire as “without end”. In Matthew 25:46, Jesus contrasts eternal punishment and eternal life. The implication is clear: whatever duration “eternal life” covers, “eternal punishment” covers the same time. If eternal life in unending, so is eternal punishment.

Revelation uses different words to mark out the duration of this judgment. In Revelation 20:10, we are told the beast and the false prophet will be tormented “forever and ever” (τοὺς αἰῶνας τῶν αἰώνων). Twelve times this phrase pops up in Revelation, including passages like Rev. 4:9 that says the one who sits on the throne (Jesus) lives forever and ever. See the connection? The time period in Rev. 20:10 is the same time period as Jesus’ “life expectancy” – it is unending!

Let’s assume I am correct that the duration of the punishment is unending. The next question is, does this mean, as Fudge believes, that the “disintegration of the wicked will never be reversed” or is the person conscious during this time? I think the Bible paints the picture that the person is conscious. Revelation 20:10 tells us the beast and the false prophet (both humans) are “tormented day and night forever and ever”. A very strange description indeed if they had ceased to exist. Plus, the timing of this description is intriguing. The beast and false prophet were cast into this lake a thousand years prior to this time when the devil joins them. It really doesn’t matter if you take the thousand years as a literal thousand years or as some undisclosed long period of time, these two are still experiencing torment long after entering the lake. These two did not cease to exist, and nothing indicates the experience of those who are later cast into the lake of fire will be anything different. (By the way, other passages support the idea that the unbelieving dead continue to exist consciously after death, but I want this to be a post, not a book!)

I can hear the cry now, “That’s not fair! Why should God punish forever someone who committed sin for a finite lifetime?” And that is a valid question. We have to go back to the character of God. That’s why we had to start with Him. If God is truly just and righteous, then the destiny He determines for the unbelieving dead must be just. He cannot act contrary to Himself. So, let’s assume I am correct in how I put the Scriptures together on this tough topic. I am convinced that our sense of “that’s not fair” comes from an inadequate view of the holiness of God and an inadequate view of the depth and scope of our sin. Isaiah got it when he had his vision of the throne room: “Then I said, ‘Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts’” (Isa. 6:5). I really believe if we understood the scope of our sin and the greatness of the one sinned against (God), we would grasp that the penalty fits the crime. I accept by faith in His perfect character that He is fully just in His dealing with the unbelieving dead.

Last but not least, I have heard people describe hell as the unbeliever’s “payment” for sin. I do not find this anywhere in Scripture. Humans are incapable of paying for sin (the price is too high)and Jesus already paid the price in full. We cannot pay for something already paid for! Thus the destiny of the unbelieving dead as the consequence of not believing in Jesus, the solution God provided to the issue. If they never believed in Jesus for eternal life, what options are left? In a debate with the Pharisees, Jesus made this telling statement: “Therefore I said to you that you will die in your sins; for unless you believe that I am He, you will die in your sins” (John 8:58). The option left for the destiny of the unbeliever is to be cast into the lake of fire, a lake created not for mankind but for the devil and his angels.

So, pulling all this together, what the heck is hell? I understand the fate of those who have never believed in Jesus as unending, conscious torment away from God as the consequence of rejecting God’s solution in Jesus Christ that fully satisfies His holiness and perfectly displays His love. What a motivation this should be for us to share the gospel with a lost world!

I hear one more question. What about the person in deepest, darkest, downtown Dallas who has never heard the gospel?  That’s my next post…..