Imagine there’s no heaven

I am reading Matthew 10 today and I admit I am surprised. Jesus sends out his disciples to declare the message of the kingdom of heaven and instructs them to heal the sick, cleanse the leprous, cast out demons and even raise the dead. This seems to be common around Jesus and his ministry.

What surprises me is that people will hate them for it. Hate them for preaching about the kingdom of heaven. For living it. Why?

I’m of the naive school that believes that if I am kind to others they will be kind to me. It works, sometimes, but not always. And when it doesn’t, I am always surprised. But I shouldn’t be. Because Jesus warns his disciples of this very thing happening to them. In fact, he says parents will turn against their children, and children against their parents and actually have them put to death. Why? It looks to me like this will happen because they hold strongly to different beliefs.

Many wars have been fought over ideologies. Some of my readers will recall the John Lennon song, Imagine. “Imagine there’s no heaven, it’s easy if you try. No hell below us, above us only sky. Imagine all the people, living for today. Aha-ah…. Imagine there’s no countries, it’s easy to do. Nothing to kill or die for, no religion too. Imagine all the people, living life in peace….” Lennon’s dream was that the world would live as one, admittedly a good dream. In the song the enemy appears to be religion, the fact that people hold to different beliefs, ideologies, worldviews.

Religion is pretty diverse. I recently read in a book by Bruce K. Wilborn, entitled Witches’ Craft-A Multidenominational Wicca Bible (2011), that Wiccans consider themselves as part of the oldest religion on earth. I read further that, although they don’t believe in “hell,” in regards to the breaking of one particular law they will condemn the violators to the “Curse of the Goddess” with the result that they are never to be reborn, but to remain, “where they belong, in the Hell of the Christians.” It fascinated me that Wiccans may not not confess to believing in hell, yet are quite willing to utilize it on their enemies.

We can imagine whatever we desire about the life hereafter. It will not make it real or false, although it will create a sort of “reality” for the present life and possibly affect our behavior. I am of the Christian belief that there is both a heaven and a hell and that I can’t wish them away, even if I try. In other words, there is future reward and judgment, or punishment, for behavior. Some would call this justice.

On a personal level, I have a son who does not believe in hell. He cannot reconcile a “God of love” being a God of judgment as well. In his mind evil doers will go unpunished. At least, not sent to hell.

I have a lot of questions about hell. Do only our spirits go there, or do our bodies go there too? Do people go there immediately after they die, or is there a kind of “purgatory,” a holding place, where they wait until the judgment on the last day? The Bible doesn’t give us a clear treatise on hell, just bits and pieces of information here and there and some of them don’t jive. One thing seems to be clear in Jesus’ mind. God, his father, ought to be feared as the one who has the power to cast both body and soul into hell (Matthew 1:29).

I’m very uncomfortable talking about hell. I don’t like the idea of the motivation for serving God being to avoid being sent to hell. I admit I am culturally influenced, as my son has been. I may even be wrong in some of my beliefs. But one thing seems logical. It seems logical to hate someone who believes in hell. It seems logical to hate someone who declares evil will be punished. It seems logical to hate someone who calls you out on your lifestyle, maybe even on your beliefs, and says you will go to hell if you don’t change.

Christians have been called haters (because they believe in hell)…by haters. But we can’t change the score. Nobody can. What will be will be. We may have faith that it will be one thing and find out one day that it turns out differently.

John Lennon’s song has a basic flaw. He believes the world will “live as one” if we do away with religion. The trouble is that religion is just the label we put on a set of beliefs and the practices flowing out of those beliefs. Religion generally involves a deity or deities, and, depending on your definition, it can even have no “god.”

People will always organize themselves around a set of beliefs. That is where the song is flawed. One man may believe that he can have many wives and another that he ought to have only one wife. Because there will always be greed, there will always be unfairness. And for this reason there will always be rules made around distribution.

The early Christians sold property and had everything in common, we read in the book of Acts, much like Lennon says, “no possessions…no need for greed or hunger.” But later we read that other churches had to make donations to the believers in Jerusalem. Who bought the land that they sold? Where did they raise their livestock and grow their crops after they sold their land? It was a very short-sighted plan.

Jesus saw that religion was not the issue. It was a heart issue. People lacked love, compassion, generosity. When he told one man to, “Go, sell all you have and give the money to the poor,” he was not setting him up as an example of a precedent. He was merely pointing out how attached we can become to our possessions.

The reason Marxism, for example, does not work, is that people need leaders. Even in Marxism, or especially in Marxism, there is a very strong tendency to tell people what they should and shouldn’t do and there is always somebody who feels responsible to police this. Who owns the land? Who distributes? Who decides how much a person receives? Who decides what they must do in exchange? This quickly turns into a situation resembling slavery.

We will never all “live as one” as long as not every single person has a perfect heart towards God first, and then towards his neighbor. We need to be answerable to someone, and we need someone to settle our disputes. We need a common compass. This is what religions have sought to give us. They have sought to teach us “what is right” as opposed to “who is right,” so that we all adhere to the same guiding principles.

We need commandments such as “thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his man-servant, nor his maid-servant, not his ox, nor his ass.” Without this, we will covet. It is not so much the fact that some people have more and some have less, as it is a lack of generosity on one side, and jealousy and resentment on the other. We need exhortations like “Godliness, with contentment is great gain.” We need to aspire to something higher and greater and more righteous and more loving.

We need to believe this world can be better. That people can be better. John Lennon was definitely right about that. We need to believe that we have a significant part to play in making this world a better place, by virtue of the fact that we were born on this earth.

In fact, we need heaven. We need the hope of heaven on earth. We need the prayer, “Thy kingdom come and thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” John Lennon didn’t know how close he was to saying this.

 

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Can a Person be Righteous?

I have long been fascinated by the story of Job. When I was in Bible College I was taught that Job was a righteous man and his friends were wrong when they insisted that he must have done some evil to cause this calamity to fall upon him. Through the years I have met Christians who insisted that Job’s friends were right and Job was indeed presumptuous to claim to be righteous. This caused me to dig deeper into the text, and every time I do so I come out believing more firmly that Job was righteous.

Today as I read the book of Job, something leapt out at me.

The story begins, “This man was blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil.” Job even offered sacrifices for each of his children after they had enjoyed a time of feasting and reveling on their birthdays, just in case they had sinned and “cursed God in their hearts.”

What an interesting thought, cursing God in their hearts. Later, in chapter two, Job’s wife tells him to “curse God and die.” Job said she was speaking as a foolish woman. The text continues, “In all this, Job did not sin in what he said.”

What stood out for me today was Satan’s response to God. When Satan appeared before God with the other angels, God asked him if he had considered his servant Job, “There is no one like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.” Satan’s reply is, “Does Job fear God for nothing? Have you not…blessed the work of his hands….But now stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face.”

Job’s wife essentially told Job to give up on God. Why would you serve a God who sends such calamity? What is the point? This is exactly what Satan was saying. Job would no longer serve God if God stopped blessing him. People only serve God for what they can get. The big question is, Will Job still trust God if God removes his hedge of protection from him?

Satan argued that Job’s reverence for God was conditional. It was dependent upon God’s goodness to him. Satan was convinced that if God would strike Job, Job would indeed curse God.

Job’s response to his wife, however, was, “Shall we accept good from God and not evil?”

Throughout the Bible we see a pattern of God blessing his people when they obeyed him and causing evil or harm to come to them when they disobeyed. The Bible literally says it will be well with us if we obey God. The King James Bible version puts it this way:

Ye shall walk in all the ways which the Lord your God hath commanded you, that ye may live, and that it may be well with you, and that ye may prolong your days in the land which ye shall possess (Deuteronomy 5:33).

As a result of this scripture and others like it, people have concluded that if something bad happens to us, we are somehow at fault. Presumably we have sinned or not been righteous enough. Job’s friends took the view that the trouble he was experiencing was evidence that he must have some sin he needed to confess.

Jesus challenged the belief that if something bad happens it is because a person has sinned. When he was about to heal a man who was blind from birth, Jesus’ disciples asked Jesus if the man was blind because of his own sin or the sin of his parents. This association of sin with affliction was deeply rooted in their understanding. Jesus responded that neither was true. Rather, this would bring glory to God (John 9).

If we look in the Bible we find stories of people who were not evil and still experienced great trials. Think of the story of Joseph, as an example (Genesis 37-46). The Bible teaches that God will give us the grace and strength to endure trials (2 Corinthians 12:9), that God can cause good to come from harm (Romans 8:28), and that he will not allow us to be  tempted beyond what we can endure (1 Corinthians 10:13). Clearly trials will come.

While the Bible says God will bless us if we are faithful, it does not promise that nothing bad will ever happen to us. After all, it happened to Job.

The Bible also does not say that God will not bless us if we are unfaithful. In fact scriptures like Psalm 73 wrestle with the fact that sometimes the wicked prosper.

We tend to read the story of Job through the grid of our New Testament understanding that, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). We understand that “…by one man sin entered into the world….” (Romans 5:12), speaking of Adam and Eve in the garden. In light of this it could appear presumptuous for Job to claim that he is righteous.

When Jesus healed the man who was born blind, the leaders of the synagogue questioned the man, wanting to know what had happened to him. His response was “All I know is that once I was blind but now I see” (John 9:25). I propose that Job knew he was righteous because he experienced the difference between being blind, living in darkness, and seeing. He recognized what his friends were trying to pin on him. It may have been his past, but of one thing he was certain. It did not describe his present.

Christians who cannot accept that Job was righteous are in fact aligning themselves with his friends. At the end of the story we read that God was angry with Job’s friends and required a sacrifice of atonement from them. He accused them of not speaking the truth about him. He also instructed Job to pray for them, “My servant Job will pray for you, and I will accept his prayer and not deal with you according to your folly. You have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has” (Job 42:8).

We see here that the very knowledgeable friends of Job were wrong in their conclusions about Job, and that this, in the sight of God, was a serious offense which required sacrifice and intercession.

Although all that Job valued was taken away and he suffered incredibly, he possessed what his friends did not have. Job possessed righteousness. To say he was not righteous would have been to slander God. The truth Job spoke was about God.

I think today the “Christian” thing to do, if we were in Job’s place, would be to offer a show of humility and say something like “we all sin.” Job’s friends would probably have been satisfied if Job had just conceded that much. But Job refused. Job possessed an incredible understanding of God and righteousness.

Job’s relentless refusal to yield continues to challenge me, personally, especially when I think of how easily we confess to sin. Job’s testimony of righteousness was so powerful that God and Satan engaged in a contest to test its veracity. Wow!

Some people would accuse Job of self-righteousness and pride. This is exactly what his friends did. But God didn’t see it that way. There was a purity to his confession that could not be any further refined in the furnace of affliction. The trials he suffered only proved that what he had was real.