Posts Tagged ‘C.S. Lewis’

The recent atheist meme about the ex-pastor

August 13, 2014

An atheist meme going around social media includes a picture of a pensive looking older man, ostensibly a former pastor, saying the following:

I’ve been a deep believer my whole life. 18 years as a Southern Baptist. More than 40 years as a mainline Protestant. I’m an ordained pastor. But it’s just stopped making sense to me. You see people doing terrible things in the name of religion, and you think: ‘Those people believe just as strongly as I do. They’re just as convinced as I am.’ And it just doesn’t make sense anymore. It doesn’t make sense to believe in a God that dabbles in people’s lives. If a plane crashes, and one person survives, everyone thanks God. They say: ‘God had a purpose for that person. God saved her for a reason!’ Do we not realize how cruel that is? Do we not realize how cruel it is to say that if God had a purpose for that person, he also had a purpose in killing everyone else on that plane? And a purpose in starving millions of children? A purpose in slavery and genocide? For every time you say that there’s a purpose behind one person’s success, you invalidate billions of people. You say there is a purpose to their suffering. And that’s just cruel.

I planned on ignoring this meme, wondering why it took a Christian pastor (assuming he’s a real person) 58 years to realize that this world for which God takes complete responsibility is also a place in which not only evil and suffering occur, but they also do so in ways that seem absurdly unfair and indiscriminate.

I changed my mind about responding, however, after a clergy friend linked to the meme on Facebook, with the words, “Amen!” attached to it.

What exactly was my colleague affirming? In the comments section of her post, she said that she doesn’t believe that God would permit one child to die of an illness while saving another.

Really? What’s the alternative? Either God permits evil or he doesn’t. If he permits it, that means he has the power to stop it but chooses not to. If he doesn’t permit it, that means that while God may hate evil, he’s powerless to stop it. The latter option absolves God of responsibility for evil at an unacceptably high price for us Christians: God is impotent in the face of evil, and the Bible isn’t telling us the truth about him.

There are several other problems with the ex-pastor’s words.

The first relates to gratitude. If we can’t thank God for being the sole survivor of a plane crash (to use the ex-pastor’s example), we can’t thank God for anything at all.

Here’s why: Whereas we’re extremely unlikely to be involved in a plane crash, most of us, at least in the first-world, eat three square meals each day (or have the opportunity to). How can we be grateful to our Father for giving us this day our daily bread when so many people in the world are starving? How is that not also, in the words of the ex-pastor, “just cruel”?

By this same logic, we should disregard Jesus’ and the Bible’s many words about the importance of petitionary prayer. After all, by this ex-pastor’s logic, it wouldn’t be fair for God to give me what ask for when he fails to give someone else what they ask for.

But suppose we still believe in petitionary prayer. Suppose God chooses not to give us what we ask for in prayer: Do we assume that God is capricious—and whether or not God answers prayer is a crap-shoot—or do we assume God has good reasons for not giving us what we ask for? All of us Christians would agree that God has good reasons.

To say that, however, implies purpose.

So, getting back to the plane crash, we would be theologically justified in saying that God has a purpose in enabling one person to survive even if all the other people die—many of whom were undoubtedly also praying for their personal safety.

The ex-pastor is wrong to say that if God enables one person to survive he therefore kills everyone else on board. No—the laws of physics, or poor judgment, or mechanical error, or some combination thereof, are likely what “killed” everyone else on board.

Nevertheless, since God has the power to prevent the plane from crashing and people from dying, God is still responsible. Let’s be tough-minded enough to say so. As the Psalms make clear, God can handle our anger, hurt, and disappointment.

lewis_bookNone of these words may be pastorally helpful in the midst of someone’s grief or suffering—which is why it helps to think things through before tragedy strikes.

To help us do that, I heartily recommend the following three books:

C.S. Lewis’s The Problem of Pain,

Timothy Keller’s Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, and

Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning.

C.S. Lewis on resisting temptation

July 17, 2014

350_C.S.Lewis.348A clergy friend on Facebook yesterday linked approvingly to this article on the United Methodist Reporter website (an independent Methodist news service, I’m relieved to report), whose author is saying, in so many words, “Can’t we just stop arguing about sex and get on with doing the Lord’s work?” I wanted to say, “As if!” As if one thing isn’t related to the other! As if failing to be faithful in our sex lives won’t have negative repercussions in other areas of our lives and ministries!

Or maybe I’m “debating trifles,” as the author says. Maybe I’m a “sex-obsessed moral scold.”

Good grief! At least the writer isn’t Methodist—he’s an Episcopal priest.

No matter where we stand in relation to our church’s doctrine on human sexuality, can’t we at least agree that sin is a very big deal? Whatever sin is, it’s something that we need to resist first of all, and something which—for the sake of our souls—we need to confess to and repent of when we fall into it.

So long as we have life and breath, we know there’s grace and mercy available for us. But making sure that we understand what sin is is never a trifling matter!

All that to say, I love this excerpt from C.S. Lewis from Mere Christianity, which was included in the C.S. Lewis Bible in relation to Paul’s words about spiritual warfare in Ephesians 6:10-18. He’s encouraging us to work hard to practice the Christian virtues, what we Methodists like to call the “means of grace.”

A silly idea is current that good people do not know what temptation means. This is an obvious lie. Only those who try to resist temptation know how strong it is. After all, you find out the strength of the German army by fighting against it, not by lying down. A man who gives in to temptation after five minutes simply does not know what it would have been like an hour later. That is why bad people, in one sense, know very little about badness. They have lived a sheltered life by always giving in. We never find out the strength of the evil impulse inside us until we try to fight it: and Christ, because He as the only man who never yielded to temptation, is also the only man who knows to the full what temptation means—the only complete realist.[†]

C.S. Lewis in The C.S. Lewis Bible, NRSV (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 1339.

Spufford falters on the “problem of pain”

July 7, 2014

spuffordThere’s much to like about atheist-turned-believer Francis Spufford’s apologetic for Christianity, Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense. He’s a funny, winsome writer and sharp thinker.

In the chapter called “Big Daddy,” he offers an unconventional but compelling defense of God’s existence based on the way that we human beings so often experience God. By the end of the chapter, however, he raises the logical problem of believing in a God-of-everything, as we Christians believe, versus believing in many gods or no God at all. Believing in a God-of-everything means believing that God is ultimately responsible for evil and suffering. Without flinching, he states the problem as well as any hardened skeptic:

But one point at which you can know you’ve started to believe is the point at which the tentative houseroom or headroom you’re giving to the God of everything starts to have emotional consequences of its own. Problematic consequences; uncomfortable consequences; unpleasant consequences. Because if the bastard does exist, if the God of everything is shining patiently in every room, then you can’t escape the truth that He must be shining in some horrible places. He must be lending his uncritical sustaining power to rooms in which the vilest things are happening. There He must be, obligingly maintaining the flow of electrons through the rusty wires that are conducting 240 volts into the soft tissue of some poor screaming soul in a torture chamber. There He must be, benignly silent, as a migrant worker is raped at a truck stop. There He must be, shining contentedly away, in the overrun emergency room where the children from a crushed school bus are dying.

And when you’ve noticed that you’re ready for the next act in the emotional drama of belief we’re following here. Which is, of course, horrified disgust.[1]

What follows in the next chapter is his response to the “problem of pain.” I like this:

Lots of atheists seem to be certain, recently, that this ought not to be a problem for believers, because—curl of lip—we all believe we’re going to be whisked away to a magic kingdom in the sky instead. Facing the prospect of annihilation squarely is the exclusive achievement of—preen—the brave unbeliever. But I don’t know many actual Christians (as opposed to the conjectural idiots of atheist fantasy) who feel this way, or anything like it.[2]

That’s exactly right. Even as a pastor, no Christian doctrine seems less believable to me, in the face of senseless, tragic death, than the doctrine of heaven. It feels like pie-in-the-sky, like escapism. Don’t get me wrong: I come back around to believing in it eventually, but only through intellectual effort. In the face of death, I find comfort instead in the fact that Jesus wept when his friend Lazarus died, even though he knew that he would bring him back to life.

No: death is hard on everyone—on Jesus, on ordinary believers like me, and on atheists. Let’s not pretend otherwise.

Beyond these words, Spufford concedes way too much ground to Christianity’s cultured despisers. He sets up many of the traditional defenses of God’s goodness (in spite of the bad stuff in the world) and knocks them down far too glibly. Take this, for instance:

I’ve seen a church newsletter in which the Almighty is thanked for fixing the minister’s car, via a miraculously cheap quote from a garage. But it only takes a little of the cold wind of adversity to blow this stuff away—and only a little thought. For if God was willing to exert Himself over the minister’s spark plugs, but wouldn’t get out of bed to stop the Holocaust, what sort of picture that draw? What sort of loving deity could have the priorities that the cruel world reveals, if the cruel world is an accurate record of His intentions, once you look beyond reality’s little gated communities of niceness.[3]

Not so fast, Mr. Spufford. First, reality is far more prodigal with its “niceness” than you let on here. As N.T. Wright once said, the problem of good ought to be a far bigger problem for unbelievers than the problem of evil is for believers. Why? Because there’s just so much goodness to go around!

When I was in Kenya last year teaching theology and doctrine to a group of indigenous United Methodist pastors, some of my fellow “short-term missionaries” visited a large garbage dump on the outskirts of Nakuru. They went to provide food, clothing, and medicine to families who were squatting there. This wasn’t, as my missionary friend Bill told us, Western-style garbage. No bourgeois “freegan” would be found there rummaging for day-old bread. Yet here were families attempting to sustain themselves in this place that was very nearly hell on earth. (The Bible’s word for hell is gehenna, literally a garbage dump outside Jerusalem.) It was horrifying, my friends reported. It drove them to tears.

But here’s what they also reported: young children in the midst of this garbage laughing, singing, and playing—experiencing joy. It doesn’t seem right, does it—in this place so far removed from any “gated community of niceness.” But there you are. Life is like that. Even at its worst, there’s still so much good. Why?

In his paragraph above, Spufford says that since God didn’t intervene to stop the Holocaust, why would God intervene to help this minister get his car repaired? Well, there it is: reductio ad Hitlerum. Is there anything we can say in the face of the Holocaust’s enormity?

I hope so—because by the standard of the Holocaust, nearly everything that happens in the world is trivial. Certainly, nothing in my little life rates God’s care or attention! Spufford complains about spark plugs, but please… he’s stacking the deck. “If God didn’t intervene to stop the Holocaust, why would God intervene to save the life of a child afflicted with leukemia?” “If God didn’t intervene to save the lives of six million people, why would God intervene to save 300,000 people from the Indian Ocean tsunami?” And forget about 3,000 in the Twin Towers on 9/11!

By this logic, if God didn’t intervene to stop the Holocaust, God doesn’t intervene to do anything. Ever. At this point, the New Atheist are nodding approvingly: “That’s what we’ve been saying for years!”

All that to say, I hope we have some response to Spufford’s logic. Because if Spufford is right, the idea that God answers prayer is a joke—despite what our Lord teaches us repeatedly about the subject. In the face of senseless tragedy in his day, Jesus said seemingly harsh things like, “Unless you change your hearts and lives, you will die just as they did.” Needless to say, Jesus had a far more robust understanding of God’s sovereignty and providence—and, to say the least, he knew more about these matters than Spufford or I.

So, perhaps the second thing I need to say in response to Spufford is, let’s be humble about what we think we know about suffering and death. This is an important theme of Timothy Keller’s profoundly good book on the subject, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering, which came out last year.

Third, we need to remind ourselves, as C.S. Lewis points out, that the scale of suffering is irrelevant to the question of God’s justice.

Suppose that I have a toothache of intensity x: and suppose that you, who are seated beside me, also begin to have a toothache of intensity x. You may, if you choose, say that the total amount of pain in the room is now 2x. But you must remember that no one is suffering 2x: search all time and all space and you will not find that composite pain in anyone’s consciousness. There is no such thing as a sum of suffering, for no one suffers it. When we have reached the maximum that a single person can suffer, we have, no doubt, reached something very horrible, but we have reached all the suffering there ever can be in the universe. The addition of a million fellow-sufferers adds no more pain.[4]

Lewis isn’t minimizing suffering and evil; he’s merely pointing out that if you’re going to become indignant about six million dying in Hitler’s death camps, you have no less reason to become indignant about six people in a trailer park getting flattened by a tornado.

Also, before we become indignant on other people’s behalf, let’s ask ourselves about believers in God who actually suffered in the Holocaust. Read, for instance, Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for MeaningDid these believers experience God as not “getting out of bed” to help them? Of course some did, I’m sure. But many didn’t. Why? What sustained them?

For that matter, what does it mean that the most comfortable suburban Christians (or ex-Christians) become the most indignant about the suffering of others? My pastor friends in Kenya see far more suffering and death there than most of us do here, yet they’re, in general, far more faithful. In fact, in my experience as a pastor, the most advanced believers get the least worked up about their own suffering, often perceiving God’s hand at work in their lives, answering their prayers, and blessing others through them. Would Spufford tell them they’re wrong to feel this way?

Besides, who says God didn’t “get out of bed” to stop the Holocaust? He did stop it, through men like Dwight Eisenhower and the fighting forces of the United States, among many others. “He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored/ He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword.” Amen! This hymn writer rightly understands how God works in history. “The mills of God grind slowly, yet they grind exceeding small.”

Speaking of which, here’s another aspect of heaven (and hell) to which Spufford gives short shrift (at least so far): vengeance belongs to God, and he will repay. In eternity, justice will be fully and finally done. Those six million lives lost in the Holocaust will be avenged.

Finally, in my own experience, here’s what I know for sure: most of the suffering that I suffer I bring on myself. It’s not caused so much by external events as my response to those events. As a friend of mine reminded me earlier this year, “Pain is inevitable; suffering is a choice.” In my own experience, I can’t argue with that. Can Spufford?

Maybe he’ll answer that question before the end of the book. I’m not encouraged so far.

1. Francis Spufford, Unapologetic (New York: HarperOne, 2013), 84-5.

2. Ibid., 92.

3. Ibid., 94.

4. C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: HarperOne, 1996), 116-7.

Sermon 06-29-14: “Therefore Keep Watch”

July 3, 2014

Wedding Receptions

 

Every week, most of us United Methodists recite the Apostles’ Creed. When we do so, we affirm that we believe in a doctrine that we rarely talk about: the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. What is it, why should we believe in it, and why is it relevant for our lives? How are we supposed to live now, before Christ returns?

Sermon Text: Matthew 25:1-13


The following is my original sermon manuscript with footnotes.

In the past ten years of my pastoral ministry, I haven’t one time messed up the names of any bride or groomwhose wedding I’ve performed. I haven’t said, “Stephen, will you have Amy to be your wife,” only to have Stephen say, “My name is Richard! And her name is Cindy!” That hasn’t happened yet, I’m happy to say. At least I don’t think it’s happened!

Once I did a wedding for a bride and groom who had interchangeable names—names that could easily apply to either a man or a woman—something like Casey and Taylor. Which one’s which? And they weren’t members of my church, so it’s not like I knew them very well.

Their wedding was at 6:00 on Sunday evening. Sunday! Which is the worst day for us pastors because we all take long naps on Sunday afternoon! Anyway, I set my alarm to wake up extra early from my nap, in part because I wanted to make sure I had time to learn their names and keep them straight.
Read the rest of this entry »

C.S. Lewis on the moral argument against God

June 25, 2014

lewisWhen a Christian apologist says that we “need God” for objective moral values, unbelievers often mishear or misunderstand the statement. They think he’s saying, “We need God in order to be moral people”—at which point, they might, for example, point to Israel’s conquest of Canaan in the Old Testament and say, “I don’t need that God telling me what’s good and bad!” Or they might become indignant, thinking the apologist is saying that unbelievers are incapable of being moral people. I witnessed the late Christopher Hitchens exhibiting this same confusion in both ways in a debate with my Christian ethics professor many years ago.

Needless to say, both these responses miss the point. As David Bentley Hart has written:

We all know that countless persons of no creed whatsoever—atheists, agnostics, the indeterminately “spiritual,” the genially indifferent—are able to behave with exemplary kindness and generosity. Spend some time working with Doctors Without Borders, for instance, and you will meet many physicians who joined the organization out of religious conviction, but also many who did not, and it is impossible to discern any great differences among them as far as compassion or heroism goes.

That said, I have to observe that… I have been led to a few dark and desolate locales, of the sort that never get mentioned in tourist guides, and it is hard not to notice that the nearer one gets to the ground in places where poverty, disease, despair, and terror are simply part of the quotidian fabric of existence, the more the burden of humanitarian aid is shifted onto the shoulders of religious institutions (generally, though not exclusively, Christian). I don’t doubt the good will, decency, or dedication of atheist altruists, or the supererogation of which many of them are individually capable. But I do occasionally entertain doubts that in general, considered purely proportionately, they can rival their believing counterparts for sheer moral stamina.

That is not an accusation, however. The real question of the moral life, at least as far as philosophical “warrant” is at issue, is not whether one personally needs God in order to be good, but whether one needs God in order for the good to be good.

For Hart, it’s “blindingly obvious” that we need God in order for the good to be good. You can read his essay for more on that.

Many atheists, by contrast, convinced already that the good is really good, reject faith in God on that basis. C.S. Lewis, who did the same thing himself early in life, points out the logical problem with doing so in the following paragraph from Mere Christianity:

My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? If the whole show was bad and senseless from A to Z, so to speak, why did I, who was supposed to be part of the show, find myself in such violent reaction against it? A man feels wet when he falls into water, because man is not a water animal: a fish would not feel wet. Of course I could have given up my idea of justice by saying it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too—for the argument depended on saying that the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my fancies. Thus in the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist—in other words, that the whole of reality was senseless—I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality—namely my idea of justice—was full of sense. Consequently atheism turns out to be too simple. If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be a word without meaning.[†]

† C.S. Lewis, “Mere Christianity,” in The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York: HarperOne, 2002), 41.

“That Hell should be able to veto Heaven”

June 2, 2014
"But watch that sophistry or ye'll make a Dog in the Manger the tyrant of the universe." (Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.)

“But watch that sophistry or ye’ll make a Dog in the Manger the tyrant of the universe.” (Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.)

In an earlier post on C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, I used Lewis’s words to reflect on how we can live with ourselves on the other side of eternity, knowing the harm that we’ve caused people in this life. Given that we retain our memories, will we not have guilt-ridden consciences?

In chapters 12 and 13 of the book, Lewis tackles a another question about our consciences: how do we live with ourselves in heaven knowing that some people we know and love will be in hell. In heaven, will we no longer have pity or compassion? How can we not feel sorry for people who aren’t with us?

The narrator confronts his heavenly guide, George MacDonald (the Teacher), with these kinds of questions after witnessing a conversation between a heavenly resident named Sarah Smith and her (literally) damned husband, Frank, who is allowed a visit with her. (Before you ask: Lewis himself isn’t arguing that this is what happens in eternity. The events in the book take place in the narrator’s dream.) Sarah loves Frank perfectly, but she won’t pity him, no matter how hard he tries to play on her sympathies.

Is there no place, the narrator wonders, for compassion in heaven?

(I was unfamiliar with the reference to a “dog in a manger.” It’s explained here.)

‘Is it really tolerable that she should be untouched by his misery, even his self-made misery?’

‘Would ye rather he still had the power of tormenting her? He did it many a day and many a year in their earthly life.’

Well, no. I suppose I don’t want that.’

‘What then?’

‘I hardly know, Sir. What some people say on Earth is that the final loss of one soul gives the lie to all the joy of those who are saved.’

‘Ye see it does not.’

‘I feel in a way that it ought to.’

‘That sounds very merciful: but see what lurks behind it.’

‘What?’

‘The demand of the loveless and the self-imporisoned that they should be allowed to blackmail the universe: that till they consent to be happy (on their own terms) no one else shall taste joy: that theirs should be the final power; that Hell should be able to veto Heaven.’

‘I don’t know what I want, Sir.’

‘Son, son, it must be one way or the other. Either the day must come when joy prevails and all the makers of misery are no loner able to infect it: or else for ever and ever the makers of misery can destroy in others the happiness they reject for themselves. I know it has a grand sound to say ye’ll accept no salvation which leaves even one creature in the dark outside. But watch that sophistry or ye’ll make a Dog in a Manger the tyrant of the universe.’

‘But dare one say—it is horrible to say—that Pity must ever die?’

‘Ye must distinguish. The action of Pity will live for ever: but the passion of Pity will not. The passion of Pity, the Pity we merely suffer, the ache that draws men to concede what should not be conceded and to flatter when they should speak truth, the pity that has cheated many a woman out of her virginity and many a statesman out of his honesty—that will die. It was used as a weapon by bad men against good ones: their weapon will be broken.’

‘And what is the other kind—the action?’

‘It’s a weapon on the other side. It leaps quicker than light from the highest place to the lowest to bring healing and joy, whatever the cost to itself. It changes darkness into light and evil into good. But it will not, at the cunning tears of Hell, impose on good the tyranny of evil. Every disease that submits to a cure shall be cured: but we will not call blue yellow to please those who insist on still having jaundice, nor make a midden of the world’s garden for the sake of some who cannot abide the smell of roses.’[†]

C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (New York: HarperOne, 1946), 135-6.

Sermon 05-18-14: “Patience”

May 28, 2014

practically_perfect

“Don’t sweat the small stuff,” someone once said. If only that were an option for us Christians! The Letter of James challenges us in part because its author is constantly “sweating the small stuff”—those so-called “small sins” that we often commit without giving it a second thought. This is one reason his letter is so difficult… and practical. In today’s scripture he turns his attention to that spiritually deadly emotion resentment. Why do we experience it and what do we do about it?

Sermon Text: James 5:7-12

In Sudan, a 27-year-old Christian woman named Mariam Ibrahim, who’s married to an American man, has been sentenced to death by hanging for not renouncing her Christian faith. In Nigeria, Islamic terrorists abducted 276 mostly Christian school girls and threaten to sell them into slavery. In Syria, one thing that the warring Muslim factions in the civil war can agree on is killing Christians: Over a thousand Christians were killed in 2013 simply because they were Christians.

These are the same kinds of life-and-death situations that the apostles and many Christians in the early church faced on a regular basis. Read the Book of Acts. Read Paul’s letters, especially Philippians and 2 Corinthians. Read Peter’s letters. Read the Book of Revelation.

Much of the New Testament encourages us to stand strong in the face of suffering, persecution, and death.

But James—who himself did suffer and die for his faith—mostly doesn’t write about these big threats to Christian faith. Mostly he writes about small threats to faith, stuff to which most of us can easily relate: saying we believe one thing but living as if we believe another; showing favoritism; losing our temper; judging others, gossiping, and putting people down with our words; forgetting about God in the busy-ness of our lives; trusting in money and material things intend of trusting in God. Which is why his letter is so down-to-earth and practical.

James wants us to know that all these so-called little things can ruin our Christian faith and send us to hell as easily as the big things. Read the rest of this entry »

“Heaven, once attained, will work backwards”

May 26, 2014

When we are in heaven, how will we retain our memories and not feel sorrow, guilt, and remorse for genuinely wicked things we do on this side of death and resurrection? After all, in final judgment, we’ll understand perfectly the ways in which we’ve harmed others. Unless God is able to heal and redeem our memories, how will we live with ourselves?

There’s no one who hasn’t done genuinely wicked things, is there? It’s not just me, right?

I’m in a small group at church that is reading and discussing C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce (a book I had not previously read). Yesterday, I read this passage from the book, spoken by heavenly citizen George MacDonald to the narrator. While we can’t explain how God redeems our past—as MacDonald says, we only have “some likeness” of eternity in our present state—the redeemed in heaven will surely experience their past something like this:

‘Son,’ he said, ‘ye cannot in your present state understand eternity: when Anodos looked through the door of the Timeless he brought no message back. But ye can get some likeness of it if ye say that both good and evil, when they are full grown, become retrospective. Not only this valley but all their earthly past will have been Heaven to those who are saved. Not only the twilight in that town, but all their life on Earth too, will then be seen by the damned to have been Hell. That is what mortals misunderstand. They say of some temporal suffering, “No future bliss can make up for it,” not knowing that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory. And of some sinful pleasure they say “let me have but this and I’ll take the consequences”: little dreaming how damnation will spread back and back into their past and contaminate the pleasure of the sin. Both processes begin even before death. The good man’s past begins to change so that his forgiven sins and remembered sorrows take on the quality of Heaven: the bad man’s past already conforms to his badness and is filled only with dreariness. And that is why, at the end of all things, when the sun rises here and the twilight turns to blackness down there, the Blessed will say “We have never lived anywhere except in Heaven,” and the Lost, “We were always in Hell.” And both will speak truly.’[†]

And MacDonald is right: the process begins before death. Even now, I can see how my suffering—which I’ve mostly brought on myself—has shaped me for the better. If events had happened any other way, I would be someone else. And I mostly like who I am—and who I’m becoming.

While I can’t say I don’t feel guilt for the ways in which I’ve hurt others, I also can’t say that I’m not grateful in many cases for the ways in which others have hurt me—because look how God has transformed these experiences for my good!

C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (New York: HarperOne, 1946), 69.

Heaven is like sex, only better

May 6, 2014

One of the premises of my mainline Protestant seminary education was that focusing too much on heaven is unseemly. My Christian ethics professor—an otherwise wise, compassionate, and deeply Christian man—said that he was unwilling to give heaven much thought for fear that it would become a bribe for virtuous living. Other professors, I suspect, thought heaven-talk would distract us from the kingdom work in which we ought to busy ourselves—the promise of heaven is the “opiate of the masses” and all that. And probably a couple of profs didn’t believe in it at all, except as a metaphor for something of this world.

Even at that time in my life, when I was questioning everything I was supposed to believe, I was always more traditional-minded on heaven than I should have been, given how little authority I otherwise invested in God’s Word.

Now, however, along with Paul, I say, “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable.” I think heaven—or, more properly, resurrection—should be near the center of our lives and imaginations.

The problem is that our imagination isn’t up to the task—as any number of pop-culture depictions of heaven make clear. C.S. Lewis, as always, helps us here:

The letter and spirit of scripture, and of all Christianity, forbid us to suppose that life in the New Creation will be a sexual life; and this reduces our imagination to the withering alternatives either of bodies which are hardly recognisable as human bodies at all or else of a perpetual fast. As regards the fast, I think our present outlook might be like that of a small boy who, on being told that the sexual act was the highest bodily pleasure, should immediately ask whether you ate chocolates at the same time. On receiving the answer “No,” he might regard absence of chocolates as the chief characteristic of sexuality. In vain would you tell him that the reason why lovers in their carnal raptures don’t bother about chocolates is that they have something better to think of. The boy knows chocolate: he does not know the positive thing which excludes it. We are in the same position. We know the sexual life; we do not know, except in glimpses, the other thing which, in Heaven, will leave no room for it. Hence where fullness awaits us we anticipate fasting. In denying that sexual life, as we now understand it, makes any part of the final beatitude, it is not of course necessary to suppose that the distinction of sexes will disappear. What is no longer needed for biological purposes may be expected to survive for splendour. Sexuality is the instrument both of virginity and of conjugal virtue; neither men nor women will be asked to throw away the weapon they have used victoriously. It is the beaten and the fugitives who throw away their swords. The conquerors sheathe theirs and retain them.[1]

Perfect: “In vain would you tell him that the reason why lovers in their carnal raptures don’t bother about chocolates is that they have something better to think of. The boy knows chocolate: he does not know the positive thing which excludes it.”

Similarly, Tim Keller picks up the same theme when discussing sex in his book on marriage. “Sex between a man and a woman points to the love between the Father and the Son (1 Corinthians 11:3). It is a reflection of the joyous self-giving and pleasure of love within the very life of the triune God.[2] He continues:

Sex is glorious not only because it reflects the joy of the Trinity but also because it points to the eternal delight of soul that we will have in heaven, in our loving relationships with God and one another. Romans 7:off tells us that he best marriages are pointers to the deep, infinitely fulfilling, and final union we will have with Christ in love.

No wonder, as some have said, that sex between a man and a woman can be a sort of embodied out-of-body experience. It’s the most ecstatic, breathtaking, daring, scarcely-to-be-imagined look at the glory that is our future.[3]

I thought of both of these passages in relation to the sexual temptations that we often face. What we desire above all else is union with God. This good desire gets misdirected toward a desire for union with someone—or often an image of someone, on-screen or in our imaginations.

So, when tempted, we might tell ourselves, “What I really want can only be satisfied by God. And if I persist in faith and holiness—in part by resisting temptations like these—I can be confident that in heaven it will be.”

1. C.S. Lewis, Miracles (New York: HarperOne, 1996), 260-1.

2. Timothy Keller with Kathy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage (New York: Dutton, 2011), 235.

3. Ibid., 236.

Our future isn’t guaranteed, at least in this world

May 2, 2014

The following piece of wisdom comes from The C.S. Lewis Bible and is directed at the scripture I preached on last week: James 4:13-17. But it can as easily apply to this week’s scripture, James 5:1-6, which takes aim at materialistic Christians. Like the proverbial stone gathering moss, our “riches have rotted” and our “gold and silver have rusted” from the lack of use. If we were busy putting our wealth to use for God’s kingdom, it wouldn’t have time to corrode.

A common problem between last week’s scripture and this week’s is that we take for granted that we have a future on this earth. We don’t. Just as we plan for (and worry about) a future that isn’t guaranteed and may never arrive, we buy and hoard for the same reasons. We forget about eternity. We forget about God.

Never, in peace or war, commit your virtue or your happiness to the future. Happy work is best done by the man who takes his long-term plans somewhat lightly and works from moment to moment “as to the Lord.” It is only our daily bread that we are encouraged to ask for. The present is the only time in which any duty can be done or any grace received.[†]

When I think of the things I’d like to possess right now—even small things, like an overpriced record at Record Store Day or a new book—I often wouldn’t enjoy them right away, even if I did possess them. After all, I have a few other books to read first. I haven’t finished sorting through that last box of records someone gave me. Yet I still feel this burning desire to possess them now. Such is the sickness of materialism.

C.S. Lewis, “Living in the Present” in The C.S. Lewis Bible, NRSV (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 1399.

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