Archive for April, 2014

My eyes are dry

April 30, 2014

I heard a testimony last night at our United Methodist Men’s Club meeting from a successful local small-business owner who spends his wealth and risks his freedom—if not his very life—working to spread the gospel in China.

He described a recent experience he had at a house church in China. He was teaching Paul’s letter to the Philippians to a group of young Christians who were hungry to hear God’s Word. When he finished teaching, he said that dozens of these Christians asked him to pray with them. It made him uncomfortable, he said, because of course he didn’t have any greater access to our heavenly Father than they did. But he knelt with each person and prayed.

In each case, he said, they asked him to pray for family and friends who hadn’t yet received Christ as Savior and Lord. As they knelt on the floor and prayed, tears ran down their cheeks, falling on the floor between them. He said he felt convicted because his eyes were dry. Why were his eyes dry? he wondered.

This part-time missionary said that he has received far more from the Chinese than he has given them. And the most important gift they’ve given him is what they’ve taught him about prayer. They have a greater passion for prayer. They pray with greater urgency for the salvation of the lost.

In my better moments as a pastor, I really want lost people to be saved. Even more than I want my numbers to look good. Even more than I want to look cool. Even more than I want the praise and admiration of my parishioners, my clergy colleagues, my district superintendent, and my bishop.

But, God help me, even in my better moments, my eyes are dry.

Almighty God, break my heart with a burden for the lost. Amen.

No Jesus other than the one revealed in scripture

April 29, 2014

Recently, someone asked me in a text message what I thought of this Holy Week-themed blog post about atonement from Brian Zahnd, a pastor and author from Missouri. “So let’s be clear,” Zahnd writes, “the cross is not about the appeasement of a monster god.” As I texted to my friend:

Oh good! I’m glad he clarified that. Because didn’t you think that’s what the cross was about?… This is a straw-man argument. Put forward the worst caricature of substitutionary atonement and then tear it apart. “Well, yes,” I would tell him, “If this were what God’s wrath looks like, then I agree that [penal substitution is] horrible.”

I write these strong words as someone who once censored a praise-and-worship song that the band performed years ago. It included this couplet (from memory): “You died upon that tree/ You killed your Son for me.” I explained at the time that this song was wrong on two counts: The first problem is a nitpicky liturgical mistake: the song addresses Jesus in the first line, and then it addresses the Father in the second. We’re supposed to be consistent throughout our prayers and songs.

The second problem, however, relates to the same thing that Zahnd criticizes: that it’s not theologically appropriate, even among those of us who endorse penal substitution as the primary understanding of atonement, to say that the Father killed the Son.

No: the Romans and the religious authorities—who represent all of us sinful humans—killed the Son. And the Son, who wants what the Father wants—namely, to reconcile sinful humanity to God—offers himself as propitiation for our sins. (Yeah, that’s right… I said propitiation! To say that Jesus was a propitiation for sin is fighting words among many revisionist-minded mainline Protestants.) I wholeheartedly endorse the words of this 19th century Anglican commentator, James Denney, whom N.T. Wright quotes with appreciation in an essay he wrote about penal substitution:

God is love, say [some], and therefore he does not require a propitiation. God is love, say the Apostles, and therefore he provides a propitiation. Which of these doctrines appeals best to the conscience? Which of them gives reality, and contents, and substance, to the love of God? Is it not the apostolic doctrine? Does not the other cut out and cast away that very thing which made the soul of God’s love to Paul and John?… Nobody has any right to borrow the words ‘God is love’ from an apostle, and then to put them in circulation after carefully emptying them of their apostolic import… But this is what they do who appeal to love against propitiation. To take the condemnation out of the Cross is to take the nerve out of the Gospel… Its whole virtue, its consistency with God’s character, its aptness to man’s need, its real dimensions as a revelation of love, depend ultimately on this, that mercy comes to us in it through judgment. (James Denney, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, Expositor’s Bible, Hodder, 1894, p. 221f.)

Regardless, Zahnd doesn’t write as if he’s aware that penal substitution could mean anything other than a vindictive “monster god” murdering his son in order to be appeased. I suppose this was the version of substitutionary atonement he learned and taught when he was evangelical? Who knows…

But it causes me to wonder: Are there really so many disaffected former evangelicals nursing wounds from their upbringing? They’re all over the place these days! Rob Bell and Brian McLaren are a couple of famous examples… Donald Miller… Rachel Held Evans… In fact, her blog—seemingly her entire writing career—is devoted to the subject of being hurt and angry about the conservative evangelicalism she endured as a child.

Aren’t there any happy evangelicals out there?

Well, of course there are. As someone who has moved in the opposite theological direction—from the liberal mainline Protestantism to conservative evangelicalism—it’s funny how differently I see problems within American Christendom than these ex-evangelicals!

My recommendation to my disaffected evangelical brethren is to stop being so American and start reading British evangelicals—most of whom are or were found within the Church of England. Some examples I know of: the late John Stott, N.T. Wright, Alister McGrath, Michael Green, John Goldingay, and C.S. Lewis (of course). These are Christian intellectuals who faced exile within a post-Christian culture long before we Americans did, who’ve already reasoned their way through the tough questions, and emerged on the other side with their strong commitment to the authority of scripture intact.

These are my role-models.

I only just heard of Brian Zahnd a few months ago, when someone quoted this statement from him:

God is like Jesus.
God has always been like Jesus.
There has never been a time when God was not like Jesus.
We have not always known what God is like—
But now we do.

The first few sentences are great: “God is like Jesus. God has always been like Jesus. There has never been a time when God was not like Jesus.” But what about the last part? By all means, our understanding of God is made complete by the Incarnation, but Jesus himself doesn’t reveal anything about God that contradicts the God who is revealed in the Old Testament. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” Jesus (and the whole New Testament) teaches us to read the Old Testament in light of his revelation, but when we do, we find that it’s very consistent.

Moreover, there are plenty of red-letter words in the Bible about judgment, hell, and God’s wrath, too. It’s as if Jesus went around saying, “Your sins are forgiven,” without adding, “Go and sin no more.”

Just as there’s no God other than the one revealed in Jesus, there’s no Jesus other than the one revealed in scripture.

Not quite as pithy as what Zahnd writes I know… but still true.

Over at the Gospel Coalition, Matt Smethurst blogs about the danger of reading Jesus’ red-letter words as somehow more authoritative than the New Testament’s black-letter words. He writes:

Another related mistake is the popular tendency to imply that since Jesus is the Word of God, Scripture must be something else. But once again this is a false dilemma. The Bible tells us that Jesus is God’s Word (e.g., John 1:1-2Heb. 1:1-2Rev. 19:13and that it is God’s Word (e.g., John 10:35Acts 17:11Heb. 4:1213:7). The urge to wrest an “either/or” out of a “both/and” smells more of Enlightenment rationalism than biblical Christianity. What God has joined together, let no man separate.

As Kevin DeYoung observes:

God’s gracious self-disclosure comes to us through the Word made flesh and by the inscripurated Word of God. These two modes of revelation reveal to us one God, one truth, one way, and one coherent set of promises, threats, and commands to live by. We must not seek to know the Word who is divine apart from the divine words of the Bible, and we ought not read the words of the Bible without an eye to the Word incarnate. When it comes to seeing God and his truth in Christ and in holy Scripture, one is not more reliable, more trustworthy, or more relevant than the other. Scripture, because it is the breathed-out Word of God, possesses the same authority as the God-man Jesus Christ.

Diminishing the integrity of the Word inscripturate in the name of upholding the integrity of the Word incarnate is, ironically enough, the quickest way to domesticate and diminish him.

“Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?”

April 28, 2014

Yesterday, I preached my first full sermon on the theme of God’s sovereignty. I talked about how God is in control of our world, and then I talked about what it means for our lives. One thing it means, I said, is that we are no longer allowed to worry. I realize that for some of us, that’s like saying, “You’re no longer allowed to breathe”—because worry is so integral to our lives.

As I said, we mostly worry about worst-case scenarios that will never come to pass. I used the following graphic, from the excellent Art of Manliness website, to illustrate this point—in a humorous way. (Click to expand.)

zip_ties

I promise, I almost want someone to abduct me so I can see if these suggestions really work!

But I’ll probably never be held captive with zip ties. I’ll likely never fall through the ice while ice-fishing. I’ll probably never get stuck in quicksand. And it just goes to show that the vast majority of things we worry about don’t come to pass. The worst case scenario won’t happen. And all we’ve done is worry needlessly. Or… say the worst-case scenario does happen, and we truly have something to worry about, then—because of all that advance worrying—we’ll have just worried twice as much as we needed to! So, if you have to worry, just worry when it actually happens!

Better yet, let’s not worry at all.

Anyway, I need to share this graphic here—in part because I could tell that my congregation was unusually interested in learning how to escape from being bound with zip ties!

Oscar Smith at Hampton UMC’s sunrise service

April 24, 2014

sunrise_service

I enjoyed Holy Week and Easter at Hampton UMC more than any other Holy Week or Easter I’ve experienced—as either a pastor or layperson. It was very gratifying. The Lord blessed me deeply. Below will give you a small sample of the experience. Hampton United Methodist Church’s worship leader, Oscar Smith, is performing Chris Tomlin’s “Jesus, Son of God” at our Easter sunrise service.

Planting our foot on God’s word, especially when we disagree with it

April 23, 2014

charlotte_bigLaws and principles are not for the time when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigour; stringent are they; inviolate they shall be. If at my individual convenience I might break them, what would be their worth? They have a worth—so I have always believed; and if I cannot believe it now, it is because I am insane—quite insane: with my veins running fire, and my heart beating faster than I can count its throbs. Preconceived opinions, foregone determinations, are all I have at this hour to stand by: there I plant my foot.”

I did.[1]

So thinks Jane Eyre, as she experiences the temptation to become Mr. Rochester’s mistress. Rochester’s wife has gone insane; he is effectively a widower. Who would blame Jane for giving herself to a man whose own wife is incapable of doing so? “Think of his misery,” Jane tells herself.

I haven’t read Jane Eyre, although I notice this same conflict was recycled for Downton Abbey the past couple of seasons. Lady Edith made the opposite choice from Jane—and we the viewers were sympathetic with her. But…

Jane is the one we rightly admire. She obeys these God-given laws and principles even in the face of their most severe testing.

Timothy Keller uses Jane’s temptation in the chapter “Sex and Marriage” from his book The Meaning of Marriage.

But see how she actually does resist. She does not look into her heart for strength—there’s nothing there but clamorous conflict. She ignores what her heart says and looks to what God says. The moral laws of God at that very moment made no sense to her heart and mind at all. They did not appear reasonable, and they did not appear fair. But, she says, if she could break them when they appear inconvenient to her, of what would be their worth? If you only obey God’s word when it seems reasonable or profitable to you—well, that isn’t really obedience at all. Obedience means you cede someone an authority over you that is there even when you don’t agree with him. God’s law is for times of temptation, when “body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigour.”

On God’s Word then, not her feelings and passions, she plants her foot. I’ve never seen anywhere a more clear or eloquent example of what a Christian single person’s inner dialogue should be with regard to temptation. Learn how to plant your foot.[2]

I would only add that Jane’s inner dialogue can assist us as we face all varieties of sexual temptation: sex outside of marriage, adultery, illicit divorce, internet pornography, lust, and masturbation… You name it. In the moment of temptation, as Jane understands, we can easily justify our behavior. We can think of counterarguments against God’s word. As a general rule, of course, this law seems just, but in this particular instance…

But why do we justify it in this particular instance? Because we’re “insane—quite insane.”

1. Charlotte Brontë in Timothy Keller with Kathy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage (New York: Dutton, 2011), 230.

2. Timothy Keller with Kathy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage (New York: Dutton, 2011), 231.

Bart Ehrman’s bad arguments

April 22, 2014

I spent about fifteen minutes of my sermon on Sunday reviewing some evidence for believing in the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. While I could have said much more, for my purposes it’s enough to know that plenty of scholars have said much more, and that what I did say was backed up by good scholarship.

My purpose wasn’t to “prove” the resurrection—we can’t prove it any more than we can prove that Caesar crossed the Rubicon or other events of ancient history that we take for granted. Rather, I wanted to remind and encourage Christians that the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ rests on solid historical evidence.

The best reason, I suppose, for not believing in the resurrection event to which the evidence points is that of course resurrections aren’t the kind of things that happen. And how do skeptics know that resurrections don’t happen? Because of the lack of evidence, they would say. Except in the case of Jesus we have evidence, right? And the resurrection has only happened once. So there’s some circularity to their argument.

Regardless, if we Christian pastors never engage in apologetics, who will? There are fine apologists out there, but these scholars don’t make the cover of Time or Newsweek, nor do they have columns in the Huffington Post, nor are they usually interviewed on cable or network talk shows.

Leave that sort of notoriety to skeptical scholars like Bart Ehrman. He has a new book out, How Jesus Became God. To the credit of his publisher (thank you, Rupert Murdoch?), HarperCollins has also simultaneously published a Christian response, How God Became Jesus, by a team of evangelical scholars.

You can get a sense of the Ehrman book from this Huffington Post column by Ehrman. Before I criticize it, let’s appreciate what Ehrman, a former fundamentalist Christian-turned-agnostic, is willing to concede. He says that as he was researching his book he was surprised that, contrary to what he previously believed, the disciples of Jesus believed that Jesus was God from the time they became convinced he was resurrected. In other words, he doesn’t think that the belief that Jesus was God emerged decades after Jesus’ death.

And by believing this, Ehrman rules out at least three competing theories: the “pious legend” theory—that the resurrection idea emerged long after Jesus’ death; the conspiracy theory—that the original disciples knew that Jesus hadn’t been resurrected, but they invented the story; and the “swoon theory”—that Jesus only appeared to die on the cross, regained consciousness after burial, and emerged from the tomb.

As a critique of what he does believe, there’s much to be said, and I’m sure that the evangelicals scholars who wrote their book-length response cover it nicely. Nevertheless, I’d like to respond to the last few paragraphs of his column, in which he writes the following:

The followers of Jesus came to think he had been raised because some of them (probably not all of them) had visions of him afterwards. Both Christian and non-Christian historians can agree that it was visions of Jesus that made some of Jesus’ followers convinced that he was no longer dead. Christians would say that the disciples had these visions because Jesus really appeared to them. Non-Christians would say that (several of ) the disciples had hallucinations. Hallucinations happen all the time. Especially of deceased loved ones (your grandmother who turns up in your bedroom) and of significant religious figures (the Blessed Virgin Mary, who appears regularly in extraordinarily well-documented events). Jesus was both a lost loved one and an important religious leader. As bereaved, heartbroken, and guilt-ridden followers, the disciples were prime candidates for such visionary experiences.

Once the disciples claimed Jesus was alive again but was (obviously) no longer here with them, they came to think that he had been taken up to heaven (where else could he be?). In ancient Greek, Roman, and Jewish thinking, a person exalted to the heavenly realm was divinized – himself made divine. That’s what the earliest Christians thought about Jesus. After that a set of evolutionary forces took over, in which the followers of Jesus began saying more and more exalted things about him – that he had been made the son of God at his resurrection; no, it was at his baptism; no, it was at his birth; no, it was before he came into the world; no – he had never been made the son of God, he had always been the Son of God; in fact, he had always been God; more than that, he had created the world; and yet more, he was an eternal being equal with God Almighty.

It’s a fascinating set of developments. It is highly important. And it matters not just for those who believe that the followers of Jesus got it right, but for anyone who cares about the factors that shaped the world we live in today.

Ehrman writes: “Both Christian and non-Christian historians can agree that it was visions of Jesus that made some of Jesus’ followers convinced that he was no longer dead. Christians would say that the disciples had these visions because Jesus really appeared to them.” (My responses are indented.)

Not quite: Christians would say that the disciples experienced not merely “visions,” but a fully embodied person. The Gospels go out of their way to portray that Jesus is a physical being, capable of eating and drinking, touching and being touched.

Why am I being picky? Because there are plenty of words to describe an immaterial “vision” of Jesus. These eyewitnesses didn’t use those words. They said that Jesus had been resurrected, which has a very specific, physical meaning within a Jewish context. And as I argued in my sermon on Sunday, nothing would tempt pious Jews such as the Twelve disciples, James the half-brother of Jesus, and the apostle Paul to apply the word “resurrection” to what they had experienced unless they were convinced that Jesus had appeared to them physically.

Also, as I said on Sunday, Jesus also appeared to groups of disciples, as one resurrection eyewitness, St. Paul, says in 1 Corinthians 15. People don’t experience hallucinations of the exact same thing at the same time. Paul could have been wrong, of course, but he does challenge skeptics to prove him wrong by saying that most of these “more than 500” eyewitnesses are still alive. He was convinced that there were hundreds of people who, like him, could back up his story. Was Paul mistaken? Did these hundreds of people not exist? Or were they also completely wrong about experiencing the resurrected Lord?

“Hallucinations happen all the time,” Ehrman writes. “Especially of deceased loved ones (your grandmother who turns up in your bedroom) and of significant religious figures (the Blessed Virgin Mary, who appears regularly in extraordinarily well-documented events).”

If hallucinations “happen all the time,” they probably happened “all the time” back in Jesus’ day, too. Yet people rarely claimed that these hallucinations meant their loved ones had returned from the dead. Isn’t it likely that before these apostles went around the Roman Empire suffering persecution, torture, and death, they would be convinced that Jesus’ resurrection was something very different from any old hallucination—which, as Ehrman says, happens all the time? They would also know the difference between a spiritual experience of the Lord versus the physical experience that they claimed.

Or think of it like this: When your deceased grandmother “turns up in your bedroom,” do you therefore believe that she’s no longer dead? Do you believe not that she’s a figment of you imagination or even a real ghost, but a living, breathing person who has risen from the dead? Does this “hallucination” convince you to drop whatever else you’re doing and tell everyone that your grandmother is no longer dead? Are you so convinced that she’s come back to life that you’re willing to die for that belief?

Do Catholics who believe they’ve seen the Blessed Virgin Mary believe that they’ve seen her as a fully embodied person, every bit as alive on this earth as any other living person? Based on what I know, they believe they’ve had a spiritual experience—through weeping or talking statues or paintings, etc.

“Jesus was both a lost loved one and an important religious leader. As bereaved, heartbroken, and guilt-ridden followers, the disciples were prime candidates for such visionary experiences.”

As I said in my sermon, there were dozens of documented would-be messiahs in first-century Palestine. Why did none of these other “bereaved, heartbroken, and guilt-ridden followers” claim that their leader had been resurrected? Were they not also “prime candidates” for such “visionary experiences”?

“In ancient Greek, Roman, and Jewish thinking, a person exalted to the heavenly realm was divinized – himself made divine. That’s what the earliest Christians thought about Jesus.”

Well, no… Ancient Jews never claimed that Enoch or Elijah were God! Is Ehrman just being sloppy with words? The whole point of his book is to say that Christians believed something radically different about Jesus. Jesus’ disciples were ancient Jews. While they believed that Enoch and Elijah had been taken up into heaven before death, they clearly thought something very different happened to Jesus.

Greeks and Romans believed that some people had been “exalted to the heavenly realm,” but they never believed that they had first been resurrected! Again, resurrection has a very specific meaning: it implies that someone returns to life in a bodily form—not as a ghost or vision or anything else. Greeks and Romans in general found the idea of resurrection offensive: the body was a prison from which the soul longed to escape. Read Acts 17:22-33. In Paul’s presentation of the gospel, when do things go badly? When he mentions the resurrection! Being exalted to the heavenly realm was just fine in Greco-Roman thought. Resurrection, by contrast, was offensive.

Bart Ehrman has appeared on The Colbert Report at least a couple of times. Colbert’s responses to Ehrman’s skepticism are perfect.

Colbert-Report-Bart-Ehrman-Stephen-Colbert

 

Sermon 04-20-14: “For He Has Risen”

April 21, 2014
Here's an actual tomb with a rolling stone next to the entrance. I took this photo on the side of a highway in Galilee.

Here’s an actual tomb with a rolling stone next to the entrance. I took this photo on the side of a highway in Galilee.

Sermon Text: Matthew 28:1-20

As this sermon shows, the resurrection of Jesus Christ rests on a solid historical foundation. But what does it mean for for our lives and world? 

The following is my original sermon manuscript with footnotes.

In the early morning hours of December 3, 1999—it was around 4:00 a.m.—I was awake, studying all night for a “radio frequency”engineering exam at Georgia Tech the next morning. I was downstairs in the living room. My wife, Lisa, who was eight months pregnant, was upstairs asleep, or so I thought. Then I heard her footsteps upstairs. I could tell she was moving around quickly. Something was up. She came down and told me that her water broke. “We have to go to the hospital,”she said.

I had been nervously anticipating this moment for months, and it was exciting, although one of my first thoughts upon hearing Lisa’s news was, “Why couldn’t you have told me this before I stayed up all night studying for this test?!”

Listen: I don’t remember a single thing about that engineering exam, which I took a few days later. But I’ll never forget many specific details related to the birth of my first-born child. The entire experience was pure joy for me. Lisa might disagree about the experience being pure joy—she was a little busier than me, after all. But it was also an event that changed my world; it was an event that loudly announced to me: “Brent, your life—your world—will never be the same.”

And so it is with the events associated with Easter morning that are described in today’s scripture. Because of Easter, our lives and our world would never be the same. Read the rest of this entry »

Good Friday 2014 sermon: “What’s So Good About Good Friday?”

April 21, 2014
Possible location of Golgotha, "the Place of the Skull," where Jesus was crucified.

Possible location of Golgotha, “the Place of the Skull,” where Jesus was crucified. The Garden Tomb, Jerusalem.

Sermon Text: Matthew 27:11-56

I delivered this sermon at Hampton United Methodist Church in Hampton, Georgia, on Good Friday evening, April 18, 2014. The following is my original sermon manuscript.

Some of you have watched the show How I Met Your Mother. The series just recently ended, but a regular guest star during this final season was an actor named William Zabka, who was playing himself on the show. You probably don’t know his name. But if you’re around my age or my generation, you have certainly seen him in the movies before—or at least you’ve seen him in one particular movie, The Karate Kid. The Karate Kid was a Rocky-like movie of an underdog weakling named Daniel, played by Ralph Macchio, who ends up winning a martial arts competition against the school bully, a karate champion named Johnny Lawrence, played by Zabka.

Johnny, played by William Zabka, threatens Ralph Macchio's character in The Karate Kid.

Johnny, played by William Zabka, threatens Ralph Macchio’s character in The Karate Kid.

Zabka’s character, of course, was the villain of The Karate Kid. Everyone knows that…Everyone except Barney, the character on How I Met Your Mother played by Neal Patrick Harris. To his friends’amazement and disbelief, Barney actually thought that Zabka’s character was the real hero of The Karate Kid. So Barney’s friends arranged to have Zabka the actor meet Barney, and that’s why he was on the show.

My point is, you have to really turn things upside down in order to see Johnny Lawrence as the “good guy”of The Karate Kid. You have to have the ability to see the good in the midst of something—or someonethat everyone sees as bad.

And in my mind, that’s the challenge we all face when it comes to this holiday we call Good Friday. I guess for some people—people who don’t even necessarily practice the Christian faith—Good Friday might be good because it means a day off work—or whatever. But, assuming the Church wasn’t being ironic when they named this day Good Friday, there must be something “good”at the heart of this holy day, right? Read the rest of this entry »

Sermon 04-13-14: “Your King Is Coming to You”

April 21, 2014
This church, the Sanctuary of Bethphage in Jerusalem, commemorates Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem

This church, the Sanctuary of Bethphage in Jerusalem, commemorates Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem

In his “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem on the first day of Holy Week, Jesus announces that he is Israel’s true Messiah and the world’s Savior. The people were shouting for Jesus to save them, but the kind of salvation Jesus offered was profoundly different from what the people expected. How are we like the people in these crowds?

Sermon Text: Matthew 21:1-11

The following is my original sermon manuscript with footnotes.

As you probably heard, Wilton Gregory, the Catholic Archbishop of Atlanta, has gotten some bad press recently—and not just locally but nationally. Recently he directed the church to spend $2.2 million to purchase and renovate a home—his parsonage—in Buckhead. In fairness, the archbishop’s cathedral is in Buckhead, where real estate is very expensive; and he would also be using the house to host church-related events. But his parishioners complained that it was too much—especially considering so many church members can’t make ends meet. And Pope Francis, who himself moved out of his lavish Vatican residence to live in the much more modest guest quarters, has made it clear to his clergy that he expects them to follow his example—and avoid showy, ostentatious displays like spending millions on a posh residence. Be humble and modest, the pope says.

Clergy ought to be humble—like Jesus. And Jesus was perfectly humble. “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”[1] And we see him humbly serving the poor, the sick, women—who were considered second-class citizens at the time—and social outcasts—like tax collectors and prostitutes. While his own disciples wanted to shoo children away, he welcomed them. Before the Last Supper, he washed his own disciples’feet, which was normally the duty of a slave. He didn’t worry about how doing these things made him look. He didn’t care what other people thought of him. He came not to be served but to serve. Jesus was the greatest leader the world has ever known—he had a forceful and compelling personality—but there was also a sweetness about his spirit—he was perfectly gentle and kind. He was humble. Read the rest of this entry »

Heaven is for real, but so is resurrection

April 21, 2014

I guess “Resurrection Is for Real” would have made a great sermon title yesterday! Missed opportunity!

In this short critique of the new movie adaptation of the book Heaven Is for Real, theologian Roger Olson puts his finger on the main problem that I had with the book. Even though its author is a Wesleyan pastor who has received theological training, he writes as if the “intermediate state”—where souls go immediately upon death—is identically equal with the New Testament’s vision of future resurrection.

“Heaven” is a two-stage process. As N.T. Wright has said many times, our Christian hope isn’t for life after death, but life after life after death. When I read the book, I was disappointed that Todd Burpo said nothing about the difference between these two stages.

So here comes my main critique of the book and movie. I believe in the “intermediate state”—the technical theological term for conscious life after death before resurrection. But I fear the book and movie will reinforce the popular idea that the intermediate state is actually the fullness of heaven (and therefore not an intermediate state!). It isn’t. In fact, we are told very little about it in Scripture. Jesus called it (for the saved) “Paradise.” Paul referred to it as the “third heaven.” But Jesus told his disciples he would go away and prepare a place for them, then return and take them there—to his “Father’s house” with many rooms. So the fullness of heaven is after Christ returns. The “blessed hope” of believers in Christ has always been not the intermediate state, a bodiless existence of being with Christ, but the resurrection and the new heaven and new earth—liberated from bondage to decay (Romans 8).

The book and movie force us to think about this issue. Do we have to choose between the Bible’s revelation of personal eschatology (intermediate state then resurrection and heaven) and personal experiences of life after death?

As fascinating, inspiring and emotionally titillating as Colton Burpo’s experience was, we must not allow it or any other such testimony to become the basis of Christian belief. Our belief is based on Christ and his resurrection and on the Scriptural witness to him and to God’s plan for us. As Reinhold Niebuhr said, “We should not want to know too much about the furniture of heaven or the temperature of hell.” The key is “too much.” We can only “know” (believe) what Scripture says about life after death before the resurrection and that’s not much.