Heaven is (at Least) as Important as Noah

After the firestorm surrounding the Noah film, I’ve been surprised to see no online discussion about the upcoming film version of Heaven is for Real. Is it possible that people care more about the Noah story than they do about heaven? It seems to me that our eternal destiny is more important than whether or not rock people helped Noah build the ark.

I haven’t seen Heaven is for Real, but I have read the book. I’m guessing that, like Noah, the upcoming film will have its strengths and weaknesses. I’m going to suggest one of each, just as I did for NoahKeep in mind that my thoughts are based on the book, so it’s possible the movie could move in a different direction altogether.

One strength of the book is its clear testimony to the biblical idea that death is not the end of life for those who trust in Christ (e.g. Phil 1:22-23; Luke 16:19-31). That’s why the story has generated hope for so many people. The book also affirms the deep love that Jesus has for children, something we adults often forget or minimize (Matthew 19:13-15).

One weakness is that the book minimized (or omitted) the reality of future, bodily resurrection. In other words, our ultimate hope as Christians is not a disembodied existence, floating around like angels with wings. Instead, we look forward to a new body on a new earth (1 Corinthians 15:35-49). The intermediate state, where our souls are separated from our bodies after death, is called “nakedness” by the Apostle Paul (2 Corinthians 5:3). Everybody knows that it’s not OK to be naked all the time! Instead, we seek to be clothed with an eternal, resurrected body. That won’t happen fully until Jesus returns and we rise from the grave. Heaven is for Real focuses exclusively on the intermediate state and places all of our hope there, rather than pointing us ahead to the final resurrection.

Here’s what I’m recommending for those who want to see Heaven is for Real: Spend as much time comparing it to the Bible as you did with Noah. Don’t assume that because the book issued from a Christian publisher that every concept in the movie is biblically accurate.

I’m not suggesting that we cynically doubt the Burpos’ claims. I’ve no reason to believe they are lying or making up their story. On the other hand, this movie (like Noah) is a great opportunity to revisit what the Bible says about heaven and hell and death and resurrection. Go to the movie with an open but critical mind. (By critical, I don’t mean “negative,” but thoughtful).

Ask questions like these: 

-Does this movie accurately reflect the Bible’s testimony about heaven? Why or why not?

-How do we reconcile this story with passages like Luke 16:19-31, in which Jesus says that Scripture itself ought to be sufficient testimony for us to believe in heaven?

-How can we appropriately discuss this movie and its story with our non-Christian friends and neighbors? Should we whole-heartedly endorse its picture of heaven, or should we be cautious?

As with any media, take this story back to the Bible and consider its claims in light of God’s Word.

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Book Review: Erasing Hell by Francis Chan

Erasing Hell is Francis Chan’s response to Rob Bell’s controversial bestseller Love Wins. Perhaps the most impressive thing about the book is how quickly it was written and released — it appeared on Amazon less than four months after the release of Love Wins.

Chan co-authored this book with Preston Sprinkle, a Bible professor at Eternity Bible College in California, and a staff member from Chan’s former church. The book is Chan’s attempt to answer Bell’s theology in a readable yet well-researched manner.

SUMMARY:

Chan begins by addressing the concept of universalism, the belief that everybody goes to heaven eventually. He surveys the “all” passages of Scripture, those that seem to teach universalism. Using the helpful distinction between God’s moral will and His decreed will, Chan argues that these “all” passages cannot literally mean that everybody goes to heaven, especially when compared with other passages that indicate otherwise.

He then moves to a short discussion of Jewish concepts of hell in the first century. He makes a convincing case that the ancient Jews viewed hell as a place of eternal, everlasting torment. It’s often described in their literature using images of fire and darkness, just as it is in the teachings of Jesus. Chan also debunks Bell’s argument that “Gehenna,” or “hell,” simply refers to a garbage dump in the ancient world. Instead, Chan states that there is no solid evidence of such a garbage dump until hundreds of years after the time of Christ. Not only that, but even if the Valley of Hinnom was helpful in describing hell, it doesn’t mean that it literally was hell. It was more likely a useful metaphor.

Chan wraps up his initial discussion on the topic of hell by examining the words of Jesus and His disciples throughout the New Testament. He argues that the Bible’s view of hell is that it is a place of eternal and never-ending torment for those who don’t know God.

After a short chapter on how hell should impact the life of a believer, Chan dives into the issue of God’s fairness. Using Romans 9 as his key text, he states that our aversion to hell is really due to a misunderstanding of God’s character. If God is powerful and good and holy, we can’t dictate how He ought to operate, even when it seems distasteful to us.

The final chapter is an encouragement not to be overwhelmed, but to worship God and praise Him for the grace He provided through Jesus.

EVALUATION:

I found Chan’s discussion of the nature of hell itself to be helpful and compelling. He does a great job of carefully, directly, and humbly answering the arguments raised in Bell’s book. For example, he deals at some length with the Greek word kolazo, and argues that it refers to punishment in Matthew 25:46 rather than to mere correction. This discussion has the potential to become heady and unreadable, but Chan makes it clear and understandable. It’s just one example of the gentle and clear tone of the book as a whole.

The weak point of the book comes in Chapter 5, when Chan talks about the relationship of hell to the Christian. Unfortunately, the careful exegesis he uses in the first four chapters takes a back seat to Chan’s Calvinistic theology. He tries to make the case that Christians can go to hell for things like racism, insulting other people, and failing to give money to the poor. The problem is that he interprets several passages out of context. One example is how he turns Matthew 8 into a general discussion of racism, when in reality it’s a discussion of how one’s heart toward God is more important than Jewish identity. It’s not that the Bible doesn’t address racism; it’s just that it’s a major stretch to conclude from this passage that racists go to hell even if they’ve believed in Christ. Unfortunately, that’s just one illustration among several to choose from in Chapter 5. At times Chan borders on a sort of cooperationism, in which works add merit to one’s status before God. I’m fairly certain he would deny the position if pressed, but the chapter reads that way in certain places.

On the whole, this is a useful and concise summary of the traditional Christian position on hell. I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it because of the problems in Chapter 5, but if you can get past those issues, then his discussion of hell is well-research yet accessible. Chan presents a thoughtful case for the traditional doctrine of hell. He reminds his readers that this is more than a theological argument, but that souls and lives are at stake. In that sense it’s a necessary corrective to the harsh debate that’s surrounded the issue in recent months.

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Is God Unfair?

This week I’m speaking in our college service about the fairness and justice of God. We’ve been talking about heaven and hell this semester, and last week we introduced the topic of what happens when we die. The bottom line is that the Bible tells us that we have one of two destinations — there is no middle ground and there are no second chances. Whether the parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16 is to be taken absolutely literally or not, it seems clear that Jesus believed that our destination after death is permanent and determined by our response to God in this life.

The idea of eternal judgment naturally raises the question of God’s justice and fairness. What about people who have never heard the Gospel? What about babies who die in infancy? What about those who are mentally incapable of understanding the Gospel? For every rule, there are possible exceptions, so we’ll talk about those a bit this week.

I would like your input as I prepare! When you think about God and the concept of eternal judgment, what questions do you have?

Do you struggle in some way with His fairness? Do you wonder about the justice of eternal punishment? Is there a situation or a question related to this issue that you would like addressed? If so, please let me know in the comments.

If you have particularly interesting and challenging questions, I can also deal with them next week on the blog. Especially if I don’t get to them all on Sunday. Thanks!

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Rob Bell, Hell, and a Few Definitions

The internet has been abuzz this weekend with news of megachurch pastor Rob Bell’s latest book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. The book synopsis released by the publisher states that Bell is “arguing that a loving God would never sentence human souls to eternal suffering.” In other words, he appears to be openly professing his belief in universalism, the belief that everybody ultimately goes to heaven regardless of what they believe.

To help you understand the position of universalism, it might be useful to describe a few positions held by theologians on the subject of how a person receives eternal life. Here are some definitions that you should know:

Christian exclusivism holds that a person can only receive eternal life through explicit belief in the name of Jesus Christ for salvation. In other words, in order for a person to go to heaven they must believe in Jesus alone.  Most traditional evangelicals hold this position

Inclusivism is a position that argues that Jesus is the only one who provides salvation, but people who adhere to other religions can be saved if they respond appropriately to whatever truth they are given. For example, a sincere Muslim who worships Allah in a manner consistent with the values of Jesus could actually go to heaven. Inclusivists do not always believe that hell is non-existent or empty. Instead, they hold that explicit belief in Christ is not necessary to escape it. Interestingly, the famous 20th century writer C.S. Lewis was an inclusivist — if you read the final Narnia book, The Last Battle, you’ll see what I mean.

Universalism is the belief that everybody goes to heaven regardless of what they say, do, or believe.  Universalists deny the existence of hell, believing that every person ultimately goes to heaven. They generally argue that the sacrifice of Christ was so extensive as to eliminate eternal punishment for everybody, regardless of their beliefs or acceptance of the Gospel.

Bell is being accused of holding to universalism. His book has not yet been released, so we need to be cautious about assuming too much based on the publisher’s synopsis. However, if he does indeed hold to universalism, it would place him outside the boundaries of traditional Christianity.

Why?

Jesus believed in hell. This is perhaps the most compelling reason to believe in it. Look at passages like Mt 10:28; 23:33; Lk 16:19-31. He clearly believed that hell was the necessary punishment for those who sinned against God.

Jesus’ death and resurrection accomplished forgiveness, but belief is necessary for salvation. Read John 3:16-18 again if you haven’t in a while. Jesus’ death and resurrection accomplished salvation, but only those who believe will receive it. Those who disbelieve are condemned. 2 Thessalonians 1:6-10 describes the penalty of “eternal destruction” for those who do not believe in the Gospel.

Finally, salvation is only found in the name of Jesus. I take Acts 4:12 to mean that a person must actually believe in Jesus for salvation.

How can He be loving and yet still allow people to spend eternity apart from Him? It comes down to the sacrifice of Jesus — in His love, God gave His only Son on behalf of humanity, to take the punishment for our sin so we don’t have to bear it. He extends to everybody the opportunity to believe — those who respond to God’s revelation in creation and in their own conscience are apparently given more knowledge leading to the truth (see Acts 8:26-40; 10:1-33). If they reject what God has provided, they are held responsible (Romans 1:18-32). Either way, God is proven just because He has given ample opportunity for men to believe.

If there is no such thing as hell, then Jesus’ death was either just a terrible tragedy or (even worse) the result of a cruel God punishing His only Son for no good reason. If there is no hell, it’s hard to say what we’ve been saved from.

In addition, God is now waiting for the day of judgment so that more and more will come to know Him — he doesn’t want men and women to perish, but to come to the knowledge of the truth (2 Peter 3:8-9). His patience demonstrates His love.

What are your questions and thoughts on this issue? How would you answer a person who believes in universalism?

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