Category Archives: Death and Dying
This post is a continuation of my last post. In this installment I will be making a careful examination of the claims of the book and soon to be released movie, “Heaven is For Real.”
For those who have not read the book, the story is about a little boy who suffers terribly from a misdiagnosed appendicitis attack, comes close to death and experiences a vision in which he claims to have seen (among other things) Jesus, his deceased grandfather, and his sister, who was actually never born. In his vision the grandfather has become younger in heaven, while his never-born sister has aged to a young girl. There are many problems with the story, but I just want to focus on the theology.
I need to make something absolutely clear here as I begin. In no way do I want to suggest that the little boy on whom the book and movie is based did not have the visions that are claimed in the book. I have personal reasons for allowing that he did, indeed, have those visions. This critique is not an ad hominem attack on that little boy. However, the interpretation of those visions has become the basis of a multi-million dollar enterprise, and there are serious repercussions that flow from the veracity or falsity of those religious interpretations. It is to those interpretations that I now turn.
Disciples are commanded, not merely encouraged, to test the veracity of the spirits that claim to be from God (1 John 4:1). I do not have to guess that a book or movie that discusses a vision of heaven and the residents thereof to be a message from God. The parents of the little boy, the publishers of the book and the producers of the movie all claim that the message comes from God. So, I can rest on a firm foundation that I am not arguing against a straw man. I am testing a spirit that claims to be from God.
So, I begin by asking, “Does the message support or contradict a portion of Scripture that we can all agree upon as being a clear message from God.” The first text I want to point out is Luke 16:19-31. The relevant words are found in v. 27-31:
He answered, “Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my father’s house, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.” Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.” “No, father Abraham,” he said, “but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.” He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” (NIV, emphasis mine)
This, of course, comes from the mouth of Jesus in the story of the Rich man and Lazarus. If we cannot agree that this passage is from the mind of God then I suggest we cannot agree on anything.
The second passage is much longer – 1 Corinthians 15:35-58. I can only summarize here, but I encourage you to read the entire passage. In sum, Paul teaches the Corinthian Christians that our resurrection bodies will in no way, shape or glory be similar to our present human body. While we will have “bodies” they will be as different from our human bodies as the leaf is different from the seed.
Once again, unless you want to remove one of the greatest teachings on the resurrection from the New Testament, we have to say that this passage came from the mind of God.
Third, I would turn to 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, but for length we will only point out v. 15-17:
According to the Lord’s own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of The Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For The Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet The Lord in the air. And so we will be with The Lord forever. (NIV, emphasis mine)
Here again we have the apostle Paul writing one of the foundational texts on the nature of the resurrection, and quoting Jesus no less; so I take this passage to be from the mind of God.
What do we learn from those passages? We learn that Jesus himself rejected the idea of sending someone back from death, or even near death, to accomplish the purpose for which the written Scriptures are more than sufficient. How much more sufficient is the story of the resurrection of Jesus and the rest of our New Testament?
Second, we learn that our post resurrection bodies will not resemble our present bodies. Simply put, we will not resemble what we look like now. To say that someone can take a peek into heaven and recognize its occupants is to contradict what Paul said about our resurrection bodies.
Third, we learn that there will not be “stages” of progressive resurrections. “We who are alive will not precede those who have fallen asleep” and “we will be caught up together with them” means that they (the saved dead) will not precede us, and we will not precede them. We make the final journey together. Once again to be blunt, our dearly departed loved ones are not in heaven – unless you want to reconstruct 1 Thessalonians 4 (and 1 Corinthians 15).
I would like to stop here and ask the question, “For what purpose was the book written and the movie produced?” The best answer that I can decipher is that God wants us to know that he loves us and he wants us to go to heaven. That’s it. The opening chapters of Genesis are not sufficient. The soaring poetry of Isaiah is not sufficient. The melancholy songs of Jeremiah are not sufficient. The life of the Son of God as recorded in the gospels is not sufficient. The hours of agony suffered by that Son of God on the cross are not sufficient. No – it takes a little boy suffering an extended illness and coming close to death and returning to life to get the message out that God loves us and wants us to go to heaven.
The publishers of the book and the producers of the movie have placed anyone who criticizes the book in a difficult position. All they have to do is accuse the opponent of despising a little boy, disbelieving in God, rejecting the power of God or maybe all three. Obviously I reject that accusation. I believe the theology of the book and movie is horribly flawed – certainly sacrilegious and bordering on blasphemous. Whatever the little boy did or did not see, the resulting production is unbiblical and dangerous.
I started this post by saying I do not disbelieve the little boy’s experience. I would be a reprehensible fool to suggest that I have knowledge that the little boy did not have the vision he claims to have experienced. I can, however, hold the interpretation that a group of adults have made regarding that experience up against the measure of the Word of God. As I have demonstrated, that interpretation fails miserably.
Two other issues bear very quick mention at this point. The interpretation told in the book and movie has made a lot of people a lot of money. This is not some altruistic telling of a gospel story. Serious amounts of money are exchanging hands here – and all based on the events that took place when a little boy was experiencing tremendous pain, was receiving numerous drugs, and was for a time under anesthesia. The entire process just seems scandalous to me.
Second, what pressures are being placed on this young boy? For the rest of his life he will be known as “the little boy who went to heaven.” We have all seen how notoriety destroys the lives of child actors. What happens when the boy grows, and, heaven forbid, stumbles or experiences a valley to match the mountain top experience he had as a child? How will his “adoring fans” respond? How will the world respond? But, more important, how will he respond? You cannot live a perfect life. Somewhere in his life he will experience the desert of spiritual emptiness. I hope the adults in his life are preparing him for that eventuality, so that when it does happen (NOT IF it does happen) he will be prepared to come out on the other side unharmed.
We are not supposed to check our brains at the door when we enter the waters of baptism. To think critically does not mean that we reject everything we see, hear and read; but to be a disciple does not mean that we uncritically swallow every story that claims to be “Christian,” whether that story is titled, “The Passion of the Christ,” “God’s Not Dead,” or “Heaven Is For Real.” Let us test the spirits, and that means some will pass the test, and others will not. Let us pray that God helps us make those decisions humbly and with extreme caution.
You shall not kill. (Exodus 20:13, RSV)
That should be pretty straight forward. Except that oftentimes the easiest instructions are the most difficult to obey.
We live in a death oriented culture. On the surface that would seem to be an opposite description of our western world. We have the best medicines, we spend billions of dollars on health food and exercise gyms. On the surface we are fixated on life and health and longevity. But, really, what we are trying to extend is existence, not life. We are a culture that is defined by our ungodly attachment to death.
The manner in which Americans magnify death begins with the womb. Americans abort over a million babies a year – and that is a conservative number. When a culture loses its interest in protecting its youngest and most vulnerable it loses its very heart. Americans lost that battle a long time ago, and we are beginning to reap the consequences in increasing measure.
Consider the derivative focus on taking life. War has become, for the good Christian nation of the United States, a growth industry. If you doubt me just consider what occurs near a military base every time the administration in power decides to “downsize” the military and close various military installations. What is the number one reason people fight to keep the guns and planes and ships and missiles and soldiers and sailors? The economy, stupid! If we lose our military bases we lose our money. We need death in order to live. We need bombs and bullets and missiles and every other implement of death and destruction. It is just critical for the functioning our our society. You can do away with music and art and PE and many other educational subjects in our school systems, but don’t you dare touch our military bases. Death pays far more than a ballet recital or an orchestra performance.
We are now moving to trim the other end of our life span to maximize the comfort of the broad middle of the “circle of life.” When all of the ramifications of the so-called “Obama Care” are fully realized I believe disciples of Christ are going to be in for a huge shock. When we hand over life and death decisions to a government bureaucracy, just what do you think will be the final criterium? Money – pure and simple. There will be a cost/benefit analysis made, and if the human being under consideration does not meet the specified minimum of productivity, their healthcare will be death care. There may not be the much ballyhooed “death panel” as trumpeted by the opposition party, but there will be something very close. When the discussion revolves around saving money, and when senior care is one of the most expensive aspects of our healthcare system, it does not take a rocket scientist to figure out where the easiest place to cut costs.
But God said it pretty clearly. Do not kill. Do not murder, to be exact. And whether we murder a baby in the womb, or whether we murder a suspected terrorist with a precision guided missile or whether we hasten the death of an abandoned patient in a nursing home the end result is still the same – a life is extinguished. The motive may be selfishness, or hate, or revenge, or pure monetary greed, to take the life of a human being is still a violation of the most basic of our human relationships. And in violating that most basic of human relationships we violate our most basic relationship with God. And in the process we lose our humanity. We become demonic.
Ending abortion will not stop our headlong march into the hell of death. The only way to stop the vicious cycle of death that we have created is for disciples of Christ to proclaim and promote everything that magnifies life. We must speak out against abortion, to be sure. But we must also speak out against the crime of war and our utter dependence upon the military for our economic security. We must speak out against the crime of warehousing our elderly and of hastening their deaths.
Like I said – sometimes the easiest instructions are the hardest to obey. Are we really willing to obey the sixth commandment?
“God, teach us to love life – every moment of it. It is the most precious gift we have on this earth. And teach us to honor the lives of all those around us – the weak, the strong, those we love and those you have told us to love even though they may be our enemy. Teach us to accept that death is the natural end of this life; and that while we may not wish to hasten it, we should not use the desire to avoid it to the point that we seek the death of others so that we may live. Instill within us a deep respect for life and a confident acceptance of our death, and above all give us the peace of knowing that our death is not the end, but rather the transition from one life to the next. Amen.”
Just thinking on this cold and cloudy morning about what it means to surrender myself to the cross.
Thinking that for more than 300 years the disciples of Christ owned nothing but their surrender to the cross. They had no power. They were sometimes persecuted, sometimes abused, sometimes even murdered. They lived cautiously, but not fearfully. They displayed courage, not machismo. Stripped of all symbols of political and religious authority, they demonstrated the only power they had – the power of self-surrender and love for neighbor. They had no weapons other than the word of God and the shield of their faith.
Thinking that those Christians, the maltreated and abused and dispossessed, those Christians who had no power and no defense and nothing to rely upon physically – those disciples turned the world upside down. They converted thousands, if not millions, in those 300 + years by the simple strength of their unwillingness to surrender to the prince of this world. Those converts sometimes had to pay with their livelihoods, sometimes with their lives. They watched their families turn against them, their employers dismiss them, their nation label them as traitors.
Thinking of the amazing stories they could tell of courage and faithfulness and of the victories they shared in their Lord. They celebrated the death of their leaders and their followers as a birth into the eternal kingdom. Life here was precious, to be sure, but their home was yet to come. They did not live by the mantra of law and allegiance to nation, they lived by grace and the all consuming confession that Jesus is Lord.
Then came the conversion that has almost destroyed the church. The emperor Constantine saw a sign and “converted” to Jesus. Constantine thought Jesus gave him a victory, and in return Constantine gave Jesus a sword. For 300 years the church had survived, and even thrived without one. When your hands are nailed to a cross you have nothing with which to grip a sword.
But the church learned to wield the sword with brutal efficiency. Nations were conquered by the use of the sword in the name of the one who refused to allow his followers to pick one up. Those who refused to surrender to the Prince of Peace were butchered by the armies of a warrior god. Those who left the fold were not lovingly confronted and gently restored, but they were executed in a legitimate use of the “sword” of the secular law. Nation and church became indistinguishable. Wars were fought between followers of the cross and followers of the cross. Rivers, oceans of blood were shed in the name of Christian obedience.
Thinking, and wondering about the meaning of surrender to the cross today. Priests and prophets of the crucified one are beating the war drums once again. A call to arms has been sounded. “We are to arm ourselves” is the cry on the battle field. “We have a duty to protect ourselves” is the refrain. “We are protected by a Divine ordinance, enshrined in the Constitution!”
It may just be me, but I cannot help but wonder – how did those early disciples of Christ accomplish so much without their guns? How did they evangelize so effectively without having the protection of multiple firearms and a piece of paper? How, for three long centuries, was God able to protect this powerless and mistreated group of disciples without assault weapons and multiple cartridge magazines?
I’m thinking, as I read so many priests and prophets and preachers beat the war drums for the defense of a weapon designed to take a human life, where did the cross go? Has it been chopped down and the wood used for gun stocks? Have the nails that held my savior suspended on that tree been melted down for gun barrels?
I’m just thinking on this cold and cloudy day about surrender to the cross. About what it means to say “Jesus is Lord.” I’m wondering how disciples of Jesus can argue for the taking up of arms when Jesus so clearly told Pilate that his followers would not fight. I’m wondering how modern disciples can argue that we need our guns when for over 300 years the disciples had neither gun nor sword and managed to overcome every obstacle to take the gospel to the entire world.
Did they not love their families? Were they ignorant of the command to “turn the other cheek?” Had they not heard of Jesus’ teaching that those who live by the cause of violence will eventually die by that very same violence?
Or, was their success a direct result in their faith in God? Did they willingly lay down every form of human power and coercion for the exact reason that they did understand the Sermon on the Mount?
I must admit I’m confused. The ones who should be the closest to the cross are the ones who seem the most committed to the cold steel and wood of a modern firearm.
I’ll say it again. If you are nailed to a cross you cannot hold a gun. If your hand is wrapped around an instrument of death you cannot grasp the hand that was pierced with an instrument of death.
The only implements Jesus used on the last night that he was alive on this earth were a wash basin and a towel.
I think there is a lesson in there, somewhere.
Maybe I just think too much.
I love teaching. It is not so much that I think I’m a great teacher, but there is something magical about watching the light bulb come on over someone’s head when they grasp a subject that was previously obscure to them. I also really, really love learning. I am addicted to pondering new thoughts, new insights. I get almost as much of a thrill when the light bulb comes on over my head as when it comes on over someone else’s head.
My university class has been swimming in murky waters the past couple of weeks. Very few light bulbs have been turning on, either over my head or the heads of the students. But hopefully this past week a little light started to flicker. The subject is the difference between realism and non-realism. In meta-physics that question relates to such things as, is God a reality or a human construct? When we have a dream or a vision, are we experiencing something real or an illusion? The questions are all so very philosophical, but that is to be expected in a philosophy class.
It occurred to me as I was pondering the subject that Charles Dickens may have had the best answer for the question many years ago. In the classic, “A Christmas Carol,” Dickens has his main character, Ebenezer Scrooge, visited by the ghost of his dead partner Jacob Marley. The first few minutes of the meeting do not go well. Ebenezer is just not convinced that what he is experiencing is really happening. In philosophical terms he is the ultimate non-realist. His vision of his dead partner is due to a bit of bad beef, a blot of mustard, or perhaps an underdone potato. There is more of gravy than of grave about this wild apparition in his bedroom.
Jacob, on the other hand, is beside himself. He cannot figure out why Ebenezer would be so obstinate. Finally, in a rage and screaming as loud as a ghost can possibly can, he demands, “Man of the worldly mind, do you believe in me or not?” It is one of the greatest lines in literary, dramatic, and cinematic history. To that I might add, philosophic history as well.
We, as good Americans, are men and women of the worldly mind. We say that we believe in God, that he truly exists, but we act more like Ebenezer Scrooge when it comes down to making critical decisions or changing our behavior. We place God in a convenient little box labeled “Sunday Morning” and then by the time the roast beef is finished at lunch we have closed the box and put it back on the shelf. In Dickens’ immortal words, we are far more about gravy.
At some point, however, we will all be confronted by our Jacob Marley’s. That is, if we are lucky we will. Jacob Marley was able to convince Ebenezer for a brief period of time, at least enough to make Ebenezer start thinking. It would take three other spirits to fully transform Mr. Scrooge, but Jacob got the ball rolling. Some people may not have a Jacob Marley experience and they will pass from this life to the next to meet a very real God and they will be utterly unprepared. Others will have a Jacob Marley experience and they will manage to either explain it away or simply deny it. Being men and women of the worldly mind, they will not believe in a ghostly apparition.
Are you a realist or a non-realist? The question is couched in philosophical language, but the issue is, pardon the pun, very real. It all boils down to Jacob Marley’s question. Except, in the scheme of all eternity, the question comes from God and not a dead financier -
“Man (and woman) of the worldly mind, do you believe in me or not?”
Think twice before you answer that question. There may be more grave, than of gravy, in how you respond.
Time is filled with swift transition
Naught of earth unmoved can stand
Build your hopes on things eternal
Hold to God’s unchanging hand.
The words and tune keep going through my mind. Yesterday was a brutal day. I came upon the scene of a horrific accident. A little toddler got away from his parents and darted into the traffic of a busy downtown street. He was struck by the back tires of a semi-trailer. He later died at the hospital.
At the scene I happened to speak to the step-father. He was standing by himself, and I thought he was just someone who knew something about the accident. Because our congregation has many young children, and I know so many other families with young children, I wanted to find out if anyone knew the family. I approached him and asked if he knew what had happened. I will never forget his words.
“My little boy was just hit by a truck.”
Death is a cruel master. We all live under the shadow of our death. We know that, all things considered, we will have to deal with the death of our parents. But no one should ever have to deal with what this young family is forced to cope with. A little boy, so full of life and as rambunctious as little boys are, a precious little bundle of joy is now gone and the grieving parents are only left with 10,000 questions. I doubt many of them have answers.
Everyone at the scene said there was nothing that could have been done. The truck was traveling below the speed limit of 25 mph. The parents tried in vain to catch the little boy. For everyone at the scene the next few seconds took an eternity to unfold.
Time is filled with swift transitions. Time is also filled with tragic transitions. Nothing of earth will stand unmoved. We are given only one sure hope:
Hold to God’s unchanging hand.
If you are a praying person, please say a prayer for this family. You need not know their names. God knows them. We live in a small town, and this is going to affect a lot of people, and it will affect those closest to the situation for a long, long time.
Remember the driver of the truck as well. He was driving safely, all accounts indicate he was even below the speed limit. This is every professional driver’s worst nightmare. Because I know what the driver was transporting, I know that safety truly was his first concern. Please pray for his peace of mind.