Tag Archives: hope

If Christians believe in heaven, why do we still fear death?

Christians believe that when we die we will be resurrected with new bodies. But just like other people, we try to avoid it.

Change can be unnerving, and death is the ultimate unknown. We spend our entire lives investing ourselves in this world, assuming that our investment is meaningful. Death challenges that investment. It seems to deny the ultimate value of careers, possessions, friends, and families. Christians have to face this harsh reality just as much as unbelievers, and while faith in resurrection offers comfort, it isn’t easy to imagine how a future life can offer continuity with our investment in this one.

As human beings, resistance to death is physically and instinctively ingrained in us. Recently our family made the difficult decision to euthanize a pet terrier dying painfully of cancer. As I cuddled her in my arms, the veterinarian gave her an injection of anesthesia to relax her and put her to sleep in preparation for the fatal dose of barbiturate that would follow. She was afraid. She fought the drug’s relaxing effect, looking at me and making heart-rending sounds.

Deeply bonded with our little dog, I rocked her like a child until she gave in to the medication and fell asleep. It wasn’t easy. Knowing that life was departing from a little creature that was a cherished part of our family for nearly twenty years brought deep feelings of sadness and loss. Yet losing our little terrier, Effie, didn’t compare to the loss of parents and other human relatives we had experienced in recent years.

Humans easily overlook how much of our experience isn’t under rational control. Our emotional life (including our affection, joy, anger, and fear) is as influenced by instinct and hormones as by imagination and reason. The life within us, like that in our little terrier, reflexively seeks to avoid death. Our hopes and beliefs transcend death, but as physical creatures, we resist it.

Death reduces living bodies to physical objects—soon to become decaying corpses. It mocks relationships, personhood, and hopes (John 11:38–39). Facing the ugly physical and emotional reality of a close friend’s death, Jesus wept (John 11:32–25). The apostle Paul viewed death with such seriousness that he referred to it as the “last enemy” that the kingdom of Christ will overcome (1 Corinthians 15:25–26). Even when Christians approach death with faith and hope that has been reinforced by God’s faithfulness through a lifetime of experiences, facing such a hideous enemy is never just a dispassionate decision. It is a time for courage.

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Do those who reject the gospel understand what they are rejecting?

Rejection of the gospel isn’t necessarily conscious rejection of Christ. Some people reject the gospel because they misunderstand it or because it has been misrepresented to them. This is partly why Jesus, Paul, Peter, and other biblical authors warned so strongly against hypocrisy and causing a truth-seeker to despair (Matthew 18:6; 1 Corinthians 8:9).

But if you cause one of these little ones who trusts in me to fall into sin, it would be better for you to have a large millstone tied around your neck and be drowned in the depths of the sea. (Matthew 18:6)

But you must be careful so that your freedom does not cause others with a weaker conscience to stumble. (1 Corinthians 8:9)

Scripture implies that rejection of the good news of Jesus Christ is often the result of ignorance and misunderstanding rather than conscious evil intent. Jesus doesn’t refer to unbelievers as “snakes,” “dogs,” “jackals,” or “scorpions,” but as “sheep” (Matthew 9:36; Luke 15:4; Isaiah 53:6; 1 Peter 2:25). We can assume that the image of “sheep” (known for harmlessness and herd instinct) was chosen for a reason. Scripture also refers to unbelievers as “ignorant” and “wayward people” (Hebrews 5:1–2), “poor,” “oppressed,” “blind,” and “captives” (Isaiah 61:1; Luke 4:18).

Even when the gospel hasn’t been misrepresented, a world marked by disease, competition, and violence makes the gospel sound improbable to many people (1 Corinthians 1:18–25). Harsh life experiences make us wonder how a loving God can be in charge. Even Hebrew believers who lived in the time before God “made all of this plain to us by the appearing of Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 1:10), had an ambivalent view. They believed their departed loved ones were at peace with God in some sense, but considered them unable to join in the joyous worship of the Lord’s people in the same way as when they were living (Psalm 88:10; 115:17; Isaiah 38:18; Ecclesiastes 9:3–6).

Jesus knew the obstacles to faith and understood His role in revealing God’s love to us. We should pattern our response to the lost on His compassion.

Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. (1 Timothy 1:13 NIV).

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Can anyone prove that Jesus rose from the dead?

There is a big difference between presenting historical evidence for an event and actually proving it. Unlike the components of scientific experiments, historical events are so complicated that they can never be reproduced. So unless someone invents a time machine that allows us to travel back in the past to observe things as they were actually occurring, we will never be able to “prove” exactly what occurred in the past.

On the other hand, although absolute proof is impossible, historical evidence is often strong enough for a high degree of certainty.[1] But even a compelling level of probability requires faith. This is a key point in respect to historical evidence for such an unusual event as Jesus’s resurrection. The resurrection of a dead man is so far removed from the shared experience of most people that historical evidence—even extremely strong evidence—is not the same as scientific proof. To act as though evidence is “proof” will only alienate genuine truth-seekers. Yet, because of the tremendous amount of evidence for Jesus’s resurrection, belief is also far from a blind leap of faith.[2]

Followers of Jesus should remain mindful of the role our basic assumptions play in what we believe about Jesus’s resurrection. If we believe that a personal God purposely created the universe and revealed himself in history, we will be strongly inclined to believe Jesus’s resurrection actually occurred. By contrast, someone with an atheistic assumption that the world is governed entirely by chance and time will be more likely to disbelieve the resurrection account of Jesus.

This is why faith in Jesus’s resurrection is based as much in the heart as in the mind; as much in confidence in the meaningfulness of existence as in the quality of historical evidence (Hebrews 11:1–6). Someone must believe in the possibility of a supernatural Creator and a meaningful universe to follow the historical evidence for Jesus’s resurrection to its logical conclusions. (John 14:1; Psalm 43:5).[3]

[1] For example, few historians question that Julius Caesar wrote an account of his military campaigns in Gaul and Britain (The Gallic Wars) and was assassinated on March 15, 44 bc. Similarly, few historians question that Jesus was a Galilean Jew who established a reputation as a prophet, teacher, and healer, and died by crucifixion in his early to mid-30s by the order of Roman prefect Pontius Pilate.

[2] Thousands of books and articles have been written offering detailed evidence that Jesus’s resurrection really did occur. The Resurrection of the Son of God by N. T. Wright is one of the best. (See questions.org article, Did Jesus rise from the dead?)

[3] God’s personal nature is analogous to human personality only in a limited sense. Because the Lord is infinite, the qualities of his personality as far transcend ours as his knowledge transcends our knowledge. C. S. Lewis used the term “suprapersonal” in reference to God’s personal nature.

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Did Jesus rise from the dead?

Every question deserves consideration. But some questions are foundational to all the rest.

The resurrection of Jesus is one of these foundational questions. Did he really rise from the dead? The answer has huge implications for the way we set our goals or find meaning in life. The apostle Paul wrote:

“(I)f Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (1 Corinthians 15:17–19 ESV)

Documents written during the lifetime of witnesses to his resurrection described the events that preceded and followed it. Jewish law required Jesus’s body to be properly buried. His enemies took precautions to assure it wouldn’t be stolen (Matthew 27:62–66). Yet according to detailed accounts in the Gospels, Jesus’s tomb was empty on Sunday morning. Had Jesus’s enemies been able, they would have produced his body to refute claims of his resurrection.

It is remarkable that women were the first to visit the tomb, a fact that wouldn’t have been mentioned if the account were “invented.”[1] The next witnesses were disciples who had abandoned Jesus when he was arrested. Then there are fascinating details, like the description of his body wrappings in the grave.[2]

On the morning of Jesus’s resurrection and during the following days and weeks many witnesses reported personal encounters with him (Luke 24; John 20–21). In fact, 55 days later, Peter proclaimed Jesus’s resurrection to thousands of Jewish pilgrims in the vicinity of the Temple. In letters written just 20 to 25 years later, Paul affirmed the Gospel accounts, noting that Jesus appeared to his brother James, to all the rest of the apostles (1 Corinthians 15:3–8), and to an assembled group of over 500 men and women. Many of those witnesses were still alive when Paul made his claim.

Testimony like this seems impossible to explain if Jesus’s resurrection didn’t occur. Why were friends who had abandoned him and hid from the authorities when he was arrested suddenly willing to risk their lives by testifying that he was still alive? No matter how absurd their claims seemed, early Christians were ready to confirm their faith in Jesus’s death and resurrection in the face of persecution and death (1 Corinthians 1:20–25).[3]

False messiahs preceded and followed Jesus’ life and ministry. Their credibility ended with their deaths. There is no historical precedent or parallel for such faith in the resurrection of a man who had died.

[1] At the time the Gospels were written, there was a strong prejudice against women as witnesses. They were viewed as too emotional and irrational to be reliable. This prejudice was so strong that women were generally not admissible as witnesses in Jewish courts.

[2] The folded head cloth in John 20:7 is itself an amazing piece of evidence, as described by William Barclay: “For the moment Peter was only amazed at the empty tomb; but then things began to happen in John’s mind. If someone had removed Jesus’ body, if tomb-robbers had been at work, why should they leave the grave clothes? And then something else struck John—the grave clothes were not disheveled and disarranged; they were lying there still in their folds—that is what the Greek means—the clothes for the body where the body had been; the napkin where the head had lain. The whole point of the description is that the grave clothes did not look as if they had been put off or taken off; they were lying there in their regular folds as if the body of Jesus had simply evaporated out of them and left them lying. The sight suddenly penetrated to John’s mind; he realized that had happened—and he believed. It was not what John read in scripture which convinced him that Jesus had risen; it was what with his own eyes he saw.” (The Gospel of John, Vol. 2)

 

[3] One of the many New Testament scholars who have been convinced by the historical evidence for Jesus’s resurrection, N. T. Wright, wrote a book that describes, among other things, the serious problems that arise when one tries to explain early Christian faith on the basis of visions and hallucinations. This is his summary of the evidence: “Historical argument alone cannot force anyone to believe that Jesus was raised from the dead; but historical argument is remarkably good at clearing away the undergrowth behind which skepticisms of various sorts have been hiding. The proposal that Jesus was bodily raised from the dead possesses unrivalled power to explain the historical data at the heart of early Christianity.” (The Resurrection of the Son of God, p. 718)

 

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Why doesn’t God just forgive everyone?

I’ve often wondered something similar myself. “Why doesn’t God save everyone?” After all, he has the power to do so.

Did you know that some Christians do believe that God saves everyone … eventually?

Saving everyone would entail forgiving everyone. But not everyone is truly sorry for their sins. Some people show no remorse for their sins or even acknowledge that they have sinned against others and God. How can God forgive the unrepentant? Some people talk as though forgiveness doesn’t require repentance, like when we speak of forgiving unrepentant abusive parents or violent terrorists. But it seems best to me to keep those concepts—forgiveness and repentance—connected while acknowledging that something else is going on in the cases just mentioned.

My husband (a philosophy professor) and I have often discussed this question. He offers this example. Suppose a parent offers to forgive a child for a particular misdeed, yet the child keeps sinning against the parent with no remorse. The relationship between the parent and the child is still fractured even though the parent extended forgiveness to the child. The parent desires an intimate, joy-filled relationship exemplifying reconciliation. God is like that parent.

God is good, beautiful, and full of compassion (Psalm 136:1). Forgiveness through Jesus Christ is for all (John 3:16; 2 Peter 3:9), but not all of us have it. Some of us continue to arrogantly resist God because we think we know better than God. Like Satan, we desire to be God (see Isaiah 14:12–15; Matthew 4).

But some say that in the end, even if people experience hell, they’ll have a chance to escape hell. Furthermore, they claim God’s love is irresistible and unconditional, so the unrepentant in this life cannot help but be wooed and so repent even after death. As for me, I’m inclined to think that some will stubbornly resist God in this life and in the next.

This question leads to many other theological questions about the nature of hell, the problem of evil, and the salvation of people such as babies, the intellectually disabled, and others who cannot understand the propositions of the gospel. There is quite a bit I don’t know about this topic. But I do know God is loving, compassionate, and just. And I truly trust him to judge rightly.

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