Thursday, March 10, 2011

Heaven: What the Bible Says (and Does Not Say)

As I have mentioned before, last year was a year of incredibly high-highs and equally low-lows.  On one hand, we were ‘expecting’ two new blessings.  On the other hand, my mother and biggest fan was preparing to depart this life.  I miss my mom terribly, but am so thankful that we had time to prepare for her homecoming.  Time to clear our minds and our hearts, to apologize and make amends, to say the things that should have been said years ago, and finally to prepare (as best as possible) for life without mom. 

During mom’s final months of life, a friend lent me a book titled, “One Minute After You Die” (Lutzer).  It was one of many books I read on death, grief, and loss.  What I enjoyed most about this particular book was the scriptural references to hades and sheol in the Old Testament and the references to heaven and eternity in the New (Testament).  My own faith was challenged as I initially was not sure that I completely agreed with the author’s perspective.  Frankly, it seemed a bit harsh and ‘old-schoolish’.  (I find it best to always cross-reference view points with those of other theologians.)  However, over the course of reading the book and praying over the scripture, the Bible (being the amazingly cool book that it is) came alive and was speaking directly to my questions. By the end of the book, most of my questions had been answered directly through the references to passages in the Bible and the counsel of the Holy Spirit. 

Below are a few common beliefs, ideas, or questions people have about heaven along with a statement on what the Bible says. 

  1. ‘Your loved one is now watching over you from heaven.’ Along the same line, but a little different: ‘You now have a special (guardian) angel in heaven.’  
I really want to believe the first one.  Who wouldn’t want to believe their departed loved one can still see, look out, and essentially take part in their lives from above?  The New Testament does not completely contradict the idea that our departed loved ones in heaven can see us.  However, it does not support it either.  Most importantly, the Bible states that the deceased cannot communicate with us and it forbids us from trying to communicate with them.  The Bible simply says that those in heaven are home with the Lord and that their knowledge has increased (2 Corinthians 5:6-8 and 1 Corinthians 13:12). 
Furthermore, the Bible does not say that our deceased loved ones become angels, as angles and humans are separate beings according to scripture.  (Hebrews 1:7, 14; Hebrews 2:6-7; 1 Corinthians 15:39-41; Luke 20:34-36; Matthew 25:41)

  1. Is there an in between place or holding room before going to heaven? 
Being raised Catholic (although I am no longer a card-carrying member or subscriber to their doctrine), I remember being taught to believe that unless we committed a mortal sin (as opposed to venial sins), we would most likely end up in purgatory until we are either prayed into heaven or accumulate enough good deeds to earn our way there.  SO, as an adult when I gave my life over to Christ and started studying the Bible, I was surprised to learn that the doctrine of purgatory is not found in the Bible.  In fact, the Bible is very clear that when believers die, we go straight to be with God.  There is no middle place, holding room, or torture chamber where you will have to make amends for your sins.  Christ made amends for them when He was nailed to the cross. Finally, as Christ was dying on the cross, one of two criminals who were also sentenced to death that day turned to Jesus and asked Jesus to remember him when He came into His kingdom.  This criminal had no time on earth to make amends for his crimes.  No time to turn his life around and become an upstanding citizen.  Nothing, except a plea for Jesus to remember him.  The criminal 'came to Christ' that day.  Jesus responded by saying, "I tell you the truth. Today you will be with me in paradise!" 

  1. Why did Christ have to die in order for us to enter heaven? 
In my opinion, this is probably the most complex and complicated idea in the entire Christian doctrine.  It is also the most important.  I cannot attempt to answer this question in one paragraph, but can encourage you to study to the Bible and find this answer for yourself.  In short, God made us to love Him and only Him.  Because you need free will to honestly and openly love anyone, He gave us the choice.  We failed, and there began the downfall.  The story is all there, in the best selling book of all time.  Once you open yourself to the idea that the Bible is indeed the Word of God, as foreign as that may be to you, God will begin to create a new you from the inside out and begin to answer these and any other pressing questions you may have.  2 Corinthians 5:17 states, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come.  The old has gone, the new is here!”

He really does create us new and the best gift of all if the promise of eternity.  Apart from eternity, life makes absolutely no sense to me.  You could have the best life by all worldly standards, but what do you really have?  What do you really control?  You do not determine when you enter or exit this life.  You do not determine how you exit this life.  You do not take anything with you.  However, knowing that we will indeed be reunited with our brothers and sisters in Christ in a place that knows no pain or suffering, makes this life worth living to its fullest. 

13:36).  Jesus had unfinished business to take care of and through the most selfless act ever recorded, He defeated death so that we can all spend eternity free of the trials and tribulations of this world.  For that, I am eternally grateful!  My chains are gone, I’ve been set free…

As Lutzer states in his book, “Death is the chariot our heavenly Father sends to bring us to Himself.”  And mom, whether you can see us or not, I know you are home with the heavenly Father, dancing like you've never danced before and I so look forward to one day being with you again...this time for eternity!  
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  1. I'm sorry about the loss of your mother. As a Catholic, I'd like to weigh in - not challenge, just comment. Few Christians outside of the Roman Catholic Church believe explicitly in the doctrine of purgatory, though the practice of praying for the dead is done in many denominations and throughout Eastern Otrhodoxy. The Catholic Church makes very few binding statements about what purgatory is; the possiblity that purgatory could be an instantaneous purification isn't excluded. There are indications in the Bible that souls do exist in some state that is neither heaven nor hell. Look at 1 Peter 3:19-20. These verses show Jesus preaching to "to the spirits in prison." The "prison" cannot be heaven, because the people there do not need to have the Gospel preached. It cannot be hell, becasue the souls in hell cannot repent. It must be something else. As you can see, there is nothing unbiblical about the claim that those who have died might not immediately go to heaven or hell. My belief of purgatory is consistent with the love of God. God wants us to be perfect. If we are not perfected by the time we die, we will be perfected in purgatory. He loves us too much to allow us to be less than what he created us to be. Purgatory is not about an angry God inflicting punishment upon his creatures. It is about a loving Father who "disciplines us for our good, so that we may share his holiness" (Heb. 12:10).

  2. Hi Charlene! Thanks for the comment. The Bible definitely states that there is a spirit world that has existed before humans...these angels coexist with us even today, good and evil. However, those souls are different than humans. The Bible (Revelations) also talks about souls in heaven awaiting their resurrected bodies, as that has not occurred yet, and those who are eternally separated from the love of God.

    The Bible is very clear that Christ paid the price for all of our sins, there is nothing we could ever do, good deeds or works, to earn our salvation. It states that do indeed go straight to be with God, without a single break in consciousness. There is not one mention in the Bible of purgatory or anything like it. The doctrine of purgatory comes from Medieval Times and most theologians believe it came about due to a misinterpretation of salvation. Ephesians 2:8-9 states, "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast."

    You know I respect your opinion and religion and we have talked about my many hang-ups with the Catholic church. I respect that you (and others) are able to worship God in the Catholic church. Due to many events in my past, that is not the case for me and I find many, many inconsistencies with the Catholic doctrine and the Bible, the spoken Word of God. However, I have no ill-will toward those that practice the Catholic faith. :-)

    1. In 1 Peter 3: 19-20 I believe Christ was preaching redemption to those who had died before he came into the world as Christ. As the scripture teaches the soul never dies but is eternal. Where we spend eternity is dependant upon his saving grace. Since his coming we have the option by free will to accept him as our Lord and Savour, or to refuse him. Those who had passed before his coming had not had the same opportunity and were held captive to the law under the Old Testament. Grace was not present and available to them until he died on the cross having conquered death. When he died he cried it is finished, as the perfect sacrifice had been given. When he went into hell, he took the keys to death and hell away from Satan. As the Son of God, the lamb of God and having he had authority to have dominion over the keys to death and hell and at that time was able to preach the gospel to those who had died prior to his coming.