Review: What Happens After You Die

What Happens After You Die

What Happens After You Die Randy Frazee. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2017.

Summary: An exploration of the Bible’s teaching on what happens to us after death, if we know Christ or if we don’t, both before he returns, and after.

Randy Frazee is a pastor, seminary trained, and a teacher of the Bible. Yet when his mother died of pancreatic cancer, and even though she was a believer, Frazee was confronted with a profound challenge to his faith. In the beginning of this book he writes:

“The more I thought about it, the more I struggled to believe that at the moment my mother breathed her last breath, her spirit exited her body and went to be anywhere, let alone with the Lord. I just didn’t have a mental model for this concept, and yet we Christians, base our entire hope on this reality. I know some say they have, but I have never personally met a spirit being. Did such beings really exist?

My mind continued to wander without permission. Even if life after death was true, and a person’s spirit did exit the body, the idea of a naked spirit entering into heaven, floating on clouds forever, and continually singing worship songs–maybe with earned wings, like Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life–just didn’t seem all that compelling to me. It was certainly better than the scriptural alternative, but it was still not something I craved.

‘I don’t believe in heaven.’ I whispered” (p. xv).

This led to an intense time of searching the Bible for answers, and this book is the product of his search. He begins with the question his mother asked him on her deathbed, “Is Jesus enough?” He explores the questions of works and faith concluding that faith in Christ’s saving work is indeed enough.

Then he moves on to the questions of the afterlife, breaking his exploration into two parts–life in between (before the return of Christ) and life forever (after the return of Christ, the resurrection and final judgment). In each case, he considers the destiny of those who have put faith in Christ, and those who do not know Christ. He does not go where scripture does not, with regard to life in between, or the intermediate state, about which scripture says little. He says that our spirits either go on to be with God in Christ if we have believed, or to Hades, the place where those who do not know Jesus await judgment.

Following the return of Christ, he teaches that the unrighteous will face the judgment where the books recording all of what they have done in their lives are opened. By their refusal of Christ and their deeds, they are destined for “the lake of fire.” Frazee leaves it an open question as to whether this is everlasting punishing (eternal conscious punishment) or everlasting punishment (annihilation), indicating that there are thoughtful biblical scholars who affirm each of these possibilities, neither of which are particularly desirable!

For the believer, the destiny is written in another book, the book of life. It means new bodies, life not “up there” but “down here” in a new creation, and the new city God will establish and make his home.  Rather than ethereal spirits floating on clouds, we will be embodied creatures in God’s new heaven and earth with work to do. Frazee then concludes the book with a short chapter on “life now”–how we live as people of faith and witnesses to hope until that time.

Each of the major sections concludes with a question and answer section addressing questions ranging from “are there such things as ghosts?” and “Is there such a thing as purgatory or Limbo?” (he would argue there are not) to questions about rewards, pets, marriage, resurrection bodies, and food in the new creation. One of the most interesting was a question of whether we would retain memories, particularly of regrets or griefs, in the new creation. He suggests that the wiping away of tears involves a wiping of memories. I am not so sure, because of how significant our memories are to who we are. I wonder, rather if the thought is the healing of memories, where they remain, but no longer grieve us. After “life now” he includes questions on guardian angels (yes, we do have them), cremation, predictions about Christ’s return, and life after death or near death experiences.

The book not only references the scriptures Frazee studied throughout but includes a section at the back of just the texts, organized by his chapter headings. There is also a discussion guide for small groups.

Frazee gives us a readable, very personal discussion of these matters. It is ideal for anyone from young believer to someone really coming to terms with the question of the afterlife and our eternal destiny. It is straightforward rather than nuanced. Apart from the discussion of eternal punishment versus punishing, he doesn’t discuss differing scholarly views. He is pastoral and honest at the same time. While he thinks pastors should not either assure people that a loved one who as far as anyone knows did not know Christ is with the Lord (or not), he takes the approach that we must trust the Lord with this, and “this is what your loved one would want you to know.” Indeed, this book explores life’s ultimate questions, offering the fruit of Frazee’s own search on these vitally important matters.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

Review: Did the Resurrection Happen?

Did the Resurrection Happen

Did the Resurrection Happen?, David Baggett ed. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009.

Summary: A history of the debates and friendship between Gary Habermas and Antony Flew, a transcript of a 2003 conversation on the resurrection between these two, a discussion of Flew’s subsequent change from a belief in atheism to a kind of deism, and concluding discussions on the evidences and challenges to the idea of the resurrection of Jesus.

For Christians, Easter is actually the most important holiday of the year. It is the day we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, which the apostle Paul argues is the one historical reality on which Christianity stands or falls. In other words, Christianity is falsifiable if the resurrection is disproved, or at least suspect if a credible case cannot be put forward that such an incredible event took place.

This book, edited by David Baggett explores that case and the counter-claims that might be put forward with a section in the middle exploring the journey of one of the participants, Antony Flew from atheism to a deistic form of theism. Baggett introduces the book narrating the history of the growing friendship between Habermas and Flew and the history of debates between the two over a nearly twenty year period, culminating with the debate at Cal Poly at San Luis Obispo in 2003.

Part One then is a transcript of that debate, including audience questions. Habermas begins by asserting a list of twelve known historical facts for which he would contend that the resurrection of Jesus is the best explanation. These are:

  1. Jesus died by crucifixion.
  2. He was buried.
  3. The death of Jesus caused the disciples to despair and lose hope, believing that his life was ended.
  4. Although not as widely accepted, many scholars hold that the tomb in which Jesus was buried was discovered to be empty just a few days later.
  5. The disciples had experiences they believed were the literal appearances of the risen Christ.
  6. The disciples were transformed from doubters who were afraid to identify themselves with Jesus to bold proclaimers of his death and resurrection.
  7. This message was the center of preaching in the early church.
  8. This message was especially proclaimed in Jerusalem, where Jesus was died and was buried shortly before.
  9. As a result of this teaching, the church was born and grew.
  10. Sunday became the primary day of worship.
  11. James, who had been a skeptic, was converted to the faith when he also believed that he had seen the resurrected Jesus.
  12. A few years later, Paul was converted by an experience that he likewise believed to be an appearance of the risen Christ.

Flew, who at one time was the foremost proponent of atheism, and still an avowed atheist at the point of this debate then engages these facts and the inferences from them. He questions the death, burial and most importantly the belief of the disciples that they had seen literal appearances of Jesus. Habermas invokes medical research on the physical effects of crucifixion on the body that can lead to swift death by asphyxia, the multiple testimonies to the burial of Jesus without contrary testimony and the witnesses to the empty tomb including the improbable citing of women as the first witnesses. Then he shows the improbability of mass hallucination, which anything other than hoax or literal appearance would require. It is striking that, at the end, Flew acknowledges that there are good rational grounds for the belief in the resurrection, although for him it remained incredible given his beliefs about the world.

Part Two begins with a conversation between Habermas and Flew about his journey from atheism to a deistic form of theism. The conversation was striking to me for two things. One was the intellectual engagement between these two men who had become friends. The other was the importance of design and fine-tuning arguments in persuading Flew to embrace deism. The second part of this section is Gary Habermas review of Flew’s book, There Is a God. Perhaps most fascinating is the distinction of Flew’s that Habermas notes between philosophical and scientific evidence. Plainly, scientific evidence figured more highly for Flew. It was also significant that a major barrier to embracing Christian theism for Flew was the problem of evil and suffering. Habermas contends that a free will defense may answer this but Flew believed this required a prior belief in revelation, a point of contention between the two. [It should be noted that Antony Flew died April 8, 2010, still embracing a deistic stance.]

The last part of the book returns to evidences and challenges to these evidences including ten philosophical concerns not addressed directly in the debate. The very end of this section and the appendix deals with the use of Bayes Theory of probability. I found this most interesting as it has been invoked in a number of discussions with atheists, usually by atheists, arguing that the probabilities of God’s existence, or the resurrection fail to reach a threshold where belief is warranted. I will admit to not fully understanding the mathematics behind this argument, but found that the author confirmed my suspicion of the arbitrary character of assigning probabilities, which often reflect a priori beliefs rather than evidence per se’. I think more work needs to be done in answering this line of objection, which on the face of it sounds persuasive because of its quantitative nature.

As I noted at the beginning, the resurrection is essentially the lynch pin of Christian faith. For the person struggling with doubts or considering the credibility of the resurrection claim, this is an excellent first book, because it reflects a real conversation between two people with opposing views. We see the intellectual honesty of Antony Flew, who had the courage to change his beliefs when that was where the evidence took him. In the public and private conversations between Habermas and Flew we are given a model of dialogue and inquiry that is substantive, charitable, and intellectually honest in a public square nearly bereft of such conversations.

Review: Searching for Sunday

Searching for SundaySearching for Sunday, Rachel Held Evans. Nashville: Nelson Books, 2015.

Summary: As the subtitle suggests, this is a narrative of the author’s struggle between loving and leaving the Church, only to find her loved renewed through the sacramental practices that she sees at the heart of the Church’s life.

True confessions. I’ve had a like-dislike affair (love-hate is too strong) with the writing of Rachel Held Evans. Ever since I first encountered her blog posts, I have admired the freshness, authenticity and downright beauty that I find in her writing. What I’ve always dis-liked was that the central thread of her writing was the public critique of and increasing disaffection with the evangelicalism in which she grew up.

At the core of this is simply our different responses to the pain we’ve experienced in our church experiences. I guess I’ve always felt that my relationship with the church was much like marriage–it could be rocky as well as glorious at times, but opting out just wasn’t an option. I’ve only ever left a local congregation because of moves, and even then sought their counsel and left with their blessing. Yet I’ve struggled with forms of legalism, cultural captivities, unholy political alliances, what I thought was the wrongful subjection of women, and just good old-fashioned church conflict. Memories of some of these things still hurt. I wanted to leave sometimes, but I never did.

Perhaps what I really don’t like is the exposure of my own self-righteousness in all this and the questions this raises. Am I really just jealous that I didn’t have the courage or authenticity to do what she did? As a fellow blogger, am I simply jealous of her success?

All that and more was swirling about as I sat down with this book. Could I even give her a fair reading? And what happened is that I got surprised by a narrative of someone who has not given up on church for many of the same reasons that hold for me; who has hung in there and found a kind of resurrection in her relationship with the church and her Lord. And in all this, she reminded me of all the gospel beauties that have held me true to this faith over half a century.

The book is organized both around a narrative loving, leaving, and finding the church, and around the seven sacraments of the Episcopal church where she presently worships, that have served as the road back to church for her. She summarizes her renewed embrace of the church in these terms:

“…Sunday morning sneaks up on us — like dawn, like resurrection, like the sun that rises a ribbon at a time. We expect a trumpet and a triumphant entry, but as always, God surprises us by showing up in ordinary things: in bread, in wine, in water, in words, in sickness, in healing, in death, in a manger of hay, in a mother’s womb, in an empty tomb. Church isn’t some community you join or some place you arrive. Church is what happens when someone taps you on the shoulder and whispers in your ear, Pay attention, this is holy ground, God is here.” (p. 258)

Along the way, I found places where I both agree and disagree with her. I am with her in her criticism of many of the cultural and political captivities of evangelicalism (and I hope that she will become increasingly aware of similar dangers in the mainline churches). I would affirm her critique of dogmatism and legalism, but would also hope that she could come to the place of Dorothy Sayers who wrote that “the dogma is the drama”, which in fact I think she is affirming in her love of the practices of the church, which in fact are rooted in creed and dogma. I would agree that we have badly transgressed against LGBT persons and missed the ways LGBT sisters and brothers may be gifts to the church. Yet I find her critique and affirmation so unqualified that it does not address the question of the discipleship of our sexuality for all followers of Christ, no matter what our orientation or sense of gender identity.

Yet there is so much of value here. For one, Evans’ narrative gives voice to and reflects the narratives of many young men and women who have distanced themselves from church. Whatever we think of the reasons and beliefs, if we don’t take these things on board, particularly if we lead churches or ministries, then we are heartless shepherds! Slick and trendy programs won’t address this alienation. And that leads to the second value to be found here, that there is a deep longing for the church to be the church; a community of people loving God and each other whole-heartedly and living and proclaiming the gospel of the grace and truth found in Christ in word and sacrament.

As you can tell, I haven’t become an unqualified fan. Rather, I’ve discovered someone who loves many of the same things I love, who has challenged and enlarged my thinking, and while we are each on unique journeys from different places, we are both on a journey toward the Sunday of resurrection. May God keep and form us both for that day!

Review: Essential Eschatology: Our Present and Future Hope

Essential EschatologyDiscussions of eschatology (the study of end things) often get wrapped up in debates about interpretive themes for the book of Revelation, attempts to equate different symbols with different contemporary events, and predictions of the date of Christ’s return (several of which I’ve seen come and go in my lifetime!). What I loved about this book by John Phelan is that he focused on how the future hope we embrace can practically shape our lives as individuals and church communities in the present.

Hope is a theme that runs through the book, and even through the chapter titles. Phelan begins by exploring the hope of Israel and the promises to Israel fulfilled in the breaking in of the kingdom of God in the person of Jesus. That fulfillment is both present and future and in fact the church in mission  brings the future into the present through its hopeful life. At the same time this is not a hope that should be diverted into accommodations with political powers. Phelan traces the sad history of this from Constantine to the present and our call to be a counter-cultural people of hope in the Lord who will make all things new. Because of this hope of creation renewed and the resurrection of Jesus, we believe that this renewal will extend to the resurrection of our bodies. Our hope is not to be disembodied souls floating around heaven but saints with new creation bodies in the new creation on earth.

Phelan then turns to the strange hope of judgment that actually is good news, that God will set things right. While he argues that descriptions of heaven and hell are metaphorical, he does believe in a reality behind these metaphors and the possibility that God will honor the choices of those who refuse heaven while arguing that we may depend upon “the judge of the world will do right.” While arguing against purgatory as an intermediate state or process, he allows for the possibility of healing and growth to fully realize God’s image in us.

He goes on to explore in more depth the idea of the coming of the kingdom, which was not “the end of the world as we know it” but the coming of God’s rule into the world. He argues that the community of those who are under the rule of Jesus are a reflection but not the coming of this kingdom in its fullness. It is a community whose life should anticipate mending the rifts in the world as a people of peace and reconciliation. The church at the same time is not to consider either personal renewal or societal renewal to replace the ultimate personal return of Jesus. This expectation also provides hope in the midst of empire, whether that be the power of Rome or western capitalism. Against both amillenialism and premillenialism, he argues for the personal reign of Jesus on earth, leaning toward a type of post-millenialism. With regard to Israel, he argues against supercessionism (i.e. that the church has superceded Israel) to propose the salvation of the Jews alongside Gentiles. He argues that perhaps the most powerful witness to the Jews is to manifest Christ’s transforming power in living lives of shalom in the world, bringing peace rather than conflict. He recounts a conversation where a Jewish rabbi, in response to sharing along these lines says, “Well, we Jews have not seen it.”

And so he concludes with what it means for the church to bring its hope for the future into the present. It is the living of shalom, this mending of the world lived out in service, in mission, in play, and celebration. It is to do so without corrupting alliances with political powers or structures of ecclesial power. It is proclaiming the God who both respects human freedom while entering into the suffering caused by the misshapen exercise of that freedom.

Some may take exception to the author’s ideas about the millenium and about judgment. What is incontestable is the challenge to live into the new creation hope of the risen Lord which means living toward the peaceable kingdom to come. This challenges our false hopes in technology and political structures while calling us to lives of great joy, humble service and abiding hope. What Phelan has given us is a book about the future enabling us to live with hope in the present.

Transcendence–or Resurrection?

In the current movie, Transcendence, (which I have not seen) Johnny Depp’s character is mortally wounded by anti-Artificial Intelligence terrorists, and before he dies, his consciousness is downloaded into a computer by his wife. As is typical of such things, all sorts of mayhem results as his consciousness connects to the internet.

What is interesting is that this is not just the stuff of movies but that there is serious thinking and the beginnings of research with the goal of doing just this, as evidenced in the Wikipedia article on Mind uploading. Apart from the ethical questions raised by such efforts, my question is, why would you want to do this when there is a much better alternative?

What am I talking about? Resurrection–the idea of coming to life again after one has died in a new type of physical body that has continuity in some way with the one we have in this life but is subject to neither aging, disease, or death. Frankly, there is a good deal I like about embodied existence that a purely mental or even spiritual existence can’t hold a candle to. There are the experiences of the senses, glorious visions, beautiful music, delectable smells, the pleasures of eating, touching and being touched. There are the delights of using one’s body to translate our ideas into a gourmet dish, a song, a spoken word, a beautiful garden, a work of art, or even just this sentence. Some might argue that there are digital equivalents to this, but I’m not buying it.

HE-IS-RISEN-NOWISEEMEDIA

This is why I celebrate Easter. Resurrection is not a speculation of futurists or a research goal for the near or distant future. When we say, “He is risen, He is risen indeed” in churches around the world, we celebrate the reality that the first man has already come back from the dead, not as a resuscitated corpse, but as a gloriously new, yet emphatically the same Jesus in the flesh. Beyond their wildest dreams, the first followers of Jesus empirically validated the reality that resurrection is possible. They saw, heard, even touched the risen Christ.

Not only that, but followers of Jesus believe that “resurrection” is already at work in us, dying though we are. The apostle Paul speaks of a “new creation” having begun in us, that we already have experienced a being raised from spiritual death to life. The resurrection of the body simply marks the completion of a process whose beginning was symbolized when I was lifted up out of the waters of baptism.

Death seems so final, and perhaps what motivates people who dream of accomplishing “transcendence” is to find a way to evade and transcend this final reality.  If you don’t believe in a hereafter, if all you believe is that when you die, you rot, then transcendence is the only game in town. I also wonder if for others, “transcendence” is the best shot at evading the hereafter, or so one hopes.

Death also seems not to be the way things were meant to be. The Bible speaks of it as the last enemy to be destroyed. No wonder we fight it so hard with all our medical technology! No wonder we sometimes try to deny its existence or thwart its impact upon our lives. The truth is, I love my life in this body. I loved my first cup of coffee today. I loved the spring freshness of the air as I worked to clean up my yard. I even love the twinges in muscles that tell me that I used them! Truth is, I don’t want to die. In fact, some training I’ve received tells me that one should be concerned and take action when a person speaks of wanting to die.

So I get the transcendence thing. But I’m not going there. Today I will be celebrating something I think is far better. The bodily resurrection of Jesus is empirical evidence that my bodily resurrection is possible, and that of my parents, and all those I love who have hoped in Christ. I am celebrating the hope that one day I will see them in all their physical glory, that I will be seen with a glory I’ve never had before, and above all, that I will see the glory of the risen Christ. Oh, what a day that will be!

Paradoxes: Dying to Live

I’ve been thinking of late of some paradoxes of life. Paradoxes are ideas that seem apparently contradictory and yet are true. One of these is at the heart of my faith. It is the idea that to live, you must die. To try to hold onto your life is to lose it. Only if you lose it will you gain it. Jesus put it this way, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.  For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self?” (Luke 9:23-25).

The problem with this paradox is that to test its truth, one has to believe in resurrections. In our modern world, when you die, you just die. Period. And so it seems to make sense to hold onto life as long as you can. The only question is, what kind of life are you holding onto? Yesterday, I reviewed Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, the story of Binx Bolling and a life of quiet, middle-class desperation. And I wonder, is this the kind of life we are holding onto–one of acquiring more things and experiences and wealth in our early years, so that we can buy retirement condos and play golf into senescence? Maybe we sprinkle in some service to humanity and philanthropy. Yet the story is just about us, about living life “my way” (in the words of the old Sinatra song), until we die and are forgotten.

I wonder if at least for some of those who come to faith as adults, it is an awakening from this desperately comfortable zombie-like existence. It is recognizing that we really need resurrection, and for that to take place, first we must really die to running our own lives, to making our selves supreme. This seems hard. But isn’t this what we do when we go under the knife for a major surgery for a life-threatening condition? We could die, but if we do not undergo the surgery, we will. This is what following Jesus means–to die to directing my own life to follow the direction of another.

I’ve been on this journey most of my life and it is still hard. Jesus speaks of taking up the cross daily. At present, one of the things this means is shifting attention in my work from some of the things I’ve really loved to some necessary but less glamorous “behind the scenes” work that I know how to do and may multiply our work in the long term. It involves a kind of dying but what I’ve also thought about as I begin to lean into this change is the promise of new life that could not be had any other way. It means living afresh into the paradox that is at the heart of the gospel.

I end with a quote I first heard years ago by Jim Eliot, a missionary martyred in South America by a tribe who eventually found faith, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”