What happens after we die?

at-his-resurrectionI’ve been doing “Sermon Talkback” in the adult Sunday school classes at Richmond’s First Baptist Church for the past few months.  In the older adult classes, in particular, people often want to know what comes next.  “What happens after we die?” they ask.  There are lots of answers to that question out there, depending on which books and magazines you read, which movies you watch, and which radio stations you listen to, but not all of those answers are strictly biblical.  The best biblical answer I’ve found comes from writer and theologian Frederick Buechner in his discussion of the word immortality.  Take a look:

“Immortal means death-proof.  To believe in the immortality of the soul is to believe that though John Brown’s body lies a-moldering in the grave, his soul goes marching on simply because marching on is the nature of souls just the way producing butterflies is the nature of caterpillars.  Bodies die, but souls don’t.  True or false, this is not the biblical view.  The biblical view differs in several significant ways:

  1. “As someone has put it, the biblical understanding of human beings is not that they have bodies, but that they are bodies. When God made Adam he did it by slapping some mud together to make a body and then breathing some breath into it to make a living soul.  Thus the body and soul which make up human beings are as inextricably part of parcel of each other as the leaves and flames that make up a bonfire.  When you kick the bucket, you kick it one hundred percent.  All of you.  There is nothing left to go marching on with.
  2. “The idea that the body dies and the soul doesn’t is an idea which implies that the body is something rather disgusting and embarrassing, something you’d rather be done with. The Greeks spoke of it as the prison house of the soul.  The suggestion was that to escape it altogether was something less than a disaster.  The Bible, on the other hand, sees the body in particular and the material world in general as a good and glorious invention.  How could it be otherwise when it was invented by a good and glorious God?  The Old Testament rings loud with the praises of trees and birds and rain and mountains, of wine that gladdens the heart of man and oil that makes his face shine and bread that strengthens him.
  3. “Those who believe in the immortality of the soul believe that life after death is as natural a human function as waking after sleep. The Bible instead speaks of resurrection.  It is entirely unnatural.  We do not go on living beyond the grave because that’s how we are made.  Rather, we go to our graves as dead as a doornail and are given our lives back again by God (i.e. resurrected) just as we were given them by God in the first place, because that is the way God is made.
  4. “All the major Christian creeds affirm belief in resurrection of the body. In other words, they affirm the belief that what God in spite of everything prizes enough to bring back to life is not just some disembodied echo of human beings but a new and revised version of all the things which made them the particular human beings they were and which they need something like a body to express: their personality, the way they looked, the sound of their voices, their particular capacity for creating and loving, in some sense their faces.
  5. “The idea of the immortality of the soul is based on the experience of humanity’s indomitable spirit. The idea of the resurrection of the body is based on the experience of God’s unspeakable love” (Wishful Thinking, pp. 49-52).

“Don’t Mess with My Tinkertoys!”

TinkertoysDo you remember Tinkertoys, that set of wooden sticks and spools you could build things with, wonderful things as tall as you were when you were a kid? I talked about Tinkertoys at church last Sunday, when I facilitated a question-and-answer session following Art Wright’s three-week lecture on “Heaven, Hell, and the Afterlife.”

I talked about how all people build a “framework of understanding” to make sense of their experience. If you step outside and a bird flies past you say, “That’s right; birds fly,” and you hang that experience on your framework of understanding (this is where I always picture a Tinkertoy framework, with experiences hanging from it like Christmas tree ornaments). But if you step outside and a cat flies past you’ve got a problem; there is nowhere on your framework of understanding to hang that experience. You have to decide: “Did that really happen? Did a cat really fly past? Or did someone throw a cat across my field of vision? Or am I hallucinating?”

Birds? No problem. Cats? Big problem.

I said, “You’ve spent your whole life building and re-building your framework of understanding and it’s precious to you. You don’t want anybody to mess with it. But somewhere in there is your understanding of heaven, hell, and the afterlife, and I get the feeling that for some of you Art Wright’s lecture was troubling, that some part of it messed with your Tinkertoys.”

I saw heads nodding around the room.

That led into an interesting exchange about what we use to build our frameworks of understanding in the first place, and we acknowledged that much of what we have heard about heaven, hell, and the afterlife comes from books, movies, songs, and popular theology. Not all of it is authoritative. For believers, the Bible is authoritative; it’s that one source we can gather around and study together with general agreement that what’s in there is true.

My guess is that much of what Art Wright was teaching in his three-week lecture was biblical. He is a New Testament professor, after all, which means that he’s spent a good bit of time studying the actual text of the New Testament. I’ve done that myself, and I’m often surprised by what’s not in there as well as by what is. Sometimes it “messes with my Tinkertoys,” and forces me to rebuild some part of my framework of understanding.

I don’t like that.

My framework of understanding is precious to me. But it’s more important to me that it be right than that it be easy, and Scripture is the best way to ensure that. It is, in almost every way, the “blueprint” by which my framework must be built.

And I mean all of scripture: not just the parts I like.

Sharon Parks has a name for that framework of understanding: she calls it “faith.” I think that’s a good name for it, and even though there are ways to build frameworks of understanding that don’t include God, those are not ways I’m interested in. I want to build a distinctively Christian faith, one with Jesus right at the center of it. As far as heaven, hell, and the afterlife are concerned, I’m content to follow him. If I can trust Scripture on this (and I think I can), the Way that he is is the Way that leads to life abundant, overflowing, and everlasting.

Why would I follow anyone else?

…And Then to Be Understood

In my last post I tried to state as clearly as possible my understanding of the position held by those who believe we should continue to require Christians from other denominations to be re-baptized when they join Richmond’s First Baptist Church.  It wasn’t my position, but only my understanding of that other position.  As Stephen Covey has suggested:  “Seek first to understand, and then to be understood.”

So now, in an effort to be understood, I’d like to state my position:

Those who say that believer’s baptism by immersion is the New Testament model are absolutely right, but the New Testament tells the story of people who were hearing about Jesus for the first time.  That crowd on the Day of Pentecost, for example, had never been given an opportunity to profess their faith and be baptized.  When they were, they jumped at the chance.  Some 3,000 were added to the church.  As the gospel swept across the ancient world it was good news in the most literal sense: it was good and it was news.  So, what do you do when someone repents and believes in the gospel?  You baptize them, and that’s exactly what you ought to do with converts. 

But that’s not what you ought to do with Christians.

If I were trying to invent a way of welcoming converts into the church, I think I would do it in just the way we do it now, and for all the same reasons given in my last post:  I would want to stand waist deep in the water with that new believer, just as John stood in the Jordan with Jesus; I would ask her to profess her faith in Christ by saying “Jesus is Lord,” and to do it in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear; I would dip her down beneath the surface in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, just as Jesus commanded; and I would raise her up to her new life in Christ as if she were rising from the dead, just as Paul describes.  I think believer’s baptism by immersion is the perfect way to welcome converts into the church of Jesus Christ.

But if I were inventing a way of welcoming Christians into the church I might simply ask that person coming down the aisle:  Are you a believer?  Yes.  Have you received baptism in some form?  Yes.  Have you made a public profession of faith in Christ?  Yes.  And do you earnestly seek to follow Jesus?  Yes.  Then welcome to First Baptist Church!  

And then maybe we could toss confetti from the balcony.

I say this because I don’t believe we should treat Christians in the same way we treat converts.  There is a difference–a real difference–between someone who is making a first-time profession of faith in Christ and someone who has been a faithful Christian for years.  Our membership requirements should reflect that.   To those who fear we would be leaving behind the clear teaching of Scripture on this matter I say no, we would not.  There is no clear teaching of Scripture on what to do when a Christian from another denomination wants to join the church.  There is only clear teaching on what to do when someone becomes a Christian for the first time.  When it comes to that we Baptists try to be as faithful to the New Testament model as possible.  We baptize believers by immersion.  That’s the way we’ve been doing it for the past 230 years at Richmond’s First Baptist Church and that is the way we will continue to do it. 

In other churches they make disciples in other ways.   I’ve written about this in previous posts, and talked about how Presbyterians, for example, make disciples by baptizing babies, doing everything they can to bring them up in the Christian faith, and then, when they are old enough to make up their own minds about Jesus, confirming them as believers.  We make disciples by dedicating babies, doing everything we can to bring them up in the Christian faith, and then, when they are old enough to make up their own minds about Jesus, baptizing them as believers.   Unless we are willing to say (out loud) that that process of discipleship is not valid, and those churches are not churches, and those people are not Christians, we ought to welcome them as our brothers and sisters in Christ.  Perhaps we could even feel honored that of all the churches they might have chosen, they have chosen this one.  What I hear from them over and over again is what a warm welcome they have received here, how much they sense the spirit of Christ among us, and how eager they are to be part of this church.  You might think we would throw open the doors to people like that instead of going down a checklist of Christian credentials and furrowing our brows when we discover they weren’t baptized in the same way we were.

I told someone recently that when we stand before Jesus he won’t ask us how much water was used or when it was applied.  He will only ask us what he asked Peter that day by the seashore:

“Do you love me?”

Seek First To Understand

I’m going to try to write a whole post without using the word “but.”

It’s not easy, because when we are caught up in the kind of conversation where one person is trying to persuade another we often stop listening.  We say things like, “Yes, yes.  I understand.  But…” when maybe we haven’t understood at all.  That’s why one of the seven habits of highly effective people is to “Seek first to understand, and then to be understood.”*

So, even though I have been in Baptist churches for twenty-five years that didn’t require Christians from other denominations to be re-baptized when they joined I’ve been trying to understand why this one does.  I have been listening, carefully, to those on the other side of this issue.  I have tried to put myself in their place, and see it from their point of view.  What I’d like to do here is articulate my understanding of their position without saying “but,” without interrupting to interject my own precious opinion.  Maybe when I’m finished one of them will tell me if I’ve got it right or wrong. 

Here we go…

When Jesus began his public ministry, he did it by being baptized.  He came to John at the Jordan, and when John protested Jesus said, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15, NIV).  Although none of us was there, we assume that John then baptized Jesus by immersion, by dipping him beneath the surface of the water, since the Greek word baptizo means literally “to dip,” or “immerse.”  In baptism, we follow the example set by Jesus himself; we come to the river in humble obedience to a righteousness greater than our own.

At the end of his public ministry Jesus commissioned his followers to “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19, NIV).  The meaning is clear: baptism is essential to the disciple-making process. 

When Peter preached to the crowds on the Day of Pentecost they were “cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’ Peter said to them, ‘Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins'” (Acts 2:37-38, NIV).  So those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.  Although that day was unique in many ways, the pattern that was established—repentance followed by baptism—was not.  For the remainder of the New Testament, this is how people are “added to the number” of believers.  In other words, this is how they join the church.

When Paul talks about baptism he talks about it as a symbolic way of dying and rising with Christ.  He writes, “Don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  We were therefore buried with him in baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Romans 6:3-4, NIV).  The only appropriate mode for such a symbol is immersion, where the old self is buried in a watery grave and the new self rises to the new life in Christ. 

To summarize: Anyone who wants to join the church of Jesus Christ should be willing to follow the example of Jesus Christ, who was—himself—immersed.  In the Great Commission He told his followers to make disciples by baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, presumably by immersion and only after a profession of faith.  Peter told the crowds on the Day of Pentecost that they needed to repent and be baptized—not the other way around—a pattern that is followed in the remainder of the New Testament.  Believer’s baptism by immersion is a powerful symbol of dying and rising with Christ, and clearly the mode Paul had in mind in Romans 6:4.

How about it, friends: have I understood?

___________________________________
*from Stephen Covey’s book by the same title

Marriage, Death, Resurrection, Reunion

I was out at Lakewood Manor this afternoon, preaching a sermon called “Will We Meet on That Beautiful Shore?”  It was a sermon inspired by a conversation I once had with a man who had been told that he wouldn’t know his deceased wife in heaven, and the “proof” he was given was a passage from Luke 20 where the Sadducees (who don’t believe in the resurrection) come to Jesus with a hypothetical question:

“There were seven brothers,” the Sadducees began.  “The first married a woman and died, childless; and then the second, and likewise the third married her; and so in the same way all seven died childless and finally the woman died, too.  In the resurrection of the dead, therefore, whose wife will she be?  For the seven had married her.”  Jesus said, “The people of this age marry and are given in marriage. But those who are considered worthy of taking part in that age and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage” (Luke 20:29-35).  And that’s what somebody had told this man: that he wouldn’t be married in heaven, that he might as well just get over that idea.  He told me about it through tears.  It was this idea—the idea that he would someday be reunited with his wife—that had kept him going.  Now what was he supposed to do?

I sat with that man in his car for a long time, looking at that passage, and then I said, “Look, it doesn’t say that you won’t be married in heaven.  It just says that in the resurrection people don’t get married, see?  ‘They neither marry (present tense) nor are given in marriage.’  It’s another way of saying there are no weddings in Heaven.” 

That seemed to help him.  But I made the mistake of reading on to find out why there aren’t any weddings in heaven and the reason Jesus gives is because there won’t be any death there, as if the only reason to get married were to make babies, to replenish the population, and thus ensure the survival of the species.  “I don’t know if that’s why you got married,” I said, “but when I got married the survival of the species was not really the first thing on my mind.”  I had love on my mind, as I think most of us do these days.  But if you read closely you will find that’s not really the biblical view of marriage.  Marriage, in the Bible, seems to be little more than the creation of a stable social structure in which children can be born and reared. 

So, when we talk about marriage in America these days we had better be careful not to embrace too quickly the biblical model of marriage in the same way we want to be careful not to embrace “biblical family values.”  When people begin to talk to me about those values I say, “Which biblical family did you have in mind?  Cain and Abel?  Lot and his daughters?  Jacob and Esau?  David and Absalom?”  Those biblical families had some terribly twisted values.  And when it comes to marriage it’s true that if marriage is all about making babies then, yes, it has to be marriage between “a man and a woman.”  We are human beings, after all; we reproduce sexually.  But it wouldn’t necessarily have to be marriage between “one man and one woman.”  Not in the Bible anyway.  If making babies is the point then the more wives you have the more effective your efforts, right?  Look at Jacob: he produced twelve sons and at least one daughter through his two wives and their two maidservants.  Solomon—who set some kind of record—had 300 wives and 700 concubines (he practiced nation-building the old fashioned way!).

The problem comes for the Sadducees when they try to imagine one wife with seven husbands rather than the other way around.  If wives were considered property, which they were, whose property would she be?  The seven would be fighting over her in the resurrection, making the whole notion seem ridiculous.  That’s just what the Sadducees wanted to do, they wanted to make the whole notion of resurrection seem ridiculous, but Jesus sees things another way.  They don’t marry there, he says, neither are they given in marriage, because there isn’t any death there.  Remember that child’s letter to God that says, “Dear God: Instead of letting people die and having to make new ones why don’t you just keep the ones you got now?”  In the resurrection that’s just what God does—he keeps the ones he’s got.  And so there isn’t any need for a social structure in which children can be born and reared just so the species can be preserved. And there isn’t any need to have children so you can secure your social status or achieve some small measure of immortality.  And I’m going to bet my bottom dollar that those women who are considered worthy of the resurrection are not going to be treated as anyone’s property ever again.  Things are different there, thank God.

And resurrection is real.  Jesus proves it to the Sadducees be referring to a story from Exodus, one of the few books in the Bible they accepted as authoritative.  It was that story from Exodus 3, the one about the burning bush, where God identifies himself to Moses as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  He doesn’t say he was their God.  He says he is, right now.  For he is not the God of the dead, but of the living.  “You want to know if there’s a resurrection?” Jesus asks. “Take that!”

It’s a good answer.  At least it works for them.  In the very next verse the Scribes who were listening burst into applause.  And after that no one dared ask him any more questions.  But I’ve got one: I accept the fact of the resurrection but what about reunion?  Will we meet on that beautiful shore?  Will that man who wept in his car that day be reunited with his wife?  And in what way?  Will they have a little cottage right there beside some golden street in heaven where they can sit on the front porch in their rocking chairs as they hold hands and watch the sun set over the crystal sea?  And if so what about the second wife that same man later married?  Where will she sit?  And whose hand will she hold?

As far as reunion goes—I’m sure of it.  Not only from this passage in which Jesus speaks of the eternal family reunion of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but also in that passage from John 14 where he tells the disciples that he is going to prepare a place for them so that where he is there they may be also.  If that’s not reunion I don’t know what is!  And as far as the kind of relationship we might enjoy in that place?  Is it possible that the most loving and intimate relationships we have known in this life are but a foretaste of the relationships we will enjoy in the life to come? 

I can imagine that man seeing his first wife in heaven and embracing her with tears in his eyes, telling her how much he missed her and how glad he is to see her again.  I can imagine that all the best memories of the life they lived together would be fresh and new for him there.  But I can also imagine him introducing her to his second wife without any fear that she would be jealous or angry.  All that small and fearful, greedy and grasping, love would be gone, replaced by the kind of love God has for us—abundant as the ocean and just as full of grace.  Maybe the two of them would go strolling off hand in hand—those two wives—the first one saying to the other, “Boy, have I got some stories to tell you!” while he watched them walk away, shaking his head with wonder.

Who knows?  Only God.  The best we can do is speculate.  But we can know this much at least, thanks to Jesus: that resurrection is real, that reunion is real, and that in that resurrection reunion things will be really . . . heavenly.

Striking Similarities

childrenIn my last post I talked about the difference between making disciple and raising disciples. 

When it comes to making disciples, no group of Christians has been more committed than Baptists.  We take the Great Commission seriously, heeding Jesus’ call to “go into all the world and make disciples of every nation, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19-20).  When I talk to people of other denominations about what it means to be Baptist I say that one of the things that sets us apart is our historic emphasis on missions and evangelism.  We see it as our duty to share the good news about Jesus with the whole world.  But it occurs to me that in both missions and evangelism we are bringing the Gospel to adults, primarily, just as those first apostles did.  In that sense we are being truly biblical, following the pattern of the Book of Acts by going to those places and people who have yet to hear about Christ and boldly sharing our faith.  When those people respond to the invitation to become disciples we baptize them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Nothing could be more biblical. 

But again, the Bible doesn’t tells us what happened when those new Christians began to bring their children and grandchildren to church.  We’ve had to “invent” that part of our tradition.  Early on in the history of the church people began baptizing babies, because they didn’t want them to be left out of this wonderful new life they had discovered.  For centuries that was the norm in the undivided Church of Jesus Christ.  But during the years of the Protestant Reformation people began to read the Bible for themselves and the people who came to be called “Baptists” noticed that there was no mention of infant baptism in the Bible.  Partly out of reverence for Scripture, and partly as an act of protest against the state-controlled church, they stopped bringing their babies for baptism, waiting instead until their children were old enough to make up their own minds about Jesus and profess their faith for themselves.  Only then would they baptize them, initially by pouring water over their heads but eventually by immersion, plunging them under the water just as the Greek word baptizo suggests.

That’s been “the Baptist way” ever since. 

But we don’t ignore our children in those early years.  We don’t wait until they reach the age of accountability and then start telling them about Jesus.  On the contrary, we bring them to church as soon as possible after they are born (Elmer West jokes that his mother brought him to church a good while before he was born).  We dedicate them in a beautiful ceremony which acknowledges the truth that even before they have done one thing right or wrong God loves these children and wants them to be his.  We bring them to the church nursery, where dedicated Christians hold them and rock them and sing to them and change their diapers.  We teach them about Jesus in Sunday school and Vacation Bible School; we do everything we can to raise them in “the nurture and admonition of the Lord.”  Eventually they come to that place where they are ready to make up their own minds about Jesus and when they do we celebrate.  We baptize them publicly and rejoice right along with the angels in heaven. 

What strikes me is the similarity between that approach and the approach of almost every other Christian denomination.  In the Presbyterian church of my childhood, for example, I was baptized as an infant.  Yes, some water was sprinkled on my head in the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit, but essentially it was a way of acknowledging that even before I had done one thing right or wrong God loved me and wanted me for his own.  I grew up in that grace, shining my sturdy Buster Brown shoes on Sunday morning and clipping on my bow tie for church; studying the tiny pink paperback catechism I had been given so I could answer questions like, “What is the chief end of man?”  (Answer: Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever);  and learning to recite the Apostle’s Creed, which begins “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord…”  If I had stayed in that church long enough I would have eventually attended confirmation classes, where the pastor would talk to me about what it means to be a Christian and belong to a church.  Finally, at the age of 12 or 13, I would have stood before the congregation and professed my faith, saying out loud so everyone could hear me, “Jesus is Lord!” 

When you look at these two ways side by side—the Baptist way and the Presbyterian way—you see that in each we do something in infancy to acknowledge God’s grace and we do something at a later point to acknowledge the child’s faith.  In between the two we do everything we can to help the child grow up Christian, because it’s not only Baptists who want their children to become mature believers some day: it’s Methodists, Lutherans, Catholics, Pentecostals, Episcopalians, and Presbyterians as well.

When I look back through the difficult questions in that little catechism and the dense theology of the Apostle’s Creed I think somebody was trying hard to make a thoughtful Christian out of me, and so if it sometimes seems that I think too much about these things you can do what I always do:

Blame the Presbyterians.