“This Too Shall Pass”

This too shall pass

I wrote this blog post on May 7, 2012, not quite five years ago. I had no idea that by this point, I would hardly be walking, using a scooter 95% of the time and unable to move without a walker for the rest. Pain and serious weakness are my daily companions. As I noticed the counts on my most popular blog posts and discovered this one among the top, I am grateful that the wisdom God gave me five years ago is even more true today. And I am grateful that I can even minister to myself . .

Sometimes it’s the simplest things that help us navigate life. The old, old adage “this too shall pass” is one of them.

No matter what trial, grief, trouble or challenge we face, there is comfort in reminding ourselves that it’s temporary. Some are very short-lived—the time crunch of a deadline, the pain of recovering from surgery, waiting for results of a test or an application. We can remind ourselves, “By this time next week (or month), this will be behind me. This too shall pass.”

Some are very long-term—a permanent disability like my polio or my dear friend Lael Arrington’s painful rheumatoid arthritis. The death of a loved one, or a marriage, or a cherished dream. The realization that God is choosing to give us grace for, not deliverance from, our thorn in the flesh. Even so, when we remember that our time on this earth is short compared to our life on the new earth, we can remind ourselves, “A hundred years from today, this trial will be just a memory. I can either be glad for how I handled it, or regret the short-sighted choices I made. Because this too shall pass.”

It’s helpful to remember that even the good times, the fun times, the stress-free (or low-stress) times will also pass, because life is like that. When we remember everything is temporary, it helps us hold onto sweet moments and days with a looser grasp while reminding ourselves to be grateful for the blessings we’re enjoying because “this too shall pass.” If we are mindful of the transience of the good days, we won’t be devastated when they dissipate.

“This too shall pass” is one way we can live in light of eternity, keeping our earthly life in perspective. When the hard times come, whether moments or years, we can comfort ourselves with the truth that “our momentary, light suffering is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison because we are not looking at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen. For what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal” (2 Cor. 4:17-18).

When the good times come, we can give thanks for the way they point like signposts to heaven’s unending joy.

Which will NEVER pass away!

 

This blog post originally appeared at
blogs.bible.org/tapestry/sue_bohlin/this_too_shall_pass on May 8, 2012.


The Happiest Place on Earth?

January 3, 2012

Disneyland, the Happiest Place on EarthDisneyland has long positioned itself as “The Happiest Place on Earth.” And Disney goes to great lengths to maintain that illusion. Their parks are as close to spotless as you can get; you never see wrappers, gum or spilled popcorn on the ground, since they get swept up within a minute of hitting the pavement by an army of “cast members,” from custodians to ride workers, who are devoted to maintaining the fantasy. Every Disney park cast member is trained to be assertively friendly in making things right and keeping people happy. When a friend’s child lost the ice cream scoop from his cone, within moments a Disney person replaced it for free.

Recently I met a couple of Disney reps who were exhibiting at a convention. In talking about the company policy of propagating the illusion of “the happiest place on earth,” they told me that every employee is drilled with the four keys to their success: Safety, Courtesy, Efficiency, and Show. Keep everyone safe, be unfailingly kind and courteous to every guest, “git ‘er done,” and be show-ready and show-perfect at all times. Both of these ladies’ faces lit up as they talked about Disney values and how much they enjoyed their part in keeping the fantasy going.

This resonates with me. When my husband and I visited Disneyland not long after we were married, it was the best day of my life—even better than our wedding day! I never enjoyed myself so much as I did that day, and Disney’s unflagging efforts to keep their park the happiest place on earth was the reason why. So I get it.

What I get even more is why it’s so successful, and why it’s so important.

Disney’s desire to provide a great experience and make people happy touches one of our most basic—and universal—heart desires: to return to Eden. We long for perfection. We long to experience no pain and no need. We long to be completely immersed in an ocean of love and affection. We long for what is wrong to be set right. We long for evil to be banished and for good to rule the day.

We long for intimacy with our Creator. And many of us don’t even know that’s what we’re longing for, but I believe that’s what’s at the heart of all addictions.

All these things we had in Eden, and we lost in Eden. But the story’s not over, and God has promised to make everything right. Our longings WILL be fulfilled one day.

In the meantime, we can visit Disneyland or Disneyworld. They will pass away, God’s word says, but the real reality of what we’re longing for will come to pass (read the end of Revelation). Count on it.

 

This blog post originally appeared at blogs.bible.org/engage/sue_bohlin/the_happiest_place_on_earth


God Wins: A Critique of Rob Bell’s Love Wins

Dr. Patrick Zukeran critiques Rob Bell’s controversial book denying the biblical teaching on hell, arguing that Bell offers another gospel.

A New Kind of “Christianity”

Download the Podcast Will all people regardless of their belief enter heaven? In a new book, Love Wins, mega church pastor Rob Bell presents his case for universal salvation. Bell states that a Christianity that teaches many will spend eternity in hell while some go to heaven is “misguided and toxic.”{1} Bell asserts that the message Christians have preached for centuries is actually a harmful message.

Bell argues that God loves everyone and desires all people to be saved. However if the majority of people never come to faith in Christ and spend eternity in hell, God fails to accomplish His will. Since this is not an acceptable conclusion, the only logical conclusion left is that in the end, all will eventually receive His love and enter into heaven.

Bell begins by bombarding the reader with hundreds of questions. The questions are meant to challenge and expose the alleged inconsistencies of traditional teachings and prepare you for his case for universal salvation. On page 1 he writes,

Will only a few select people make it to heaven, and will billions and billions of people burn forever in hell? And if that’s the case, how do you know? How do you become one of the few? Is it what you believe, or what you say, or what you do, or who you know, or something that happens in your heart, or do you need to be initiated, or baptized, or take a class, or converted, or be born again? How does someone become one of these few? And then there’s a question behind the question—the real question: What is God like? Because millions and millions of people who were taught that the primary message, this center of the Gospel of Jesus, is that God is going to send you to hell unless you believe in Jesus. And so what got subtly sort of caught and taught is that Jesus rescues you from God. But what kind of God is that that we would need to be rescued from this God? How could that God ever be good? How could that God ever be trusted? And how could that ever be good news?{2}

Rob Bell Love WinsThese are good questions and deserve to be asked. “Traditional” beliefs may not always be right, and at times they deserve to be reexamined. Bell then in the final pages of his preface implies that those who oppose his view are judgmental and not open to discussion of vital doctrines of the faith. This is part of his strategy to discourage any criticism of his position. However, Scripture calls us to evaluate all teachings and discern truth from error (1 Thess. 5:21; 1 Jn. 4:1).

In the process of defending his thesis, Bell ends up presenting a new kind of Gospel. Since theological doctrines are connected, when you change the gospel message there is a chain effect that follows. His gospel ends up presenting a distorted understanding of God’s character, a variant view of the atonement, and a heaven and hell foreign to the scriptures.

Bell struggles with a significant question: “Will those without Christ truly spend eternity in hell? Could there be a possibility that they have a chance after death to repent?” The idea that a loved one will spend eternity in hell is a difficult one to accept. Careful study of all the relevant scriptures is necessary when we examine a particular doctrine, especially one regarding our salvation. If in the end we are faced with a conclusion we do not like, we must not compromise biblical truth but accept the words of Christ. Paul warns us in Galatians 1:9 the danger of preaching another gospel. When it comes to essential doctrines of the faith, Christians cannot compromise on the truths taught in Scripture. For this reason we must carefully examine Bell’s teachings and see if it is compatible with, or a compromise of, the gospel of Christ.

Another Kind of Gospel

To support his thesis that all individuals will eventually enter into heaven, Bell must alter the gospel message. He admits that his message departs from traditional Christianity and declares that the message preached for past centuries is misguided and in need of transformation.

A staggering number of people have been taught that a select few Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance for anything better. It’s been clearly communicated to many that this belief is a central truth of the Christian faith and to reject it is, in essence, to reject Jesus. This is misguided, toxic, and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus’ message of love, peace, forgiveness and joy that our world desperately needs to hear.{3}

The traditional message that salvation comes only to those who accept Christ in their lifetime is rejected by Bell. He believes that all people are reconciled to God through Christ’s death on the cross regardless of whether they choose to put their faith in Christ or not. Those who do not receive Christ in this lifetime will spend some time in hell but no one will remain there forever. Eventually all people will respond to God’s love, even those in hell and enter heaven. Bell states this on several occasions:

At the heart of this perspective is the belief that, given enough time, everybody will turn to God and find themselves in the joy and peace of God’s presence. The love of God will melt every hard heart, and even the most “depraved sinners” will eventually give up their resistance and turn to God.{4}

To be clear, again, an untold number of serious disciples of Jesus across hundreds of years have assumed, affirmed, and trusted that no one can resist God’s pursuit forever, because God’s love will eventually melt even the hardest of hearts.{5}

At the center of the Christian tradition since the first church have been a number who insist that history is not tragic, hell is not forever, and love, in the end, wins and all will be reconciled to God.{6}

Within this proper, larger understanding of just what the Jesus story even is, we see that Jesus himself, again and again, demonstrates how seriously he takes his role in saving and rescuing and redeeming not just everything but everybody.{7}

Bell points to several Scriptures to support his argument. One passage is 1 Corinthians 13 which states, “Love never fails.” Therefore he concludes, God’s love will reach all lost people even those in hell and they will eventually turn to Him since no one can resist God’s love forever.

However, there are many passages in the Bible that teach the unrighteous are eternally separated from God and the righteous are forever with God. Daniel 12:2 speaks of a future resurrection and eternal destiny for the righteous and unrighteous: “Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.” Daniel states that there will be a resurrection and judgment of all people. Some will inherit eternal life and others will suffer “everlasting contempt.” Daniel teaches in this passage that not all individuals will enter into everlasting life. Those who do not are destined to “everlasting contempt.” The Hebrew word for everlasting is ôlām. The word in this context signifies an indefinite futurity, forever, or always. It refers to an unending future.{8} This is the most likely definition for ôlām used later in verse 7 referring to the eternal nature of God: “And I heard the man clothed in linen, who was above the waters of the stream; he raised his right hand and his left hand toward heaven and swore by him who lives forever…” We know that God is eternal. Therefore, Daniel is using the term “ôlām” to mean everlasting and never ending.

Jude 7 states, “In a similar way, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion. They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire.” The Greek word for eternal is aiṓnios which means “eternal, perpetual, to time in its duration, constant, abiding. When referring to eternal life, it means the life which is God’s and hence it is not affected by the limitations of time.”{9} The word again is used in verse 21 to refer to “eternal” or never ending life with God. So in the context of Jude aiṓnios is used to refer to an eternal state.

In Matthew 7:13-14 Jesus invites, “Enter through the narrow gate, for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” Jesus taught an exclusive view of salvation. He stated clearly not everyone will inherit eternal life; in fact many will follow the path of destruction. This verse speaks against the doctrine of universal salvation.

Hebrews 9:27 (“it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment”) teaches that there is no second chance for salvation after death. The preceding verses teach that Christ made the perfect sacrifice for sin once and for all. He paid the price once and His sacrifice is for all time. In the same way that Christ’s atonement is final, so all men and women die once and face a judgment which is final and eternal in its sentence.

Bell’s gospel is a departure from biblical teaching. God is love and therefore, He does not impose His will on those who refuse to receive His love. He honors the choice of individuals to receive or reject Him. Those who reject Him in this life will not want to be with Him for all eternity. God honors their choice and places them away from His presence in hell. Thus, God’s character of love honoring one’s choice is upheld. But God’s character of justice in dealing with sin is also upheld.

Are All Reconciled to God?

There are several key passages Bell uses to support his thesis that all individuals will eventually enter heaven. One key verse that deserves attention is Colossians 1:20, a favorite verse used by many universalists: “and through him (Jesus) to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” According to Bell, the entire world is reconciled to God through the death of Christ. Christ’s death has atoned for all sin and places every person in right standing with God. Those who turn to God in this life will enter heaven immediately. Those who reject God’s love in this lifetime will be temporarily separated from God in hell but will eventually receive His love and enter heaven.

Contrary to Bell’s interpretation, this verse does not teach a universal salvation. Rather, it presents the scope, goal, and means of reconciliation. The scope of reconciliation extends not just to human beings but to all of creation which was affected by sin. Romans 8:20-22 says,

For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.

The physical world was affected by sin, not by its choice but by the choice of Adam. Christ’s victory over sin restored order over creation by bringing it again under His lordship, and full restoration will take place in the future.{10}

Angels and human beings, unlike the material world, have a choice. Reconciliation involves two parties who voluntarily decide to make peace. In this case fallen angels knowingly rebelled against Christ and reconciliation is not possible. Humans also must make a choice to receive God’s invitation through Christ or to reject it. This is made clear in the following verses:

And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister. (Col. 1:21-23)

Paul states that we were once “alienated” from God and we are reconciled “if indeed you continue in the faith . . . not shifting from the hope of the gospel.” The reconciliation depends on the believer receiving Christ by faith and persevering in that faith. Numerous other verses make faith in Christ necessary for reconciliation (Jn. 3:18, 5:24; Rom. 1:17; 3:21-26).

Those who receive God’s gift of life will attain blessings and salvation. Those who refuse are sentenced to eternal death (Jn. 3:18). In the end all things will be put in their proper place. It is in this context all things will be reconciled to Christ and in submission to His lordship (Phil. 2:5-11).

Another Kind of God

In his effort to defend his thesis that in the end everyone goes to heaven, Rob Bell must alter the message of the gospel. However, in doing so, he also alters the character of God. Among the hundreds of questions with which Bell bombards his readers, he asks the following: “If there are only a select few who go to heaven, which is more terrifying to fathom: the billions who burn forever or the few who escape this fate? How does a person end up being one of the few? Chance? Luck? Random selection? . . . God choosing you instead of others? What kind of faith is that? Or, more important: what kind of God is that?”{11} For Bell, a God who would send billions to an eternal hell would not be a God of love. However, in emphasizing God’s character of love he ends up ignoring God’s other attributes, and in the end alters the character of God.

Bell is correct in stating that God is love. However, he commits an error common among universalists. Bell ends up presenting an imbalanced view of God that emphasizes God’s character of love to the neglect of the other character qualities of God. Love is not the only or the most dominant character of God. Along with love, God has other character qualities which exist together in a perfect balance.

Among the numerous qualities of God, the Bible teaches that God is also just (2 Thess. 1:6), He is holy (Isa 6:3), He is righteous (Ps. 7:11), sovereign (Jude 4), wise (1 Cor. 3:19) true (Jn. 14:6), etc. There are many qualities of God that are just as important as love, and they exist in a perfect balance. Thus, emphasizing one trait to the exclusion of others leads to flawed theology.

God is love and God desires that all individuals be saved. However, God is also just and holy and must deal righteously with sin. God’s character of holiness is well emphasized throughout the Bible. This is the theme of Leviticus and, throughout this book, God presents detailed instructions for dealing with sin through the sacrificial system. The Levitical sacrifices are fulfilled in the death of Christ who fulfills the righteousness of God.

The theme in the prophets is that Israel has violated the holiness of God and thus God must judge their sins. Isaiah 5:16 states, “But the Lord Almighty will be exalted by his justice, and the holy God will show himself holy by his righteousness.” God, being a loving God, sent prophets to warn Israel to turn from their idolatry and disobedience and return to Him. However, after generations of refusal by Israel, God finally had to judge the sins of the people. Throughout the New Testament, Christians are exhorted to live holy lives for that reflects the character of God (Eph. 4:24; Heb. 12:14; 1 Pet. 1:15-6).

Those who refuse the gift of Christ’s work on the cross have not been cleansed from their sin and therefore cannot enter the holy presence of God. This is the theme of Hebrews 9, which teaches us that access to God represented in the Holy of Holies at the Temple was not accessible to us. However, the blood of Christ fulfilled the holiness of God and cleansed sinners and made us holy before God. Only through the blood of Christ is this made possible.

Bell emphasizes God’s love but diminishes His holiness and righteousness; therefore, the magnitude of our sin, its effect on our nature, and it offense to God are diminished. God hates sin and judges sin seriously. In Revelation, the wrath of God is poured out upon the world in rebellion. In Revelation 20, those individuals not found in the book of life are thrown into the lake of fire. To build a picture of God who is excluded of His holiness, justice and righteousness, who does not judge sin, is to present an imbalanced and false view of God.

Bell argues,

Millions have been taught that if they don’t believe, if they don’t accept in the right way, . . . God would have no choice but to punish them forever in conscious torment in hell. God would in essence become a fundamentally different being to them in that moment of death, a different being to them forever. A loving heavenly father who will go to extraordinary lengths to have a relationship with them would, in the blink of an eye, become a cruel, mean, vicious tormenter who would ensure that they had no escape from an endless future of agony. . . . If God can switch gears like that, switch entire modes of being that quickly, that raises a thousand questions about whether a being like that could ever be trusted, let alone good.{12}

Bell argues that God changes according to the decision of individuals. However, God is not the one who changes. He is always loving and reaching out to all people, but He is also holy and righteous and and must deal justly with sin. Those who do not want to be with God now will not want to be with Him in eternity. Because He is love, He does not force people to be with Him for eternity but honors their choice. God allows them to exist away from Him in hell. So God does not change; He grants individuals what they desire.

I would also disagree with Bell’s statement that God is the one tormenting individuals. Torment comes from within the person. The torment the person experiences is not inflicted by God but comes from the individual who must live eternally with his or her decision to reject the love of God. Therefore hell honors the free choice of men and fulfills the love of God who does not impose Himself on those who do not want Him. It also fulfills His holiness, removing sin from His presence.

Another Kind of Heaven and Hell

To maintain his thesis that everyone will go to heaven, Rob Bell must alter the gospel message, the character of God, and the teaching on heaven and hell. Bell teaches that hell is not eternal but temporary, and in fact heaven and hell are actually the same place. For those who have accepted God’s love, this place will be heaven. For those who continue to reject God’s love this place will be hell. Hell is created by the individual who resists God’s love. Bell states, “We create hell whenever we fail to trust God’s retelling of our story.”{13} The individual remains in this condition until he is won over by God’s love and eventually turns to God. Then what was once hell will becomes heaven.

Bell derives this from Luke 15, the Parable of the Prodigal Son. In this story, after the younger brother returns, the father throws this formerly lost son a big banquet. However, the older brother, jealous and upset over his younger brother’s reception, remains outside and chooses not to enjoy the party. Both brothers are in the same place but for one it is a party, for the other it is miserable.{14} Bell states that it is our choice. “We’re at the party, but we don’t have to join in. Heaven or hell. Both are at the party.”{15} The younger brother who has received his father’s love it is a joyous time, but for the older brother who has the wrong view of his father it is misery.

Bell is really stretching the interpretation of this parable to support his theology. I am not aware of any New Testament scholar that finds this doctrine of heaven and hell in this parable. The parable comes in the context of the Pharisees and teachers of the law questioning Jesus associating with “sinners.” Jesus, in defense of His ministry and displaying the compassion of God for the lost, tells three parables: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. The younger brother represents the sinners who repent and turn to God while the older brother represents the Pharisees and teachers of the law who have little compassion for the lost.{16} So the purpose of the parable is God’s heart for the lost and the cold heartedness of the Pharisees and teachers of the law. To read into this story Bell’s doctrine of heaven and hell is a stretch. It does not appear Jesus had in mind any teaching on heaven and hell in this parable.

Bell believes that heaven and hell are actually the same place and he also believes that hell is not permanent. He describes it as a “period of pruning” and “an intense experience of correction.”{17} It appears that Bell views hell similar to the Catholic teaching of purgatory. Eventually this will end when the person turns to God because, according to Bell, “No one can resist God’s pursuit forever because God’s love will eventually melt even the hardest hearts.”{18}

Another way Bell defends his doctrine of hell is in doing a brief word study. The Old Testament word is sheol. Bell explains that sheol is the place of the grave in the Old Testament and that it speaks generally of the resting place of the departed sprits. Three words are used in the New Testament: gehenna, hades, and tartarus. Gehenna, he says, is the Valley of Hinnon, the garbage dump outside Jerusalem.{19} The word tartarus comes from Greek mythology, referring to the underworld where Greek demigods were judged.{20} Hades, he states, is the equivalent of the Hebrew sheol, an obscure, dark and murky place.{21} He thus concludes from his brief word study on hell that hell is not clearly defined in the Bible and that holding to the belief that it is a place of eternal suffering is unjustified.

Bell correctly states that sheol is the place of the grave and speaks generally of the place where the departed spirits go. There are several occasions where Old Testament saints stated they would go to sheol. However, his word study is incomplete. As revelation progresses, we see there are different fates for the righteous and the wicked. There is indeed a judgment which determines the destiny of individuals.

As mentioned above, Daniel 12:2 speaks of a future resurrection and eternal destiny. “Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.” Daniel states that there will be a resurrection and a judgment that determines the eternal destiny of individuals. Some will resurrect to eternal life while others to everlasting contempt. As noted earlier, the Hebrew word for everlasting is ôlām. Olām is used more than three hundred times to indicate indefinite continuance into the very distant future. There are times it is used to designate a long period in the past or a designated long period of time in the future.{22} Context determines the definition. In this context it signifies an indefinite future or forever. This is the most likely definition for several reasons. First, the context found in verses 1 and 2 speaks of the resurrection at the end of the age. This is speaking of the final judgment before the righteous enter into eternity. Second, in verse 3 it is used of the righteous shining forever. Third, it is used later in verse 7 referring to the eternal nature of God. “And I heard the man clothed in linen, who was above the waters of the stream; he raised his right hand and his left hand toward heaven and swore by him who lives forever.” Daniel describes an eternal state of reward and life for the righteous but an eternal state of contempt for the unbelievers.

In Isaiah 66:22-24, Isaiah speaks of the Lord establishing His kingdom and restoring Israel. He concludes saying, “And they will go out and look upon the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; their worm will not die, nor will their fire be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind.” Here Isaiah refers to state of eternal torment for those who rebel against the Lord.{23} Although sheol is used of the general resting place of departed spirits, as revelation progresses the Old Testament mentions a different eternal destiny of the righteous and unrighteous. The eternal state is further revealed in the New Testament.

In reference to the New Testament words, the most commonly used word is Gehenna. Bell is correct that Gehenna is derived from the Valley of Hinnon outside of Jerusalem, but once again his word study is incomplete. Gehenna is associated with evil, and, in the context of the New Testament, symbolizes more than just a garbage heap. It served as a physical picture of the eternal state of suffering.

In Matthew 18:7-9 Jesus states, “Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the one by whom the temptation comes! And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire.” The Greek word for “eternal” is aiṓnios. This word means “eternal, perpetual to time in its duration, constant, or abiding.” When referring to eternal life, it means the life which is God’s and hence it is not affected by the limitations of time.{24} The fire described in verse 8 is an eternal and never-ending fire. In the very next verse Christ states that it is better to enter heaven blind in one eye than “be thrown into the hell (Gehenna) of fire.” In just the previous verse, the fire of hell was said to be eternal. From the context then we should conclude Gehenna is an eternal state, not a temporary one.

In Mark 9:47-48 Jesus says, “And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’” Jesus states that in Gehenna, the worm lives eternally and the fire is also eternal. Gehenna then is a described as an eternal abode.

Jesus further states that the punishment in hell is eternal and not temporary. In Matthew 25:46, the judgment of the sheep and the goats, Jesus states, “And these (the goats) will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” Bell attempts to show in Matthew 25:46—the separation of the sheep and the goats—that when Jesus said “eternal punishment,” he did not mean the punishment was eternal. He writes, “Aion, we know, has several meanings. One is ‘age’ or ‘period of time’; another refers to intensity of experience. The word kolazo (punishment) is a term from horticulture. It refers to the pruning and trimming f the branches of a plant so it can flourish. . . . Depending on how you translate aion and kolazo, then, the phrase can mean ‘a period of pruning’ or ‘a time of trimming’ or an intense experience or correction.”{25}

However, I find Bell’s explanation unsatisfactory since the verse states that the goats will “go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” Here the eternal life of the believer is seen in contrast with the eternal judgment of the unbeliever. If he is to be consistent, we must interpret that the righteous will not enter into an eternal state of life in the presence of God but a temporary state of life. However, this would not make any sense in this verse. Why should we understand that the word “eternal” for the righteous means everlasting but it is taken to be a temporary state for the unrighteous? Since the righteous enter everlasting life, we should take the preceding phrase that the goats will enter a state of eternal punishment.

Paul writes in 2 Thess. 1:8-9, “He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power.” The words “everlasting destruction,” when used together, refer to an eternal state of punishment. The Complete Word Study Dictionary: New Testament states that Ólethros aiṓnios (destruction everlasting) refers to destruction which is eternal or everlasting. It is destruction or a state which is imposed by God forever. In a similar way the phrase “eternal judgment” used in Heb. 6:2 means an eternal sentence imposed by God. All of these designations of punishment stand in contrast to eternal life as the inherent punishment for those who reject Christ’s salvation in that they will be separated from the life of God which they rejected. As to the duration of what is designated as aiṓnios when it comes to punishment, it is only proper to assign it the same duration or endlessness as to the life which is given by God.{26}

Revelation 14:9-11 states, “A third angel followed them and said in a loud voice: ‘If anyone worships the beast and his image and receives his mark on the forehead or on the hand, he, too, will drink of the wine of God’s fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath. He will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment rises forever and ever.’” In this passage the Greek word aiṓnios is repeated at the end of verse 11. The phrase “forever and ever” is used twelve times in Revelation. Each time it refers to an eternal existence. Eight times it is associated with the nature of God or the never ending rule of God. For example Revelation 4:9-10 says, “And whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to him who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before him who is seated on the throne and worship him who lives forever and ever.” The most consistent interpretation of 14:9-11 is that the suffering of the unbelievers is of an eternal nature.

Jude 7 states, “In a similar way, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion. They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire.” Once again the word here is aiṓnios, signifying an eternal punishment.

It is difficult to interpret passages like these (2 Thess. 1:9; Jude 7; and Rev. 14:9-11) to mean something other than eternal or never-ending punishment. Bell’s interpretations are incorrect and his word studies are incomplete. When you look at several passages in their context, it is very difficult to support Bell’s view.

How Many Stones Cry Out?

Is Jesus the only way to eternal life or are there other ways to salvation besides Christ? Bell makes his case that there are other ways to eternal life. Bell builds his case from Exodus 17 where Moses struck the rock which brought forth water for the Israelites. In 1 Corinthians 10, Paul states that Christ was that rock which Moses struck. Thus, Bell makes the leap that if Christ was in that rock, it is very likely He is in numerous rocks. Bell writes,

According to Paul, Jesus was there. Without anybody using his name. Without anybody saying that it was him. Without anybody acknowledging just what–or more precisely, who–it was. Paul’s interpretation that Christ was present in the Exodus raises the question: Where else has Christ been present? When else? Who Else? How else? Paul finds Jesus there, in that rock, because Paul finds Jesus everywhere.{27}

It appears Bell is stating that one need not know the gospel message of Christ as taught in the New Testament. A person can be saved through other means and messages. Bell further states,

As obvious as it is, then, Jesus is bigger than any one religion. He didn’t come to start a new religion, and he continually disrupted whatever conventions or systems or establishments that existed in his day. He will always transcend whatever cages and labels are created to contain him, especially the one called Christianity. Within this proper larger understanding of just what the Jesus story even is, we see that Jesus himself, again and again, demonstrates how seriously he takes his role in saving and rescuing and redeeming not just everything, but everybody.{28}

Bell emphasizes that he believes that salvation comes through Jesus and Jesus alone saves all people. He refers to Jesus’ words in John 14:6. However, he believes that Jesus may be found in the numerous other religions but identified by different names, symbols, or teachings for Jesus as the creator is present in all creation. Therefore, Christianity does not have the exclusive message of salvation. Other religions contain the presence of Christ through their teachings. How and where they do, Bell does not explain.

Bell states again that specific knowledge of Jesus and the message of the cross is not necessary for salvation. “What he (Jesus) doesn’t say is how, or when, or in what manner the mechanism functions that gets people to God through him. He doesn’t even state that those coming to the Father through him know they are coming exclusively through him. He simply claims that whatever God is doing in the world to know and redeem and love and restore the world is happening through him.”{29} So for Bell, salvation is possible without understanding who Jesus is, his atoning work, and the message of the cross.

Bell misunderstands the text of John 14:6 [“I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me”]. Jesus states that He is the only way to eternal life. The “mechanism” is faith in Jesus Christ. Truth is found in general revelation, creation, and the conscience. Therefore, truth about God can be found studying nature (Rom. 1) and through the moral law within each one of us (Rom. 2). For this reason, there are teachings that are true in other religions. For example, many ethical systems in the other religions overlap with biblical teachings. So truth that points to God can be found in general revelation, but saving knowledge of Christ is not found in general revelation. Salvation comes through the special revelation of Jesus Christ. For this reason Paul states, “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’” (Rom. 10:14-5) Paul states it is only the specific message of the gospel of Jesus Christ that saves (Rom. 1:16).

There are several examples in the New Testament that reveal general revelation was not enough for salvation, but special revelation was needed. In Acts 10, Cornelius, a God-fearing Roman soldier, believes in God and lives a noble life. However, that was not enough. For this reason, God sent Peter to present the message of the gospel to Cornelius. After hearing the gospel message, Cornelius and his family receive the gift of salvation. Therefore, the message of the gospel must be heard and received for salvation.

Jesus further taught that the message of salvation is narrow and exclusive. This is not only the nature of the gospel message but the nature of truth itself. If Jesus is the son of God, any religion that rejects this truth must be false in its salvation message. In Matthew 7:13-14, Jesus stated that the way to eternal life is indeed narrow and only a few find it. Peter reinforced that Jesus is the only way in Acts 4:12, and Paul states in 1 Timothy 2:5 that Jesus is the only mediator between God and man. If these statements are true, then salvation comes exclusively through Jesus.

It is also logically unreasonable to assume that salvation is possible through other religions. For example, Islam rejects the deity of Christ, the death of Christ on the cross, the resurrection, and salvation by faith in Christ. Many forms of Buddhism reject the idea of a God. Hinduism teaches that Brahma is an impersonal force and is in a codependent relationship with the universe since Brahma is made up of all things. Since the other religions have significant teachings contradictory to Christianity, it is unreasonable to conclude they contain the salvation message of Christ.

So do the stones cry out? There is truth in general revelation (creation and the conscience) but this truth does not save; it points one to God (Rom. 1:18-32; 2:12-16). Salvation requires the gospel message of Christ as stated by Paul in 1 Cor. 15, that we are sinners, Christ died for our sins and rose triumphing over sin, and we are called to receive Him as our Lord and Savior. Without the gospel message of Christ, one cannot attain salvation.

Conclusion

Paul warns us very strongly in Galatians 1:8 the danger of preaching another gospel. Unfortunately, Bell here presents another gospel and in doing so, presents a false message of hope that has eternal consequences. In Love Wins, Bell argues that in the end everyone will be in heaven because that is God’s will. No one can resist God’s love forever, and if all are not saved, God is not glorified. However, in changing the gospel message Bell changes the character of God and the nature of heaven and hell. God is a God of love, and in His love He honors the decision of individuals to freely choose Him or reject Him. Those who reject Christ, have not had their sins cleansed and cannot enter into the presence of a holy God. In the end, God upholds His love by honoring the choice of all individuals and upholds his righteousness by placing the righteous in His presence and the unrighteous in hell, away from His holy presence. In the end God wins. That is the message of the cross.

Notes

1. Rob Bell, Love Wins (New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2011), viii.
2. Ibid., 1.
3. Ibid., viii.
4. Ibid., 107.
5. Ibid., 107.
6. Ibid., 109.
7. Ibid., 150.
8. Brown, F., Driver, S. R., & Briggs, C. A.). Enhanced Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems electronic ed., 2000), 762.
9. Spiros Zodhiates, The Complete Word Study Dictionary: New Testament (electronic ed.), (Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers, 2000).
10. Richard Melick, The New American Commentary: Philippians, Colossians, Philemon (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2001), 225.
11. Bell, Love Wins, 2.
12. Ibid., 172-3.
13. Ibid., 172.
14. Ibid., 170-76.
15. Ibid., 175.
16. J. B. Green, The Gospel of Luke. The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. 1997), 579.
17. Bell, Love Wins, 91-2.
18. Ibid., 108.
19. Ibid., 68.
20. Ibid., 69.
21. Ibid.
22. A. A. Macrae, “1631 ???,” in R. L. Harris, G. L. Archer, Jr. & B. K. Waltke, eds., Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, (electronic ed.) (Chicago: Moody Press, 1999), 672.
23. John Walvoord, and Roy Zuck, The Bible Knowledge Commentary : An Exposition of the Scriptures (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1983), Is 66:22-24.
24. Zodhiates, The Complete Word Study Dictionary: New Testament.
25. Bell, Love Wins, 90-1.
26. Zodhiates, The Complete Word Study Dictionary: New Testament.
26. Bell, Love Wins, 143-4.
28. Ibid., 150.
29. Ibid., 153.

© 2011 Probe Ministries


What the Dallas Mavericks Show Us About Worship

We had a little excitement here in Dallas last week (June 20, 2011). Our Mavericks won the NBA Title. (For you non-sports people—like me, actually—this means that our local professional basketball team won the game that makes them Best Basketball Team in the U.S. It’s like winning the World Series. Or the Superbowl. It’s really big.)

The game was on the TV in our living room, and I (being a non-sports people) was working on my laptop in the same room. I enjoyed watching the Facebook news feed churn out all kinds of happy updates from ecstatic fans. Then the news showed over five thousand Mavs fans crazy happy outside the American Airlines Center in Dallas, the reporters giddy with excitement and the cameras recording people who looked like they were ready to explode with joy. Immediately, scores of people drove to sporting goods stores to buy t-shirts commemorating the freshly-minted champions.

This corporate fervor was so much more than simply being pleased that the home town boys had won a championship! Everybody was a Mavericks fan that night and for the next week, especially leading up to the big parade in downtown Dallas. People were thrilled by the almost electrical connection to The Mavs as a winning team – and the joy of being a part of something bigger than themselves. People streamed to downtown Dallas the night of the big win and to the parade the following Thursday so they could be with other people honoring and praising the heroes.

I was struck by this great illustration of our hearts’ desire to be connected to the transcendent, to be part of something bigger and more important than ourselves. Our hearts were made for something greater than our lives and our individual stories; I believe our hearts were made for Kingdom living, and for a quality and quantity of Life that is far more and better than our puny little earthly kingdoms. And there is something powerful, almost magical, about being connected to a community of joyful people all celebrating the Something-Bigger-Than-Ourselves together. I believe our hearts were made to be knitted together with other Kingdom hearts as well.

People’s desires to shout out happy praises for Dirk Nowitzki (the Mavericks’ superhero) and the rest of the team was, I believe, a part of our design to be worshipers. We were made to worship—and if we won’t worship the One most worthy of worship, our Creator and Lord, then we will worship the creation. Such as the Mavericks. We are incorrigible worshipers. And there is such a feeling of “rightness” when we worship, because that is how we are made. Perhaps those who get the most excited about whooping and hollering at professional and college (and even high school and younger) sporting games, just might be the best worship leaders some of us will ever see, if they would direct their worship to the One worship was created for!

Whenever I hear people say they think heaven will be boring, like one interminable church service, I think about times like the Mavs’ win. Yeah, heaven will be boring like the Mavs winning the NBA title is boring! We were made for worship, and worship is joyous, ecstatic union with God and with other worshipers. So maybe, just maybe, all the hoopla over our team winning the title is an emotional peek into what heaven will be?

Bring it on!

 

This blog post originally appeared at blogs.bible.org/engage/sue_bohlin/what_the_dallas_mavericks_show_us_about_worship


“Do Our Pets Go to Heaven?”

I have a dog that I love very much. She is starting to get old and will only be with me a few more years. Can you tell me if our pets that we love and care about with all our hearts will be with us in heaven?

All we have to go on is what God has revealed to us in His word. According to what the Bible says, there is no indication that our pets will join us in heaven. (However, this does not rule out the possibility; it’s just that the Bible is silent on this issue.) Animals are God’s creation, but they are not made in His image as human beings are. Animals have bodies and we can say that some are souls (Gen. 1:21 and 24 use the word for “soul” [nephesh] to describe the land creatures), but soul in that context means “a breathing creature.” Because animals are not made in the image of God, they do not have a spirit where God indwells like humans do. (Neither do angels, by the way.) As far as I can tell from scripture, it is this God-imaging spirit-soul that lives forever.

Revelation 19 does include a vision of the Lord Jesus on a white horse, along with the armies of heaven on white horses, but at this point we can’t know if the horses are symbolic or not. And that would be a very tenuous (and unsupportable) connection to conclude that pets go to heaven.

I should tell you that this is not a hill I’m willing to die on. If I’m wrong, that is perfectly okay with me. <smile> Perhaps there is a spiritual parallel to The Velveteen Rabbit where pets who are loved by people are made “real” in a forever sense. But if it turns out that pets will be in heaven after all, it will be by God’s grace, because their presence can somehow add to God’s glory and our worship. There is no loss in heaven, so if they are not, then we will be so joy-soaked and absorbed in the presence of God that we won’t notice or be troubled by their absence.

Sue Bohlin


“Is There a Specific Reference to Heaven or Hell in the OT?”

Is there any specific reference to Heaven or Hell in the Old Testament or did this notion emerge solely as a result of the Persians’ Zoroastrian influence on the Jews?

The OT contains numerous references to heaven. Many of these refer to the physical heavens (Gen. 1:1, Psalm 19:1, etc.). Nevertheless, there do also seem to be a number of references to heaven as the dwelling place of God (1 Kings 8:30, Psalm 11:4, etc.).

As for the term “hell,” it depends on which English translation you consult. The KJV, for instance, translates the Hebrew term “Sheol” as “hell.” The NASB, on the other hand, simply renders this term “Sheol.” The NIV translates this term in a variety of ways: the grave, death, the depths, etc., depending on the context. Strictly speaking, sheol (the Hebrew term) does not refer to hell in my judgment. It might refer to Hades (i.e., a temporary place of punishment for the unrighteous dead between death and resurrection) in some contexts. But hell, as I understand it, is properly understood as the second death, the Lake of Fire, the place of eternal punishment. And this is not true of either Sheol or Hades (see Revelation 20:13-15). Thus, the Hebrew term Sheol can, in certain contexts, be used in a manner similar to the NT term Hades (e.g. Job 26:6; etc.), but I personally don’t think it refers to hell (strictly speaking).

I do not think it’s necessary to suppose that Zoroastrianism was solely responsible for the NT doctrines of heaven and hell. In the first place, the OT does refer to heaven as the dwelling place of God, distinct from the physical universe. For another, the OT concept of Sheol is often used to refer to the place of the dead (i.e., the place of the dead between death and resurrection). This actually parallels the NT doctrines of Abraham’s Bosom or Paradise and Hades (see Luke 16:19-31). In the OT, Sheol was apparently a place for both the righteous and unrighteous dead. It may have been a place of rest for the righteous and a place of torment for the unrighteous. However, in the course of progressive revelation, we have been given a clearer vision of the afterlife (including the eternal state) in the NT. Thus, I think this can be easily explained in terms of progressive revelation, rather than as borrowing from Zoroastrianism.

In case you’re interested, I have written a previous reply about Zoroastrianism. Although this reply is attempting to answer some questions other than what you’ve asked about, it may nonetheless be of benefit to you.

I hope this helps.

Sincerely in Christ,

Michael Gleghorn
Probe Ministries


“Do Animals Have Souls?”

My name is C_____ and I am 13 years old in the 8th grade. A classmate told me she was a Christian but she didn’t believe some of what the Bible says. I asked her for an example and she told me that the Bible said that animals don’t have souls and how she believed that they did have souls. I would be very appreciative if you would help me on my quest to find out what the Bible says about that.

Dear C_____,

We have an answer to email about animals and souls and going to heaven: www.probe.org/do-our-pets-go-to-heaven/.

I would ask your friend where in the Bible it says animals don’t have souls. Lots of people have heard things they repeat as true but they don’t really know. When you ask powerful questions like, “How do you know that?” and “Where do you get your information?” the answer is really, “Well, I heard. . .” or “They say that. . .” Which doesn’t go very far in being persuasive, does it? <smile> In reality, the Bible doesn’t anywhere say, “Animals don’t have souls.” It’s a much bigger issue than that, and it comes down to the fact that animals are not made in the image of God, like people are. (Note that angels are not made in the image of God either. Not being made in the image of God doesn’t mean something doesn’t have great value.) And it also matters how you define “soul.” If you mean “personality,” then of course some animals have souls. If I ask our Irish Setter Pele, “Pele, do you have a soul?” with a smile on my face and energy in my voice, he’ll respond by breathing fast, wagging his tail, and smiling his doggy smile.

If you mean, “the spiritual place inside you where God can dwell,” then no they don’t. If I ask our dog, “Pele, who made you? Do you know who God is? Did you know Jesus is Lord?” he’ll just keep on wagging his tail. . . or sleeping. . . or looking at me blankly—because those questions have no meaning to him. He is not a moral creature like we are. He cannot respond to the truth of the gospel because he has no understanding and no choice. He does, however, glorify God by his “dogginess.” He brings glory to God by just being the dog God made him to be. He has a place in God’s creation, and a very important place in our hearts. . . but he cannot become a part of the Kingdom of Heaven or the family of God like we are. Any more than he can choose to become a fish.

Hope you find this helpful.

Sue Bohlin

© 2007 Probe Ministries


Christianity and Religious Pluralism – Are There Multiple Ways to Heaven?

Rick Wade takes a hard look at the inconsistencies of religious pluralism.  He concludes that if Christ is a way to heaven there cannot be other ways to heaven.  Whether Christianity is true or not, pluralism does not make rational sense as it considers all religious traditions to be essentially the same.

Aren’t All Religions Basically the Same?

In a humorous short article in which he highlighted some of the silly beliefs people hold today, Steve Turner wrote, “We believe that all religions are basically the same, at least the one we read was. They all believe in love and goodness. They only differ on matters of creation sin heaven hell God and salvation.”{1}

It is the common belief today that all religions are basically the same. They may look different—they may differ with respect to holy books or forms of worship or specific ideas about God—but at the root they’re pretty much the same. That idea has become so deeply rooted that it is considered common knowledge. To express doubt about it draws an incredulous stare. Obviously, anyone who thinks one religion is the true one is close-minded and benighted! More than that, the person is clearly a bigot who probably even hates people of other religions (or people with no religion at all). Now, this way of thinking is very seldom formed by serious consideration of the issues, I believe (although there are knowledgeable scholars who hold to it), but that doesn’t matter. It is part of our cultural currency and is held with the same conviction as the belief that planets in the solar system revolve around the Sun and not Earth.

On the surface at least, it’s clear enough that the various religions of the world are different. Theists believe in one personal God; Hindus believe in many gods; atheists deny any God exists. Just on that issue alone, the differences are obvious. Add to that the many beliefs about the dilemma of the human race and how it is to be solved. Why don’t people understand the significance of these differences? On the scholarly level, the fundamental objection is this. It is believed that, if there is a God, he (or she or it) is too different from us for us to know him (or her or it). Because of our limitations, he couldn’t possibly reveal himself to us. Religious writings, then, are merely human attempts at explaining religious experience without actually being objectively true.

Philosopher John Hick wrote that this is really a problem of language. Statements about God don’t have the same truth value as ones about, say, the weather, because “there is no . . . agreement about how to determine the truth value of statements about God.”{2} We use religious language because it is meaningful to us, but there is really no way to confirm the truth of such talk. Because we can’t really know what the truth is about God, we do our best to guess at it. For this reason, we are not to suggest that our beliefs are true and others false.

On the more popular level, the loss of confidence in being able to know religious and moral truths which comes from academia and filters through the media, is teamed up with an inclusivist attitude that doesn’t want anyone left out—that is, if there are any truths to be known.

I want to take a look at the issue of religious pluralism, the belief that there are many valid ways to God. We’ll start with some definitions and a reminder of what historical Christianity teaches about God and us and how we can be reconciled to Him.

Starting Points

There are three basic positions on the question of the relation of Christianity to other religions. The historic view is called exclusivism. That word can be a real turn-off to people because we live in an inclusivistic era. What it means in this context is that the claim of Christianity that Jesus is the only way means that all other ways to God are excluded. If Jesus is the only way to the one true God, then no other claims can be true.

Another view on the matter is inclusivism. This is the belief that, while salvation is made possible only by the cross of Christ, it can be obtained without hearing the gospel. Even people who are externally part of other religions traditions can be saved. This is a temptation for Christians who are convinced that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, but don’t like the idea that there are people who haven’t heard the gospel who thus cannot be saved.

By religious pluralism, we mean the belief that all religions (at least the major, enduring ones) are valid as ways to relate to God. There is nothing unique about Christ; He was one of many influential religious teachers and leaders. This is the position I’ll be considering in this article.

Before looking at pluralism, it would be good to review the historic Christian understanding of salvation to bring the contrast into bold relief.

One God

The Bible is clear that there is one God. Through Isaiah the prophet God said, “I am the Lord, and there is no other; besides Me there is no God” (Is. 45:5a; see also 43:10; 44:6).

Beyond this, it’s important to note that, philosophically speaking, it is impossible that there could be two (or more) “Gods” like the God of the Bible. Scripture is clear that God is everywhere present at once, so there can’t be a truly competing presence (Ps. 139:7-12). God is capable of doing whatever He wills. There can be no ultimate interference by another deity. “The LORD does whatever pleases him, in the heavens and on the earth, in the seas and all their depths,” says the Psalmist (135:6). Or more succinctly, “Our God is in heaven; he does whatever pleases him” (Ps. 115:3; see also Dan. 4:35). How could there be two Gods like this? They would have to be absolutely identical, since neither one could be interfered with. And if so, they would be the same God!

One Savior

The Bible is also clear that there is only one Savior. Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me” (Jn. 14:6). To the rulers and elders and scribes in Jerusalem, Peter declared, “There is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

Theological necessity

In addition, it was theologically necessary for salvation to come through Christ alone. In Hebrews chapter 9 we read that the death of the sacrifice was necessary. According to Hebrews chapter 7, the Savior had to be divine (see also 2 Cor. 5:21). And Hebrews 2:17 says the Savior had to be human. Jesus is the only one who fulfills those requirements.

One more consideration

To this we can add the fact that the apostles never even hinted that people could be saved any other way than through Christ. It is this belief that has fueled evangelistic endeavors all over the world.

Religious Pluralism Can’t Accomplish Its Goal

Even on the surface of it, the notion of religious pluralism is contradictory. If we can’t know that particular religions are true, how can we know that any are valid ways to God? The pluralist has to know that we can’t know (which is an interesting idea in itself!), while also having confidence that somehow we’ll be able to reach our goal through our particular beliefs and practices.

But that brings serious questions to the surface. Do all religions even have the same goal? That’s an important issue. In fact, it’s the first of three problems with religious pluralism I’d like to consider.

Can religious pluralism accomplish its goal? What do I mean by that? Two ideas are at work here. First, it is believed that we can’t really know what is true about God; our religions are only approximations of truth. Second, if that is so, aren’t we being high-handed if we tell a people that their religion isn’t true? How can any religion claim to have the truth? To be intellectually honest, we need to consider all religions (at least the major, enduring ones) as equally valid. There is a personal element here, too. The pluralist wants to take the people of all religions seriously. Telling anyone his or her religion is false doesn’t seem to signal that kind of respect. So the goal of which I speak is taking people seriously with respect to their religious beliefs.

I can explain this best by introducing a British scholar named John Hick and tell a little of his story.{3} Hick was once a self-declared evangelical who says he underwent a genuine conversion experience as a college student. He immediately began to associate with members of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship in England. Over time, however, his philosophical training and reading of certain New Testament scholars made him begin to have doubts about doctrinal matters. He also saw that, on the one hand, there were adherents of other religions who were good people, while, on the other, there were some Christians who were not very nice people but were sure of their seat in heaven. How could it be, he thought, that God would send these good Sikhs and Muslims and Buddhists to hell while saving those not-so-good Christians just because they believed in Jesus? Hick went on to develop his own understanding of religious pluralism and became probably the best-known pluralist in the scholarly world.

I relate all this to you to point out that, at least as far as the eye of man can see, Hick’s motivation was a good one: he wanted to believe that all people, no matter what religious stripe, can be saved. Harold Netland, who studied under Hick and wrote a book on his pluralism, speaks very highly of Hick’s personal character.{4} And isn’t there something appealing about his view (again, from our standpoint)? Wouldn’t we like everyone to be saved? And having heard about (or experienced directly) the violence fueled by religious fanaticism, it’s easy to see why many people recoil against the idea that only one religion has the truth. We want everyone included! We want everyone to feel like his or her religious beliefs are respected and even affirmed!

The problem is that we are supposed to view our beliefs as approximations of truth, as somehow meaningful to us but not really true. All people are to be welcomed into the universal family of faith—but they are to leave at the door the belief that what they believe is true. It’s as though the pluralist is saying, “It is really noble of you to be so committed to your faith. Of course, we know that little of what you believe can be taken as truth, but that’s okay. It gives meaning to your life.” Or in other words, “We want you to feel validated in your religion, even though your religious doctrines aren’t literally true.”

To be quite honest, I don’t feel affirmed by that. My religious belief is completely undermined by this idea. If Jesus isn’t the only way to God, Christianity is a complete lie, and I am believing in vain.

My belief is that salvation—the reconciliation of persons to the one, true trinitarian God—has been made possible by Jesus, and that I know this to be the case. In his first epistle, John wrote: “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 Jn. 5:13). If I can’t know this to be true, the promises of Scripture are only wishes. In that case, my hope for eternity is no more secure than crossing my fingers and saying I hope it won’t rain this weekend. We are all, in short, forced to abandon our notions of the validity of our religious beliefs and accept the skepticism of the pluralist. And I don’t feel affirmed by that.

For my money, to be told I might be very sincere but sincerely wrong if I take my beliefs as true in any literal sense is like being condescendingly patted on the head. To be honest, I take such a notion as arrogance.

So my first objection to religious pluralism is that it does not accomplish its goal of making me feel affirmed with respect to my religious beliefs beyond whatever emotional fulfillment I might get from pretending the beliefs are true.

Religious Pluralism Doesn’t Make Sense

My second objection to religious pluralism is that it doesn’t make sense in light of what the various religions claim. Let me explain.

Christianity is a confessional religion. In other words, there are particular beliefs we confess to be true, and it is partly through confessing them that we are saved. Is that surprising? Aren’t we saved by faith, by putting our trust in Christ? Yes, but there are specific things we are supposed to believe. It isn’t just believing in; it’s also believing that. For example, Jesus said to the scribes and Pharisees, “You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world. I told you that you would die in your sins, for unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins” (Jn. 8:23-24). And then there’s Paul’s clear statement that “if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom. 10:9). So what we believe is very important despite what some are saying now about how Christianity is a relationship and how doctrine isn’t all that important.

Back to my point. Christians who know what the Bible teaches and the basics of other religions find themselves staring open-mouthed at people who say that all religions are basically the same. How could anyone who knows anything about the major religions of the world even think such a thing? I suspect that most people who say this do not know the teachings of the various religions. They have some vague notions about religion in general, so they reduce these great bodies of belief to a few essentials. Don’t all religions believe in a higher power or powers? Isn’t their function just to give meaning to our lives? Don’t they all typically include such things as prayer, rituals of one kind or another in public and private worship, standards for moral living, holy books, and the like?

Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias has said something like this: Most people think all religions are essentially the same and only superficially different, but just the opposite is true. People believe there are some core beliefs and practices such as those I just named which are common to all religions, and that religions are different only on the surface. Muslims have the Koran; Christians have the Bible; Jews have the Torah; Hindus have the Bhagavad Gita. Muslims pray five times a day; Christians pray at church on Sundays and most anytime they want during the week. Buddhists have their shrines; Jews their synagogues; Hindus their temples; Muslims their mosques; and Christians their churches. So at the core, the same; on the surface, different.

But just the opposite is true! It is on the surface that there is similarity; that is why we can immediately look at certain bodies of beliefs and practices and label them “religion.” They aren’t identical, but they are similar enough to be under the same category, “religion.” On the surface we see prayers, rituals, holy books, etc. It’s when we dig down to the essential beliefs that we find contradictory differences!

For example, Islam is theistic but is unitarian while Christianity is trinitarian. Hindus believe we are not true individual selves but are parts of the All, while orthodox Jews believe we are individuals created in the image of God. Muslims believe salvation comes through obedience to Allah, while Buddhists believe “salvation” consists of spinning out of the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth into nirvana.

No, religions are not essentially the same and only superficially different. At their very core they are drastically different. So while pluralists might take the religious person seriously, they don’t take his or her beliefs seriously. How can all these different beliefs be true in any meaningful sense? How can the end of human existence be both nirvana and heaven or hell? Pluralists have to reduce all these beliefs to some vague possibility of an afterlife of some kind; they have to empty them of any significant content.

So what we believe to be true, pluralists know isn’t. Isn’t it interesting that the pluralist is insightful enough to know what millions of religious adherents don’t! That’s a strange position to take given that the heart of pluralism is the belief that we can’t know what is ultimately true about God!

It is for this reason that my second objection to religious pluralism is that it doesn’t make sense in light of what the various religions claim. It claims that our different beliefs are essentially the same, which is false on the surface of it. And it claims that the differences result from the fact that we can’t know what is true, while the pluralist acts like he or she can know what is true.

Pluralism Is Incompatible with Christianity

Religious pluralism may well be the most common attitude about religion in America. You might be wondering, Aren’t there a lot of Christians in America? According to the polls, one would think so. But I dare say that if you polled people in your church, especially young people, you would find more than a few who are religious pluralists. They believe that, while Christianity is true for them, it isn’t necessarily true for other people. Is pluralism a legitimate option for Christians? In short, no.

This, then, is my third objection to religious pluralism, namely, that religious pluralism is incompatible with Christianity because it demands that Christians deny the central truths of Scripture. If religious pluralism is true, Jesus’ claims to deity and biblical teaching about His atoning death and resurrection cannot be true.

The Bible is clear that salvation comes through accepting by faith the finished work of Jesus who is the only way to salvation. Paul told the Ephesians that at one time they “were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world” (2:12). Without Christ they were without God. He told the Romans that righteousness came through Jesus and the atoning sacrifice He made (5:6-10, 17). Jesus said plainly that “no one comes to the Father but by me” (Jn. 14:6). Because pluralism denies these specifics about salvation, it is clearly at odds with Christianity.

There is a more general truth that separates Christianity and pluralism, namely, that Christianity is grounded in specific historical events, not abstract religious ideas. Pluralists, as it were, line up all the major, enduring religions in front of them and look for similarities such as those we have already noted: prayers, rituals, holy books, and so on. They abstract these characteristics and say, “Look. They’re all really the same because they do and have the same kinds of things.” But that won’t do for Christianity. It is not just some set of abstract “religious” beliefs and practices. It is grounded in specific historical events.

This is a crucial point. The historicity of Christianity is critical to its truth or falsity. God’s project of salvation is inextricably connected with particular historical events such as the fall, the flood, the obedience of Abraham, the Exodus, the giving of the Law, the fall of Israel and Judah, the return to Israel—all events leading to Jesus, a historical person who accomplished our salvation through a historical event. It is through these events that God declared and carried out His plans, and nowhere do we read that He would do so with other people through other events and teachings. The truth of Christianity stands or falls with the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ and their meaning revealed by God. If the resurrection is historically false, “we are to be pitied more than all men,” Paul wrote (1 Cor. 15:19). If this was God’s way, and Jesus declared Himself to be the only way, then no other way is available.

One thing the church must not do is let any of its members think that their way is only one way. This isn’t to condone elitism or condescension or discrimination against others, even though that’s what a lot of people believe today. That believing in the exclusivity of Christ does not necessarily result in an attitude of elitism is seen in Jesus Himself. His belief that He was and is the only way to the Father is clear, but few people will criticize Him for having the attitudes just mentioned. It is a strange thing, isn’t it? Christians who say Jesus is the only way are condemned as self-righteous bigots, while the One who boldly declared not His religion but Himself as the only way is considered a good man!

To sum up, then. Pluralism falls under its own weight, for it cannot affirm all religious beliefs as it seems to desire, and its belief that religions are all pretty much the same, even though their core teachings are contradictory, doesn’t make sense. It also is certainly incompatible with Christianity which declares that the truth of its teachings stand or fall with specific historical events. And frankly, its claim to know that no religion really has the truth because such truth can’t be known, comes off as a rather hollow declaration in light of the knowledge pluralists think they possess.

Notes

1. Steve Turner, Nice and Nasty (Marshall and Scott, 1980).
2. John Hick, God and the Universe of Faiths, rev. ed. (London: Fount Paperbacks, 1977), 3.
3. See John Hick, “A Pluralist View,” in Dennis L. Okholm and Timothy R. Phillips, Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralist World (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), chap. 1.
4. Harold A. Netland, Dissonant Voices: Religious Pluralism and the Question of Truth (Grand Rapids; Eerdmans, 1991), ix.

© 2006 Probe Ministries


The Law of Rewards

The Law of Rewards

Dr. Michael Gleghorn explore the biblical doctrine of eternal rewards. The Bible promises believers heavenly rewards for earthly obedience.

Introducing the Law of Rewards

download-podcastThe hit movie Gladiator begins with a powerful scene. Just before engaging the German barbarians in battle, General Maximus addresses some of his Roman soldiers. “Brothers,” he says, “what we do in life echoes in eternity.” Although Maximus was a pagan, his statement is entirely consistent with biblical Christianity, particularly the Bible’s teaching on eternal rewards.

In The Law of Rewards,{1} Randy Alcorn writes: “While our faith determines our eternal destination, our behavior determines our eternal rewards”{2}. The Bible clearly teaches that we are saved by God’s grace, through personal faith in Christ, apart from any works whatever (Eph. 2:8-9). But it also teaches, with equal clarity, that we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that we may be recompensed for what we have done in the body, whether good or bad (2 Cor. 5:10). This judgment (which is only for believers) is not to determine whether or not we are saved. Its purpose is to evaluate our works and determine whether we shall receive, or lose, eternal rewards (1 Cor. 3:10-15).

Alcorn writes, “Our works are what we have done with our resources—time, energy, talents, money, possessions.”{3} The apostle Paul describes our works as a building project. At the judgment seat of Christ the quality of our work will be tested with fire. If we have used quality building materials (gold, silver, precious stones), then our work will endure and we will be rewarded by the Lord. If we have used poor building materials (in this case, wood, hay, or straw), then our work will be consumed and we will suffer the loss of rewards (1 Cor. 3:10-15).

This raises some important questions. What are we doing with the resources that God has entrusted to us? Are we seeking to build God’s kingdom, in God’s way, empowered by God’s Spirit? Or are we merely engaged in empire-building for our own glory? Are we investing our resources in reaching the world for Christ, making disciples, and helping the poor and needy? Or are we only concerned with satisfying our own immediate wants and desires?

It’s here that the worldview dimensions of our subject can be most clearly seen. Most of us would probably find it difficult to use our resources in the service of God or our fellow man if we thought that this life was all there is and that death is the end of our personal existence. But Christianity says that there’s more – a lot more. And if Christianity is true, then Maximus was right: “What we do in life echoes in eternity.” Randy Alcorn has observed, “The missing ingredient in the lives of countless Christians today is motivation. . . . The doctrine of eternal rewards for our obedience is the neglected key to unlocking our motivation.”{4}

Questioning Our Motivation

Is the desire for eternal rewards a proper or legitimate motivation for serving Christ? Isn’t it somewhat shallow, maybe even selfish, for our service to Christ to be motivated by a desire for heavenly rewards? Furthermore, shouldn’t we serve Christ simply because of who He is, rather than for what we can get out of it? To some people, the promise of eternal rewards sounds like a crass appeal to our baser instincts. But is it?

Before we jump to any unwarranted conclusions and possibly overstate the case, we may first want to take a step back, take a deep breath, and remind ourselves of a few things. In the first place, as Randy Alcorn observes, “it wasn’t our idea that God would reward us. It was his idea!”{5} If we search the pages of the New Testament, we repeatedly find promises of heavenly rewards for earthly obedience. Indeed, Jesus himself urges our obedience in light of future rewards (Luke 6:35). Not only that, in Matthew 6:20 he commands us to store up for ourselves “treasures in heaven.” Now this leads to an interesting little twist. In John 14:21 Jesus says, “Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me.” We could make the argument, then, that the one who does not seek to store up treasures in heaven is being disobedient to Christ’s command and demonstrating a lack of love for him!

In a somewhat similar vein, Alcorn wrote:

It is certainly true that desire for reward should not be our only motivation. But it is also true that it’s a fully legitimate motive encouraged by God. In fact, the two most basic things we can believe about God are first that he exists, and second that he is a rewarder of those who diligently seek him (Heb. 11:6). If you don’t believe God is a rewarder, you are rejecting a major biblical doctrine and have a false view of God.{6}

Of course, we must always remember that the Lord knows the motivations of our hearts – and these will be taken into account at the judgment seat of Christ (1 Cor. 4:5). In addition, Jesus solemnly warns us: “Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven” (Matt. 6:1).

The biblical picture of rewards, then, would seem to go something like this. The Lord is absolutely worthy of our obedience and service, whether we ever personally profit from it or not (e.g. see Luke 17:10). Nevertheless, the Lord is a rewarder of those who seek Him and He commands us to seek His rewards as well! And when one really thinks about it, “Hearing our Master say, ‘Well done’ will not simply be for our pleasure but for his!”{7}

The Life God Rewards

What kind of life does God reward? For what sort of works will believers be rewarded when they stand before the judgment seat of Christ? The simplest answer to this question, and the most general, is that we will be rewarded for everything we’ve done that was motivated by our love for the Lord and empowered by His Spirit. Indeed, Jesus said that we would even be rewarded for simply giving a cup of cold water to someone because he is a follower of Christ (Matt. 10:42).

But the Bible specifically mentions many other things for which we can also be rewarded. The New Testament describes as many as five different crowns which will be given to believers for various works of faithfulness, obedience, discipline, and love. For example, there is the imperishable crown (1 Cor. 9:25), which appears to be rewarded for “determination, discipline, and victory in the Christian life.”{8} There is the crown of righteousness which, according to Paul, will be awarded by the Lord “to all who have longed for his appearing” (2 Tim. 4:8). There is the crown of life, “given for faithfulness to Christ in persecution or martyrdom.”{9} In the book of Revelation, Jesus tells the church in Smyrna, “the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life” (2:10; see also James 1:12). Additionally, there is the crown of rejoicing (1 Thess. 2:19; Phil. 4:1), “given for pouring oneself into others in evangelism and discipleship.”{10} And finally, there is the crown of glory (1 Pet. 5:4), “given for faithfully representing Christ in a position of leadership.”{11}

Of course, as Alcorn observes, “There’s nothing in this list that suggests it’s exhaustive.”{12} Indeed, as we’ve already seen, the Bible seems to say that we will be rewarded for every act of love and service which we did for the glory of God. But there’s another side to this discussion which we dare not overlook. The Bible not only indicates that we can gain rewards; it also warns us that we can lose them as well.

Paul compared the Christian life to an athletic competition in which our goal is to win the prize. This is why, he told the Corinthians, “I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize” (1 Cor. 9:27). The Bible suggests that the works of some believers will be completely consumed at the judgment seat of Christ (1 Cor. 3:15). Tragically, these believers will enter heaven without any rewards from their Lord. To avoid this catastrophe, let us heed Paul’s advice and “run in such a way as to get the prize” (1 Cor. 9:24).

Power, Pleasures, and Possessions

What should we think about power, pleasures, and possessions? Are they merely temptations that should be avoided, or genuine goods that can be legitimately sought and desired? Although some may find it surprising, each of these things is good—at least considered simply in itself. Each finds its ultimate source in God. And each existed before sin and evil corrupted His good creation. God has always been powerful. He clearly took pleasure in His work of creation, repeatedly describing it as “good” (Gen. 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31). And as the Creator of all that exists (other than himself, of course), everything ultimately belongs to God (1 Cor. 10:26). Indeed, the Bible sometimes describes Him as the “possessor of heaven and earth” (Gen. 14:19). Clearly, then, there’s nothing inherently wrong with power, pleasures, or possessions.

So why have these things gained such tainted reputations? Probably because they’ve so often been misused and abused by sinful men and women. Indeed, describing sin and evil as the misuse, abuse, perversion or corruption of some good gift of God is part of a long and venerable tradition in the history of philosophy and theology. And one doesn’t have to look very far to find plenty of examples of man’s sinful misuse of power, pleasures, and possessions. Just turn on the evening news, or read the local paper, and you’ll find many such examples. But we must always remember that it’s the misuse of these things that is sinful and wrong; the things in themselves are good and desirable. And this is confirmed by the teaching of Scripture.

Consider the kind of rewards God offers us. For faithful and obedient service now, He promises power, pleasures, and possessions in eternity! Jesus made it clear that those who are faithful with the little things in this life, will be rewarded with great power and authority in the next (Luke 19:15-19). He taught that those who invest their time, talents, and treasures in building God’s kingdom here and now are laying up great treasures in heaven for themselves in the hereafter (Matt. 6:19-21; 19:21). And pleasures? The psalmist wrote of God, “In Thy presence is fullness of joy; in Thy right hand there are pleasures forever” (16:11).

Randy Alcorn has written, “God has created us each with desires for pleasure, possessions, and power.”{13} We want these things “not because we are sinful but because we are human.”{14} Although our sinfulness can, and often does, lead us to misuse these things, we’ve seen that they’re actually good gifts of God. “Power, possessions, and pleasures are legitimate objects of desire that our Creator has instilled in us and by which he can motivate us to obedience.”{15} May we faithfully serve the Lord, trusting him as “the Rewarder of those who diligently seek him.”{16}

Investing in Eternity

A Christian worldview must be fleshed-out in the rough and tumble world of our daily lives if we’re going to be salt and light to the surrounding culture. Now, as always, true disciples must be “doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves” (Jas. 1:22).

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told his followers:

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Matt. 6:19-21).

Many of us read these verses and only hear Jesus’ command not to store up treasures on earth. But if this is all we hear, then we’re missing the main point that Jesus is trying to make. As Alcorn observes, the central focus of this passage “is not the renunciation of earthly treasures but the accumulation of heavenly treasures. We’re to avoid storing up unnecessary treasures on earth not as an end in itself, but as a life strategy to lay up treasures in heaven.”{18} So is it really smart to pour all our time and energy into the accumulation of earthly treasures? Is this really a wise investment strategy?

We’ve been discussing issues raised by Randy Alcorn’s excellent book, The Law of Rewards. I can think of no better way to conclude than with this powerful and thought-provoking citation:

Gather your family and go visit a junkyard or a dump. Look at all the piles of “treasures” that were formerly Christmas and birthday presents. Point out things that people worked long hours to buy and paid hundreds of dollars for, that children quarreled about, friendships were lost over, honesty was sacrificed for, and marriages broke up over. Look at the remnants of gadgets and furnishings that now lie useless after their brief life span. Remind yourself that most of what you own will one day end up in a junkyard like this. And even if it survives on earth for a while, you won’t. . . . When you examine the junkyard, ask yourself this question: ‘When all that I ever owned lies abandoned, broken, useless, and forgotten, what will I have done with my life that will last for eternity?{19}

Notes

1. Much of the material for this article comes from Randy Alcorn, The Law of Rewards (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, 2003). If you’re interested in exploring this topic further, you may also want to read Bruce Wilkinson (with David Kopp), A Life God Rewards: Why Everything You Do Today Matters Forever (Sisters, Ore.: Multnomah Publishers, Inc., 2002).
2. Alcorn, 7.
3. Ibid., 6.
4. Ibid., 99-100.
5. Ibid., 105.
6. Ibid., 116.
7. Ibid., 92.
8. Ibid., 91.
9. Ibid.
10. Ibid.
11. Ibid.
12. Ibid., 92.
13. Ibid., 111.
14. Ibid., 112.
15. Ibid., 113.
16. Ibid., 121.
17. Ibid., 22.
18. Ibid., 23.
19. Ibid., 23.

© 2005 Probe Ministries


The Five People You Meet in Heaven – A Biblical Worldview Critique

Written by Patrick Zukeran

Dr. Zukeran presents a biblical worldview critique of the story by Mitch Albom, The Five People You Meet in Heaven. Albom’s story presents some interesting ideas about the afterlife, but falls far short of expressing a complete understanding of God’s description of heaven. It misses the importance of being created in God’s image, being redeemed to be able to spend eternity with our Creator, and the fellowship with God and all the saints for eternity.

Brief Synopsis

Eddie lives an insignificant life as a maintenance man for the rides at the Ruby Pier amusement park. One day a mechanical failure causes a fatal accident. Eddie rescues a young girl from her death but in the effort, he is killed. This is when the adventure begins.

Eddie enters heaven and discovers it is not a garden but a place where he will meet five people whose lives intersected with his in some significant way on earth, some readily known to Eddie and some unknown to him. These five explain the meaning of Eddie’s life and the purpose of heaven. Through this best-seller fictional story, The Five People You Meet in Heaven, author Mitch Albom teaches us his understanding of the meaning of life.

In heaven, Eddie learns five key lessons from the five individuals. First, every life is interconnected so each person impacts others throughout his or her lifetime in ways that may not be recognized. Second, we should live sacrificing for others, for such acts inevitably lead to good outcomes. Third, forgiveness is necessary to find inner peace. Fourth, love is a powerful virtue that lasts eternally. And finally, our life, as insignificant as it may seem, has a purpose.

Heaven is a place where we find inner peace with ourselves when we learn these lessons. Through this process, we are cleansed of negative thoughts and scars we carried in our lifetime and find true inner peace. After this, we will choose our heavenly dwelling. There we will wait for newcomers whose lives intersected ours on earth. We will be one of the five people they will meet as they learn the meaning of their life on earth.

What accounts for the popularity of Albom’s work? He addresses two life questions that every individual wrestles with and desperately seeks answers to: What is the meaning of my existence? and What happens after death? In a creative way, here is a story that offers significance to each person’s life and hope beyond the grave.

Albom is an excellent writer and is sincere in his effort. This story causes each one of us to wrestle with these key questions of our existence and eternal destiny, issues many choose to ignore but must inevitably face. He also teaches some valuable life lessons. For these reasons, the story is enjoyable and thought provoking.

But after reading the story, I found that Albom’s answers fall short of providing satisfactory solutions to every person’s dilemma. In some ways he gets us closer to the answer, but never really gets there. Christians will find that he gives us some appetizers, but fails to deliver the main dish. In what follows, I will present a biblical critique of this story and explain how Albom scratches the surface but never finishes the quest for meaning, significance, and eternal hope.

The Quest for Meaning

What is the meaning of my existence? Does my ordinary life make a difference? Will I look back on my life with regret, feeling that I contributed nothing significant in my lifetime? These are issues most people ask throughout their lifetime and seek answers for.

In The Five People You Meet in Heaven, Mitch Albom teaches that one does not have to be famous or powerful to impact the lives of others. Every person who has understanding can know his or her life was worthwhile.

In Albom’s story, the meaning of life comes from understanding that everyone’s life is interconnected. Therefore, even small decisions and actions we take can significantly affect the lives of others. In a CBS interview, Albom stated, “I think the meaning of life is that we’re all kind of connected to one another. I’m living proof of the influence that one person can have on other people. Look at what Morrie did for me talking to me. And I wrote a book to try to pay his medical bills and went from one person to another person and people come up and say your book changed my life. How did that happen? I’m convinced that everybody has an effect on everyone.”{1}

It is true that our life does affect others, some in very significant ways. However, we are still left empty at the end of the novel because Albom’s proposed solution falls short of providing ultimate meaning for our existence.

In the story, the main character Eddie learns in heaven that he impacted the lives of others both positively and negatively, often unintentionally. Knowing our life led to another’s tragedy or greater enjoyment still begs the question, “So what?” It may feel good temporarily to know I made a difference, but that will not bring everlasting satisfaction. Why should we care if our lives affected others? Before we can answer the question, “What is the meaning of life?” we must first answer the question, “Why were we created?”

If we are a cosmic accident as Darwinian evolutionary theory teaches, there is no intended purpose for our existence. Therefore, our lives have no ultimate meaning, and impacting the lives of others is meaningless, for our final destiny is extinction.

If God created us for a purpose, then we need to find out why He created us. The answer to the meaning of life is directly tied to the origins question. Since Albom does not answer the origin question, he cannot provide an adequate answer for the meaning of life question. The Bible teaches that we were created by God to love Him, love others, and fulfill His calling upon our lives. Any answer that does not include God as a centerpiece of the answer will fall short, and Albom basically leaves God out of his version of heaven.

Albom’s Heaven

Could the traditional Christian view of heaven be wrong? Albom gives us a very different picture. Albom developed his idea from a story his uncle, Edward Beitchman, told him when he was a child. One night his uncle was lying near death and woke up to see his deceased relatives standing at the foot of the bed. When asked, “What did you do?” his uncle responded, “I told them to get lost. I wasn’t ready for them yet.”{2} Albom remembered this story and began to develop his concept of heaven for the story.

Albom states, “Somewhere, swimming in my head, was the image my uncle had given me around that table, a handful of people waiting for you when you die. And I began to explore this simple concept: what if heaven was not some lush Garden of Eden, but a place where you had your life explained to you by people who were in it—five people—maybe you knew them, maybe you didn’t, but in some way you were touched by them and changed forever, just as you inevitably touched people while on earth and changed them, too.”

His idea that heaven is a reunion with five people who explain the meaning of your life is masterfully pictured in this work. With each encounter the main character Eddie is taught a new lesson that puts the pieces of his earthly life together so that it begins to make sense. Some lessons bring joy, others bring remorse, but the pain is a cleansing process that results in inner peace. After this, individuals will choose their happiest moment on earth and that will be their eternal abode where they await the opportunity to teach a recently deceased newcomer the meaning of that person’s life.

If heaven was a place similar to Albom’s story, we would be very disappointed, for it is too small and shallow. Our souls are much bigger than this. How quickly we would get bored once we discovered the impact our life made and then spent eternity in a heaven we dream up for our pleasure. Earthly pleasure becomes painful when we get too much of it. The heaven described in the Bible is very different from this earth. Our joy is not wrapped in repeating earthly pleasures but is found in a person, Jesus Christ, who is the center of all creation. Our present earth is fallen and suffers the effects of sin. In heaven, sin and its consequences are not present.

God is the main focus in heaven, but unfortunately, in Albom’s story, God plays a very small role. Psalm 16:11 states, “You have made known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.” Only a heaven created by and centered on God will be big enough for our soul.

Do All People Go to Heaven?

Albom’s bestseller presents a new and creative vision of heaven. I agree with Albom that there is a heaven and an existence beyond the grave. However, it appears that Albom implies that everyone will go to heaven, and with this I disagree.

Albom portrays realistic characters in his story, none of whom lived a perfect life. All are guilty of some sin and negative behaviors that have consequences, some greater than others. There is some remorse when individuals in heaven learn how their actions caused negative results, but there is not a just payment for their sin.

Albom appears to assume that everyone will eventually find peace when they learn their lessons from the five people they meet. Although this is a comforting note, it is not what the Bible teaches. Albom’s story doesn’t reveal the dilemma facing all human beings: sin, failing to perfectly live up to God’s perfect standard. It is because of sin that the Bible teaches that not everyone can enter heaven. Jesus states in Matthew 7:13, “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”

The reason is found in the biblical understanding of human nature and God’s nature. Man is sinful while God is holy, perfect, and without sin. The Bible teaches that all are guilty of sin and cannot enter into the eternal presence of a holy and just God. Romans 6:23 states, “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” What is required is a perfect savior who will pay the price for sin. Albom does not deal with the true nature of God, man, heaven’s purpose, man’s dilemma of sin, and the solution that God freely offers.

The Bible also teaches that there is a price for rejecting God’s gift of grace, Jesus Christ. Jesus states, “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son” (John 3:17-18). All who reject Christ cannot stand before a holy God, and will be separated from Him eternally in Hell.

Fiction can often teach principles that are true. However in this work, Albom’s foundational idea of heaven misses the mark because he does not present a proper understanding of human nature and God’s holiness.

The People You Will We Meet In Heaven

Who will we really meet in heaven? Our answer is revealed in the Bible, the Word of God. The Bible is proven to be God’s inspired word through miraculous confirmation and the testimony of Jesus Christ the Son of God. Jesus confirmed His claim to be God through His miraculous life and resurrection, and He affirms the authority of the Bible. The truth about heaven then is revealed not in a novel but in this divine revelation.

The next people we will meet in heaven are the saints of all the ages past (Rev. 7:9 and 19:1). There will be more than five; there will be a multitude! Along with them will be the angelic host.

Will we understand the meaning and see the impact of our life on earth? We will know everything about our life and much more. We will come to a full understanding of God’s plan for all of creation. Only then will we see how our lives played a role in God’s overall plan. We will see things from a renewed perspective because our minds will be transformed and freed from the limitations that resulted from sin. 1 Cor. 13:12 states, “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” If we knew the glory of the real heaven, we would say Albom’s, and any human attempt to describe heaven, is too small.

Notes

 

  1. CBSNews.com, The Early Show, “Five People You Meet In Heaven,” Sept. 25, 2003, http://www.cbsnews.com.
  2. The Five People You Meet in Heaven Web site, http://www.albomfivepeople.com/abouteddie.htm, 5/25/2005

 

© 2005 Probe Ministries


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