Core Ideas of the Gospel of Jesus Christ

1 Minute After You Die

SOUL COMES ALIVE

“What happens to me when I die?  Do I go straight to Heaven, or does my soul sleep in the grave for a while?”  It’s a question that comes up every month, even more often after the death of a beloved friend.  The Bible doesn’t define the process precisely, but when you put all the relevant verses together you come away with a pretty clear picture.

Imagine a guy named Max, a devout follower of Jesus, and let’s use him to illustrate my take on the question. As it is for everyone, death is a process for Max; not actually a moment.  His organs begin to shut down and finally his heart stops beating.  Momentarily or even ten minutes later, his brain calls it a day.  At some point in this process, his soul evacuates his body, which is no longer viable for life.

Max’s body is not fitted for eternity: flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God. (1 Corinthians 15:50)  For the moment it’s in the way, so Max’s family will have a mortuary make the body more manageable, either through embalming and burial, or through cremation.  But the Bible teaches resurrection– not simply the immortality of the soul- so this is not the last chapter for that inconvenient body once called Max.

The soul that belongs to God is immediately translated into God’s presence in Eternity. Some have wondered about limbo or purgatory, a kind of temporary storage facility, but the Bible says nothing about that.  Places like that may belong to Roman Catholic tradition, but are not taught in scripture.

Rather, Jesus promises the repentant thief on the cross, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”  (Luke 23:43)  Some have argued that Jesus did not ascend to heaven until days after his death; would not have been there that Friday.  That’s debatable, but there’s no question that  Jesus is God.  And God was always in Heaven.  And on the day that former thief passed away, he was with God in Heaven. Elsewhere in Revelation 6:9, we also read a description of souls already in heaven. The martyrs who have just been executed, presumably by the Romans, are huddled by the altar asking God, “How long will the bloodshed continue?”  The Father assures them there is a appointed time and He is still in control. They are curious because their souls have just escaped the fiery persecution, and they are alive in the comforting presence of God.

But let’s return to Max.  His soul, his life force, has now been ushered into Heaven by the angels.  His body has been buried and has already begun to decay.  That’s okay: no one is trapped there.  Nobody’s home at all.  In 2 Corinthians 5:6-8, Paul explains that as long as he survives on the earth, he is at home in the body but away from the Lord.  He goes on to exclaim he would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.  In the same text, he compares his body to an aging and deteriorating tent: “while we’re still in the tent we groan and are burdened.”  Like Max, Paul escaped those burdens when he was executed and his soul departed from that bleeding, lifeless mound of flesh in favor of Eternity.

Which brings us to the resurrection.  In 1 Corinthians 15:51 we are assured, “Behold! I tell you a mystery.  We shall not all sleep [die,] but we will all be changed; in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.” The word sleep is the same euphemism Jesus used for Jairus’ daughter (Luke 8:52) who was quite dead and required a miracle to recover. God promises we will not all die, but we will all be changed- instantly.

The second resurrection happens on the day when Christ returns in judgment to the Earth. Here’s how it is described in 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17  “For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of the archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God.  And the dead in Christ will rise first.  Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.”

When Christ returns, the bodies/bones/ashes of the saints will instantly be changed!  Like the resurrected Christ walking through a locked door, these resurrected bodies will rise through the Earth to be instantly reunited with their souls.  Resurrection means that we live again body and soul!  The Day of the Lord begins with a very personal kind of reunion or reintegration for the saints!

Some have scoffed, “Come on, doesn’t that sound outrageous to you?  In one moment, you have all these restored bodies emerging from the ground, and living souls descending out of heaven; and they are all finding their way to each other? Really?”  I suppose that might have presented a practical, intellectual problem fifty years ago.  But today, UPS is able to track millions of packages of all sizes as they travel all around the world.  At any moment, the man in brown can instantly tell me whether my package is shipped, or has departed the terminal, or is waiting in Topeka, Kansas, or is in a local vehicle en route to my house!  If UPS can track millions of packages accurately and instantly, I have no worries about God’s ability to have invisible chips in every body in order to guide souls instantly to the correct address!

So be comforted.  If you belong to Jesus Christ, you will never be consciously or unconsciously sleeping in the ground.  (Good news for claustrophobic believers everywhere!) Your soul will be with God only moments after you check out here, and your body will remain disconnected and inactive until it can be fitted for life in eternity, body and soul.  Don’t grieve like others who have no hope.

And lift up the Cross!

 

The Rising: Has it Begun?

AWAKENINGWhen Bruce Springsteen wrote The Rising, he was thinking mostly about the first responders who ran heroically into peril after 9-11.  But he also sensed there was a resurrection quality to the anthem.  His song came to mind again today as I thought about the Church here in the USA.  After years of decline and discouragement, I have begun to suspect The Rising may well be underway in Christian America.

Millennials have reached their tipping point in regard to marriage.  Just a few months ago, we turned a corner: more of that generation are now married than single. Young Americans have historically shied away from the Church until they have married and begun think about babies.  A friend who is well-known for his research into the church scene sees evidence at the national level that the return of Millennials to Christ and his Kingdom is now beginning to build. They were simply delayed in the journey by their tardy embrace of matrimony.

In the face of so much hostility, the Gospel and followers of Christ are showing up everywhere. Christians have featured prominently in  medal ceremonies at the Olympics in Rio. Michael Phelps reported to ESPN that his high profile recovery and transformed attitude are rooted in his reading of The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren.  After taking Sundance by storm, The Birth of a Nation comes to the big screen this fall.  The writer/director/star of the film is Nate Parker, an outspoken follower of Jesus Christ.  The NFL and NBA are well known for athletes like Ben Roethlisberger, Kirk Cousins, and Stephen Curry, who confess Christ and the power of the Gospel.

No doubt, there’s a difference between a fashion and an awakening.  The Jesus Movement became a fad back in the late 1960’s and early 70’s.  Pop music celebrated The Spirit in the Sky and love for fellow man. Books and movies were electrified by tales of exorcism and theories from Revelation; but the world was much more inclined toward faith and biblical values back then. The breakthroughs happening today are in absolute defiance of an angry, secular culture.  Believers are beginning to boldly swim against the cultural tide.

There’s a familiar scene in 1 Kings 19 in which we find Elijah  fleeing for his life,  cowering in the wilderness.  He cries out in despair that he’s the last believer left in the land and Jezebel is determined to assassinate him.  God scoffs, and tells his prophet to man up and get back to work.  “I have reserved 7,000 souls who have not bowed down at the altar of Baal.”

After two decades of gloom and doom reports of rising atheism, irreligious young Americans, and declining churches, we who follow Christ in the USA may be a bit like Elijah in his throes of depression: we have forgotten there is always more here than meets the eye.  Yes, Europe has drifted into spiritual death; but Africa is exploding in revival. God may not be finished with America yet.  There is still time to follow the road not taken- the narrow one.

So let’s never stop praying for fire from Heaven.  But let’s not be so discouraged that we fail to see the first signs of spiritual springtime spreading across the land.  I’m looking all around for sparks to shelter and glowing embers that can be fanned into flames.  These may well be the Good Old Days.

Lift up the Cross!

 

Make Believe War

ATTACK AT NICE

Another day, another slaughter at the hands of terrorists.  This time, it’s a beach in France.  This time, the body count is 70 dead and counting.  To no one’s surprise, the heartless executioner was named Mohamed.

No wonder there’s a rising tide of rage against apathetic world leaders.  Once again, President Obama will condemn the violence, insult the coward who did this, and reassure us with promises about ultimate victories.  French President Hollande rushed into a press conference to comfort the helpless masses, and assure them France will be stronger after this.  Of course, we heard the same kind of platitudes after the last massacre of innocents, but it’s clear nothing has changed. Talk is cheap, particularly the kind of glib rhetoric that offers empty promises and meaningless slogans.  The savages are waging a real war with deadly weapons with a vengeance.  The nations have responded with pretend warfare, verbal assaults and pleas for peace.

But this is not a political blog.  As I listened to all the same, old tired promises and empty threats on my radio while driving to work this morning, it struck me that you could say the same thing about the spiritual war being waged by the Church today. Here in the USA, atheists, pagans, and radical activists continue to mount a shock-and-awe campaign against the foundations of civilization.  We have lost all the battles for social values: the right to pray in public events, the sacred right of the unborn to live, conjugal marriage, and even biological gender.  But that’s all happening because we are losing on a larger, more strategic front: the hearts and minds and souls of men and women.

This week, the Pew Foundation released polling data that indicates non-religious voters are now the largest voting bloc in the USA- outnumbering both Protestants and Catholics. Their number has increased by 50% just in the last eight years. For details, click here.

Every Sunday, pastors and Christian leaders across the land stand in pulpits to assure us of the certainty of our victory. Does that sound familiar?  We are waging a spiritual war. Our cause is just. Souls are at stake.  The weapons of our warfare are not man-made, but they are mighty.  The battle is the Lord’s.

I’m not questioning the Lord’s willingness to fight, but isn’t He supposed to have an army?  He’s the general- not the infantry, right?  He’s the head: that means there is a body complete with hands and feet and eyes and a mouth, right?  There’s no doubt that Christ will finally win the war, but if you and I carelessly forfeit millions of souls of men and women in this particular battle, that’s on us.

Reports describe the street along the Promenade des Anglais in Nice last night as too ghastly to televise. There were corpses everywhere- bloody and mutilated, some only children. If only we had eyes to survey the streets and buildings around the world where the spiritual carnage numbers in the hundreds of thousands: people who could have been saved but, tragically, were never reached.  People who are still moving, but are doomed. Many won’t even know what hit them.

It’s counter productive to be angry at “them.”  They are lost and confused as well. The problem is “us.”  We should be angry at ourselves.  And then we should repent and cry out to God for grace and mercy and power.  And then we should resolve to stop the make believe war and the head fakes:to go risk something, to engage in a spiritual skirmish for souls.

The battle is the Lord’s. Yeah, yeah, yeah: but we are his Special Forces. It’s clearly going to require a work of divine race to get us off our butts and into battle. Please join me in praying for courage, vision and fire from Heaven.

And lift up the Cross!

 

 

Resistance Thinking (2)

LOVE OF GOD

Just yesterday, most Americans had never heard of gender dysphoria; and transsexuals were found mostly in schlock movies like the Rocky Horror Picture Show.  Today we are warned there is a national epidemic for which the only cure is the wholesale renunciation of the male-female concept of gender.  Oh yes, and all individuals must be free to enter the restroom or locker room that fits the way they identify today.

This is not going to go well.  Progressives will continue to taunt traditionalists that only bigots and haters seriously care who’s sitting in the adjacent restroom stall. And alarmed parents will reply that only perverts and fools would demand that males who self-identify as females must be allowed to shower with adolescent girls.  And then a few religious folks will cap it off by snarling, “I’m a Christian and this is a sin against God.”

Last time, we acknowledged that it’s not very constructive to wade into a political debate firing Bible verses.  If my adversaries are unbelievers, my scripture doesn’t resonate with them; in fact, it proves I’m in the narrow minded religious minority.  A more rational approach might be to begin with the medical evidence that we are over dramatizing an adolescent phase that almost always passes, and an emotional disorder that responds to counseling, not surgery. For last week’s blog, click here.

Here’s my second principle for joining this cultural conversation (and many others:) In everything, lead with love.

It’s not helpful to suggest your Christian faith should automatically trump the opinions of other citizens who happen to be atheists or a Unitarians.  But it’s downright destructive when you make that statement with a condescending glare. We are the people who love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. We are the ones who turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, and are controlled by the love of God.  Even atheists who know nothing about our theology realize that we boast about love that is supernatural. They are right, of course.

We are not allowed to resent people who disagree with us- even radical activists who hope to undermine our traditions and deny us our civil rights.  We cannot hate our fellow Americans, even if we rightfully believe they are drilling holes in their end of our national life boat.

Paul leaves us a vivid example in Acts 17.  As he walks through Athens where pagan statues clutter every street and public pavilion, the great evangelist’s heart is broken. Scripture says his spirit is provoked.  What’s more, some of the intellectuals actually insult him, mocking his barbaric accent.  In response, Paul greets them warmly, quotes their favorite pagan poets, and respectfully warns them that the age of repentance has now dawned. They should turn to Christ.  He never rebukes them: he builds bridges.

This principle also applies to discussions of race, Black Lives Matter, and policemen who feel they have targets on their backs.  In having conversations with black Americans or frustrated law enforcement officials, I don’t have to win some kind of debate.  Trying to understand another person’s concerns is not the same thing as agreeing with them. I want to ask thoughtful questions, listen respectfully, and then plant positive but subversive images of which will linger in their minds long after they walk away.  The love of Christ lays the best foundation for cultivating haunting conversations.

More next time.  In the meantime, lift up the Cross!

 

Resistance Thinking

GENDER NEUTRAL SIGN

The sudden demand for transgender bathrooms and locker rooms took most of us by surprise.  We had seen the movement for same-sex marriage advancing year by year for more than a decade, but who knew transgender confusion and gender dysphoria had gone viral? That’s why most of us in the church are still left speechless when the topic arises.  Nobody wants to cave in and say, “Whatever,” but we don’t want to look like troglodytes either! So I’ve established some basic principles for my conversations about gender neutral restrooms and all the other emerging civil rights in our decaying culture.

I can expand upon these and explain my rationale next.  But here are my priorities for responding to gender neutral restrooms, as well as the next social catastrophe that comes down the pike in a month or two:

  1. Not every conviction that guides a believer is a biblical truth. Think!
  2. In everything, lead with love.
  3. Love is not the same thing as approval.
  4. Christ is more powerful than rules or laws.  Trust Christ.
  5. The laws of the land do not amend the Laws of God.

First, let’s not blame every controversy on the Bible.  Like most people, I have some opinions and convictions based on natural law, practical experience, science, and history; principles that are not rooted in the Word of God. When church people insist on hurling lightning bolts from the Bible into every political debate, it gives the impression that we are blindly reactive; not rational. What’s more, if our opponents don’t respect the Bible, we are merely casting pearls to the swine.

For instance, quoting Genesis and insisting “God created them male and female” doesn’t settle the question of gender confusion.  God also made tigers orange and black, but that doesn’t mean there are no albinos.  I’ve had friends at church throw up their hands in despair: doesn’t an earthworm have both sexes?  Some children do seem terribly uncomfortable in their assigned gender. Maybe the secular progressives are right: maybe life is more complex than male and female. Perhaps gender and sexual orientation are different categories altogether.  Maybe sexual orientation is always in flux!

Or perhaps we’re talking about mental illness and emotional disorders.  There is no doubt that people should not be mocked or shamed for the way they were born. Haven’t we been telling the world for twenty years that mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of?  Americans who are burdened with shame should find their most compassionate support in the church of Jesus Christ.  But there’s a great deal of scientific research that indicates we’re spinning off civil rights and special privileges for fellow travelers who suffer from fleeting adolescent uncertainty or mental illness.

  • The American College of Pediatricians asserts, “Gender Ideology Harms Children.” In a lengthy official statement, their physicians have documented the fact that 98% of gender confused boys and 88% of gender confused girls finally accept their biological sex after puberty. For the complete statement, click here.
  • The Johns Hopkins University Hospital, which pioneered sexual reassignment surgery for transsexuals in the 1960’s, eventually discontinued that procedure. The most thorough research, both here and abroad, indicated that the radical physical alterations did not measurably improve the emotional disorientation.  Dr. Paul McHugh now insists that transsexuals need counseling, not surgery.  To read his summary click here.

The next time you have an opportunity to engage in a conversation about gender issues in this country today, take a few moments to listen thoughtfully.  Ask what makes gender dysphoria different from paranoia or PTSD or claustrophobia?  Sophisticated people in the 21st Century can surely manage to be both compassionate and rational.

I’ll pick up with Priority 2 next time.  In the meantime, lift up the Cross!

 

 

 

The Religion of Peace

LION AND LAMB

Our popular culture is driven by narratives.  And one of the most prevalent narratives at work today defines followers of Christ as angry, anti-scientific bigots who oppose all progress, and cannot get along with anybody.  Meanwhile, Islam is popularly championed as “a religion of peace.” Indeed, we are frequently lectured that radical Islamic terror is merely a delayed response to all the mindless violence heaped upon Muslims by Christians during the Crusades.

That’s the pop narrative, but should we in the church hang our heads in shame?  Christians who have surrendered to this politically correct myth should read Rodney Stark’s fine little book God’s Battalions: The Case for the Crusades.  Dr. Stark is a highly respected scholar and professor who has authored more than 38 books and 132 scholarly articles published in more than 14 languages.

God’s Battalions opens with a quotation from what became Muhammad’s farewell address to his followers.  “I was ordered to fight all men until they say, ‘There is no god but Allah.'” That divine calling was included in the Qur’an (9:5;) “Slay the idolaters wherever you find them, and take them [captive,] and besiege them, and prepare for them each ambush.” Only eighty years after the prophet of Islam died in 632, his Muslim empire had killed or removed Christians from most of the Middle East, all of North Africa, Cyprus and most of Spain.

Wherever Islam prevailed, Christian and Jewish citizens were given “the freedom to choose.”  The free choice was stark: conversion to Islam as an alternative to death or enslavement.  People of the Book who refused to convert were known as dhimmis, and official policy decreed they should always “feel inferior… and know their place.”

When Pope Urban II finally responded to pleas for help in 1095, his letter detailed gruesome torture inflicted on Christians traveling to the Holy Land, and sacrilegious destruction against churches and sacred sites.  Muslim armies were steadily advancing on Constantinople where thousands more saints would be murdered, tortured and raped before revered Christian sites would be defiled and lost forever.  He asked for volunteers to defend the people of Christ.

Not only are the Crusades a chapter of very ancient history dating back more than a thousand years, but they were a defensive struggle against the violent ambitions of Muhammad and his followers.  All these centuries later, the masked gunmen of ISIS, Al Qaeda and Boko Haram have hardly hijacked the ideas of Muhammad: they are in compliance.  The same racial hatred that animates their reign of terror is taught in government funded schools and mosques across the Middle East.

Granted, religions frequently evolve over the centuries.  The earliest followers of Jesus Christ were so opposed to violence that they rejected all forms of warfare and even service in the army. Today most American Christians are willing to serve in the Armed Forces to defend our freedom. Similarly, we can be sure there are schools of thought in Islam which now see Jihad as a spiritual struggle rather than armed military conquest.  No doubt, many of our Muslim neighbors here in the USA hold that non-violent interpretation.

But you and I must remember that the real religion of peace is the one established by the Prince of Peace.  Not only did Jesus Christ never carry a sword or call for armed conflict, but he taught us to turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, and forgive those who offend us; remembering that the forgiveness of God is central to our hopes and dreams.  More to the point, Christ requires that you and I must “love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.”

The ethos of Jesus requires at least three responses from his followers in this world where saints are at risk while the PC thought police give radical Islamists a free pass:

  • We must pray for those who wish to destroy us.  We support mission strategies in Muslim lands. We will not allow angry accusations or fearful attitudes to quench the love of Christ at work in our hearts.
  • We must be missionaries here at home.  Our Muslim neighbors need Jesus Christ more than anything else. They already accept the fact that he is a prophet. We must help them understand the benefits he offers as savior and Lord.
  • We must be informed.  Don’t just nod and shrug when skeptics say Allah is just another name for our heavenly Father; that Muhammad is a latter day Jesus; or that Islam and the Christian Faith have much in common. Smile and engage with simple truth.

All Americans have the right to worship any god or no god at all; in their own building if they should so desire.  We all benefit from the First Amendment. But as the late Senator Patrick Moynihan put it, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”  Be ready to speak the truth in love, and to do it with gentleness and respect.  We are not here to win arguments: we are here to win souls.

Lift up the Cross!

SCORN SIMON

How can something that looks so vile feel so good?  I’m talking about disapproval, the joy of heaping contempt on others.  In its most extreme form, it morphs into the kind of violent scorn that leaves dozens of young people dead on a nightclub floor in Orlando.  It’s reported the assassin laughed at he slaughtered nearly fifty strangers on Saturday night.

Granted, radical Islamists seem to specialize in contempt that goes beyond the pale. Most of us cannot even fathom how religious communities could celebrate the bloody massacre of unsuspecting civilians, young or old, gay or straight, who are a threat to no one.  But the fact is that the rest of us universally practice a more domesticated variety of disapproval.  It’s the gift  no one wants to receive, but virtually all of us enjoy dishing out!

For years, we in the church have preached “hate the sin, love the sinner,” while sometimes appearing to take that first verb more seriously than the second.  We fail to take our cue from God who causes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust.  He sends sunshine into the lives of the righteous and the unrighteous.  By contrast, most of us have occasionally looked down our noses at sinners in a manner worthy of that old cliche, if looks could kill.

Of course, scorn is not the exclusive territory of Christianity.  It’s actually a part of the baggage we all bring with us when we begin to repent but stop too soon.  The unbelieving world is filled with all those dark colors of disapproval, contempt, rejection, reproach and disfavor. Among our secular friends and popular TV personalities, there’s nothing wrong with passing judgment as long as it’s not religious, and can shut down a difficult discussion. Think about it:

  • “Bigot” is the gibe that keeps on giving, even if the only evidence is use of the word “niggardly” by a judge who has battled against racism for  thirty years.
  • It’s always Open Season on fascists (people who disagree on politics;) fanatics (people more religious than you;) ignoramuses (people who don’t accept your opinions;) and hypocrites (people with higher moral standards than you.)

No doubt, it’s unfair when we in the church take so much heat for a vice that is practiced widely and prominently on nearly every TV show and in 90% of the world’s conversations. But we should allow the injustice of it all to remind us that we are held to a higher standard.  We really should strive to be the people who don’t seem to get a rush out of opprobrium.  We are priests, not the morality police.  We are the vanguard of grace, not God’s grim executioners. Sin should always make us uncomfortable, but let’s be sure that discomfort doesn’t look so much like arrogance.

  • We are saddened when others in the church fall into sin, but when we offer correction we do it with a spirit of gentleness. Galatians 6:1
  • We are concerned when unbelievers pursue deadly lifestyles of reckless abandon, but we must reach out to them with gentleness and respect, in the example of our own high priest who sympathizes with us in our weaknesses, knowing that he himself was tempted. Hebrews 4:1

We all have an easy target for disapproval this week: radical Islamists or maybe even bloodthirsty terrorists everywhere.  But perhaps the world would be better served if we left waging war to the government, and devoted some time to praying for the souls of our enemies and those who persecute us (Matthew 5:44.)  It would also be Christ-like this week to mourn with those who mourn.  There are a lot of people like that in Orlando today.

Lift up the Cross!

 

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