MonthApril 2019

Why We Won’t Go To Heaven When We Die

kareni / Pixabay

We don’t go to heaven when we die.

In a previous post, I presented 12 questions that might reveal the degree to which we unknowingly separate God out from the rest of life.  In a comment, Monica asked me to go a little deeper into question number 3:

3. Do you speak of going to heaven when we die?

Answering this in the affirmative might be an indication that you suffer from Modern Secular dualism: the idea that material things and spiritual things are radically distinct.  This separation leads to two false views of reality.  The first is the secular manifestation of this idea: that the spiritual world does not exist, or is irrelevant to our lives.  A second error, like unto it is that of the Christian under the influence of Modern Secularism–that although the spiritual realm exists, it is very distant.  This view leads to the idea of “going to heaven when we die.”

Since its beginning, the church battled heresies involving the relationship between physical and spiritual realities.

Gnosticism: Material Bad

Gnosticism is an ancient heresy that was very influential in the early centuries of the church.  One of the basic ideas of Gnosticism is that the spiritual world stands in opposition to the material one because they have to distinct natures–the material is evil and the spiritual is good.

Accepting this premise, it follows that the body is evil and the soul is good.  The soul is imprisoned in the physical body, but upon death, it is freed and goes to a spiritual heaven where it has always truly belonged.

Modern Secularism is a lot like Gnosticism in that it also separates the physical from the spiritual.  The difference is the Gnostics undervalued the physical and the Moderns undervalue the spiritual.

We find neither devalued in the Bible.

Genesis

In the first verses of Genesis, God creates all that is.  He called it all good.  On the sixth day, he created people.

Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.

Genesis 2:7

Human beings are certainly physical beings, but we are spiritual beings as well.   Both are good.  Jesus offers and even more complete anthropology when he quotes the Old Testament command to

‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’ Luke 10:27.

Human beings are created with bodies and minds and hearts and spirits–all of these are declared it “very good” (Genesis 1:31).  The Fall results in a twisting or distortion of all things, not just physical things.  Contrary to both Gnostic and Modern teaching, all dimensions of humanity are valued, all are fallen.  Consequently, all aspects of humanity are in need of redemption.  In his death on the cross, Jesus redeems all of the whole person, not just her soul.

God declared all of creation to be good.  All of creation is fallen because of Man’s sin.  All of creation, not just some human souls, have been redeemed by Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.

This is why we speak of the Cosmic Redemption–Christ redeems the entire Creation–all that God has made.  On his return, he will complete redemption when he makes “all things new.”

Revelation

At the end of the book of Revelation, we see a picture of where history is headed.

I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.  ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!”

Revelation 21: 3-5

John sees the new Jerusalem, the dwelling place of God, “coming down out of heaven.” God will dwell among his people, on earth.

This is not new.  It is a biblical pattern.  God delights to be with human beings in the Garden.  He travels with the nation of Israel, living in a tent as they did.  He lives with the Jews in the temple in Jerusalem.  He dwells among us as the God/man, Jesus.  Today, Christ takes up dwelling within us in his Spirit.  So it is no surprise that God would once again be the one who comes to us.

It sounds to me as if we won’t be going to heaven.

God lived with his people in The Garden, in the wilderness, in the temple, in the first century, and indwells us today. Why do we talk about going to live him in heaven when we die? Isn't it likely He'll stick to the same pattern?Click To Tweet
It seems pretty clear that none of us, or very few of us, are going to heaven when we die.Click To Tweet

Eternal life starts now

One’s view of heaven can make a tremendous difference in our lives right now.

If heaven is just spiritual and spiritual things are distant in both time and place, then eternal life has little to do with “real” life.  The Christian life is a life of waiting.  And so we wait.

If heaven is a holistic reality involving the whole person and all of creation; if Jesus lives in us and if heaven will be on earth, then a lot of the conditions for heaven are already in place and it is pretty close.  Eternal life will certainly be different when all things are made new, but it will also be a continuation of what God has started in us and with us.  This makes the present, eternally significant.

Modern liturgies reinforce the idea that the spiritual is non-existent or far away.  Christians need to counter these with our own liturgies that practice the wholeness of creation.  Ones that reinforce the spiritual significance of our thoughts, words, and deeds.  Ones that increase our awareness of the nearness of Christ in us.  Ones that help us to see all life is worship.  Ones that equip us to embrace our purpose to steward creation.

 

A Christian Watching After Life by Ricky Gervais

I love Ricky Gervais.  I suppose this has a lot to do with The Office–the original one.  That show was genius.  Ricky Gervais is in my top ten “If you could have coffee with anyone living or dead” list.  One of the things want to talk with him about is about faith and religion.

Gervais is a vocal agonistic atheist.  In his movies, interviews and stand-up routines he often sets up and destroys Christian strawmen.  So I have some understanding as to why he’s not Christian, but less of an idea as to how his atheism works for him and provide a moral foundation and purpose to his life.

His new Netflix series, After Life, which he wrote and directed, seems to give some explanation about the meaning of life for Ricky Gervais.

I liked After Life.  I loved some parts, but there were other bits that fell short.

SPOILER ALERT

Meaninglessness is a Superpower

The main character, Tony, is devastated by the loss of his wife Lisa (Kerry Godliman) of 25 years to cancer.

“It broke me,” he says. “I just don’t see any point in living.”

The first five of the six-episode series show us that Tony isn’t dealing very well with the loss.

His nice apartment is a total mess and he’s eating cold curry straight out of the can.

He’s nasty to his co-workers; he heaps abuse on one because she’s boring another because he’s developing “neck fat.”  He abuses shop keepers and engages in a pointless power struggle with his postman.  Perhaps the pinnacle of his horribleness is when he threatens to bludgeon a 10-year-old with a hammer.

Matt (Tom Basden), his  boss and brother-in-law, tells him, “You can’t just go around being rude to people!”  Tony answers, “You can, though, that’s the beauty of it.”  Tony explains. “It’s like a superpower.”  Not caring if you live or die, gives him the power to say and do whatever he wants.  This power is most often expressed by treating people like they are garbage.

Tony tells Matt, that because he, Matt, is a nice guy he, Tony,  can do whatever he wants.  He, Matt, won’t really do anything.  He concludes:

“There’s no advantage to being nice, and thoughtful, and having integrity.  It’s a disadvantage, if anything.”

Gervais seems to be acknowledging this moral cynicism as an unhealthy possibility in atheism.  It doesn’t survive the series, but is there anything in atheism that will deter it?  One of my questions over coffee.

Atheist Apologetics

Gervais is abundantly clear that Christianity is not an option.  He gives Tony the occasional platform from which to present his atheist apologetic when challenged by the one explicitly Christian character in the show, Kath.

Kath is no match for Tony.  He explains that he simply believes in one fewer God that she does.  She’s not able to offer a meaningful challenge to Tony’s point (as I do here).  Strawman Christianity is no match for Gervais’ atheism.

When Kath, asks, “If your an atheist, and you don’t believe in heaven and hell and all that, how come you don’t go around raping and murdering as much as you want?” Tony’s answer is, “I do. I do go around raping and murdering as much as I want, which is not at all.”  This is a clever answer; it show’s Tony’s intellectual superiority over Kath who incorrectly thinks that Christian morality is grounded in a fear of hell.  But he doesn’t really give an adequate answer to Kath’s question.  What if you are the kind of person who likes to rape and murder?  What’s to stop you if your an atheist?  Another one of my questions over coffee.

Vanity, Vanity, All is Vanity

Without Lisa, life is meaningless for Tony.

Tony has stepped into the book of Ecclesiastes.

He tries professional help. There are some really funny bits here.  He tries drugs.  I think he knew that would be a dead end.  There is no meaning in his work.  Tony writes for a small town newspaper, The Tambury Gazette–local stuff about nothing: “Local baby looks exactly like Adolf Hitler.”  He could have advanced over his career, but he never wanted to: life was worth living because of Lisa.

His dog?  There’s something here.  Each time he takes a step toward the cliff of suicide, the dog pulls him back.  The dog is the first of several honest and open relationships in the show.

Ricky Gervais and the Meaning of Life

“Once you realize you’re not going to be around forever, I think that’s what makes life so magical.”

–Tony

Lisa’s grave is situated next to Stan’s.  Tony has several conversations with Stan’s widow, Anne (Penelope Wilton) who helps him process his loss and helps him to move forward.

In episode 4, she explains to him that he’s completely self-centred, even in his grief.  She tells him,  “We’re not just here for us. We’re here for others.”  Tony thinks she’s going to get all Christian on him and tells her so, but she assures him that the whole God thing is “a load of rubbish.”

“All we’ve got is each other. We’ve got to help each other struggle through until we die, and then we’re done.”

She makes the point that if you love someone you delight in their happiness, even if it’s not yours.

For Gervais, loving and caring for others seem to be central to the meaning of life.  Later, Tony admits that he doesn’t have a superpower because “You can’t not care about the things you actually care about.  You can’t fool yourself.”

“Good people do things for other people. That’s it.  That’s the end.”

–The Widow

So, a few more questions for our coffee”

What about the bad people?

It seems that Gervais has a pretty high regard for people in that there are very few bad people in the show.  Quite a few stupid people, but only the only bad people I saw were muggers.

I’d argue that I’m a bad person.  I fail to live up to the standard for goodness to which I hold others–especially when driving.  I don’t know how I would have behaved if I were in, say the Warsaw Ghetto.  So I think we’re all bad.

But even if Gervais is right, that there are only a few bad apples.  What do we do about them?  They do bad things to good people and often get away with it.  What is their end?  They get away with it until they die and then end up like everyone else.

Who’s to judge?

Tony gives a partial answer.   He commits to continue “punishing the world, but I’m gonna punish the people that deserve it.  I’m  gonna use my superpower for good.”

So bad people will get what they deserve at the hands of the good people.

Who decides who is good and who is bad?  Apparently, this all happens on an individual level.  We each get to decide for ourselves who is bad and then dole out punishment accordingly.

Yeah, what could go wrong?

After Life: Like a Bad Christian Movie

One of my recurring nightmares is to be with a bunch of new Christian friends and the conversation shifts to movies, and someone starts talking about God is Not Dead or some such, even suggesting we all watch it together for our mutual encouragement and growth.  I glance over at my wife who knows what’s coming and she’s already shaking her head.  She knows I won’t be able to keep my mouth shut and that we will never see these people again.

In many ways, Ricky Gervais' After Life is like a bad Christian movie with swearing.Click To Tweet

At the climax of many bad Christian movies, one character tells another character that they are a sinner and need Jesus. There is, of course, a conversion followed by a happy ending.  All the Christians leave the theatre with a warm, fuzzy feeling in their hearts.  The hope is that all the non-Christians in the audience feel convicted of their sin and have taken a significant step toward their eventual conversion.  That’s the idea.  In reality, the movie is just bad because it doesn’t tell a story, it preaches a sermon and it reinforces ideas that are so simplistic, they are almost lies.

After Life is the atheist version of a bad Christian movie.  The protagonist is intellectually superior to everyone else. Those with opposite religious beliefs are particularly dumb and offer up slow lobs for the protagonist to bash over the fence.

Like a bad Christian movie it’s got a preachy bit.  The sermon is in episode 6, delivered to Tony’s co-workers.

As with bad Christian movies, the conclusion is convincing only to those who already agree with it.

Be nice to the nice?

Gervais’ answer to grief in a godless universe is a little too simple, and disappointingly limited.

I was waiting for something a little more poignant.

In its most optimistic, Gervais' approach will result in a temporary, slightly better life for a few people. Perhaps this is reality and theists are just fooling themselves. But perhaps Gervais is settling for too little. Click To Tweet

Over the six episodes, Tony finds meaning in loving and caring relationships. First, it’s Brandy the dog and his nephew George.  Lenny, the drug dealer, and Roxy, the sex care worker are added to his sphere.  Anne becomes particularly important to him.  He eventually adds his father who suffers from dementia, his co-workers and even the postman.  The possibility of a new romantic relationship with his father’s nurse rounds out Tony’s new larger collection of meaningful relationships.

It’s interesting that, at the end of it all, Tony finds meaning in relationships.  Relationships are foundational to Christianity as well.  Christianity is a little broader though–it goes beyond Gervais’ “love good people” all the way to “love your enemies.”

Gervais believes there is no evidence for God.

I know that I’m not going to convince him, but the beauty in the world, especially that which he finds in Brandy the dog and “good people” might be an indication that a something more exists–some transcendent good.

If that good happens to be a God who is so loving that he gives up his life to show us how to love others, and lives within us, then it’s possible for us to do the impossible–to love more than just good people, but also to love our enemies.

“Be nice to the nice?”  can make a difference in people’s lives.  Ricky Gervais has that right, love and caring do counter suffering, but individual contributions, even if many, won’t do much to alleviate the suffering in this world.  I can’t even adequately deal with the suffering that I personally cause in the lives of the people I love.  We need a far greater act of love.  This is where Gervais doesn’t go far enough.  For cosmic redemption, we need a cosmic act of love.

Ricky, I’m going to be in London this summer if you’d like to have coffee.  And if you want, we can upgrade to a pint.  Let me know.

Dystopian Literature and Film: A Christian Perspective

Trixieliko / Pixabay

There has been an increase in the popularity of dystopian fiction, especially in the number of books targeting young adults. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, The Divergent by Veronica Roth, and The Maze Runner by James Dashner are but a few examples.

Because so many of my students have read these books, I often teach a unit on dystopian literature and film.  In this unit, we read Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.  Some students also read Brave New World by Aldous Huxley.  Still others read FEED by M. T. Anderson.  We analyze portions of films like Logan’s Run, Bladerunner, Minority Report, Gattaca, Brazil, The Island, and I, Robot.  Students are often inspired to head to our library and check out other books in this genre, including Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, The Road by Cormac McCarthy and The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.

Dystopian Literature in a Christian School

I am sure there are many schools in North America that teach a unit like this, but in a Christian school, a particular kind of Christian school, it is taught a little differently.  I organize the unit around the questions, “What aspect of our culture is being critiqued in the novel or film?” and “Are these critiques legitimate?” Through our investigation, students discover that each author/film-maker places a high value on the human being and being human.  The central purpose of each novel/film is to critique the subversion of human value to some other value–some other aspect of creation.

Dystopian fiction and film is essentially a prophetic genre--it uncovers and condemns idolatry.Click To Tweet

This inversion is the essence of the Biblical notion of idolatry.  Human beings have value because they are created in the image of God.  Humanity has been placed at the top of creation and given the responsibility to take care of it.  When God is replaced by some good thing he created, humanity too is replaced from its position above all that was created.  Idol worship always degrades humanity.  Thus, this unit is actually an exploration of the Biblical teachings on human identity and value, and idolatry.

The creators of dystopian literature and film are proclaiming the evil of sacrificing humanity to our cultural idols:

  • the idols of power (1984)
  • pleasure (Logan’s Run and Brave New World)
  • technology (Bladerunner and Feed),
  • genetic perfection (Gattaca),
  • a longer life (The Island), etc.

The presence and popularity of these narratives are encouraging.  They indicate that there still is a large segment of our society that accepts the premise of human value.

I will rue the day when dystopian literature and film are no longer popular--it will mean that we've stepped off the edge.Click To Tweet

Reading Difficult Material

Hans / Pixabay

A few years ago I read a translation of Paul Ricoeur’s book, Oneself as Another.  This was some hard reading; I felt like I didn’t understand a word.  I needed to understand this book so I read and re-read it, word by word, paragraph by paragraph.  It worked.  I eventually used two of the chapters in a paper I wrote about zombies.  What follows are two entries I included in the annotated bibliography for this paper.

What is remarkable about these entries is that, reading them now, I have no idea what they mean, but at the time I understood them so well that I nuanced one of my professors reading of them.

Ricoeur, Paul. Trans. Kathleen Blamey. “Personal Identity and Narrative Identity.” Oneself as Another. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Narrative mediates between the descriptive viewpoint of action and the prescriptive viewpoint of ethics. Idem-identity or sameness is associated with the question, “What am I?”  It can be understood as numerical identity: different occurrences—events—of the same; qualitative identity is extreme resemblance; and the third component of sameness is uninterrupted continuity across change which becomes permanence in time. Ipse-identity is linked to the question, “Who am I?” It includes both character and “keeping one’s word” or (self-constancy), which also becomes permanence in time as opposed to permanence of the same. Character is essential to both, but in idem-identity it is descriptive (structural), and in ipse-identity it is emblematic. Narrative mediates between character, where idem and ipse-identity overlap, and the maintenance of self, where they can diverge. Ricoeur holds in opposition self-constancy (keeping one’s word) and character, and by doing so he highlights the ethical dimension of self-hood.

 

Ricoeur, Paul. Trans. Kathleen Blamey. “The Self and Narrative Identity.” Oneself as Another. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

The identity of character is constructed by emplotment. Between action and character we find a conflict: the demand for concordance and the admission of discordance. The act of configuration mediates between the two. Within character we see the same conflict: a “dialectic of discordant concordance.” Within narrative, narrative identity is challenged with the imaginative variations that narrative engenders. When a character is confronted with these variations we find an interplay between self-hood as sameness and the pure self-hood of self-constancy—narrative mediates between the two in that it connects these opposite poles in the narrative circle.

Don't give up on reading something, just because it's hard. You can understand difficult academic texts, and Shakespeare. You can get to the point of enjoying the classic novels. Like anything else worthwhile, it will take work.Click To Tweet

For my students, let this be an encouragement to you.  Don’t give up on reading something, just because it’s hard.  You can understand difficult academic texts, and Shakespeare.  You can get to the point of enjoying the Brontes and their contemporaries.  Like anything else worthwhile, it will take work–grit.

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