Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Is Grandma watching over me?

My article from this week's newspapers deals with the question of relatives watching over us from heaven:

Q:  After the recent death of a relative, a friend tried to comfort me by saying that the relative was “watching over” me from heaven.  Is this true, and how do we know?

I’m not sure how far it goes back, but this belief has become increasingly popular among many Americans, even Christians.  And while it may have a bit of truth at its core, it goes farther than Scripture goes in describing the lives of our loved ones who have died. 

The first thing to consider is that “heaven” as we think of it is only a minor theme in Scripture.  Most of the Bible’s descriptions of afterlife are about something else – namely the Resurrection at the Last Day. 

At death, the body is buried, and the soul is judged.  For those who rely entirely on Jesus for forgiveness of sins this has the result that their soul goes to be at rest with Jesus.  However, this is not the soul’s final destination.  Instead, the body will be raised to be reunited with the soul on the Last Day, after which eternal life is lived in the body as a whole person. 

What we typically think of as “heaven” is referred to by theologians as the Interim State, indicating that the time while our souls rest with Christ is only an in-between time during which we await the full, embodied life which will commence at the Resurrection. 

From scripture we learn that these souls who rest with Christ are not unconscious or asleep, but seem to have some awareness of what is happening on earth.  We see this as the figures in Luke 16 are aware of events on earth even while they are at rest or in torment, and the souls under the altar in Revelation 6 long for the Resurrection of their bodies and the vindication of their fellow martyrs who suffer on earth. 

Scripture, though, does not credit the dead with "watching over" us, appearing to us, contacting us, or otherwise intervening in any way here on earth. Those things are the sole ability of the Lord, and Luke 16 makes very clear that there is no return, communication, or intervention between this world and the deceased.

It also seems preferable to speak of the saints with the Lord as "aware" of events here on earth rather than sensory language like "see" or "hear," since that sensory language implies a body, which they lack until the Resurrection on the Last Day. The language of watching over also might give the impression that they are occupied with earthly events or attentive to minor or embarrassing details here on earth or cause concern that they sorrow over the sin and suffering they witness.  Instead, they are occupied with the Lord while they are present with Him, and it seems that in some mysterious way, their souls share in some portion (even if incomplete) of His perfect knowledge and understanding of earthly events.

Ultimately, while it might be comforting to think of our deceased loved ones as watching over us, we have an even greater promise – namely that Christ Himself watches over us.  While they are beloved, they are merely human  and have not received supernatural power or authority, while He is the possessor of all divine power, and He who has forgiven our sins has promised that He will order all things for the good of our souls and the forgiveness of our sins so that we too would join Him and them in the eternal, resurrected life that is without end. 

Monday, April 14, 2014

Is Heaven for Real?

I've been meaning to answer this question (review this book) for years now, but it just stayed on the back burner.  With the movie being released soon, I thought it had simmered long enough:  

Q:  I found the book Heaven is for Real very touching, but I can’t help but wonder whether the boy’s experience was genuine.  Can you offer any guidance to help me sort this out?

In the handful of years since this book was released, it has become very widely known because of its touching images and inspiring portrayal of childlike faith.  At the same time, I, like the many readers who have sent me this question, wonder whether the accounts of heaven it communicates are accurate and trustworthy – whether Colton Burpo’s experience was genuine or from another source. 

Beyond the difficulty of communicating any individual's experience to those who do not personally share it, this book faces the challenge of a third party – his father – communicating the experiences of his preschool-aged son.  For the sake of being both concise and charitable, I am willing to forego any accusations that the experience was fabricated for fame or financial gain and to assume that Colton really did experience the events he describes. 

The bigger question that seems necessary to ask is regarding the source of Colton’s experience.  The possibilities that immediately come to mind are those of hallucination, a dream, or the boy’s mind integrating diverse fragments of information during a semi-conscious state or under the influence of sedatives and anesthetic. 

Those would be easy conclusions, except that the account in the book also includes information that the authors claim could not have been known within the limitations of time and space in its circumstances.  These include knowledge of a deceased grandfather’s appearance in an era generations ago, the existence of a previously-unrevealed miscarried sister, and the location and behavior of Colton’s parents during his surgery.  If we concede that these were not fabricated, then we are left to consider spiritual origins for this experience – but from what spiritual source? 

Scripture gives clear guidance regarding those who claim to have experienced extraordinary spiritual revelations – namely, that they must present complete accuracy.  Predictions must be completely fulfilled (Deut. 18), and claims to truth must match completely with those already known in Scripture (Deut. 13, 1 John 4), which is the point where this account raises concerns for me. 

Many of the descriptions of heaven in the book are untestable because they are neither confirmed by Scripture nor contradictory to it.  Many others are consistent with what we should expect from an experience of heaven based on Biblical revelation.  On a few occasions, though, Colton’s experiences directly contradict truths known from Scripture or history. 

First, and most significant of these is the location of Jesus’ crucifixion wounds (in the palm rather than at the junction of the forearm bones at the wrist).  Another worrisome description is the repeated references to the winged appearance of deceased believers.  Additionally, while the Bible clearly states that death must precede entrance into the states described in the account (Hebrews 9:27), medical records showed that Colton did not die. 

Finally, Colton says about Pop, “He’s got a new body.  Jesus told me if you don’t go to heaven, you don’t get a new body.”  Scripture, on the other hand, very clearly describes death as separation from the body (2 Cor. 5:8 et. al.) and that all people, not only believers will receive a resurrected body – but that it will be on the Last Day, and not in the temporary, spiritual state which precedes it. 

This leaves us with two choices:  First, we can dismiss these discrepancies as the result of a child’s limited comprehension or communication ability, but then we would be left to doubt all the rest of the account on the same grounds.  Alternatively, we could wonder, in spite of Colton’s and his Father’s sincere belief that the account is genuine, if the experience was introduced from another, spiritually hostile source which conveyed a great deal of truth mixed with just enough error to be distract from what is most important. 

This leads to my final concern – heaven is never described as the end game in Scripture.  We have only a handful of descriptions of it, and very few direct references to it.  Instead, the big idea in Scripture regarding afterlife is that it is lived out in an eternal resurrection, which follows the Last Day.  Too much focus on “heaven” (which we Americans have been guilty of for generations) distracts from that truth that we will physically live again forever. 

Yes, Heaven is for real.  We know this because eyewitnesses saw our Lord resurrected, and He told them it was true.  This book, however, leaves serious questions of credibility, which we cannot overlook.

Since my local newspaper column is limited at 800 words, this review is exceedingly brief.  Perhaps after Holy Week, there will be time for me to provide an expanded critique, offering the insights I lacked the space to include here.