Friday, April 29, 2011

What Happens After We Die: Inclusivism I

We're continuing on the subject of what happens after we die, specifically discussing whether or not people who did not have an informed faith in Christ while they lived could be included in the benefits of the salvation Christ wrought after they die (inclusivism).

So far I've shared that annihilation of the soul is an impossibility because of the nature of the image of God in which mankind is made. I've also said that manipulation or control of the image of God by fiat would so mar it as to render it no longer the image of God. I've also stated concerning repentance that "through the Gospel and the conviction of the Holy Spirit we have our opportunity." That, however, raises the question about whether or not the lack of opportunity might negate the need for the Gospel and conviction. Let's explore.

God does not, I don't know that he can, make a soul (in his image) live in accord with him if that soul doesn't want to in its own right. Adam and Eve were good according to God, without sin within, but they were not willing to submit. Jesus faced serious temptation, especially in Gethsemane, but was willing to submit. In the prototypical models of humanity, it seems, the principle is that the image of God must willingly agree and submit if there is to be agreement and submission at all.

God is not without tools to accomplish his purposes with the image of God: he can convict, he can persuade, he can woo, and he certainly can suggest. Indeed, he must do all that and more if any are to be saved, but putting puppet strings upon the image of God is just something he will not do over the long run. The result would not be the image of God if he did. Therefore, repentance is absolutely essential to living in God's image after death.

It seems to me an open and shut case that anyone who knows enough to repent, must repent, or face hell after death. That repentance cannot be just a simple recognition of one's own sinfulness, but must entail determination to live, going forward, according to God's will. Nature itself is sufficient to convince mankind of God's existence and his basic nature, and is therefore in itself sufficient to render all men everywhere without excuse for denying, disbelieving or ignoring their Maker. With that in mind let's look at a hypothetical example.

Let's say there is a unevangelized pagan somewhere at sometime who looked upon the witness of creation and realized that God was behind it. That pagan reasoned that he must acknowledge his Maker and submit to him. Would not that pagan be like Abram in Ur, or even perhaps even something akin to Naaman? Would that pagan thereby find mercy and grace in God, and be included in Christ? No, he would not for very good reasons.

At very best, and by his own reckoning, he would serve God according to his own devices; would be dependent upon his own works to maintain his status with God; would have to fashion his own religion to serve God (is that not intrinsically idolatrous?). What is unclear about the scriptures' judgment about the efficacy of any of those actions? If works do not justify a Jew, who has the law from God's mouth, how are they going to justify a pagan who has conjured his law through his best intuition? He may get a few things right, but by no means would be justified before the Lord. He may know there's a Creator, what he needs to know is the Savior.

In the case of Abram, and all of the OT patriarchs (Noah, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, even Samuel) what made the difference for them was the visitation of God. Whether by direct appearance, or through the Holy Spirit revealing, or by the word of God being heard (or read), God must make the difference if a person to a have saving faith (which was true for even Naaman and the Ninevites in Jonah's day). This is just not something people come to on their own, even looking at the witness of creation. Some may object saying that's unfair or unloving (subjective), but what's more important is whether or not it's true (objective).

I say, we must trust God to abide by the word Jesus spoke (John 6:37-47 ESV):
All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day."
So the Jews grumbled about him, because he said, "I am the bread that came down from heaven." They said, "Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does he now say, 'I have come down from heaven'?" Jesus answered them, "Do not grumble among yourselves. No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day. It is written in the Prophets, 'And they will all be taught by God.' Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me—not that anyone has seen the Father except he who is from God; he has seen the Father. Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life. 
Jesus, in this passage, tells us how saving gets done. In a nutshell, salvation is the work of Christ, the benefit of which is bestowed on all who believe in him. That belief is specific and personal, for it results in the saved coming to Christ, looking to Christ, and believing in Christ. To those who grumbled about his claim to be the divine means of salvation, Jesus defended his exclusivity and necessity and dismissed their objections by saying that if a person was learning from God, he would come to Christ.

Where, then, is the hope for the noble savage, if indeed, such a beast exists? I've shown that the development of saving faith requires the visitation of God. If that is so, why would God visit and direct a heathen to someone or something other than Christ? If one postulates there is another path to salvation than saving faith, the burden of proof is upon him. I cannot find any clue of such in the scriptures.

Monday, April 25, 2011

What Happens When We Die: Universalism

I've been exploring what happens after we die, which I continue now by looking into the thought of universalism, which suggests that Christ's salvivic work will be applied to all humans at some point.

Immortality in freedom is impossible for those who are not submitted to God. Can God in his omniscience and omnipotence allow that which in anti-God, that which is evil, to be and still be God? I don't think so, it would be saying that he is not sovereign minimally, and ultimately would make evil intrinsic to him. For evil to remain in what he's created would mean that it was reflective of him, that it is one of his attributes.

I've already said the ship has sailed on the possibility of annihilating mankind because we are made in his image, and ensouled by his very breath. I also think the ship has sailed on God enforcing his will on people as if it was their own. We are made like unto God with freedom of will (apart from which there can be no sin or godly love). God could manipulate us, of course, but the cost would be effacing his image in us, which is not his stated will. We are not made of a substance that can be made to do what someone else wants it to and still be in the image in which we were made--God is not of that nature and neither are we.

I have said before that Universalism should be the logical conclusion of Calvinism (insofar as one abides by the meanings of words, that is). To my reckoning, universalism, inclusivism and Calvinism make the error of positing that God will by fiat transform the lost. Though the lost did not want what God wanted nor do as God would have them do, they will because God will make them do so. If Adam and Eve did not live that way in Eden, that is not the way those in God's image live at all. It never has been true on earth and never will be true in the heavenlies!

Granted, some Universalists envision the flames of hell as producing the most beneficial change (repentance) in the those being toasted--God as the ultimate Skinnerian, I suppose; an evangelical approach to purgatory, perhaps. Not only is there not so much as a peep about such a conception in the scriptures, the Apocalypse seems to render the difference between those inside the New Jerusalem and those outside with finality. We have this life until we die to change our minds about God, through the Gospel and the conviction of the Holy Spirit we have our opportunity.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

What Happens After We Die: Annihilation

When it comes to the subject of what happens after we die, humans do not bring a lot to the table. It really is outside of any experience we have or can gain, at least in the land of the living. Logic, intuition and discovery are out the window. No matter how long we think about it, no matter how we try to resolve our feelings, no matter how deeply we delve into the nature of things, we really are left without a clue about what happens after people die. Even near death experiences don't answer the questions, because unlike in horseshoes, nearness doesn't count.

All we have that is authoritative in these matters is what revelation God has seen fit to give us. We can make some suppositions on the basis of that little bit of information, even speculate a bit trying to extrapolate from that data set, but we are beggars when it come to this subject. We have no means in ourselves to get the goods we seek. We can only receive that which the able and seeing has deigned to drop upon us as he's passed our way.

It seems to me, that at its core this issue comes down to properly understanding what it means to be made in the image of God. According to his word, we are the only thing created in the material world for which that description can be made. I think an argument could be made for at least some kind of angelic being fitting the description as well, since they are referred to as the "sons of God" in Job. So, humans and some angelic beings are made akin, reflective of the Father of spirits. What does that mean?

We are made with a sense of self, or personhood, along the line that the Lord God Almighty possesses. We will, choose, want, and create. It is what we've been made for. We're wisps of God's very breath, most assuredly, but that also means we are as indestructible in essence as is he. Can God destroy some aspect of himself? No, I do not believe he can--it would make him less God. Can God destroy some aspect of himself that he's leant to other creatures to live and be as they are? I don't think he can, and hence scriptures consistent testimony that the souls of mankind are eternal.

Annihilation is impossible because at our cores, we are not made of destructible stuff. The possibility of destruction disappeared when God decided to make us in his image and breathed into us the breath of life. Our living soul is made of the indestructible breath of God. We last forever, and God could no more destroy us now than he could destroy himself--that ship sailed at the creation. Even if our bodies disappeared in an instant, our souls would continue forever.

All that can be done with us for eternity is to immobilize us, segregate us, and then expose us to an environment that is so overwhelming that we have no ability to fill the spaces, all of which God is omnisciently aware of, with rebellious and evil thoughts. Generally, we refer to that reality as Hell. Now, some might question whether or not God could be that impotent in the face of his creatures. I mean, couldn't he make them be something else by fiat? Something more agreeable? After all, he is the sovereign Lord.

If God could have created something in his image that was that controllable, it wouldn't have been his image! In the end, whether or not something could be done another way by God is a silly question. The perfect God did what he did. Could it have been done differently? Perhaps. Could it have been better? Absolutely not! If there were some other way, some better way, for God to accomplish his ultimate aims, he would have done it that way. 

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Second-guessing God

What happens when some tenet of the Bible grates against our sensibilities? In those circumstances, we have a choice of faith: trust in God and go with the self-disclosure of his word, or tap into human intellect, get out an eraser, and blur the distinctive line drawn in the sand. Christians have faced this test over and over, and, IMHO, failed over and over again in that test of faith. We always come up with a reason to stay in Haran.

How so? You may ask. Let me list some of the areas of doctrine where I see the problem...

Perseverance of Salvation
The Baptism in the Holy Spirit
Infallibility of the Word
Inspiration of the Word
Social Gospel
Liberation Gospel

If you'd like me to expound, leave a comment (I probably will at some point even if you don't  ;-o ).

Monday, April 4, 2011

Theological Repercussions of the Resurrection

There is nothing more foundational to Christianity than the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. There would be no Christianity apart from it! That undoubted focus means that incarnational truth is more fundamental to the corpus of Christian doctrine than any other theological truth, for it is the resurrection that proves that Christ is more than a mere mortal and verifies his virgin birth (who'd have believed that if he hadn't risen from the dead?). The resurrection is what demands an answer from the world for that famous question put to his disciples.

As a simple act in history, the resurrection either occurred or did not. Forensics over epistemic or ontological concerns get so much of our theological attention, but neither can produce the foundation, nor the assurance, for Christian beliefs. It is an act in history (attested by eyewitnesses, recorded by some of them for posterity, validated by their behavior, and productive of the most beneficial, incredible change in people to this day when believed) upon which certainty concerning Christianity can rest. The fact of the resurrection makes Christology the most important aspect of Christian theology.

Everything else in theology must be seen, in some sense, as derivative--known by the light Jesus, risen from the dead, shines upon it. Soteriology is concerned with why he died, eschatology is concerned with how he will return and wrap all things up, cosmology is concerned with what he's made, ecclesiology is concerned with the organization of his followers, the canon is the record of things he said or caused to have said, the Trinity is the description of how he is related to his Father and the Holy Spirit. You get the picture, everything revolves around Jesus!

The most important, fundamental question for any human to answer is, "Who do you say that I am?" The resurrection of Jesus Christ means that the only valid answer is, "you are my Lord." Tradition cannot inform that answer, theology cannot enlighten it, only the historical witness of that singular event can. In my heart I believe the unimpeachable testimony of those eyewitnesses--Jesus rose, bodily, from the dead. That means Jesus is Lord, therefore I will be led by him. Anything else I may believe can build on that.