Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: Paradise

The lament of the creator

Every creator painfully experiences the chasm between his inner vision and its ultimate expression.
– Isaac Bashevis Singer

Do you suppose that’s why Monet painted so many pictures of his flower garden — he was trying to capture it on canvas exactly as he was seeing it?

I don’t believe a writer is ever fully satisfied that he has communicated exactly what he wanted to say, in exactly the way he wanted it to come out.

God the Creator is also painfully aware of the chasm between the world as He wanted it to be and the world as it really is. But in this case it is not the fault of the Creator. After all, He started with paradise, the Garden of Eden. We, the creatures, messed that up; and we continue to mess up the world, because we think we have a better idea.

The old path is narrow

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Image by Jan Alexander from Pixabay

Jeremiah 6:16 Thus saith the LORD, Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls. But they said, We will not walk therein.

I am – Christian, born-again, evangelical, Anabaptist, Mennonite – all those terms can be used to describe my faith in Jesus Christ. Yet, so many people of our time have only a fuzzy notion of what those terms mean.

We have arrived at a decisive moment in history, and most people have no notion of how we got here or where we should go from here. We are not at a crossroads; there are multiple roads leading on from here, each one promising to bring us to paradise – some kind of paradise. How can we know which is the good way?

Menno Simons listed six signs of the true way: unadulterated, pure doctrine; scriptural practice of baptism and the Lord’s Supper (baptism only of those truly born again, not observing the Lord’s Supper when there is conflict and lack of unity in a congregation); obedience to the Word; unfeigned brotherly love; open confession of God and Christ; oppression and hatred for the sake of the Word of the Lord. Times may have changed, but those signs are as valid now as they were 450 years ago.

Unfortunately, we sometimes pick up teachings from the other paths that sound pious and good. Here are some ideas that don’t belong on the old pathway:

– The world was in much better shape when it was run by Christians.
There never was such a time; if we think there was we are averting our eyes from the dark underside of those supposed Christians.

– There is a lifestyle that is synonymous with Christian faith.
Such a lifestyle does not necessarily indicate spiritual life. The Bible teaches purity, modesty, honesty, etc., but we can deceive ourselves by adopting an outward show of those things and we can be mistaken in our judgment of others if we look only at the outward form.

– The people around us are not interested in our faith.
Are we sure it’s not the other way around: we’re not interested in talking to others about our faith?

– People from other ethnic groups are not compatible with the true faith.
Perhaps our attachment to our own ethnic group is not compatible with living a genuine Christian faith.

– People who live in rural areas have much higher moral standards than those who live in cities.
Street missions in our cities report that the majority of prostitutes are girls who were sexually abused in rural areas, and the majority of their clientele comes from rural areas and small towns.

– The death and suffering of our country’s soldiers on foreign battlefields are no concern of ours. We are a separate people and do not participate in war.
This aloof, holier than thou attitude will come back to bite us some day. If we care nothing for the grief and suffering of our neighbours, why should they care when persecution comes upon us?

– Our faith is a heritage from our parents and ancestors.
Our Christian heritage comes from God alone.

In the beginning

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Image by Jeff Jacobs from Pixabay

The Bible begins with the earth in total darkness and covered with water and ends with a new earth which has no sea and no night. (Genesis 1:2; Revelation 21:1 and 22:5) Everything that comes between is there to tell us how to get from the first place to the last.

Darkness is where the devil and his angels lurk, to capture the souls of men and women and lead them away from God. It is where evil works are done, hidden from the light of day. The sea symbolizes continual change, tumult and confusion.

On the first day of creation, God created light and separated light from darkness, day from night. This was not the natural light of the sun, moon and stars; God did not create them until the fourth day. This first light was the light of God that permits us to discern between good and evil.

The second day God lifted the fog that hid the surface of the earth, dividing the waters in the clouds above the surface of the earth from the waters that covered the earth’s surface. The space between He called heaven, or sky.

On the third day, God caused the dry land to appear out of the waters and called the dry land Earth and the waters he called Sea. Then He caused plants and trees to appear upon the dry land.

The fourth day God created the sun, moon and stars; the fifth day he populated the sea, the earth and the sky with living things and the sixth day He created the first man and woman.

The account in the first chapter of Genesis tells us that God called the light good, the dry land good and everything He created subsequently He called good. The first verses of Genesis 1 do not record God called darkness or the sea good. Yet verse 31, at the end of the sixth day, says that God saw everything that He had made and it was very good.

Adam and Eve lived in the best of all possible worlds. It was a place of surpassing beauty, abundance and peace. Yet very soon Eve encounters the serpent who tempts her to question God’s wisdom and benevolence. How could such a thing happen?

The spiritual realm where God and the angels dwell existed before the events in Genesis. We gather from scattered bits of information in the Bible that a terrible thing happened before the beginning of time. Lucifer, one of the greatest of the angels, challenged God for leadership. One third of the angels supported Lucifer. The Bible says there was war in heaven.

We do not know just when this happened, but it resulted in a division in the spiritual realm, Lucifer and his angels were cast out of heaven. Now there are two spiritual realms, the realm of light where God dwells and the realm of darkness where Satan and his angels dwell.

After Creation Satan moved the battleground between the powers of light and darkness to the earth. He tempted Eve, she and Adam disobeyed God, and He made them leave the earthly paradise. Ever since that time mankind have longed to regain their home in Paradise, and Satan has continually sown confusion about how they can do that.

Travelling home

It was pouring rain, with low-hanging clouds, when our friends drove us to the Vancouver Airport. Our holiday was over, we’d visited family and friends we hadn’t seen for years, and now we were on our way home to Montréal.

Eventually we were seated in our plane at the beginning of the runway. The jet engines roared to life and we began barrelling down the runway, straight for the ocean. From where I was sitting it looked like it was just at the last moment when the nose tilted up and we were airborne. In a few seconds everything below us disappeared and we were lost in the clouds. Soon I felt the plane make a u-turn to head east, then it continued to climb until we were above the clouds.

For the next five hours there was only this fluffy white mass as far as the eye could see. I trusted that we were flying over the Rockies, the Prairies, then the forests and lakes of Ontario. I could see nothing to prove that, but I trusted the pilot would bring us to our intended destination.

Darkness comes early in January and then I could only see the clouds directly below the airplane. Then there was a glow of light below and ahead of us and before long we were flying above this glow that penetrated the clouds. There was still nothing else to see but I knew we were nearing home. The plane made another u-turn and headed west. Many planes a day made this manoeuvre above our home on the east side of Montréal, so I knew where we were.

The jet engines were quieter now, the airspeed began to diminish and we descended into the clouds. We flew on, swathed in clouds, with the glow of the city beneath us. Finally, we broke beneath the clouds and directly in front of us I could see the lights of the runway. The plane descended, touched down smoothly and we were back home in Montréal.

We saw nothing on the ground to tell us where we were during that whole 4,500 km journey and we knew the pilot didn’t either. But he was getting his information from another source and we trusted he knew exactly where we were at all times.

Not all journeys are that relaxing. My wife is on a journey of cancer treatment at this time and I am along for the ride. Today we will be in Saskatoon for another round of chemotherapy. She has Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia and is receiving two drugs that target the white cells affected by that disease. We trust the oncologist and the nurses, but the journey is wearisome. The disease makes her tired already and one doctor told us the treatment will make her more tired and that before she is done she will be tired of seeing the Cancer Clinic and tired of seeing the doctors there.

It helps that we know that others have followed this same treatment protocol and have had their health and energy restored. It is not a journey we wanted to make, yet we have chosen to take it because the alternative would be worse. Someone, whom we once considered a trustworthy friend, has suggested a better way of treatment. We know that most of those who have chosen that “better way” are no longer living. So we go on, trusting that we will arrive at our desired destination.

There is another journey that we are all taking, the journey of life. It is not a passive journey where we are just carried along, but those who have chosen Christ as their guide have a promise of one day reaching Paradise, a paradise that will probably be far better even than the one from which our first parents were chased because of sin.

It isn’t always a smooth journey, the road is often rough, there are hills to climb and storms along the way. There are “friendly” voices which tell us there is a better, easier way. We dare not trust them, we have seen the wretched end of many that were lured onto the easier way. But we have not travelled this way before, the landmarks are unfamiliar, sometimes we go off course.

Our Guide is always there to help us correct our course, find the right landmarks and to renew our courage. And every step we take brings us closer to that City of Light where we can rest for evermore.

Paradise

MJfountnThis is Crescent Park in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. Not really paradise, just a pretty nice spot to find smack dab in the downtown of a city on the arid prairies.

The first home of mankind was in a true earthly paradise, the Garden of Eden. As a consequence of their sin, Adam and Eve were driven from the garden, and ever since there has been a gnawing desire in the heart of each of their descendants to find their way back to that garden.

The paradise envisioned by many cultures was an enclosed garden, with trees, flowers, birds and animals, in which one could find peace and rest from all the evils of this life. The Jewish rabbis of antiquity wrote of such a garden and pictured Abraham at the gate to welcome all his spiritual descendants.

This traditional understanding was the background for Jesus’ mention of Abraham’s bosom in the account of the rich man and Lazarus. Later on, the dying thief would have readily understood the meaning of Jesus’ promise “Today thou shalt be with me in paradise” to mean such a place.

But this is not heaven. Our minds want to skip over the period of time between death and the judgement. The Bible gives only sketchy glimpses of this, but clearly states that the dead will not rise again before Jesus’ return. At that time there will be a bodily resurrection followed by the judgement.

Yet it is clear that there is already a separation between the saved and the lost at the time of death. Paradise for the redeemed and a place of torment for the lost. If this is so, why is there a need for the Last Judgement? It seems from the judgement account in Matthew 25 that many of those who found themselves in the place of torment will harbour a conviction that a horrible mistake has been made, that they have been punished unjustly. And those who found themselves in Paradise will have had misgivings about whether they were worthy of such a place. It will be made plain for all to see that each one’s placement was just and their destiny will be sealed for eternity.

If Paradise is such a place of beauty and peace, what will heaven be like? “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9). We just don’t know, but surely it will be a Paradise beyond our ability to fathom while we live in our earth-bound bodies. It will not be a place of sensuous pleasures, such as imagined by the Qu’ran, but neither will it be a place of sterile, utilitarian beauty. Will there be birds and animals there? We havbe no word either way, but surely there is no harm in imagining heaven in terms of the things we find beautiful and heart-warming today, since heaven will surely not be less than what we can imagine.

Where is Paradise?

The first paradise was the Garden of Eden. In the Septuagint “garden” in Genesis 2:8 appears as “paradise,” the paradise of Eden. The Hebrew word in the original refers to a walled garden of pleasure and delight, where sin cannot enter. It appears that all peoples of the earth have in their traditions a memory of a time when the original inhabitants of the earth lived in some such earthly paradise. There is a longing in all of us to return to this paradise.

When Jesus told the dying thief “Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise,” was He speaking of heaven? Where then would be the judgment of which the Scriptures speak? “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:10); “for we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ” (Romans 14:10). This judgment comes at the end of time, after the bodily resurrection. In another place, the apostle Paul warns about those “Who concerning the truth have erred, saying that the resurrection is past already; and overthrow the faith of some” (2 Timothy 2:18).

The sequence in the Scriptures is the bodily resurrection, then the final judgment and then the final separation to eternal torment or eternal joy. “When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: and before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats . . . And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal” (Matthew 25:31-46).

It would appear then that when Jesus spoke of paradise He meant the abode of the spirits of the dead before the resurrection. Paradise and “Abraham’s bosom” were both terms used by the Jews to describe the abode of the departed spirits of the righteous. Revelation 6:9 uses the term “under the altar” to describe this place. The parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:20-25) demonstrates that even here there is a division between the saved and the lost. Yet here it appears that communication is possible between the two parts of the abode of the dead, even though the conditions are quite different. I believe we can infer from the Scripture that in heaven the separation will be of such a magnitude that those in one place will not be aware of those in the other.

Those that have died are thus in an intermediate state and place, awaiting the resurrection and final judgment. Some are in a place of beauty and joy, some in a very unpleasant place, yet not the torments of eternal fire. It would appear from this that those in Matthew 7:22 who came before the judgment throne complaining: “Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works?” would be those who found themselves shut out of paradise and felt that a horrible injustice had been done. Jesus’ answer is horrible to contemplate: “I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity” (verse 23).

If we are to enter paradise, and eventually heaven, our works must be the outworking of the Holy Spirit in our lives, not works that are done in an attempt to earn the favour of God or our fellow men.

Did Jesus descend into hell?

The Apostles’ Creed says: “He descended into hell.” Or does it? This short little confession of the essentials of the faith is thought to have begun as questions that were asked of applicants for baptism: “Do you believe . . . ?” It was soon compiled into the form we have today – except for the clause “He descended into hell.” This clause was not added until the fourth century.

The Roman Catholic Church and many Protestant churches use the version containing this clause. Anabaptists have never accepted the “descended into hell” clause.

Doesn’t the Bible say that Jesus was in hell after His death on the cross? There are a few verses that might seem to give this idea, but does that impression stand up to a close examination?

Psalm 16:10 says “For thou wilt not leave my soul in hell; neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption.” Peter quotes this verse in Acts 2:27, referring to it again in verse 31, and applies it to Christ. The original words translated as hell are sheol in Hebrew and hades in Greek, both words refer to the place of the departed spirits after death, where they wait for the resurrection of the body. The basic sense of the passage is that Jesus’ body would not lie in the tomb long enough to suffer decomposition.

1 Peter 3:19 is often cited as a basis for the descent into hell. Here is the whole passage from verse 18 to verse 20: “For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit: by which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison; which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water.”

The Roman Catholic Church bases its doctrine of purgatory on verse 19, teaching that there will be a second chance for the lost after death. This verse does not offer any hint that the “spirits in prison” repented, nor does any other part of Scripture speak of a second chance after death. What then would have been the purpose of Jesus descending to the spirits of the lost to speak specifically to those who perished in the flood?

A simpler explanation is that Christ, “by the Spirit,” preached to them through Noah before the flood. The fact that Peter refers to Noah as a “preacher of righteousness” (2 Peter 2:5), lends considerable weight to this interpretation. The term “spirits in prison” is not used elsewhere to refer to souls in hades, the place of departed spirits, but to those who are bound in unbelief, as in Isaiah 61:1: “The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me; because the LORD hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound.”

Whatever our interpretation of these verses, we dare not take them as referring to a descent of Jesus into the place of eternal torment, for on the cross He promised the dying thief: “Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise.” These are Jesus’ own words, testifying that He himself would be in Paradise after His death.

Do the saved go to heaven when they die?

I used to think that when a Christian died he or she was ushered straight through the pearly gates into heaven.  I guess I got that from the popular cultural perception of how Christians believed.  Ten years ago, the picture that I had was challenged on Scriptural grounds, and my thinking has changed.

Today I believe the answer to the question posed above is “Yes, but not right away.”  Let me explain.

In Matthew 25, verses 31 to 46, Jesus explains how it will be on the great day of judgement at the end of time.  All nations (people) will be gathered before Him and He will separate the sheep from the goats.  Those classed as sheep will enter heaven and those classed as goats will be cast into hell.  This picture makes no sense if the saved were already in heaven before this time.

The Bible is more concerned that we should have a genuine saving relationship with God in this life than in telling us exactly how things will be in heaven.  But we are told that in heaven we will have resurrected bodies, much like the body of Jesus after he rose from the dead.  In 2 Timothy 2:18 the apostle Paul writes a strongly worded condemnation of those who would teach that the resurrection is past already.  That bodily resurrection will not occur until the return of Christ in glory for the final judgement.  Revelations 6:9 speaks of souls under the altar, waiting for the resurrection day.

Two Bible passages are often misinterpreted, giving rise to the thought of an immediate entrance into heaven.  One is in Luke 23:43, where Jesus said to the thief on the cross: “Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.”  The other is the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, found in Luke 16:19-31.  Here the rich man awakes in “hell” and Lazarus in “Abraham’s bosom”.

It helps to understand that “Paradise” and “Abraham’s bosom” were terms commonly used by the Jews to describe the place where the righteous would await the end of the world and the bodily resurrection.  It was pictured as a beautiful and delightful garden, where nothing would disturb their peace.  The “hell” mentioned in Luke 16:23 is actually Hades, the place where sinners await the final judgement.  It is not the lake of fire and brimstone, yet appears to be a thoroughly unpleasant place.

Another clue that this is only a temporary arrangement is found in the possibility of communication between Hades and Abraham’s bosom, though the finality of the separation is already established.  It is hard to imagine that the saints in heaven will be in such proximity to the lake of fire and brimstone.

It appears from the protestations in Matthew 7:22-23 that there will be those in Hades who are convinced that a great injustice has been done to them.  They will say, “ Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works?”  And Jesus will reply that they had not done those works at His bidding, by His Spirit or by His power, and deny ever having known them.

I now believe that this picture of a temporary wait in Paradise or Hades before the resurrection is what the Bible teaches.  This in no way detracts from the promise of heaven.  In fact it makes it more real.

I never did find the popular image of wraithlike saints floating on clouds and strumming harps really that attractive as a long term future.  This old body and this old earth will pass away, but the Bible promises a bodily existence in a place described as a new earth.  The heaven sketched in the Bible appears to have some resemblance to our present existence, with the absence of all that now causes pain and sorrow, and in the presence of our Lord and all the holy saints and angels.

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