September 16, 2017 § Leave a comment
One of the kids from our neighborhood got married two weeks ago, and I had the privilege of officiating her wedding. Her family was in celebration mode, dancing together at the reception. The bride’s brother had double the reason to be joyful as he and his girlfriend were expecting a child any day.
Five days later, this family was together again when it came time to have the baby. But this time they were together to grieve. The baby didn’t survive the delivery, and the parents had asked me to join them at the hospital to pray for them. This afternoon I officiated this baby’s funeral. What a difference a few days can make.
This contrast brought to my mind a passage from the book of Ecclesiastes, chapter 3, where King Solomon writes his observations about life and its ups and downs:
“For everything there is a season, a time for every activity under heaven.
A time to be born and a time to die.
A time to plant and a time to harvest.
A time to cry and a time to laugh.
A time to grieve and a time to dance. …”
There are 10 other pairs of seasons contrasted in this chapter, but those four lines stood out to me as a picture of how life goes sometimes. We often go back and forth from a time of dancing to a time of grieving, or from a time of laughter to a time of tears.
For sure, dancing together gives us strength when we have to grieve together, and laughing together helps us through the times we have to cry together. But it seems much harder to experience such extremes when they occur in such close proximity to one another, almost immediately plunging from one of life’s happiest occasions, a wedding, to the unimaginable depths of losing a child.
We can always expect seed time and harvest to be several months apart. But what do we do when the time to be born and a time to die are virtually the same moment? When we don’t have a lifetime of photos to look at and memories to share? What do we do then?
I think we should look for hope. We need something to look forward to, and something that will last.
Ecclesiastes 3 continues… “What do people really get for all their hard work? I have seen the burden God has placed on us all. Yet God has made everything beautiful for its own time. He has planted eternity in the human heart, but even so, people cannot see the whole scope of God’s work from beginning to end.”
In that last verse we learn that “God has planted eternity in the human heart.” It’s interesting that we often talk about “forever” as if we have some kind of experience with it, like it’s a normal part of our lives, but it isn’t. We often say “I’ll love you forever,” but no one on earth has experienced forever. While stuck at a long traffic light we might in frustration declare that it’s taking an “eternity”, yet we’ve never seen eternity. Buzz Lightyear says he’s going “to infinity and beyond,” but isn’t infinity theoretical? We can’t count to or even calculate infinity with math. We can’t really even imagine it. The best we can do is get a little closer to it.
Maybe we think and talk so much about an eternity we’ve never experienced because God “planted eternity in the human heart” to give us hope that there is more to life than this life and its misery. If we think about eternity, we can perhaps imagine ourselves in it.
Solomon wrote in chapter 7, that “it is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart.” In this way, a funeral is better than a party because it’s where we contemplate eternity and how we might spend ours.
The best outcome in times like this is that thoughts about eternity give us hope. Hope that this family will see their child who died in infancy. We can take comfort in knowing this child is in heaven with His Creator. In Matthew 19:14, Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” King David had this confidence about his own son, who had died before birth. “I will go to him,” he said. John Newton (the author of the hymn Amazing Grace) said, “I cannot grieve the death of infants. How many storms do they escape! Nor can I doubt, in my private judgment, that they are included in the election of grace.” I believe the Bible teaches that young children are included in this grace.
Where we spend our eternity depends on where we put our hope today.
The parents of this little boy, his aunts and uncles, and grandparents, all had other plans for him. Death was never part of God’s plan for us either. Death was foreign to His original creation, but mankind ushered this curse into the world through sin.
God could have left us alone in our sin, but He loved us too much in spite of it. Instead, in an act of amazing grace, God gave up His own Son who went willingly to the cross, suffering to pay for the sin that we all struggle with and see the effects of in creation. It is through faith in Jesus Christ, that we have that hope of an eternity with Him and others who rest in His loving arms.
We can’t see the full scope of God’s plan, or why God, the author of life, allows some children to leave us so soon. But we can know God’s plan of salvation, and through a relationship with Christ, look forward to a reunion with the the departed. This is the best hope we have in light of the reality of death.
1 Corinthians 15:54-57 tells us that “when the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, this saying will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’ ‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
We’re told in Revelation 21 that one day God will make all things new, and the new creation will not include death. “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the former things have passed away.” Hope in Christ means there will once again be a time to dance, a time that will not end.
At the very end of Ecclesiastes, 12 chapters in, Solomon ends with his conclusion about the meaning of life. He discovers that it isn’t worth living without God. All is meaningless without God at the center. Of all the projects Solomon undertook to find satisfaction, He only knew satisfaction in knowing God. And God has given us His Son, to satisfy all that’s wrong with the world.
We can’t bring stillborn sons or daughters back, but we can go to them. John 3:16-17 says, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life. God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through Him.”
Jesus was acquainted with grief, and suffered the cross on our behalf. He knows what we are going through, and He promises to go through it with us. And through faith in Jesus Christ, you can look forward to an eternity with Him.
A week ago The New York Times ran a story in the middle of Hurricane Irma and in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, showing how storms can destroy just about everything except faith. Storms instead strengthen our faith. Following a group from various churches doing disaster cleanup, The Times seemed surprised that, in crisis, the church does what the church is supposed to do.
Untimely death isn’t God’s fault, but God has the power to stop it, and sometimes He doesn’t. As Ecclesiastes tells us, human beings can’t know or see the full plan of God, otherwise we would be God. But we can trust Him because we know He is good, and our faith will grow stronger in the storm. Then, instead of shaking an angry fist toward heaven, we can put our hands to work on earth, helping our neighbor through tragedy, and putting our arms around them.
My prayer for this couple who lost their baby boy, and for you if you’re in a similar situation, is that you would feel the hands and arms of family and supportive friends and neighbors, and above all the comfort of God’s strong hand of love. God’s hand is outstretched with the free gift of eternal hope found only by faith in Jesus Christ, because “God has given no other name under heaven by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12) If you know Him, you have hope—the forever kind—and assurance that the time to dance will come again.
• Related post: Grief, Joy and God
February 1, 2015 § Leave a comment
Is there anything better than a joyful reunion with someone you love? Maybe it’s an old friend you’ve lost track of over the years, or a long lost parent you’ve reconciled with that you’ve welcomed back into your life. Or maybe it’s the thrill of meeting a celebrity, or your favorite rock star, author, or rock-star author. We’ve all experienced the anticipation and excitement of that face-to-face meeting. I look forward to seeing my dad again in heaven. A grieving friend of mine recently spoke of two miscarried children she will meet in eternity. These are the reasons Christians mourn the loss of their brothers and sisters in the Lord differently than the world does.
One Day, we will see the face of God. Take a break from this screen a moment and really think about that meeting. What do you think that will be like? Will you be thinking about your other relationships? Will you remember your joys or trials, your victories or losses? Will you laugh at or cry about the way you spent your time in this life? Or will you be lost in His gaze? Will anything else matter at that moment?
As mortal human beings, a look at God in His full glory would literally kill us. God, hidden in a pillar of cloud, answered Moses’ request to see His glory in Exodus 33:20: “No one may see me and live.” 1 Timothy 6:16 describes a God “who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see.” John 1:18 and 1 John 4:12 also tell us that “No one has ever seen God” except God’s Son. What about seeing God’s full glory, His “unapproachable light”, would kill us? (A bug zapper comes to mind. Well, my mind. You can decide how well that analogy fits).
Jonathan Edwards wrote: “God is arrayed with an infinite brightness, a brightness that doesn’t create pain as the light of the sun pains the eyes to behold it, but rather fills with excess of joy and delight. Indeed, no man can see God and live, because the sight of such glory would overpower nature, . . . ’tis because the joy and pleasure in beholding would be too strong for a frail nature.”
As far as a medical cause of death, we’re probably talking about cardiac arrest here, which can occur in cases of extreme pleasure. I’m certain there are other views on what aspects of God’s glory is so overwhelming, or the ways God might physically and sensorily manifest His full glory (and what a portion of that glory really looked like to Moses)—but it’s clear from Scripture that it’s simply too much for human beings to behold.
God did allow certain people to get a glimpse of Him in a subdued form. There was a cloud as mentioned above, or a pillar of fire, a burning bush, a sanitized vision or dream, an angelic messenger, and of course Jesus Christ. Jesus retained His deity but was fully man too, His glory concealed in a wrapping of humanity. He did this so that He could die in our place and so that we could relate to Him and live. Much of who God is was revealed in the person of Jesus Christ, but as far as the the “unapproachable light” of God, there were only brief glimpses in Jesus (i.e. the Transfiguration in Matthew 17:2).
In Exodus 33, God acquiesces to Moses’ request for a taste of His glory. He gets a glimpse of His back as God passes by. This particular narrative ends before we find out how Moses’ reacted to seeing the backside (usually regarded as the worst side of anything) of God Himself, but in the next chapter “the skin of Moses’ face was shining” when he returned from the encounter (Ex. 34:29-35). Sort of a divine sunburn?
As mortal beings we can’t handle the full brunt of God’s glory, but what does a glimpse of Him typically bring? Although we don’t see Moses’ immediate reaction to seeing God’s back in Ex. 33, in the next chapter he is on his face in worship and repentence at God’s next cloud-masked appearance (Ex. 34:8-9). Other encounters with a glimpse of God in scripture reveal a similar penetant reaction. After Job heard and saw as much of God as he could handle, Job despised himself and repented immediately (Job 42:5-6). When God appeared to the prophet Isaiah in a vision, he declared “Woe is me!” as he lamented his own sin (Isaiah 6:5). Jesus’ disciple John, who walked with Jesus years earlier, saw a vision of Him in fuller (but not full) glory on the Island of Patmos and “fell at His feet as though dead.” (Rev. 1:17).
No doubt there was terror and awe in seeing just a part of God’s glory, but there is something about Him that made people want to also repent. When we are faced with God’s perfect holiness and righteousness, we can also see how far short we come to it. Repentance is an appropriate posture. This is part of what distinguishes the fear of man or monsters from a healthy fear of God (Matt. 10:28).
Francis Chan thought enough about our meeting God that he writes a great deal about it in a book that is supposed to be about marriage. On page 24 of You and Me Forever, Chan says, “Oddly, I meet very few people who think about that moment. Is it because we don’t really believe it’s going to happen? We think about upcoming vacations and imagine how much fun we will have. We think about upcoming trials and worry about how difficult they will be, Why don’t we think about seeing God for the first time?”
The moment we see God, no other relationship, not even our marriages, will come to mind. In fact the only relationship that matters in light of eternity is the one between you and Jesus Christ. And we could see Him at any moment. Any moment! That should change everything. Are you ready?
Everyone will see the face of God one day. We will be outside of the limitations of our physical body when we do, so we will not be able to “die” in His presence. If our sins are covered by the blood of Christ, we will be looking at the Savior. If we are still in our sin, we will be looking at our Judge. But “one day every knee will bow” (Rom. 14:11, Phil. 2:10), and we would all benefit from thinking about finally gazing upon His face. Especially if the realization of who He is (holy) and who we are (sinners) brings our repentance.
Fathers spend their time preparing for their children to leave home; our Heavenly Father is preparing a place for us to come home (John 14:3). This truth should leave with us with both hope and urgency. Our hope is the assurance that although we may be completely unraveled by the sight of our Savior’s face, He will be welcoming us home. A sense of urgency should come from the fact that many do not have this hope. The days are fleeting and we have work to do (Matt. 28:16-20).
“For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face.” (1 Cor. 13:12). Wherever you are, think long and hard about seeing the face of God, and then decide what really matters.
April 29, 2014 § Leave a comment
“The movie will help spread the word about heaven.” —Todd Burpo, author of Heaven Is For Real
Since I read the book a few years ago, I’ve had this conversation going in my head about Heaven Is For Real, working through what I thought about Todd Burpo’s story about his son Colton’s trip to heaven and back when he was 4 years old. Now that the movie version is out and conversation has resurged, I wanted to give my perspective on why I think the evangelical world’s excitement over this story is a bit misdirected.
The author and others behind this story obviously intend for it to mean more to people than just a heartwarming story; they want to help others through loss and teach a theological message about Colton’s afterlife experience, advertising that “Heaven Is for Real will forever change the way you think of eternity, offering the chance to see, and believe, like a child.” Other titles emerged from the project, including versions of the book for younger children, a self-help book about dealing with trials, and a DVD-based small group Bible study. For this reason it’s been critiqued on a different level, and should be.
The book was hard to put down. Colton’s trauma through his emergency appendectomy and what his parents went through is an ordeal anyone with children or little siblings can relate to. And the boy’s recollection of his experience in heaven was fascinating. However, based on what the Bible says on the espoused theology of heaven, I don’t believe that little Colton actually went there and back, mainly for two reasons rooted in Scripture.
1. YOU HAVE TO DIE TO GO TO HEAVEN
Colton didn’t actually die during the surgery during which he claimed to visit Heaven and meet Jesus. To see heaven, at least the heaven at issue (as opposed to the air or heavenly bodies in space), you cannot be alive. “People are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment.” (Hebrews 9:27). Those who are covered by the blood of Christ and are passed over in judgment “will not perish” spiritually (they have already died physically) “but have eternal life” in heaven (John 3:16). Heaven is an eternal state, and our bodies are not (2 Cor. 4:16-18). Heaven is where God dwells and where Christians will dwell with Him (John 14:1-3; 2 Peter 3:10-13), something that is not possible on this earth. Heaven is incompatible with the curse of sin, imperfection, pain and tears of this physical creation that our earthly bodies would bring into heaven. When we are there with God, “we shall be like Him” (1 John 3:2). We will be given new, glorified spiritual bodies that are “imperishable” (1 Cor. 15:42-53). If we are alive in this world, we can’t be in the next, which will be more than heaven. We look forward to a brand new, restored creation (Revelation 21).
2. PEOPLE DON’T GO TO HEAVEN AND COME BACK
Another reason is that the Bible, our complete revelation from God, doesn’t show us that people go to heaven (or hell) and return. In fact, there seems to be the opposite view. Jesus, in His “born again” conversation with Nicodemus in John 3, is marveling at the inability of this great teacher of the Law of Moses to understand earthly things, let alone heavenly things. “If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except He who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.” (vs. 12-13). Jesus says of men on earth at that time, that He Himself is the only one who has been to heaven and lived to tell about it.
Granted, there are numerous people (about ten specifically identified individuals) in Scripture who are miraculously raised from the dead. Where exactly did these folks “go” while they were dead? Did these resurrected souls go to heaven, hell, or some type of purgatory or limbo state and then get called back?
The Bible doesn’t directly say. For the dying thief on the cross next to Jesus, heaven was going to be immediate when he died (Luke 23:43), and Paul says to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (2 Cor. 5:8). But Jesus also says He will raise believers up in the Last Days when He returns (John 14:2,3). But then Paul writes that at the Lord’s return, Jesus will “bring with Him those who have fallen asleep,” (1 Thess. 4:14-17) so their souls would be in heaven already, and it would be our earthly bodies that are resurrected. That’s when we will receive a new “spiritual body”, bearing the image of God. (1 Cor. 15:42-53).
So I’m content to say I don’t really know what happened to the souls of those who died and were raised in the Bible. However, none of them are recorded talking about heaven or meeting God in some afterlife experience. Lazarus was a target for the Pharisees after Jesus raised him from the dead, but the Bible doesn’t say why. We only know that it was “because on account of him (Lazarus) many of the Jews were going away and were believing in Jesus.” (John 12:9-11). This likely indicates that Lazarus’ mere presence after being dead for a period of time too long for anyone to argue that he merely fainted, absolutely proved Jesus was God—which was a great threat to the Pharisees. Eliminating the living proof was probably their intent. Either way, I think it’s important to note that none of the ten or so accounts of resurrected people included any reports of anything they saw while dead. It’s also important to note that we are looking at a story of a boy who didn’t even die.
HEAVEN IN THE DETAILS?
If we gathered together all of the Bible’s details about heaven, we could fill probably not much more than a page or two. Does it make sense that God, whose Word is supposed to be His final and complete revelation and authority to us, gave us that little information about heaven in the Bible and then chose to reveal a book’s/film’s worth of additional details about heaven to a 4 year old boy in 2003? Or Alex Malarkey in 2004? Or to Marvin Besteman in 2006? Or to Don Piper in 1989? Or to many others who claim to have experienced heaven (or hell) and came back? We have to be very careful with claims of special revelation from God, and this is an awful lot of special revelation.
Does this mean that Todd Burpo was lying about this story? I wouldn’t say that. I am compelled to think the author is reporting what he really thinks Colton experienced to the best of his (and young Colton’s) recollection. I also think that the potential for unintentional embellishment is huge. I’m a father and I know the propensity of my mind to add details to a memory of something my son says or does, and my wife would probably not dispute the added details, as long as it made for a better story. Colton began talking about his near-death experience five months after he had it, and while I’m not sure when his father started writing it all down, the book wasn’t published for another seven years, leaving plenty of room for the story to evolve in the re-telling.
Many people seem to be convinced this story must be true from two particular details: That Colton described a grandfather he never saw and a sister he never knew about (she had been lost in a miscarriage). I honestly can’t guess how these details might have “evolved” into truth as the story was developed for print, and I admit they are compelling if they are true. But I am even more compelled to believe the Bible’s account of heaven over any man’s. “Let God be true, and every man a liar.” (Romans 3:4)
Todd Burpo has done some interviews since the production of the Heaven Is For Real movie, and some things he said make me think he’s had some long term misconceptions about heaven and the Bible. Todd told The Blaze, “I’ve always had high regard for Scripture but the Bible is confusing about heaven at best. There’s verses here and there and they’re all kind of mixed up. They don’t draw out a very good picture. You know you have to trust God. You know hell is way worse than heaven. But what is heaven like? Streets are gold, gates are made of pearl. But it is very minimal on details.”
Maybe I’m reading too much into this pastor’s choice of words, but calling the Bible “confusing” and verses about heaven “mixed up”—that “they don’t draw a very good picture”—makes me wonder if Todd has his own expectations about what the Bible should be saying but isn’t. I agree that heavenly details are minimal, but I’m satisfied with the picture I do have from God’s Word. It’s in there because it’s exactly what God wanted to reveal to us.
Then I read what Todd told Alabama Media Group, “I grew up in church not knowing anything about heaven. We have a lot of kids growing up who don’t look forward to heaven because they know nothing about it.”
I’m not sure what to think of this statement. Was it Todd’s church in particular that didn’t teach what the Bible says about heaven? Or is he again hinting that the Bible doesn’t teach enough about heaven, leading “a lot of kids” (or maybe just himself) to not look forward to it? Considering what he told The Blaze, it seems very much like the latter! I believe Colton had a dream during his trauma, but his father’s ideas of what the Bible should have said about heaven makes me think he filled in the blanks of Colton’s stories with his own hopes for what heaven is like.
It’s very likely Colton had an near-death experience and many of the things people experience during NDE’s, sensations like floating, moving down a tunnel toward light, are impressions from the brain trying to reconnect with reality following trauma or oxygen depravation. And of course, memories and dreams can enter into the experience, often in a very lucid way. I’ve talked with a teenager who claimed to have gone to heaven while he was in a coma from a serious head injury (much of his frontal lobe had to be removed). He told me about floating, the tunnel, a few details about heaven, and about meeting Jesus. I asked him what he learned from the trip to heaven, and if Jesus said anything to him. He said that Jesus told him to “go back and tell everyone about Him.” I thought, there’s a great commission… but didn’t Jesus already tell us to do that in Matthew 28?
In a recent interview on BeliefNet with Colton himself, now 14, he admits that his memory has faded but much of the experience he had is still very clear in his mind. His message for fans: “God really does love you. He wants you to go to heaven.” A marvelous and basic truth… but didn’t Jesus already tell us this in John 3?
Todd Burpo’s Heaven Is For Real story is entertaining, well-intended, and does include the Gospel message, which is a wonderful and essential thing. I believe Todd intends to point us to Jesus. I believe Colton’s recovery is a miracle. I am sure Heaven Is For Real Ministries is winning souls for Christ and we should praise God for that. However, I think it’s also true that the barometer for whether something is all good is not how many people are saved or helped in some other way though it. God will use all kinds of people and all kinds of ministries to accomplish His will and work, and we won’t stop Him by having some confused theology. We still have a responsibility to convey all Biblical truth in a truthful way.
We can’t start with the idea that God’s Word isn’t enough. There is something fundamentally wrong when we need a sensational new book turned ministry turned movie to get us excited about heaven. If we are excited about Jesus and what He did for us, we will be excited about heaven. This story doesn’t really tell us anything new about heaven anyway.
My hope is in the eternal salvation provided by God’s grace alone, revealed in His Word, freely given to me upon the repentance of my sin, and my acceptance, through faith alone, in the loving sacrifice of Jesus Christ for my sin on the cross and the defeat of death itself in His resurrection. Probably the most amazing thing that we already know about heaven is that we in Christ will truly and finally be in the presence of God Himself there forever, and we can tell others how to get there too. I am excited about heaven with or without Heaven Is For Real, because we already have a Book that tells us it’s real.
“…no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love Him.” —1 Corinthians 2:9
“‘Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.’ And He who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new.’ Also He said, ‘Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.'” —Revelation 21:1-5
UPDATE Jan. 16, 2015: Here is an interesting story about 17-year-old Alex Malarkey, co-author and subject of the book “The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven” (published in 2010, just a few months before Burpo’s book) recanting his story of his trip to heaven after a car accident 11 years earlier. In an open letter to book retailers and marketers, he admits to making up the story for attention and includes an appeal to pull the books from store shelves. The letter also bears this admonishment: “I want the world to know that the Bible is sufficient. Those who market these materials must be called to repent and hold the Bible as enough.” The book’s publisher, Tyndale House, and Christian retailer LifeWay have agreed to stop selling it.
April 2, 2014 § Leave a comment
My wife and I are still great friends with the first kid on my block to find Jesus. It was the Spring of 1998, the first nice day since we moved into the neighborhood, when I met this girl in the middle of the street that separated our houses. I was crossing the street to get to our mailbox and I passed her and her friend, who were both headed across the street toward my driveway (we have a basketball hoop). Before I could say hello, her first words were, “Where are you going?” I told her I was getting my mail, and I replied, “Where are YOU going?
Long story short, after several years of outreach to her, mainly through our church’s camp and youth group, that girl came to Christ at age 15. A decade later, she is a passionate and faithful believer, married to a passionate and faithful husband. She is usually one Christian I want others to meet when I talk about how Christ can change us and make us new. How does a person come to a decision to follow Jesus? They have their eye on the prize: Love, forgiveness, in heaven, with God, forever. This is the destination of the redeemed in Christ.
There’s this popular adage—the joy is in the journey—that doesn’t quite do it for Christians. We can have joy in the journey for sure, but THE joy is the destination of our journey, the future reality where our present hope is. In 1 Corinthians 13:12 Paul explains the difference between present and future revelation: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known.” The greatest thing for Christians is still ahead of us.
Why have our head in the clouds while we are here on earth? Some perspective: We are here on earth for a brief 100 years, give or take a decade or two, unless a doctor or icy step informs us that we have much less. But what we do in this little life—specifically whether we accept or reject what Christ has already done for us—determines our destination. And our destintion, whether it is heaven or hell, is eternal. We can do the math: Infinity minus 100 years is still infinity. After these years are gone, they will become virtually nothing. Why would we NOT be about the destination? We should absolutely make the most of this life, but if our head is here instead of wrapped around our final destination, then this world is the cloud that enshrouds our heads.
For Christians, the journey is first and infinitely foremost about the destination. That’s why it’s always good to ask a neighbor, “Where are you going?”
October 11, 2013 § Leave a comment
A bold worldview commitment in public figures is surprising these days. At least that’s the impression I got from a recent interview with Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia by New York Magazine’s Jennifer Senior. Scalia is a committed Catholic and Senior is an Atheist (how committed is uncertain).
Early in the interview the 27-year conservative judge talks about his ‘originalist’ approach to finding meaning in the U.S. Constitution. Originalism is “the belief that the United States Constitution should be interpreted in the way the authors originally intended it.”
Interviewer: Had you already arrived at originalism as a philosophy?
Scalia: I don’t know when I came to that view. I’ve always had it, as far as I know. Words have meaning. And their meaning doesn’t change. I mean, the notion that the Constitution should simply, by decree of the Court, mean something that it didn’t mean when the people voted for it—frankly, you should ask the other side the question! How did they ever get there?
Interviewer: But as law students, they were taught that the Constitution evolved, right? You got that same message consistently in class, yet you had other ideas.
Scalia: I am something of a contrarian, I suppose. I feel less comfortable when everybody agrees with me. I say, “I better reexamine my position!” I probably believe that the worst opinions in my court have been unanimous. Because there’s nobody on the other side pointing out all the flaws.
Interviewer: Really? So if you had the chance to have eight other justices just like you, would you not want them to be your colleagues?
Scalia: No. Just six.
Interviewer: That was a serious question!
Scalia: What I do wish is that we were in agreement on the basic question of what we think we’re doing when we interpret the Constitution. I mean, that’s sort of rudimentary. It’s sort of an embarrassment, really, that we’re not. But some people think our job is to keep it up to date, give new meaning to whatever phrases it has. And others think it’s to give it the meaning the people ratified when they adopted it. Those are quite different views.
Constitutional Originalism and Biblical Literalism are not quite the same thing. The Constitution is a man-made document prone to moral error, even though our intent was to base it on Biblical moral principals. In some rulings, Scalia at one point wishes he had a stamp that reads: “Stupid, but Constitutional.” It’s not perfect. Biblical Literalism seeks the original meaning of God’s Word, which is perfect. There is a process for changing the Constitution; there is no such process for the Bible.
Christians can relate to the common principal of the two: seeking the original intent of the author. Modern liberalism embraces relativism, attempting to operate on the self-defeating principal that there are no immutable principals. If we are going to say the Constitution has authority, we can’t interpret based on the intent of the interpreters over and against the authors, unless through ratification we become additional authors. Some may want to ratify Scripture, but the best that can be done is to disregard its authority. Actually, that’s the worst thing we can do (Genesis 3), but a secularized society is surprised when people like Scalia show a regard for authority and truth, and that meaning matters.
THE POPE’S COMMENTS ON DIVISIVE ISSUES
Interviewer: I’m not inviting you to run down the pope. But what do you think of his recent comments, that the church ought to focus less on divisive issues and more on helping the poor?
Scalia: I think he’s absolutely right. I think the church ought to be more evangelistic.
Interviewer: But he also wanted to steer its emphasis away from homosexuality and abortion.
Scalia: Yeah. But he hasn’t backed off the view of the church on those issues. He’s just saying, “Don’t spend all our time talking about that stuff. Talk about Jesus Christ and evangelize.” I think there’s no indication whatever that he’s changing doctrinally.
I spent my junior year in Switzerland. On the way back home, I spent some time in England, and I remember going to Hyde Park Corner. And there was a Roman Catholic priest in his collar, standing on a soapbox, preaching the Catholic faith and being heckled by a group. And I thought, My goodness. I thought that was admirable. I have often bemoaned the fact that the Catholic church has sort of lost that evangelistic spirit. And if this pope brings it back, all the better.
Interviewer: The one thing I did think, as he said those somewhat welcoming things to gay men and women, is, ‘Huh, this really does show how much our world has changed.’ I was wondering what kind of personal exposure you might have had to this sea change.
Scalia: I have friends that I know, or very much suspect, are homosexual. Everybody does.
Interviewer: Have any of them come out to you?
Scalia: No. No. Not that I know of.
Interviewer: Has your personal attitude softened some [toward homosexuality]?
Scalia: I don’t think I’ve softened. I don’t know what you mean by softened.
Interviewer: If you talk to your grandchildren, they have different opinions from you about this, right?
Scalia: I don’t know about my grandchildren. I know about my children. I don’t think they and I differ very much. But I’m not a hater of homosexuals at all. I still think it’s Catholic teaching that it’s wrong. Okay? But I don’t hate the people that engage in it. In my legal opinions, all I’ve said is that I don’t think the Constitution requires the people to adopt one view or the other.
Interviewer: There was something different about your DOMA opinion, I thought. It was really pungent, yes, but you seemed more focused on your colleagues’ jurisprudence. You didn’t talk about a gay lobby, or about the fact that people have the right to determine what they consider moral. In Lawrence v. Texas, you said Americans were within their rights in “protecting themselves and their families from a lifestyle that they believe to be immoral and destructive.”
Scalia: I would write that again. But that’s not saying that I personally think it’s destructive. Americans have a right to feel that way. They have a democratic right to do that, and if it is to change, it should change democratically, and not at the ukase [a mandate or decree] of a Supreme Court.
Interviewer: Whatever you think of the opinion, Justice Kennedy is now the Thurgood Marshall of gay rights.
Interviewer: I don’t know how, by your lights, that’s going to be regarded in 50 years.
Scalia: I don’t know either. And, frankly, I don’t care. Maybe the world is spinning toward a wider acceptance of homosexual rights, and here’s Scalia, standing athwart it. At least standing athwart it is a constitutional entitlement. But I have never been custodian of my legacy. When I’m dead and gone, I’ll either be sublimely happy or terribly unhappy.
With refreshing clarity, Scalia rightly reflects a Biblical view of homosexuality, separating the sin from the sinner, as well as that of the current law of the land: American citizens are not constitutionally obligated to accept homosexuality as normal. He is unashamed and unapologetic of this view, which is as he points out is nothing new in what the pope or his catholic church teaches. Popular opinion and the current “sea change” won’t change his conviction of unchanging truth.
HEAVEN, HELL, THE DEVIL AND JESUS
Interviewer: You believe in heaven and hell?
Scalia: Oh, of course I do. Don’t you believe in heaven and hell?
Scalia: Oh, my.
Interviewer: Does that mean I’m not going?
Scalia: [Laughing.] Unfortunately not!
Interviewer: Wait, to heaven or hell?
Scalia: It doesn’t mean you’re not going to hell, just because you don’t believe in it. That’s Catholic doctrine! Everyone is going one place or the other.
Interviewer: But you don’t have to be a Catholic to get into heaven? Or believe in it?
Scalia: Of course not!
Interviewer: Oh. So you don’t know where I’m going. Thank God.
Scalia: I don’t know where you’re going. I don’t even know whether Judas Iscariot is in hell. I mean, that’s what the pope meant when he said, “Who am I to judge?” He may have recanted and had severe penance just before he died. Who knows?
Interviewer: Can we talk about your drafting process—
Scalia: [Leans in, stage-whispers.] I even believe in the Devil.
Interviewer: You do?
Scalia: Of course! Yeah, he’s a real person. Hey, c’mon, that’s standard Catholic doctrine! Every Catholic believes that.
Interviewer: Every Catholic believes this? There’s a wide variety of Catholics out there …
Scalia: If you are faithful to Catholic dogma, that is certainly a large part of it.
Interviewer: Have you seen evidence of the Devil lately?
Scalia: You know, it is curious. In the Gospels, the Devil is doing all sorts of things. He’s making pigs run off cliffs, he’s possessing people and whatnot. And that doesn’t happen very much anymore.
Scalia: It’s because he’s smart.
Interviewer: So what’s he doing now?
Scalia: What he’s doing now is getting people not to believe in him or in God. He’s much more successful that way.
Interviewer: That has really painful implications for atheists. Are you sure that’s the Devil’s work?
Scalia: I didn’t say atheists are the Devil’s work.
Interviewer: Well, you’re saying the Devil is persuading people to not believe in God. Couldn’t there be other reasons to not believe?
Scalia: Well, there certainly can be other reasons. But it certainly favors the Devil’s desires. I mean, c’mon, that’s the explanation for why there’s not demonic possession all over the place. That always puzzled me. What happened to the Devil, you know? He used to be all over the place. He used to be all over the New Testament. … He got wilier.
Interviewer: Isn’t it terribly frightening to believe in the Devil?
Scalia: You’re looking at me as though I’m weird. My God! Are you so out of touch with most of America, most of which believes in the Devil? I mean, Jesus Christ believed in the Devil! It’s in the Gospels! You travel in circles that are so, so removed from mainstream America that you are appalled that anybody would believe in the Devil! Most of mankind has believed in the Devil, for all of history. Many more intelligent people than you or me have believed in the Devil.
Interviewer: I hope you weren’t sensing contempt from me. It wasn’t your belief that surprised me so much as how boldly you expressed it.
Religion aside (if that’s possible), even conservatism implies that there us something in our convictions worth conserving. Even progressives are conservative in this way. Here we have a Supreme Court judge frankly talking theology, and nothing new and groundbreaking at that. Scalia implies that “mainstream America” believes in the Devil, but I think that depends on which mainstream America he means. Regardless, he is relaying simple, historic Christianity. Truthfully speaking your worldview is certainly permitted and particularly Constitutional. But it’s just that kind of boldness, spoken not only on Sundays, but in the context of Scalia’s career, that Secularism finds surprising and weird.
That may be the thing about Christian worldview conviction that surprises atheists the most. From a secular viewpoint, religion is something that ought to be compartmentalized to one area of your life, if you choose to be religious at all. But committed believers like Justice Scalia and other committed believers don’t relegate religion to church on Sunday or the confines of their family gatherings. We see his candid religious honesty and boldness on the job. And not just any job, but in a very high-profile public position with the United States government, a place many feel should above all be bereft of religiosity. Scalia living out his faith in public shocks Secularists. This reveals Secularism itself as a religion, one that is practiced seven days a week by it’s devoted adherents. No doubt, if worldview matters, we will carry it with us wherever we go.