Sunday, December 30, 2012

Does Luke 16:19-31 Teach Us Anything About the Afterlife?

One of the great hopes of every believer is the resurrection. Because of the victory of Jesus over sin and death and his resurrection, we also have the hope of entering into eternal life. Our physical death is temporary and those who have passed on wait for the final victory of Christ when the world will be judged and we will all enter into the presence of God in heaven to be with Him forever. Remarkably, there is not a lot of detail given in the Bible about what is happening while departed believers are in this intermediate state between the physical death of our bodies and our resurrection. The passage that appears to give the most information is the story of the rich man and Lazarus found in Luke 16:19-31. 

This passage would clearly seem to be of great importance in our understanding of what happens after we die. The problem is that many scholars believe that this story is a parable. As such, it is not necessarily a recounting of an actual event but is rather an illustration to support a larger point. Because of this, we must be careful about placing too much emphasis on the details rather than on the main point of the message. The message seems clearly to be that our deeds in this lifetime are going to be judged and that the teaching of scripture is sufficient warning, instruction, and testimony to this fact. Essentially, we must believe and repent because there will be a time when it is too late.

If this is a parable does that mean we can learn nothing from it about the afterlife? Even if this is not a record of an actual interaction between two real people are we to assume that none of the details are to be trusted? Beyond the question of it being a parable, there are certain difficulties with assuming that this is a literal telling of events. For example, if these are souls that are separated from their bodies and waiting for resurrection then how is it that they speak in bodily terms of having fingers, tongues, and being thirsty etc.? It is possible this is metaphorical language intended to help us to contrast the comfort of the one with the torment of the other rather than a literal description. 

Let me begin by saying that I am not completely convinced this is a parable, there are reasons to think it may not be. My goal, however, is not to answer that particular question but rather to point out that even if it is there is still much here we can learn. 

First, although this may be a teaching illustration rather than an actual event it is important to note that it was the practice of Jesus to use literal illustrations in his parables. For example, the actual events of the parable of the Good Samaritan may never have occurred but the characters, setting, and events were all representative of the actual world the hearers lived in. The same is true for all of the illustrations Jesus used. To put it another way, although the parables may not have been historical events there is no reason that they could not have. They are drawn from real life situations. I think that Luke 16 is very likely the same sort of thing. The only difference is that in this case Jesus is drawing upon something that the average farmer would not have observed because he was not yet dead. In addition, the ideas of a place of comfort and torment were discussed in the rabbinical literature and so Jesus is working with concepts that were probably not unfamiliar to his listeners.

Therefore, even if the sensory language is metaphorical and even if the particular conversation is just an illustration we can likely draw some conclusions from the passage. First, if the main point is the unalterable reward or punishment (justice) then we must assume that there is consciousness in the intermediate state because concepts such as comfort and torment, whether physical or not, require consciousness to be meaningful. 

Some have taught that the soul sleeps awaiting the final judgment. Although the Bible often speaks of death as sleep (Matt. 9:24, 27:52; John 11:11; Acts 7:60, 13:36; 1 Cor. 15:6, 18, 20, 51; 1 Thess. 4:13, 5:10) this language should be understood metaphorically. It is language designed to indicate the temporary nature of this separation of spirit from body. Just as sleep will come to an end, so will death. For example, Jesus says of His friend Lazarus that he had fallen asleep (John 11:11). After the apostles misunderstand Him, He plainly tells them that Lazarus is dead (John 11:14). “Sleep" is a common Biblical metaphor for death. 

The type of consciousness Jesus describes in Luke 16 is also supported elsewhere in the New Testament. For example, the apostle Paul, when speaking about dying said, "we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord" (2 Cor. 5:8). In Philippians 1:23 Paul says “to live is Christ and to die is gain.” This hardly makes sense unless there is a consciousness after death. Jesus, Himself, told the thief on the cross next to Him, "today you will be with me in Paradise" (Luke 23:43) and the author of Hebrews explains in chapter 12 that we worship in front of a great cloud of witnesses that apparently includes the heroes of the faith and “the spirits of just men made perfect”. In Revelation John speaks of dead believers who are conscious of what is happening on the earth and are petitioning God to act (Revelation 6:9-10).

I do not have room to develop it here but I think we can also demonstrate from other passages that the chasm between the two experiences is unbridgeable and there is one life, then judgment. Although the final judgment has not yet come, those whose physical lives have ended are aware of their status and have in some sense already entered into rest or torment. It seems, therefore that even if we accept that Luke 16:19-31 is an illustration and may possibly not be the record of an actual event, and even if we accept that some of the language is likely metaphorical, it remains an important passage dealing with what happens between physical death and resurrection.

Sunday, December 16, 2012


Like most everyone else my heart is very heavy as I think about what happened in Newtown Connecticut. I reflected upon what might be appropriate to post as I reflect upon those events. Our prayers are with those families. I do not believe I can add anything of any substance to what Dr. Mohler posted on his blog Friday. I encourage you to read his thoughts Here

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Salvation of the Fittest? Grace, God’s Glory, and Spiritual Darwinism

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9 ESV)

Christians talk about grace a lot. Unfortunately, we do not all mean the same thing when we use the word. Most Christians agree that grace means “unmerited favor” but it seems a common statement of definition does not solve the problem. The difference comes down to what exactly “favor” refers to in a Christian context. What is it that we receive that we do not merit?

The fundamental teaching of Christianity is that we cannot save ourselves and any hope of salvation is necessarily dependent on the grace of God in Christ. The question is to what extent does this grace extend? Historically, evangelical Christians have understood the Bible to teach that salvation is completely of grace and that we do not contribute to it whatsoever. Others have argued instead that God’s grace is a helping grace that strengthens a believer to complete their journey of faith. Both agree that sinners cannot be saved apart from grace but one side thinks that God’s grace initiates faith and desire for God and the other side thinks God’s grace is a response to faith and a desire for God.

It is an important issue because either view has major implications for how we understand the Gospel. Is our justification before God solely the work of God (monergism) or is it a cooperative effort between God and sinners (synergism)? I believe the Bible teaches that justification is the work of God alone and that apart from a gracious work of God we do not even know we need to be saved let alone have a desire for it. As the old song says, “twas grace that taught my heart to fear”.

Most people who hold a concept of helping grace that has God and sinners cooperating to achieve salvation are careful to give the credit for salvation to God. The reasoning goes that without the grace of God, those who desire to be saved could not be therefore God alone should be glorified. Even so, one cannot have a cooperative view of salvation where God is completing a process that initiates within the sinner and attribute salvation fully to God. If God is responding to a desire or faith in the sinner then both elements (this desire and God’s response) are necessary. The result is that we end up with the kind of thing where you do the first 1% and God does the other 99%.

My reading of the Bible leads me to believe that God is not content to be given 99% of the glory for saving sinners. There are many biblical and theological arguments related to this issue but there is one very simple observation that I think highlights the difficulty of the view that God is responding to an impulse in the sinner. Ultimately, this view degenerates into a type of spiritual Darwinism.

Darwin argued that there are characteristics in some animals that make them better suited to feed and reproduce than others. As a result, those creatures best suited to their environment would survive and pass on their genes. Over time, the strong species would survive and the weak would become extinct. In Darwinism, the providential hand of God is removed from the process and the only forces that are left are the environment and the intrinsic characteristics of the individual creatures. If God is responding to an impulse of some sort in the sinner then He cannot also be the cause of that impulse. The cause must then be within the sinner himself, his environment, or some combination of the two.

Imagine the following scene: On Judgment Day, there will be two groups of people before the throne of God. One group will enter into heaven and the other will enter into eternal punishment. Suppose that the synergistic view is correct and we were to ask someone who was in the group waiting to enter into heaven how it is that they came to be in that group. They might respond that they will enter heaven because God, in His grace, has saved them. We might then logically ask why it is that they have been saved when many others have not. I imagine that they are likely to respond that they believed in the Lord Jesus Christ and trusted in Him as their savior.

At this point, if we were to ask why it is that they believed and accepted this message while those in the other group did not, what would they say? They certainly will not want to say that they were more intelligent, more spiritual, or more sensitive than all those who were lost. Maybe they would point out that there were many believers in their lives that prayed for them, encouraged them, and shared the truth with them but then there will be many in the other line who had equal or better support in this regard. What within a sinner would give them an advantage in developing a desire or faith? None of the potential answers seem satisfying.

I know of no Christian that is comfortable saying that ultimately there is something within them that led to their salvation no matter how much they want to protect a human role in the process. If, however, God is not initiating the process and is instead responding then this seems to be an inevitable conclusion. In order to believe in a cooperative view of grace one must admit that there is something within particular sinners that gives them an advantage. Just as in biology if you remove the design of God from the equation you end up with creature/environment determinism. The grace of God is reduced to salvation of the fittest.

I cannot imagine anyone who on that day will not give all glory to God for what He has done for him or her. I cannot imagine anyone who will point to themselves as the reason. Rather I think we will join the heavenly chorus we see in the book of Revelation. Shouting, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” and “Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God” (Rev. 7:10, 19:1).

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Unconverted vs. Unreached

Before ascending into heaven, Jesus gave the church a command to evangelize. In what became known as the Great Commission Jesus told His disciples that all authority had been given to Him and they were to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20 ESV)

Clearly one of the main responsibilities of the church is to share the gospel. Since each individual congregation has limited resources, they have to make decisions about how best to fulfill this commission to preach and teach. Recently, I have had a number of conversations about missionary outreach and I am surprised by how often I heard a particular opinion that I would like to address. In at least three of these conversations, well-intentioned believers have told me that they think that their churches should focus on doing missionary work in their local communities. In each of these cases, it was pointed out that there were many needs and many “unreached” people within a few miles of where their church met. These brothers and sisters would prefer that the missionary resources of their church be focused on those local needs rather than sent to the other side of the world.

The desire to see those near us turn to Christ is certainly God honoring. It is also a good thing for us to wish to help meet the needs of those in our own communities, particularly when the needs (both spiritual and physical) in those communities are so great as they are in American cities. The idea that we should focus our attention on the “unreached” people in our own communities, however, fails to make an important distinction. It is true that there are many unconverted people in our communities but it is generally not true that they are unreached. We have to be careful that we do not fail to understand the difference between those that are unconverted and those who are unreached.

In most places in the United States, there are plenty of opportunities for anyone who is interested to find a church, attend a Bible study, or get a Bible of their own. While many people in our country reject the gospel it is typically not because they lack access to people or resources where they can learn about it. In many places in the world, this is not the case. According to The JoshuaProject, there are still an estimated 2.8 billion people that are completely unreached. This means that they live in places where they do not have any access to Bibles, there are no indigenous believers, and they are likely to die without ever hearing the gospel even once.

The local mission of the church is of great importance. We should have a burden for those around us to accept the Gospel and be saved. The spiritual needs in our communities are very great and I do not want to minimize that. Even so, we have to avoid a provincial attitude where we retreat into our own communities and ignore our responsibility to the broader mission of the Church. There remain places where there is no translation of the Bible to read, no preacher to hear, and no believers to share their hope. We must not be indifferent to these needs, Jesus commands otherwise.

If you are interested in thinking about this further, I suggest you listen to the following sermon delivered by Pastor David Platt earlier this year at the T4G conference. Pastor Platt explains how a belief in God’s sovereignty fuels a death defying passion for missions. He highlights the distinction between the unconverted and the unreached and gives a memorable exhortation to the Church to share the gospel with the unreached.