With Christmas, New Year’s, and the associated celebrations now squarely in the rearview mirror, let’s return our attention back to the series on Christian apologetics (defending or explaining the faith in a way that makes sense to others who don’t have the background) we started last year. This time, I’d like to address the question of whether there really is an afterlife, or is this concept simply made up as wishful thinking? Is heaven for real, as the book by Todd Burpo and Lynn Vincent claims it is?
There’s something I’d like to point out as we get started that really applies to many of the topics we have covered and will cover in this series. There are people who do not believe in God or heaven because, they say, we cannot scientifically prove that they are real. And I know I have on occasion sneered at science as an ersatz god, but I should clarify that I do not have any problem with science (I do, after all, have a Bachelor of Science degree in Computer Science).
The problem comes when people revere science as the ultimate source of truth. In actual science (not what some people call science without actually understanding science or the scientific method), the burden of proof is bi-directional–if you cannot prove the “A” is true, it does not necessarily follow that this makes “B” true by default. You must prove that “B” is true on its own merits, or else you cannot conclude that it is true. In other words, while it’s true that you cannot prove that God and heaven are real scientifically, that does not necessarily mean they are not true, as some people assume.
Today’s culture seems to believe that the burden of proof lies with Christianity to prove that its claims are true, but people who buy into this fail to realize that they are ignoring the scientific method since you also cannot prove scientifically that God and heaven are not real. As a discipline, science is inconclusive on these topics. Thus, anyone wishing to perform an honest intellectual investigation into the existence of God and heaven must turn to other disciplines for answers, such as philosophy, theology, history, archeology, psychology, and so on.
Having established that science can neither prove nor disprove the existence of heaven, let’s move on. As we all know, there are plenty of stories like that of 4-year-old Colton Burpo told in the book I mentioned above, Heaven Is for Real, in which someone is clinically dead, has an out-of-body experience, and is brought back to life. They often have stories to tell that include specific details that are difficult to explain away scientifically. But I’m not going to get into all that.
Instead, we’re going to look at the words of Jesus himself. In previous episodes, we’ve laid the foundation of the historicity and factualness of the Bible, that it’s more trustworthy than just about any other ancient historical document. We’ve also established several facts about Jesus, including his deity as part of the triune God.
This passage is found in Mark 12. A group of Sadducees, the most powerful of the Jewish religious leaders, had approached Jesus with a riddle:
Then the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to him with a question. “Teacher,” they said, “Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies and leaves a wife but no children, the man must marry the widow and raise up offspring for his brother. Now there were seven brothers. The first one married and died without leaving any children. The second one married the widow, but he also died, leaving no child. It was the same with the third. In fact, none of the seven left any children. Last of all, the woman died too. At the resurrection, whose wife will she be, since the seven were married to her?”Mark 12:18-23 (NIV)
These guys think they’ve really tricked Jesus with this one. But they don’t know Jesus very well. Here’s how he responds:
Jesus replied, “Are you not in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God? When the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven. Now about the dead rising—have you not read in the Book of Moses, in the account of the burning bush, how God said to him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead, but of the living. You are badly mistaken!”Jesus, in Mark 12:24-27 (NIV)
I have to admit, the first part of his response is a bit puzzling, but I don’t want to skip past it just because it’s challenging (if that were the case, I would not have started this series on Christian apologetics in the first place!). But since this isn’t central to today’s message, let me try to explain it briefly, then move on. Here is my understanding of this. The Biblical purpose of marriage is to procreate, and that’s also the reason for the section in the Mosaic law the Sadducees referred to (to keep family lines going). In heaven, though, there is no need to procreate since there will be no death, so we will be like the angels in that we will not be married. However, I do believe that in heaven, we will continue to have (or resume) deep, close personal relationships with our spouses. So it will be like we’re married. Fair enough?
OK, so moving on to the part where Jesus corrects their understanding of the dead rising. He refers to the story of Moses speaking to God in the burning bush told in Exodus 3:6. You’ve gotta love his last two statements. God is the God of the living, not of the dead. Then, You are badly mistaken! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wanted to end an argument that way!
So, according to Jesus, if you do not believe in life after death, you are badly mistaken.
Another thing I wanted to bring up here is a compelling observation from C.S. Lewis regarding the afterlife in Mere Christianity. There he says that many people may not really feel a desire for heaven because they have not been properly educated about it. Our education, he says, tends to fix our minds on things of this world. Thus, people may fail to recognize that some of the longings they have cannot be satisfied by anything in this world. They may try to fulfill those longings in multiple ways, but everything comes up short. Lewis points out that there are two wrong ways of dealing with this fact and one right way.
The first is what he calls “the Fool’s Way”, in which the person feeling this emptiness puts all the blame on the things s/he tried to fulfill the longings with. If, for example, s/he had married a different spouse or pursued a different career, then he would not be feeling so empty. The person’s emptiness is entirely the fault of the person they chose to marry or the career they picked for themself.
The second is “the Way of the Disillusioned ‘Sensible Man'”, in which the person gives up on their longings and thinks it rather silly and childish that they had those longings in the first place.
The third is “the Christian Way.” Instead of trying to summarize it, let me instead include Lewis’ brilliant observation:
The Christian says, ‘Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage. I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that other country and to help others to do the same.’Lewis, C. S., Mere Christianity (C.S. Lewis Signature Classics) (pp. 136-137). HarperOne. Kindle Edition
I have another thought along these lines. In my Bible study group this evening, we discussed Psalms 23 and 121, both of which state rather poetically and confidently how God will protect us from harm. One person in our group pointed out, though, that God does not always protect us from harm, so he can see how people would find this misleading. Sometimes Christ-followers die in random accidents, and some are even killed because of the work they are doing for God’s Kingdom. Where was God’s protection for them?
To me, this comes back to a difference in perspective.
From our worldly view, God was absent, or maybe distracted (running the universe must be a busy job, after all). This causes us to shake our angry fists at God–Where were You when my loved one died? So much for this promise of Your protection! This crisis of faith can, at best, cause a prolonged period of desert wandering for a Christ-follower or, at worst, even cause people to turn their backs on God altogether.
However, as I mentioned in a post almost a year ago (Gone Too Soon), God’s perspective is focused on eternity. While He cares about what happens to us every day, He cares infinitely more where we will spend our eternity. So if we have to endure pain and suffering and persecution in this life to direct us onto a path where we spend eternity in heaven, that’s OK with Him. He does not necessarily protect us from scrapes and bruises, or even from disease and death–but He does protect us from the evil one, who tries daily to tempt us onto the enticing, wide path that leads straight to hell. I know it may not be very comforting, but when you compare the relatively short duration of our lifetimes to eternity, this does seem to be the better choice.
How does this support the case for the existence of heaven? If we look at God’s promise of protection from our earthly perspective–meaning, if this life is all there is–then you could only conclude that God is a liar and the Bible is complete rubbish. However, considering the preponderance of evidence we’ve seen that God is real and that He loves us, and that the Bible is trustworthy, we must search for a different logical conclusion. The only other option is that God is true to His promise of protection, but it must be in a way that looks different than what we would think. We look for physical protection, but what God offers is spiritual protection.
Let me close with this final thought: there is life after death, and it goes on through eternity. The question is, where will you spend it?
If you have chosen to live apart from God, He will grant you that into eternity and allow you to live in hell forever. That was your choice, not His. Hell is for real, too.
On the other hand, if you have accepted Jesus as your Lord and Savior, receiving the gift of grace and mercy and forgiveness He so freely offers, you will spend eternity in heaven. All of the best moments you’ve ever experienced in this life combined are only a shadow of what eternal life will be like if that’s the choice you’ve made. I’m so thankful to God that He dragged me, kicking and screaming, onto this narrow path. I pray you’ve allowed Him to do the same for you.