The Promise in the Tomb

In Genesis 23, Abraham’s wife Sarah dies. Probably the most important aspect of this event to biblical history is that it leads to Abraham’s first legal claim to the promised land. In seeking a tomb for Sarah, Abraham spoke to the local Hittites and asked to buy some land. Both these first Hittites and Ephron, with whom Abraham ends up doing business, try to get Abraham to take a tomb, apparently at no charge. This Abraham refuses, and for good reason. If he received the land for free, his claim on it might later be questionable. By burying Sarah on Hittite soil, Abraham would be taking a firstfruit, a partial realization of the inheritance God had promised him. But this would be an unstable claim if no official transaction took place. Thus Abaraham insisted on paying for the land, and in the end he paid a high price.

So it came to pass that Abraham’s first property in Canaan was a plot with a tomb. God began to fulfill His covenant with Abraham by means of a tomb. The typological significance should be obvious when put this way. The tomb is the beginning of the new creation. The project which began with a tomb from Ephron the Hittite for Sarah come to fruition in a tomb from Joseph of Arimathea for Jesus. New life begins where old life ends. As the author of Hebrews explained, no testament can take effect without a death.

Interestingly enough, this tomb, which eventually contained Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph at the least, was at Hebron. Hebron would later be completely under Canaanite control until Caleb took over during the conquest of Joshua. In time it would become King David’s initial capital, prior to him taking Jerusalem. So again for David Hebron was the site of a firstfruit, the guarantee of covenant fulfillment.

Taking these together, we find a connection between tomb and promise, death and resurrection. Bodies went in the tomb in anticipation that God would fulfill His promises and bring about greater glory. The tomb was the pledge of the ultimate blessing of Abraham, which would come through Abraham’s true Seed, Jesus Christ, who was laid in a tomb and was raised three days later. With this resurrection, an exit from the tomb, the promises made to Abraham came to a new stage of fulfillment. So the tomb is almost a storage unit or waiting area. Abraham and Sarah will be (or have been?) raised just as Christ was raised.

This connects to us as well. We enter the tomb through baptism as we are buried with Christ, and when we exit the water we anticipate that God will fulfill His promises, bring all things to completion, and raise us from the dead. But we are not actually raised yet, and so we live our lives in the tomb as a waiting area, with the Holy Spirit given as a pledge of the new life to come.

The Promise in the Tomb

Lewis on Animal Eternity

I recently read C. S. Lewis’ The Problem of Pain, which I had avoided for some time under the impression that it was simply a stock presentation of a free will apologetic. I’m not a proper Calvinist, as most of you know, but I’m still far too Reformed to be interested in such an argument. But my recent Lewis binge taught me to expect something different, and behold, what I found was delightful.

A great deal of interesting reason is present in The Problem of Pain, but one of the more intriguing sections is in Lewis’ final chapter, on animal pain. He mentions how most arguments which justify human pain do not work on animals, and in the process of exploring alternatives suggests that perhaps, maybe, if we may speculate, they’re made this such a recompense as animal immortality. This is not necessarily to say that animals are inherently immortal. They may well need a resurrection to live forever. (Of course, many Christians think the same of humans.)

In particular, Lewis is only really concerned about animals which may be said to possess some sort of consciousness. Animals without consciousness, he argues, certainly “have pain” but do not truly experience it, and thus it is morally irrelevant. But in the higher animals, they seem to have a true experience of suffering, one which, because of their amoral natures, cannot be redeemed or justified by spiritual formation or anything similar. By most accounts, they do not even receive recompense in another life.

These standard accounts are the target of Lewis’ alternative speculation. Animal pain must have some divine justification, and while God has not seen fit to give us any more than a glimpse into His plans for the animal kingdom, it may be worth considering some possible answer. Thus Lewis argues animal immortality as an option.

His proposal makes use of the word “in,” which he regards as so Biblically enigmatic. Men are lost in Adam and saved in Christ, a reality into which Lewis suspects is deeper and richer than we could imagine. So he takes the “in” concept and hypothetically extends it to the higher animals. We are raised by being in Christ; might animals be raised in us?

Lewis here seems to invoke something of a relational ontology. He points out that the higher animals always seem to be highest, in abilities and personalities, in relation to humans. A wild dog may simply act like a clever beast, but a well-trained dog can become almost like a child. Dolphins are impressive in the sea, but reach more glory in more complexity in the company of trainers. (Anyone who denies this latter point either has never been to a dolphin show or is ideologically blinded.)

Thus Lewis suggests that these animals, while naturally conscious in some way, may attain a more full level of individuality and personality in their human relations which elevates their status. They become “in us” something which can indeed be raised on the last day, and by participation in the human household find a place in the divine restoration which pertains first to men.

Whether this account is correct or not is, of course, highly debatable. It’s also difficult to argue simply because of the paucity of biblical/theological evidence one way or the other. But regardless it is very intriguing, and I think it’s worth thinking over for, if nothing else, the very realistic way it pushes us to consider the relationship between animals and humans. If men are to animals in some respect as God is to men, is animal resurrection so far-fetched? Or are animal personality and consciousness really all that difficult to hold?

Lewis on Animal Eternity

Options on the Intermediate State

I have crusaded here before against the conflation of life-after-death with life-after-life-after-death (to use N. T. Wright’s terminology), of the “heaven” we go to upon death with the “heaven” which is really the new creation earth united with God’s presence in the future. And my theological focus has mostly been on the latter of these, the resurrection and the restoration of the cosmos in the age to come. Nonetheless, the real question about what happens immediately after death is still at least somewhat important, and some of what I’ve been reading recently has gotten me thinking about it.

This subject, the state of human beings between death and resurrection, is of course better known as the intermediate state. The usual focus is on believers. What precisely do we, as Christians, experience postmortem? In this post, I just feel like outlining some of the basic theological options, along with their strengths and weaknesses. I am still quite unsure what I think about this, but I’ll mention what I’m thinking these a’days.

On to the options. I’ve titled them myself; not all of them have set names.

Sensory heaven
The average pew-dweller, due to the common kind of preaching which does conflate the intermediate state with the new creation, often imagines that after we die we get to experience a fully sensory world, tangible and visible and tactile, paved with gold and filled with mansions. This, however common, is terribly mistaken with no biblical evidence whatsoever. The descriptions it makes use of come from Revelation 21-22, which describe the future new earth, not anything which is a present reality. Moreover, it ignores the fact that our physical bodies are literally in the ground, not transported to another physical realm, after death, and the fact that senses are all strictly physical phenomena, not something you experience spiritually.
Spiritual bliss
For those who realize that there is no biblical reason to think we will be able to experience a sensory reality of heaven after death, there is a next step of simply affirming a kind of spiritual bliss. What this actually is like, we cannot imagine now. We only know that it is a different quality of existence and consciousness than what we experience now, but it is bliss in the presence of God in Christ. This tends to draw strength from texts like 2 Corinthians 5:1-10 and Philippians 1:21-23. In this view, we will experience the glory of God in Christ in some way without body or sense until we are reunited with our bodies in the resurrection.

This view is common among people who have dispensed with the first, erroneous notion. Nonetheless, there are some criticisms which have been leveled at it. For one, it may be unclear what human conscious experience could even be without our bodies, which include our brains. All of our emotions, thinking, and consciousness have always been massively physiological, involving brain and hormone and the like. What kind of “consciousness” would we have separated from our brains? Also, there are biblical statements which seem to imply a lack of consiousness in the intermediate state, particularly in Ecclesiastes (and some of the Psalms). It is questionable to what extent the rather unspecific statements in 2 Corinthians 5 and Philippians 1 might overcome these themes. As a final note, this view is often accused of importing the idea of the immortality of the soul from paganism, with the assertion that the Judeo-Christian tradition originally understood men as entirely mortal in flesh unless raised to glory.

Soul sleep
The soul sleep view is common in some circles, though definitely a minority view. Perhaps its most well-known proponent was Martin Luther. In soul sleep, the intermediate state is unconscious. You die, and the next thing you experience is the resurrection, however many years may separate the two events. This view takes very seriously the rather shadowy statements about the afterlife in the Old Testament especially, taking advantage of the ambiguity in the New Testament statements which might imply consciousness in the intermediate state. That much of the Bible reflects a view something along these lines is almost a consensus in the higher world of scholarship.

Perhaps the largest problem the soul sleep view faces is the near unanimity of Christian tradition. Soul sleep has always, with a few exceptions, been on the fringes of Christian theology. While we have little data on the views of the very first Christians outside the sparse information in the New Testament, the earliest references we do have are from Eusebius, who argued against a group as unorthodox for teaching a form of soul sleep. The Catholic Church has declared it heretical, as have some smaller groups. None of this, however, can mean all too much for adherents to sola Scriptura.

Total obliteration/Christian mortalism
Often soul sleep and Christian mortalism are classed or defined together, but I decided they would make more sense to separate them distinctly. In soul sleep, human souls are still supposed to be alive in some sense. They may not strictly conscious, but they are still truly alive and existing. What may go by Christian mortalism can go much further. I speak of total obliteration of the human person. Body, soul, spirit, identity, whatever else go into the grave together and lose everything until the final resurrection, which raises the whole person. Most of what has been said about soul sleep also applies to this kind of mortalism, with a few key differences.

At the biblical level, Christian mortalism has a harder time handling texts like 2 Corinthians 5 and Philippians 1. There are plausible solutions to them, but what is questionable about that is nonetheless questionable. On the other hand, Christian mortalism does have the upper hand in the “immortal soul is pagan” argument, as only this view completely repudiates the idea. For Christian mortalists, humanity is entirely mortal apart from God’s resurrection power. Again, a great deal of modern biblical scholarship sees a view like this as quite plausible in light of the historical-linguistic-cultural-contextual evidence in Scripture.

I’m really not sure what to add to this, only that I find the correct view here difficult to discern. Parts of me are attracted to all of them, except obviously the first. What do people here think? I’m ready to play critic or Devil’s advocate to any of them if you comment.

Options on the Intermediate State

Layered, Christological Election as a Biblical Story

As I posted some time ago, Evangelical Calvinism has a highly Christological approach to election which, in the history of salvation, involves several “layers.” The election of Christ in eternity has as its correspondence a movement of historical election which takes place through several stages/layers of covenant (all of which, of course, mediate the one covenant of grace in Jesus).

I only recently learned how much this layered aspect is actually present in Karl Barth. I had imagined before that Barth’s Christological focus was so strict as to squeeze out the room for this idea of layers in the history of election, but Nathan Hitchcock summarizes in his PhD dissertation, Karl Barth and the resurrection of the flesh, how this layered aspect of election plays out in Barth’s reading of the Biblical story. All I really want to do in this post, then, is quote his rather epic presentation.

Election’s set of concentric circles plays out the drama of reconciliation28: the eternal decree in Jesus fructified from the One to the many through the creation of Adam, the population of the earth through Noah, then on to the manifold blessing given to Abraham. However, a thinning of the visibly elect community occurs through Moses and David, the kings and prophets, leading ultimately to a convergence back to the One in His single history of reconciliation. Of the millions who lived before Him, only a handful represented the elect Israel, and even these actors in the history of salvation narrowed until, the disciples scattering from the Garden of Gethsemane, only Jesus remained. Upon this one crucified Representative rested the whole task of reconciliation. The circles of election contracted back to the single point on Golgotha, the telos of the divine election, thus enacting God’s gracious election. As for the resurrection of Jesus, the same elective expansion occurs, this time from the divine, single point in the Auferweckung to the second, communal ring during the forty days of appearance to the inclusion of all sorts of individuals at the outpouring of the Spirit. The now-established Church expands into all the world with Christ in His prophetic mission. 

Nathan Hitchcock, Karl Barth and the resurrection of the flesh

Layered, Christological Election as a Biblical Story

The Apostles’ Creed: I Believe in Jesus Exalted

Time to move on to the third part of the Creed’s article on the Son. The Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, was crucified and descended to hell, and now comes this:

On the third day He rose again from the dead.
He ascended into heaven,
and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty.
From there He will come to judge the living and the dead.

So what do we learn from this section of the Creed? Let’s take a look.

On the third day – What is the significance of the third day? The Scriptures mention it multiple times, and so does the Creed here. Why does it matter that Jesus’ resurrection happened on the third day? There are many theories, but I would like to highlight that Jesus rested in the grave on the Sabbath (Saturday), and only then rose on Sunday. Jesus fulfilled the Sabbath rest in His death and resurrection. Now Sabbath rest is found exclusively in Him rather than any day of the week.

He rose again from the dead – In this act, Jesus took the human nature that He had gone with into the grave and raised it back into new glory. In the Resurrection, Jesus was justified/vindicated by the Father as the Righteous One, and in this act we who are united to Him are also justified. In the Resurrection, Jesus filled His human existence with the glory of God and inextinguishable life so that He could be the source of resurrection life for all people. In this single event of Jesus all of the promises of God became “Yes.”

He ascended into heaven – Now in glorified human existence, Jesus returned to heaven to present Himself before the Father. He stands as the head of humanity, the one who sums up the whole race in Himself, and has entered without sin into the presence of God. Because of this we have access to the Father through His priestly presence. We can never approach God in any other way but through the glorified Man who stands as Mediator before God, existing in perfect union with the Father as His only Son.

and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty – In heaven Jesus has taken up the throne over the universe. He sits at the right hand of the Father, His chief Executive, as Lord of all. God has given all authority to His Son that He might rule until all things are put under His feet. From the control room of heaven Jesus stands present in all places to rule over them all. At the name of Jesus every knee must and will bow to the glory of the Father. Jesus is Lord. This was the Church’s proclamation from the beginning, against all other lordships. In truth, Caesar was not Lord, neither was Nero, nor Constantine, nor King James, nor Napoleon, nor Washington, nor Lincoln, nor Roosevelt, nor Hitler, nor Stalin, nor Churchill, nor Reagan, nor Obama, nor Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. All are subject to the reign of Christ, and we are citizens under His lordship before anything else.

From there He will come to judge the living and the dead – As Lord of heaven and earth, Jesus also steps into the divine role of judge. In this way we do see a unity between God and Christ, Father and Son, in that the one who is to judge all nations, once named as Yahweh, has been revealed to be Jesus of Nazareth. All people who have ever lived will appear before His judgment seat, both the living and the dead. And in doing this He will set all things right. He will turn over the wicked to their fate apart from Him, namely the wrath of God, and He will deliver all those who have been trusting in Him.

People are often reluctant to view Jesus as a judge, yet this is what Scripture teaches. As I wrote before, the wrath of the Lamb is really, and He will execute it on this world. Yet we should recall that this Judge has just been identified as the one who gave His life for us. So He will not judge out of hate or bloodthirst, but ultimately for love. By His judgment, He will bring life to the cosmos, so that the victory He accomplished in His resurrection can be extended to all the world without the interference of evil.

The Apostles’ Creed: I Believe in Jesus Exalted

My Stance on the Rapture

I just realized that I haven’t actually written about the Rapture on this blog at all since I began it. Yet the Rapture is a fun and popular debate, and it’s one of the few issues on which Christians can disagree without very many people getting angry or declaring you a heretic (though some still do).

So what do I believe about the Rapture? Before I answer, I’ll quickly survey the popular options. Here they are:

  • Pre-tribulation Rapture: The most common and popular view, mostly popular because of the writers like Tim LeHaye and the Left Behind movies (not counting the Nick Cage one). In this view, immediately before the 7-year tribulation period, Jesus will make something of a partial coming in which He will instantly gather all of His people from around the globe to Himself and take them back to heaven. After this the world will experience severe judgments from God for 7 years until Jesus returns and sets up His millennial kingdom.
  • Post-tribulation Rapture: Probably the second most common view, in post-tribulationalism the Church will have to live through the 7 years of judgment, though protected by God along the way, and after that Jesus will return, take His saints up to heaven, and institute His millennial reign.
  • Mid-tribulation Rapture: In this view (also called pre-wrath), the Rapture takes place halfway through the tribulation, prior to God’s pouring out of His wrath on the world. Mid-trib makes a distinction between the persecutions and sufferings of the first half of the tribulation and the eschatological outpouring of God’s wrath of the second half.

To jump right to it, none of these appeal to me. I don’t think any of them have sufficient Biblical grounding, and I think they all miss the important point of what the Rapture is. That said, I think pre-trib is the least likely of these, and in fact, I would go so far as to say that it has no Biblical evidence whatsoever and is every bit as much a sketchy extra-Biblical tradition as any Catholic innovation (no offense to my papist friends, of course).

So what do I believe about the Rapture? First off, I doubt that Revelation even teaches a distinct 7-year tribulation period. I agree with those who argue that the years, times, and seasons in Revelation are symbolic, and that the sequences of 7 (bowls, wrath, trumpets) are actually different visions which go back and refer to the same thing, much as Pharaoh had two dreams in one night with the same meaning.

This, of course, makes any of the popular views on the Rapture’s timing moot. The terms pre, post, and mid-trib don’t make sense without a specific 7 year tribulation. What does this do to the Rapture itself? In the eschatological timeline I find most convincing, the millennium is a reality for those who have died in Christ now, and it will end when Christ returns. When He returns, He will, as Scripture says, call His people together to meet Him in the air. Exactly what this will look like I do not know (is “in the air” a literal description, even?), but what comes next is the most serious departure from the other Rapture views.

I do not believe that we will be Raptured to heaven. That is where Christ is coming from, and in fact He is bringing heaven with Him to earth. Rather, our Rapture will be the time in which we are transformed by the sight of Him to be like Him, and then we will escort Him to earth. At this time all the dead are raised, the world is judged, and the entire creation will be recreated around Jesus Christ. Then heaven and earth will be one, with Christ ruling at the center.

So, specifically, I take the Rapture to be when we meet Christ in the air to be glorified and raised to resurrection life before escorting Him to His take rule over the kingdom, which now extends over the whole earth. 

Where do I get such an idea? The term parousia, used in the New Testament to refer to Christ’s return, means “appearing” or “presence.” In particular, it was used in the Roman Empire (under which, of course, Israel was ruled and against which Christ was proclaimed as Lord) to refer to the “appearing” of the emperor to a city or colony. When news of his coming came, the citizens of Rome would exit the city to gather around him and give him a royal escort into their city. It is not only possible but quite likely that Paul saw very much the same kind of thing going on when Christ returns for us.

N. T. Wright is the most well-known proponent of this view, so if you want to learn more about it I would recommend that you check out this brief essay he wrote on the topic, and perhaps also check out his excellent book, Surprised by Hope, which covers this and other issues related to heaven, the resurrection, and the new creation.

My Stance on the Rapture

Abraham’s Choice

Kill the miracle child. That was God’s demand to Abraham. An old man was told to take his young son, whom he had never thought would be conceived and waited patiently for years to see be born, plunge a knife into him, and burn his body. All of this for a God who had already made him leave behind his homeland and family on faith. Why? Why another test, and one of such horror?

Ultimately, Abraham chose to continue in steadfast faith, hoping perhaps desperately for even a resurrection. He seemed willing to believe that the God who brought new life out of his own all-but-dead body could also bring new life out of the ashes of his son’s. This took deep faith and surely serious internal conflict. Such a choice for God few seem truly able to make.

I find it bothersome, then, that there are people even in the Church saying that Abraham didn’t really have to make that choice, or even shouldn’t have made it. Rachel Held Evans, for example, made this argument a couple years ago. According to such arguments it would have been okay or even right for Abraham to defy what he heard as the command of God (or was it?) out of love for his son. Love is the essence of Christian morality, right? Killing a child isn’t love, and why’s a supposedly good God commanding this, anyway?

Now put that thought in hold for a moment to consider a somewhat related argument about martyrdom. Some in the Church argue that it’s not ultimately important what you say or believe about God so long as you live a life of Christ-like love. In this case, there’s no reason to confess Jesus even on pain of death. Instead, you should just trample His name under your feet when threatened and use the life you escape with to show Christ’s love to others through mercy and self-sacrifice, though perhaps without mentioning Him.

To put these two arguments in a room together, then, imagine a situation in which you are on trial for professing Christ in a hostile environment and you are told to deny Christ or your children will be killed. By the logic of both of these arguments above, you should deny Jesus and save your kids. That’s the only way you can honor the essence of Christianity, which is to love others. To follow the examples of the martyrs or Abraham would be at best a mistake.

But what if both of these arguments are wrong? They seem to share the assumption that other people are the soul of Christianity, but what if they aren’t? What if God’s love and purpose for us expressed in Christ and His Resurrection are the center? What if everything else, including love for others, hangs upon this reality?

If Christ and His Resurrection are truly central, then both of the arguments fail. If Christ is at the center, and He is the love of God, and there is no other love of God than the person of Jesus, then to deny Him is to deny the love of God. To deny the love of God is then to deny the very ground on which any love for others firmly stands, for apart from God’s electing love for man, man is nothing. If the Resurrection is truly God’s loving  purpose for us in Christ, then death cannot be regarded as a final evil, but only as a temporary one forced to serve the victory of God in His love toward us. Death ushers in eternal glory rather than being a true obstacle to the welfare of man in Christ.

By this logic, the logic of grace, we would find ourselves once again called to make Abraham’s choice. Do we truly believe in Jesus Christ as the end-all, be-all? Do we trust the promise of God to raise His people from death into the glory of their Lord? Will we doubt that those who lose their lives in Christ will find them in Him? Or are we skeptical of God’s promise to crown His martyrs with His Son?

The idea, of course, of sacrificing our children, or any loved ones, to remain faithful to the God of love is still as confusing and horrifying as ever, to be sure. We may be tempted to ask how a good God could ever expect such a thing out of us. How is there love in this? But as always, we must be pointed to Christ. God may someday ask our sons of us, but He has already given up His Son for us. In doing so He has also revealed in advance what happens to sacrificed sons: resurrection and eternal glory and power. If we can make Abraham’s choice, then we will receive our children back to us in greater form than we gave them up, and we will still have Christ as well. In the resurrection, martyrs and their parents find, to speak colloquially, that they can have their cake and eat it, too. Indeed, when we understand love from a center in God’s love in Christ rather than in ourselves, we find that this was the way to truly love our family all along.

None of this changes the awful terror of any such prospect. Would I be able to give up my children in faith that God would raise them from the dead? As someone planning to spend considerable time on the mission field, I have no guarantee that this question will always be hypothetical. Will I be ready? Will my faith be that deep? I hardly know from the comfort of my air-conditioned home full of food at a Christian educational institution. May God have mercy on myself and my family if the situation ever does arise. But in the meantime, I believe, and pray the Lord to help my unbelief, that for both me and my household to live is Christ and to die is gain.

Abraham’s Choice