Thursday, July 28, 2005

The Afterlife (Part I)

Last week I noted the death at age 85 of actor James Doohan, who was known for his role in the Star Trek series as the Enterprise’s chief engineer, Scotty, and whose cremated remains were shot into space where, in the words of his agent and friend, he can “be there with his buddy,” the Star Trek creator whose remains were also given a “space memorial.” This prompted me to reflect on the many and varied views of the afterlife but, most particularly, on how American Christians are appropriating pagan and New Age views in their understanding of the afterlife to create a feel-good but ultimately vacuous “theology.” I then promised you that I would “write more about this in the coming weeks.”

Your long and agonizing seven day wait is over.

Let’s dive in because this is important stuff. Consider four key elements of the Christian view of the afterlife: 1) Christ’s second coming, 2) the resurrection of the dead, 3) judgment, and 4) the end of the present world order. Following is a basic summary of my understanding of what is considered historic, orthodox Christian theology. Christ will come again at a time of God’s choosing which cannot be known by us (Mark 13, Matt 24, I Thessalonians 4). This second coming (or “parousia”) will bring about a transition from the present world order to “a new heaven and a new earth” (2 Peter 3:13, Revelation 21:1ff). The dead will be raised and judgment will take place (John 5:25-29, II Corinthians 5:10-11).

Let’s pause here and unpack some of this. One of the misconceptions I hear among many Christians is the belief that when a believer dies he or she is immediately with God in heaven. This is quite comforting to imagine and I usually refrain from saying anything because I don’t see much harm in it, but it does not conform to New Testament teaching per se (see I Corinthians 15:50-54), which proclaims that there will be a resurrection of the dead at Christ’s second coming, and until that time the dead are, well, dead (Note the New Testament euphamism of being “asleep”). They have no consciousness, no bliss or torment. And indeed from their perspective the resurrection is instantaneous. So that’s a small but perhaps not insignificant point.

The New Testament teaches that some will receive the “resurrection of life” and some the “resurrection of condemnation” (John 5:29; see also Matthew 25:31-46, II Thessalonians 1:4-9). Edward Fudge (, a Biblical scholar and church elder whose teaching I respect enormously, calls this judgment “the dark side of divine justice.” It is not pretty to talk about and is easy to avoid, but we really can’t ignore it and call ourselves Christians. One of the signature scriptures about God’s passionate love for the world (John 3:16f) declares that God sent his Son “not to to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through him,” and then goes on to note that some people condemn themselves by their life choices (v. 18).

I’ll resume next week with this idea of judgment. In the meantime, think on these things.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Particle Beam Transporter

I have never been a “Trekkie” but I can appreciate the enthusiasm with which people have followed the Star Trek show (saga? movement? revolution?) over the years. There was a kid in my neighborhood growing up who was the most committed, devoted, knowledgeable Star Trek fan I have ever encountered; great guy. Kind of resembled Leonard Nimoy, ears a little pointy, pale skin, cerebral.

Alas, James Doohan, the actor who portrayed the Starship Enterprise’s chief engineer Scotty, frequent recipient of the now famous request, “Beam me up,” died this week at age 85. Scotty’s most notable role in the story was to supervise the Enterprise’s “particle beam transporter,” which if I understand correctly (and if I don’t, and you’re a Trekkie, please refrain from educating me), allowed crew members in trouble to be whizzed back to the ship instantaneously, or something like that.

At any rate, Doohan, whom you can imagine became fairly subsumed in his character over the years, told relatives that he wanted his ashes blasted into outer space, as was done for Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry. “He’ll be there with his buddy, which is wonderful,” said Doohan’s agent and longtime friend. Houston-based Space Services, Inc, which specializes in space memorials, plans to send a few grams of Doohan’s ashes aboard a rocket later this year. The remains, which will be sealed in an aluminum capsule, will eventually burn up when they re-enter Earth’s atmosphere (“James Doohan to be sent to his final frontier,” AP, July 21, 2005).

I have become fascinated with the way people think of the afterlife and especially with the popular conceptions of “heaven.” What keeps this from being a purely amusing fascination is the extent to which many Christians syncretize pagan and new age beliefs into their understanding and outlook. When an athlete dies, for instance, eulogists declare happily that “he’s now on that big playing field in the sky.” Or, in the case of Mr. Doohan’s agent, his deceased client, by virtue of his ashes being shot into space, “will be there with his buddy.”

On the one hand this is all sort of harmless. Most of these “after-life expectations” are so vague as to make no real philosophical commitments: there is a “great beyond” that is a “better place” and that’s where all but the most vile people will spend eternity. It makes people feel good to affirm this positive scenario.

But on the other hand, most particularly when Christians abandon the quite specific and concrete doctrines of death, judgment and resurrection, it is distressing and dangerous. Perhaps that sounds dramatic or over-stated, but when you read the New Testament there is an enormous attention paid to death, resurrection and the Christian hope of heaven. When we water this down and adopt pagan platitudes in the place of historic, orthodox Christian teaching, we abandon, in many ways, part of the core of our faith commitment.

I’ll be writing more about this in the weeks ahead. I tip my hat to the great Star Trek story. And I would remind us that “beam me up” does not a theology of the afterlife make.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Looking For a Sign?

A man prayed the following prayer every morning: "Lord, if you want me to witness to someone today, please give me a sign to show me who it is." One day he found himself on a bus when a big, burly man sat next to him. The bus was nearly empty but this man sat next to our praying friend. The timid Christian anxiously waited for his stop so he could exit the bus. But before that could happen the big guy burst into tears , began to weep, and cried out with a loud voice, "I need to be saved. I'm a lost sinner and I need the Lord. Won't somebody tell me how to be saved?" He turned to the Christian and pleaded, "Can you show me how to be saved?" The believer immediately bowed his head and prayed, "Lord, is this a sign?”

Ba da boom. Okay, we can all chuckle at (I hope) and relate to (I’m sure) the knee-knocking demeanor of our Christian brother in this story. How often do we think to ourselves after a particular encounter, “Why didn’t I say something?”

Let me begin by noting that the very existence of such feelings is a good sign (relatively speaking). Think about it. If you have such a low consciousness of the missionary presence and purpose of Christ in your life that you sail through your days with no thought of witnessing to people about the the Good News, then you will never experience this kind of angst. And let me add that too many Christians avoid the angst by adopting just such a posture; they effectively shut off any evangelistic impulse the Spirit might arouse in them because they do not want to risk possible discomfort.

But let’s dig a little deeper. Why should there be discomfort? One reason may be that we are stuck on the idea of witnessing as “confrontation.” Certainly there is a confrontational element to the Good News. After all, responding to it involves repenting and changing directions. But one thing I have learned, though not always lived out, is that the confrontation of the gospel is not between me and the other person; it is between the gospel and the other person’s heart and mind. In other words, as a witness to the love of God and the presence of Christ in my life, I do not confront people. I come alongside them and put my arm around them and say, in effect, “Let me help you hear what God might be saying to you,” with the emphasis on “help” and “might.”

After all, are any of the following comments really confrontational or abrasive? “When I have faced things such as you are going through now, it has meant a great deal to me to have a relationship with God through Jesus. Is that something you have thought much about?” Or “Where do you see yourself spiritually at this time in your life?” Or “One of the anchors in my life has been my church (though they don’t let me bring coffee into worship anymore). Would you be interested in going with me sometime?”

Few of us will ever have an experience like our young friend on the bus. Being a witness to the love of Christ is most fruitfully lived out in the daily rhythms of our life with friends and neighbors and co-workers, not complete strangers. It is not a “fail or “succeed” endeavor but a natural expression of our faith and hope. So relax, take heart, and look for signs. They’re all around you.