An Alternative to Death

I have a simple question for you today. What will happen when you die? Some of you will say, “Nothing. My self-awareness will cease, and my body will decompose.” Some others of you will say, “My self-awareness will continue because I have a soul that transcends my body.”

Well… here’s the thing: after the grave, you either continue or you do not… and eternity hangs in the balance. So, if our self-awareness ends when our biology ends, then it’s ha-ha to us Christians — we’ve been wasting our lives! But if personhood continues after biological death, then it’s no laughing matter.

We Christians are theists. We believe in top-down design, and we believe in the metaphysical reality that personhood is independent of biology. But philosophical naturalists attribute self-awareness to our biological systems alone. They say our brains generate an illusion that gives us the impression that a person is in charge… but that no such metaphysical agent actually exists.

This idea has been gaining steady support. But naturalism is no felt truth. In fact, the felt truth is that our personalities transcend our bodies — and why shouldn’t we feel this way? We were made in the image of a transcendent being! But God didn’t just create us and move on. He also wanted to have a relationship with us… which is extraordinary!

Having a relationship requires that he give us free will… but this is the very commodity we use to rebel against him! Nevertheless, God knows that for love to be legitimate, both parties must be able to say no to the relationship — and here, the Christian worldview fights naturalism on two levels.

First, it insists that love is an overarching metaphysical reality and not a biologically driven illusion. Second, it understands that love requires an actual free will, not an illusory one… which is fine… because it also insists that human agency comes from the soul.

I will admit, however, that our will to do anything seems inseparable from our bodies. First. it’s hard to separate any experience from the biological systems that provide all our feedback and input. And second, our bodies and souls have coexisted since birth! But make no mistake — they are discrete entities. Human agency belongs to the essential-self, not the physical self, and we continue to exist as essential-selves forever… whether or not we are embodied.

But even if we agree that love exists, and even if we agree that we have to say yes to have a relationship with God, we have a more fundamental problem: God is holy and we are not… and God cannot have an eternal relationship with unholy beings. The Apostle Paul said that

“… the wages of sin is death...” (Romans 6:23a, NIV)

… and simply put… we have earned that wage! But God knew the trouble free will would cause, so he planned for our redemption even before he created the physical world. Redemption makes us positionally holy… although we continue to sin in the day-to-day. You see, when we walk through this world, we cannot help but soil our feet. But our bodies are clean — thanks to the salvation we have in Jesus Christ.

Each one of us had an appointment with death. But Jesus took those appointments for us — and he settled our accounts by dying in our place. So, is God dead? … after all… we Christians believe that Jesus was God… and that he died. No… and understanding God as a trinity will help us here.

The Scripture teaches that God is one — he is one in number and one in essence. Yet that same Scripture teaches that there are three persons within that essence. We call this mode of being the Trinity… and redemption would not be possible without it! Being tripersonal, God (in the person of the Father) could send God (in the person of the Son) to take on human form… without changing his essence. God is… and by definition… immutable, so he has always been (and will always be) a trinity.

One benefit of being tripersonal is that God did not have to wait until he created other beings to experience love… and this is a severe deficit in a non-trinitarian God. If someone postulates God as non-trinitarian, then love, which must be inter-personal, could not begin until creation. And if God (sort of) invented love at a point in time, then it would be ad hoc. But our God has known love for all eternity — and why not! It is a logical part of his nature. The Trinity can seem so abstract, though, so let’s bring it down to earth… literally.

The historical consensus is that a man called Jesus — a man who claimed to be the Son of God — lived and died about 2000 years ago. They also affirm that his followers believed that he performed miracles… and that they claimed to have seen him after his death! … and few would deny that the message of his resurrection spread around the world. These are historical data… and not just articles of faith.

Now, I have incorporated these data into my articles of faith… but not because anyone told me to. It was because of their historical veracity. So, my question is, what will you do with the data? … because the historical consensus is that Jesus lived and died in a manner not inconsistent with the Gospel narratives and that his disciples spread his teaching. And since the best scholarship affirms that Jesus was a person of history and a person of consequence, the thing you can’t do is dismiss him as a Christian invention.

Jesus’ first-century followers captured his teachings and entrusted them to the next generation… they to the next and so on. They have been preserved to this day through faithful scholarship — and we would be remiss not to explore them. The collection of twenty-seven books bearing witness to Jesus Christ is called the New Testament, and we’ve joined these with thirty-nine books of the Hebrew Scripture we call the Old Testament to form the Bible — the authoritative word of God.

But whether or not you believe it to be that, the Bible is the most important collection of ancient writings ever assembled… and that’s not hyperbole. The Bible is Mt. Everest. All the other collections are molehills… and the Scripture deserves more respect than it receives in the popular domain.

Now, I believe that the Scripture is indeed God’s word, and I will cite it as so. But even if you do not believe this, you will hear no common words today. These are millennia old, they’ve been analyzed by countless scholars throughout that time… and furthermore, they have changed the world! As such, words like these demand respect no matter who authored them.

You have probably heard the term “the Gospel” before. It’s a Greek term that means “good news” — and the Gospel is indeed good news! But it’s only good news to those who know the bad news that

“… all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” (Romans 3:23, NIV).

To say that humanity has fallen short of some higher standard would be an understatement. In fact, that is humanity’s default condition. But it is also the Gospel’s context… and this brings us back to my initial question: what will happen when you die? I ask again because people in both camps believe some wrong things.

Take philosophical naturalists, for example. They only subscribe to physical explanations for phenomena. As such, many of them say that our self-awareness is just an artifact of our brain chemistry. In this view, objective right and wrong do not exist, so sin would not exist… and where sin does not exist, the Gospel is moot.

But many non-naturalists espouse an idea which is equally destructive to the Gospel — that people who are “good” in the main will find eternal bliss, while people who are “bad” in the main will find eternal grief. That’s not true because that’s not the Gospel. In fact, that’s the un-Gospel. The “good news” is that Jesus died for you… not that you died for you. Your death will only confirm your condemnation.

Let’s listen to the Apostle John as he summarizes the salvation process. John said

And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. (1 John 5:11–12, NIV)

John’s testimony is very clear. Eternal life is in the Son… it is not in the life lived. If you have the Son, then you have life… and if you don’t… you don’t. So you want to make sure that you do indeed “have” the Son… and we’ll get to that soon… but first, let’s look at the Apostle Paul as he explains how the “life well lived” fits in with the Gospel.

Paul said that it is very important that believers do “good works.” After all, that’s why God put us here! But that’s not how we joined God’s family. If it were, then we could boast that we got there by our own efforts. Paul said

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. (Ephesians 2:8–10, NIV)

Now, don’t get me wrong: the culture is right to reward good works. Altruism helps society. But the culture is wrong about salvation. Doing good works earns no one a hearing with God… even if they do them in Jesus’ name.

Now… I’m sure this comes as a shock to many people… and you might not believe me… but you should believe Jesus… so let’s examine one of his parables. Jesus said

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” (Matthew 7:21–23, NIV)

That blows a hole in the saying that it doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you believe it sincerely. In fact, if Jesus had a saying, it would be something like “No matter how earnestly you pursue your own ideas, objective truth still exists — and it’s your job to find it. Don’t wait until the Judgment Day to discover that not everyone gets a trophy.”

If nothing else, this parable should motivate us to find out what the “will of the Father who is in heaven” is… because that’s the ticket to the kingdom of heaven. However, in addition to showing the jeopardy of not being saved, it also shows the jeopardy of knowing wrong things… and people “know for sure” a lot of things that just aren’t true. God wants us to be saved… that’s true… be he also wants us to understand our salvation.

Paul gave Timothy a picture of God as Savior. Speaking about prayer and petition Paul said

This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people… (1 Timothy 2:3–6, NIV)

God wants every person to come to a knowledge of the truth. We should know that there is only one God, and there is one mediator between God and humankind — the man, Jesus Christ — and that this man gave himself as a ransom for all people. These are the elements of the Gospel, and these are some of the particular truths that God wants us to know. But it’s a bad season for the truth.

Every year, the Oxford Dictionaries selects an international Word of the Year — a word or phrase that captures the ethos, mood, or preoccupations of that particular year — and 2016’s winner was “post-truth.” This is problematic. Post-truth denotes a climate where objective facts are less influential than personal beliefs or appeals-to-emotion in shaping public opinion.

Now, Christianity is a belief system — that’s true. But it’s a fact-based belief system — and in a day where critical thinking was the highest standard, this was an advantage. But with critical thinking slipping below the value of feelings in public opinion, something as emotionally challenging as coming to grips with personal sin is at a greater disadvantage than ever… and this is a shame… because it is so easy to reverse our death sentence. John tells us

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16, NIV)

If you believe in God’s Son, then you will not perish. Instead, you will have eternal life… and not death. But it is not enough to just believe in Jesus’ historical veracity… or even just to believe that these things that we say about him are true. That’s only mental assent. You have to move the center of belief down to the heart. In order to be “in” Christ, Christ has to be “in” you. So, how do we do that?

Nicodemus was a Jewish leader… yet he took the risk and snuck off to visit Jesus one night. Nicodemus had a head full of knowledge… but not just about the law. He also knew that Jesus was performing miracles… and he said that no one could do such works unless God was with him. Now, let’s take a minute to look at Nicodemus’s assets: he was an earnest seeker; he revered God, and he believed that God was with Jesus. But that wasn’t enough to enter the kingdom. Jesus told him

… “… no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” (John 3:3, NIV)

I find it quite understandable that Nicodemus asked for clarification. After all, he only knew of one kind of birth. So Jesus explained that the second birth would be spiritual, not natural — and that the Holy Spirit would make us family with Christ… not merely a nation… and not merely subscribers to a belief system. Christianity is different this way. So, how do we join this family? We receive Christ.

Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— (John 1:12, NIV)

This is how Christ comes to dwell within us — we “receive” him when we invite his Spirit in. And once he dwells within, the Spirit testifies that we are children of God… and we become brothers and sisters of Christ himself! As such, we are no longer slaves to sin or slaves to fear. We are… and for the first time ever… free.

The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” (Romans 8:15, NIV)

It is easy to make God your Father. You just have to ask. God wills that none should perish, so he is as proactive as he can be about salvation while maintaining your free will. He established redemption before the foundations of the world; he sent Jesus Christ to die and pay for your sins. But also, the Father has been wooing you your whole life.

“No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day.” (John 6:44, NIV)

Coming to Christ (what is often called “receiving” Christ) is neither complex nor difficult. You just need to give in to God’s pull. He knew you’d sin, so he established redemption — and Jesus did all the heavy lifting… so, your part is not to lift, too. Your part is to give him something to lift. Lay all your sins at his feet… and if you do that truly, you’ll be naturally thankful.

So, just speak to God… because that’s all prayer is… and tell him you “get it.” Tell him you realize that you can’t reach heaven by your own efforts. Tell him you realize why Jesus had to pay the price for your sin. Tell him you lay all your sin — past, present and future — at Jesus’ feet… and thank him for that provision. Tell him you want this to be the official moment when you “receive Christ” and become a child of God.

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