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Some More of Your Big Questions

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During our “Big Questions” sermon series, we invited you to submit any questions you may have. We received many questions, and this week I will answer a few more of them.

Other Religions

We received a couple of questions related to believing in Christianity as opposed to other religions, noting that People typically believe the religion they are taught, and Christianity teaches that the Protestant beliefs and practices are right. How  can we be sure that the Christian faith is the correct one? 
One thing that stands out when it comes to the Christian faith is that it is grounded in history; it rises or falls upon the questions of if Jesus of Nazareth is who he says he is and whether or not he rose from the dead. This is a claim that can be investigated as a historical fact, so Christianity does have an objective basis; however, not every religion has that sort of basis (and thus can be confirmed or denied). In addition, if this is true, then it rules out other religions that deny that basic truth. While people often adopt the religious beliefs of their community and family, this is not always the case. There are many stories (you might be one!) of individuals coming to a different belief system than that of their parents or predominant culture; all people make some sort of choice based on what they see and experience in the world. In fact, that is probably the best way for me to explain why I affirm Protestant beliefs and practices — the examination of the Bible and history lead me to trust  that these beliefs (particularly the ones found in the Reformed tradition) make sense.

What About Those Who Are Not Able to Believe?

Someone asked, If the way to heaven is by accepting Jesus, what happens to people who are not capable of making that decision due to their cognition abilities?
This question cannot be answered simply by looking at a particular verse in the Bible (the Bible is not a question and answer book, but the story of how God comes to save us and how we are to live). However, the Bible can help us answer this question as we see what it teaches about God and salvation. The Bible shows that God is not only just, but also compassionate and gracious. We also know that He is sovereign and whatever He does is right. In addition, I think the doctrine of election might actually help us answer this question. If we believe that salvation ultimately comes from God choosing us rather than us choosing God, then those who are not able to cognitively understandGod’s plan of salvation and choose to follow Christ can still be called by God. If we believe that we are saved because we chose to be,then we  may have doubts that those not able to make that decision can be saved. In 2 Samuel 12:15-23 we see David having comfort that he will see his deceased son again. For more on the topic of what happens to children who die before they have the cognitive ability to believe in Jesus as their Lord and Savior, see this post from 2018 on how it is actually addressed in part by the Canons of Dort, one of our doctrinal statements: 

https://wearefaith.org/blog/how-the-doctrine-of-election-can-offer-comfort-in-tragedy-digging-into-dort-point-1-part-5/)

Questions about Heaven and Hell
Below are a few of the many questions we received related to heaven and hell. 

Many people in the world think of heaven and hell as metaphorical references to the state of the human mind rather than an eternal state. With this being said, how can we be sure of an afterlife? 
Christian teaching is that heaven and hell are the eternal states of individuals; there is a sense in which we might get “foretates” of them while on earth, but this does not mean that they are not real places. Ultimately, Christians believe they are real because Jesus affirmed them; he told us that he is preparing a place for us and making a way for us to be with God (see John 14). He also often taught on the reality of eternal suffering for those who reject him. Some of the imagery used to describe both places might have metaphorical value (for example, is hell literally a place with lots of fire – or is fire designed to make a point of what it will be like?), but metaphorical language is used to point to something that is real but can be difficult to express. We have belief in an afterlife and in the resurrection of the dead because of the teaching of Jesus, which is affirmed by his death and resurrection.

Is it possible for a loved one to show a sign that they are in heaven and can loved ones communicate from heaven
Hebrews 12:1 and Revelation 6:9-10 indicate that those living in the presence of God (what we usually call heaven) may be able to see what is going on here in earth, but it seems that there is no communication between those on earth and those in heaven at the moment and we should not seek it. In the Old Testament, there are commands prohibiting trying to consult spirits (and we see the spirit of Samuel speaking to Saul in 1 Samuel 28 – and this was not a good thing!), and the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) seem to teach us that God communicates with us through His Word rather than communication between the departed and the living. The longing for communication with our deceased loved ones comes from our love for them and grief in missing them, but it seems that our renewed communication would come when we are both in the presence of God, not in this time.

 Will the good people who do not believe in God have a chance to be admitted to heaven because they were good people who might not have had a chance to believe?
Something to remember is that we are all sinners. There are many people who do good things (caring for the widow and orphan, being kind to others, giving money to good causes, etc.), but we see that there is no one who is righteous, not even one, and that all have sinned (see Romans 3). Even if we only stumble in one point, we have broken the law of God and deserve punishment (James 2:10). We all deserve punishment of hell but God gives a gift in Jesus and life to those who believe in Him (Romans 6:23). Therefore, in a sense there is no “good person,” all have rejected God and broken His commands, deserving of punishment. We also read in Hebrews 9:27 that it is appointed for us to die once and face judgment; we will be judged based upon our lives in this world and ultimately on the question of what we do with Jesus. We should not think people will get a second chance after they die, which should lead to us seeking to share our faith with others now. 

If God is omnipresent, then why is hell often viewed as the absence of God?
Perhaps a better way to describe hell is not the absence of God in terms of His overall presence, but absence of any sort of relationship with Him, of being shut out from His goodness and grace. One, therefore, could say it is a different kind of presence. In answering this question, John Piper makes the point that God is present but in all the ways you do not want Him to be present and none of the ways you want for im to be present (https://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/is-god-everywhere-and-absent-from-hell). Another helpful discussion that expands on this question can be found at https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/hell-not-separation-god/.

A final question related to heaven and hell was fairly broad, “What is heaven like?” 

In one sense, we don’t have a ton of details in the Bible about heaven and the eternal state other than it is us being in the presence of God and, therefore, having unfettered access to Him and no longer experiencing the pain and suffering of this world. The vision of heaven we should have puts God at the center; we will be there with people from every tribe, tongue, and nation of this earth – including people we knew on earth and loved, but our attention needs to be directed to the awesome God we will be with rather than the other things we will experience there. In fact, I think that is what the Bible tries to get us to focus on in the visions and teachings of heaven — the main thing which is God.

Where Was Jesus After the Crucifixion?

After the crucifixion, where did Jesus go? Our Apostles Creed said he descended into hell. However, what I have read is that it was a place called Hades, which we confuse for hell. Does hell exist now or will it not exist until after the second coming? Where did all the Jews go before Christ came?

The Apostles’ Creed says that Jesus descended to “hell,” but this is one of the most discussed parts of the Apostles’ Creed for a couple of different reasons (I’ve written about it before here and here). For a variety of reasons, it may be best to think less of Jesus going down to hell for the three days between the cross and resurrection and focus instead on how Jesus experiences the agony of hell for us on the cross in that he is being punished for sin (ours, not his!) and the Father turns His face away from him. That said, there is still the question of what happened to faithful Jews who died before Christ came, as well as the related question of what happened to those who died but did not have faith. The parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus points to the intermediate state – both before and after Jesus – being a foretaste of the eternal state in that those who have died in faith are in the presence of God (which was called by some at the time the bosom of Abraham), while those who did not have faith would be suffering in torment. Revelation 20-21 is a good reminder that this is temporary, with hell and the new earth awaiting; one might refer to “Hades” as the temporary spot with hell being the lake of fire in Revelation 20:7-15. However, it should also be noted that the term “Hades” seems to be used in some different contexts in the Old and New Testaments and thus could refer to the whole abode of the dead (with it as the translation as the Hebrew Sheol), and not just of the unrighteous, which could be a bit confusing at times. Some of this confusion comes because there is progressive revelation of truths to God’s people that we see in the Bible, so things become more clear over time and across different cultures. Yet in the midst of that confusion, let us not forget what becomes clear over time and gives us hope today: Jesus has conquered the grave and saves those who believe in Him from punishment and brings them to everlasting life (John 3:16).  

Questions about the Bible or theology? Email them to Pastor Brian at Theology@WeAreFaith.org. You can also request to receive weekly emails with our blog posts by filling out the information on the right side.

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