I am now writing exclusively over at the Christians In Context blog. Click on this banner to be taken there!

Redeemer Church

Redeemer Church
Looking for a church in the Omaha area? Come check out ours on Sunday mornings at 11!

Monday, March 22, 2010

Why Heaven Will Be Superior To Eden

There is an idea floating around in contemporary Christian literature and music and I am baffled at its popularity. It usual manifests itself in phrases like "return to paradise" or "get back to Eden". I am baffled because—if one makes even a cursory reading of Genesis 2-3 and then Revelation 20-22—heaven seems plainly superior in many ways to Eden.

Yet this idea that salvation and heaven are just a reclaiming of what was lost in Eden seems to have some staying power. Certainly there are obvious similarities (which seem to get all the attention by many), but the differences are significant and considerable. I'm not even talking about the superficial distinctions—obviously one is a garden and the other is a city (the only carry-over we see in both places is the tree of life). Some of the other differences, however, are important because they inform our understanding of the fall, of heaven, and of the sovereignty of God.

The potential for a fall

I was tempted to break these all into individual points, but in the interest of brevity (and intellectual integrity) I summed them up to the basic idea that the fall and all that came with it loomed as an ever-present possibility. In Eden, mankind was of the nature that, though morally perfect in that he had not sinned, was not perfect in that he could not sin. Thus the possibility of sin and the fall kept these all as potential realities (and as we know, eventual realities). These ever-present possibilities include mourning, crying, and pain (Gen. 3:16, 17) and even physical death (Gen. 2:16, 3:19). Yet these all become impossibilities when God promises there will be no more "mourning, nor crying, nor pain any more" (Rev. 21:4) and Death itself will be thrown into the lake of fire (Rev. 20:14).

The presence of Satan

"Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman . . . " (Gen. 3:1) The beginning of the fall narrative opens with the presence of what most theologians agree is a physical manifestation of Satan. Yet in Revelation he is defeated and banished to the lake of fire (Rev. 20:10). This is reaffirmed when we read that "nothing unclean will ever enter [heaven], nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb's book of life" (Rev. 21:27).

The presence of God

While the last point is probably quite obvious to most, the presence of God also seems to be different between Eden and heaven. It is possible that God was not perpetually present in Eden in a physical manifestation because we read that "[Adam and Eve] heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day" (Gen. 3:8). This seems to suggest he was not constantly walking in the garden. It also seems implicit that God is not physically present during the conversation between Eve and the serpent. Whether this is true or not, it is certainly true that Adam and Eve's awareness of the presence of God was such that they thought they could escape it as they "hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden" (Gen. 3:8).

Now I am certainly not questioning God's omnipresence, but I am suggesting that there will be a change in our awareness of the presence of God from Eden to heaven. In heaven, we read that "the dwelling pace of God is with man" (Rev. 21:3) as well as this great promise: "They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever." (Rev. 22:4,5) It seems clear that in heaven we will

The ignorance/innocence of mankind

This last point is to some extent an outgrowth of the first three. While Adam was indeed quite intelligent (e.g. naming of the animals) and enjoyed a relationship with God of which we can only speculate, there is a great bit of experiential ignorance/innocence in man pre-fall. Adam and Eve did not have the same experiential understanding of God's grace, mercy, saving love and sacrificial servanthood that we have this side of Eden—and we do not have the same understanding that we will have someday while remain this side of heaven. Everything between Eden and heaven serve to shape and form worshippers who understand and appreciate who God is better than we ever could if we had stayed in the garden.


Obviously more could be said for each item and more items added to the list (for example, could Jesus' incarnated body and his post-resurrection glorified body be a picture for us of the bodies from Eden to heaven?). However, I feel these four points are sufficient to delineate between the condition of mankind in Eden and in heaven. So what? Why does it matter? I can think of at least two reasons.

1) This understanding of heaven as superior to Eden give us a greater appreciation of the sovereignty of God. If mankind had to endure everything between Eden and heaven just to get things "back to the way they were meant to be", it would seem somewhat pointless. But if God had planned from the beginning to bring a chosen people from Eden, through the in betweens, and to a heaven far superior to Eden, then that is a very amazing and beautiful thing. Indeed, I believe that is exactly what Revelation is talking about when we read "All inhabitants of the earth will worship the beast—all whose names have not been written in the book of life belonging to the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world." (Rev. 13:8) Notice that both those who would be saved and their means of salvation have been written from the creation of the world. This seems to imply also a fall that was somehow written from the creation of the world. (See also: Ephesians 1)

2) The understanding of a superior heaven should motivate us to live a life both joyfully in the present and eagerly anticipating the future. If all the trials we endure on this Earth are just backlash from our sin in Eden, then we've just gotta buckle down and bear it. But if each and every trial is a piece that God sovereignly ordained (see point 1) so that in heaven that very trial will all the more magnify the grace of God and the conquering joy of his people, well then we can, as James instructed, "consider it pure joy whenever you face trials of many kinds". If all of the in betweens are just the hoops we must jump through to get back what we'd lost in Eden, we could spend all of our lives looking back regretting the fall and questioning God. But if heaven surpasses Eden, then this is reason enough to press on, to look forward, to trust God and to pray with fervency "come quickly Lord Jesus!"

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Book Review: Your Church Is Too Small by John H. Armstrong

The lack of unity within Christianity—by it's broadest defintion—has long been a point of tension for believers and a point of ridicule for nonbelievers. I myself have felt this tension, and John Armstrong addresses it in Your Church Is Too Small. The divisions between Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Protestant (and the further denominational splits therein) can feel a far cry from the unity of believers one might expect after reading through the New Testament. I speak of those three branches of Christianity because those are the groups Armstrong is addressing. Yet the simple fact is that everyone under the broad umbrella of Christianity—branch, denomination, and individual alike—must first determine what Scripture considers the true believers and the church before we can work towards unity within it.

And here, it seems, we find the sticking point for many both today and throughout Christian history. The simple definition—and Armstrong's most often used definition—of the genuine believers would be those who have trusted Christ for salvation and have received the gift, promise, and seal of the Holy Spirit. Yet, for all it's objectivity according to Scripture, those objective marks remain unseen and unavailable to us in our pursuit for unity.

He also suggests that all three branches of Christianity share a core orthodoxy, or "core truths shared by all Christians everywhere". But even here there seems to be a wide variation among the understandings and applications. Indeed, I would suggest that the divergent understandings of these core truths are actually a contributor to our lack of unity, not a step toward the solution. We are united in Christ, yet we cannot ignore doctrine or core truth because by it we learn and understand how we are united to Christ. Moreover, one cannot even communicate the Gospel absent of doctrine, core truth and orthodoxy.

If we consider the example that the apostles modeled for us, they called for and pursued unity. They seemed to encourage unity in fellowship even when there was not unanimity in beliefs. Yet at times they too disassociated from—even attacked—certain teachers and sects.

I feel Armstrong made one of his strongest points when he differentiated between unity and unanimity. While I don't have unanimity with my denomination, my church or even my pastor, there is certainly a strong sense of unity. This same unity minus unanimity would do well to grow between denominations and beyond.

So I am sympathetic to Armstrong's position in his desire for unity. I am grateful for the conversation he is engaging in. I hope this book serves to temper the backbiting, the bickering, the theological grandstanding that makes the Church look infantile in the eyes of the world. I pray Your Church Is Too Small will contribute to a stronger and more winsome—and not a watered down or compromised—Gospel.

This book was a free review copy provided by Zondervan Books.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Book Review: The Vertical Self by Mark Sayers

The Vertical Self is half sociological study, half spiritual discipline guide. Unfortunately, Mark Sayers shines as a sociologist and merely glows as a spiritual guru. However, this is not to say I did not enjoy this book or would not recommend it (I did and would respectively). This book is worth the price of admission for the first half alone.

The former half of this book reads a little like David Brooks. However, instead of writing about the blending of the bourgeois and bohemian classes, Mark Sayers delves into the Christian individual's abandonment of an identity defined by the vertical (God) in exchange for one defined by the horizontal (society, Hollywood, self, etc.).

With startling insight, Sayers perfectly describes a Christian generation that has turned its eyes downward for a sense of identity. Movies and reality TV have us all acting out our own scripts. The Internet has fostered our separation between who we are and who we want to be. Narcissism feeds off this horizontal self, "in which our worth is tied to what others think of us, we end up obsessed with ourselves".

If you are in any sort of ministry (especially youth), I highly recommend this book. Here's a brief reason why: "Ministers and church leaders assume that they are speaking to people who have a vertical sense of self, but those they minister to both inside and outside the church (if they're younger than sixty years old) almost certainly have a horizontal sense of self . . . The emergence of the horizontal self is one of the most pressing challenges for the church in our day. Most of our theology was written by people who lived during the time of the vertical self. Most of our evangelistic approaches were designed to communicate the gospel to people with a vertical sense of self".

While the second half of the book can't quite stand up to the first, I was still very impressed in the end. Despite a latter half that seems to meander and wander when trying to reform us to a vertical self, the spot-on description of the horizontal self makes Sayers' book a greatly beneficial read for anyone in ministry.

This book was a free review copy provided by Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Book Review: Why Is God Ignoring Me? by Gary Habermas

Gary Habermas has long been known for his role in Christian apologetics, in particular his contribution to the argument for the resurrection of Jesus. Yet Habermas proves himself to be much more than a one trick pony by tackling the daunting challenge of the supposed silence of God in Why Is God Ignoring Me? Others have addressed this question—most notably in my mind Philip Yancey in his book Disappointment With God—but Habermas covers new ground and gives answers both emotionally and intellectually satisfying.

Indeed, his intellectual approach is clear from the onset as he deals with the issue of "Supernatural Activities In Our World" in the first chapter. In the following chapters he then addresses the biblical tension felt between the nearness of God and the promise that we will face hardship—the same tension that many of the biblical characters themselves had to face. Yet one of the most simple—and profound—answers to the problem of the supposed silence of God is that the problem may not lie on God's side. Thus he points us towards some of the classical spiritual disciplines as a sort of spiritual troubleshooting.

While it's a short book (139 pages), Why Is God Ignoring Me? packs a significant punch for those in doubt and a needed lift for those in pain. Christians should certainly be glad that we have one as Gary Habermas investigating the resurrection of Christ. Now we can be equally glad he is investing some time and effort toward other pressing issues for the Christian's confidence.

This book was a free review copy provided by Tyndale House Publishers.

Book Review: The Reason For Sports by Ted Kluck

I was first introduced to Ted Kluck and his writings in his tag-team style book with Kevin DeYoung addressing the Emergent (and emerging) Church, enigmatically titled Why We're Not Emergent (By Two Guys Who Should Be).

The same subtleties—along with a healthy dose of humor—make his latest book, The Reason For Sports: A Christian Fanifesto, a very easy and enjoyable read. Kluck has written for ESPN The Magazine and Sports Spectrum, and his knowledge and love of sports show on every page.

While the spiritual content carries less of the weight than does the sports content, I imagine it would be annoying and heavy-handed if it were any different. Don't pick up this book expecting a deep theological treatise on how we are drawn to sports because the Christian life is a battle or how we will all one day "win" when Jesus returns. Rather, this book reads like a collection of essays centered around sports and how certain themes emerge for the fans (and players) that can be addressed by a Christian worldview. Such themes include steroids, sin and apologies, honesty and authenticity.

Kluck succeeds in writing a book that will appeal to sports fans while still writing a book that deserves to be on a Christian publisher's roster (yeah, I said it). While I did come away with one disappointment (What is the reason for sports? I still want to know), The Reason For Sports is a worthy read for any sports fan. In fact, it was the first book I have given to anyone this year for that very reason.

This book was a free review copy provided by Moody Publishers.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Book Review: On Guard by William Lane Craig

William Lane Craig is considered to be one of the top Christian apologists alive today. So when he writes a book on apologetics, I expect it to be well-argued and -reasoned. However, I did not expect it to be so accessible to the average reader.

Yet On Guard, released this week by David C. Cook Publishers, is just that and a whole lot more. This book is ready-made for undergraduate classes, church small groups or any Christian looking for an introduction to the key arguments for Christianity.

While much of the content may not be new to the discussion, the format by which it is presented is one of the most appealing aspects of the book. There are wide margins on the pages perfect for note-taking. That is, when that space is not being used for definitions of key words and logical fallacies. There are also profiles of a number of the key thinkers along the way.

The chapters are presented in ascending logical order of the arguments, from "What difference does it make if God exists?" to "Is Jesus the only way to God?" Along the way he hits some of the most popular arguments today for God's existence: the moral argument, the design argument and the kalam cosmological argument, which Craig is especially well-known for modifying in his doctorate thesis.

If there is one weakness in the book, it is that it tries to be all things to all men. While the book is meant to be introductory, there are points when the content will simply be heavy lifting due to the subject matter at hand—despite the occasional single-panel cartoon thrown in. And the "Talk About It" questions seemingly geared for the small group are, in my humble opinion, more distracting than beneficial.

With only these few exceptions, William Lane Craig has written the perfect book as an introduction to Christian apologetics. I know it will be at the top of my list when asked to recommend a book to get someone's feet wet in the defense of the Christian faith. Even to those familiar with the arguments, this book will be a perfect tool to add to anyone's belt.

This book was a free review copy provided by David C. Cook Publishers.