“Taken” by God

A “Theocentric” Vision of the Life Everlasting

Genesis 5:21-24, the narrative of the generation of Enoch in a chapter about the descendants of Adam down the line of Seth, is the first indication in the Biblical narrative that death isn’t the only possible outcome to life that’s possible for us as human beings.

Death gets introduced into the narrative of the human family in the second Creation story in Genesis chapter 2. Adam was warned that should he ever eat “of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil,” that surely on that day he would die (2:17). It was this prospect that drove the conversation between Eve and the serpent at the beginning of Genesis chapter 3 (verses 1-4), and the very next story that the book of Genesis tells is a story about the first death of a human being. Cain killed his brother Abel (4:1-16), and when his brother’s blood cried out from the ground against him in accusation (4:10), Cain’s own inevitable demise was brought into full focus for him. The thought of it undid him (4:13-14). Then one of Cain’s descendants kills again (Lamech in 4:23-24), and the march of death is underway.

Genesis 5 is a chapter about “the generations of Adam” down the Seth branch of the family tree. 10 generations are named, and at the end of each entry the same refrain sounds – “and he died” (5:5; 5:8; 5:11; 5:14; 5:17; 5:20; 5:27; 5:31). Only Enoch, the son of Jared who died (5:20), and the father of Methuselah who died (5:27), breaks the pattern.

Enoch “walked with God.” Two times Genesis 5 says so (5:22 & 5:24). God “walked” in the Garden in the cool of the evening with Adam and Eve (Genesis 3:8). I take this is a picture of the communion that God intended for His human image bearers (Genesis 1:26-27). We were created for this kind of intimacy with God. We correspond to God like His own reflection in a mirror. The “death” of Genesis 2:17 is only secondarily physical. It is primarily spiritual. The picture of being driven from the Garden in Genesis 3:22-24 with no way back from our side is a picture of this spiritual death, the breaking of that vital connection, a loss of the immediacy and intimacy of God and humanity walking and talking together in the cool of the evening.

The reference to Enoch who “walked with God” and then “was not” because “God took him” (5:24) is one of the signals of grace that are scattered throughout the stories of moral and mortal decline in Genesis 3 – 11. In a chapter where everyone dies, Enoch doesn’t. He’s the exception. Enoch gets “taken” because he “walked with God.” So, if we “walk with God,” do we get “taken” too?

I think the Enoch exception in Genesis 5 is the Bible’s first whispery witness to the promise that becomes full-throated in Jesus Christ, the One who called Himself “the Resurrection and the Life,” and who told us that “even if we die, yet shall we live,” and that “if we live and believe in Him, we shall never die” (John 11:25-26). If we “walk with God,” we get “taken by God.” That’s not the only thing that I think I can say about what becomes of us when we die as Christians, but it is the most basic thing, the foundation on which every other finally affirmation rests.

The late Pope Benedict XVI argued that the Church’s belief in the continuing, conscious

existence of the individual after death rests not on some imagined immortality that’s intrinsic to us as human beings, but rather on our relationship with an eternal God whose love will not let us go. The best argument for life after death that I know is Romans 8:37-39 that nothing in all creation, not even death itself, has the power to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. As Peter preached on Pentecost, God “loosed the pangs of death” for Jesus so that it was impossible for Him to be held by it” (Acts 2:24). God did not “abandon” Jesus to Hades (Acts 2:27). And now the Risen, Glorious Christ, our Savior, holds “the keys of Death and Hades” (Revelation 1:18), so that they can’t hold us either. His hold of love on us is stronger than the hold of death that keeps us in bondage our whole life long (Hebrews 2:14-15).

We are created to “walk with God,” and when we do, God “takes us” when we die. This was Jesus’ explicit promise in John 14 when He told His disciples that when He went away to prepare a place for them that He would come again to “take” them to Himself (John14:2-3). It’s this “taking” that frames the Biblical understanding of what happens when we die.

After passing through the valley of the shadow of death in the company of Christ the Good Shepherd, we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever (Psalm 23:6). To be absent from the body is to be “home” with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:8).  When we “depart” this world and this life, just like Enoch in Genesis 5, we “go to be with Christ” (Philippians 1:23). This is why in his dying moment, when Stephen saw the Lord, he cried out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (Acts 7:59).

In John 5:24, Jesus said – “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life.” The relationship with God that’s formed now in this life is what carries through death into a fuller experience of that relationship in God’s nearer presence. As someone has put it, salvation is a bridge with one pier driven in this world and the other pier driven in eternity. The witness that Enoch whispers is that when we walk with God we will one day cross that bridge to continue the journey in God’s company forever.

“Gathered” to Our People

An “Anthropocentric” Vision of the Life Everlasting

Mary Lynn and I recently spent a night at the Chisos Mountains Basin Lodge in Big Bend National Park. It was on my bucket list. We sat on the balcony that night and looked at the stars. The night sky in that dark place is stunning. Some of the stars we saw shone bright and close. The light of other stars we saw appeared dull and distant.

Based on one of his favorite verses in the Bible, Malachi 4:2 – “The Sun of Righteousness shall arise with healing in its wings” – with its imagery of the gradual dawning of the morning light, Alexander Campbell (1788 – 1866), one of the founders of the spiritual tradition of which my church is a part, used the variation of the lights in the sky as a way thinking and talking about what’s in the Bible.

His Reformed perspective taught Alexander Campbell to think and talk about the ways that God deals with human beings by using the category of “covenant.” Covenants order the reciprocal relationships that God has with people in Scripture. They spell out the opportunities and obligations that such a relationship entail.

Alexander Campbell found three primary covenants in Scripture – the Patriarchal, the Jewish, and the Christian dispensations – and he was fond of calling these three stages in the development of God’s dealing with humanity – the Starlight Age (The Patriarchal Dispensation), the Moonlight Age (The Jewish Dispensation), and the Sunlight Age (The Christian Dispensation). Alexander Campbell believed that each of these progressive dispensations brought additional light and created different obligations for human beings. Like the different lights we see in the sky, Alexander Campbell believed that an idea that first appears dull as a distant light in Scripture can grow in brightness and clarity as the narrative moves along.

Yesterday I wrote about the Enoch exception in Genesis 5:21-24 as the Bible’s first whispery clue about what becomes of us when we die. Enoch “walked with God,” and then he “was not,” for God “took” him (5:24). When the light of this “distant star” becomes the “sunlight” of the Christ event as the New Testament bears witness to it, it becomes the words of Jesus in John 11:26 about how we who live and believe in Him will never die, and John 14:3 about how He will come again to take us to Himself so that where He is we will be. It’s this idea of a conscious, continuing relationship with God in Christ on both sides of death that universalizes Christ’s promise to the good thief who died on the cross beside Him – “Today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). As I said in yesterday’s post, this isn’t everything that I think could be said about what becomes of us when we die, but it is most certainly the foundation for everything else that might be said.

It is the experience of a relationship of love, our communion with our Creator who became our Redeemer when we turned away, that carries across the threshold of death and into eternity in the companionship of Him whose love we never lose. But this is just part of the promise.

Another whispery clue from the first pages of the Bible about what happens to us when we die is the repeated phrase about being “gathered to your people” that gets used to describe the deaths of Abraham (Genesis 25:8), Ishmael (Genesis 25:17), Isaac (Genesis 35:29), Jacob (Genesis 49:33), Aaron (Numbers 20:24), and Moses (Numbers 27:13).  Some say that what what this means is that they were buried in a family plot, but others see in it a reference to the way that the bonds that tie us to one another in this life survive death too.

The thesis of Collen McDannell’s and Bernhard Lang’s 1988 book on “Heaven: A History” (Yale University Press) is that two major images have co-existed in the Christian expectation of the life everlasting, what they call a “theocentric” vision that has “centered on God,” and an “anthropocentric” vision that has “focuses on the human.” The “theocentric” vision of the life everlasting imagines it as the fulfillment of our relationship with God. This is the whisper of the promise in the Enoch exception. The “anthropocentric” vision of the life everlasting imagines it as the fulfillment of our relationships with one another. This is the whisper of the promise embedded in the description of death as a matter of being “gathered to our people.” These are not either/or promises but both/and.

Pope Benedict XVI was very clear in his writings on the “last things” that we survive death because we are in communion with God, and His love will not let us go. But he was equally insistent that because our communion with God is not a solitary experience, but one that is initiated in and nurtured by the community of faith, that the life everlasting will be a “fellowship with other human beings” as well, the “communion of the saints.”

Pope Benedict XVI was very clear in his writings on the “last things” that we survive death because we are in communion with God, and His love will not let us go. But he was equally insistent that because our communion with God is not a solitary experience, but one that is initiated in and nurtured by the community of faith, that the life everlasting will be a “fellowship with other human beings” as well, the “communion of the saints.” And so, the Venerable Bede, an English monk from the eighth century, someone the Church has officially named an indispensable teacher of the Christian faith, could envision the life everlasting as a heavenly reunion –

“A great multitude of our dear ones are there expecting us; a vast and mighty crowd of parents, brothers, and children, secure now in their own safety, anxious yet for our salvation, and longing for the day when we will come to them and embrace them. What joy there will be on that day when we are together again” (Paraphrased).

I believe that when we die, we go to be with the Lord, and we are gathered to our people. On the other side of death there will be “theocentric” and “anthropocentric” completeness, the fullness of our communion with God and one another, a final realization of the Gospel’s twin commands to love God with heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love neighbor as self.

“Further Up… Further In”

I know my wife better than I know anybody in my life. It won’t be long before we will have been married for 50 years. The other day she finished something that I was saying. There are lots of times that I know exactly what she is thinking, and I can tell her so with just a look. We’ve become that couple. And yet, my wife can still surprise me. There are moments when it feels like I don’t know her at all.

In a workshop on counseling that I attended at a ministers’ conference a long time ago, the presenter explained the Johari Window to us as a tool for better understanding ourselves and others. The Johari window is a box with four quadrants in it.  The upper left-hand quadrant is the “open space.”  This is what we know about ourselves that is also known by others. The upper right-hand quadrant is our “blind spot.” This is what others know about us, but that we don’t know about ourselves. The lower left-hand quadrant is our “hidden space.” This what we know about ourselves that others don’t know about us. And the lower right-hand quadrant is our “growth area.” This is what we don’t know about ourselves and that others don’t know about us either. Personal growth, the presenter explained, occurs as the lower right-hand quadrant shrinks and the upper left-hand quadrant expands. The more I discover about myself the more I know about myself and can share with others.  But even in our most intimate of relationships, the lower right-hand quadrant never completely goes away.

As well as I know my wife, and as long as I have loved her, there are still lots of things about her that I don’t know, and I expect to continue to be surprised, at times alarmed, but almost always delighted by the discoveries that I will continue to make in my relationship with this woman with whom I have lived my life, and expect to know and love forever. The only “person” I have known and loved longer in my life than my wife is God who is classically understood by the Christian tradition as three persons [“prosopon” (Greek), “hypostasis” (Greek) or “persona” (Latin) |  “personal reality,” “self-conscious agent,” or “an outward aspect”] consisting of one substance [“homoousios” (Greek) – same in being, same in essence’, from  “homós” | “same” + and  “ousía” |  “being” or “essence”]. And the Eastern Church thinks and talks about our knowledge of God in much the same way that the Johari Window thinks and talk about our knowledge of each other.

The Eastern Church teaches that there are some things about God that we can know, what they call God’s “energies.” Because the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is a God who “speaks” and “shows,” there’s a box in our knowledge of God for the things that both He and we know about God because God has chosen to reveal them to us. But there is another box in our knowledge of God for the things that God knows about Himself and that He has chosen to keep to Himself. The Eastern Church calls these unrevealed things God’s “essence.” One of the primary ways that the life everlasting gets presented in Scripture is as us finally “seeing God.” In one of the New Testament’s most familiar chapters, Paul told the Corinthians that now we “see in a mirror dimly,” but then we will see “face to face” (I Corinthians 13:12a), that while now “we know in part,” that then we “shall understand fully” (13:12b).

So, does this mean that after death we will know God completely, God’s “essence” as well as God’s “energies”? Gregory of Nyssa (335 – 395), one of the Cappadocia Fathers, said “no.” Gregory of Nyssa said that if we understood God completely, that God would no longer be infinite, and therefore would no longer be God. So. using Paul’s description of his spiritual journey in Philippians 3:12-14 about how he had not yet attained it but was always pressing on towards the upward call of God in Christ Jesus, Gregory of Nyssa suggested that the life everlasting will be one of continual growth in our relationship with God. We move into God’s nearer presence at death, but as the refrain that repeats at the end of C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia says, it’s “Further Up” and “Further In.” There will always be farther to go. There will always be more to come.

I once wondered about whether I would be bored in heaven? The way “seeing God” was presented to me, it sounded like sitting quietly in front of a painting in a museum forever just staring at it. Now I’m much more inclined to think about the life everlasting like I think about my relationship with my wife. I already know her. I already love her. But even after 50 years of being together, there’s still so much more to learn about her. And even though I already love her completely, my love for her continues to grow. I expect nothing less in my relationship with God.

Wiping Away Every Tear from Our Eyes

When I die I fully expect to be “gathered to my people” (Genesis 25:8; 25:17; 35:29; 49:33; Numbers 20:24; 27:13). This is a very comforting part of the Gospel promise for me. But there is a catch. You see, I don’t get along with all my “people,” and as hard as it is to imagine, some of my “people” don’t get along with me!

My “people” are church people. I’ve been around the church my whole life long, which is why I find Vernon Ground’s description of the church as a pack of porcupines on a freezing winter’s night to be the most accurate one I know. We huddle because its cold and we need each other in order to survive, but when we do, we stick and jab each other because we’re porcupines. And this is the dance of church life that I’ve watched and taken part in now for 70 years. As Robert Thornton Henderson observed, “I, for one, have been hurt, abandoned, betrayed, and discouraged more by my (church) friends, by my Christian brothers and sisters, than I ever have been by non-Christians.” “I have had more thoughtless wounds inflicted by fellow church members,” he explained, “than I can ever imagine by an enemy.”

Lewis Smedes in his defining work for me on forgiveness, said that the deepest wounds we receive and inflict happen when people who are regarded as friends and family behave as strangers and enemies. These hurts trigger hate, and that hate will destroy us unless it heals. Lewis Smedes books on forgiveness provide helpful guidance on how to get to that healing when we’ve been hurt and find ourselves in the hate. The goal of that healing is reconciliation, but Dr. Smedes understood that reconciliation is always tricky, and he admitted that many of our relationships get stuck between the healing and the reconciling in this life, and what this means is that all of us are going to arrive at the threshold of the life everlasting with the wreckage of relationships still unreconciled strewn about our lives.

This was said out loud at the funeral of the German Lutheran theologian Ernst Käsemann in 1988. Part of the funeral liturgy that was prayed at his service said – “We think before God in silence of the deceased, of those who were closely connected with Ernst Käsemann, of those to whom Ernst Käsemann did not do justice, of those who did not do him justice…” As St. Augustine noted, at death most of us are unfinished. There’s still work to be done when we die.

In one of his sermons, Jonathan Edwards (1703 – 1758) described the realm of the life everlasting as “a world of love.”  He developed this proposition in ten points (preaching in the 18th century was not for the faint of heart or the easily distracted) –

  1. Love in heaven is always mutual.
  2. The joy of heavenly love shall never be interrupted or damped by jealousy.
  3. There will be nothing within themselves to clog or hinder the saints in heaven in the exercises and expressions of love.
  4. In heaven love will be expressed with perfect decency and wisdom.
  5. There shall be nothing external in heaven to keep its inhabitants at a distance from each other, or to hinder their most perfect enjoyment of each other’s love.
  6. In heaven all shall be united together in very near and dear relations.
  7. In heaven all shall have property and ownership in each other (“My beloved is mine, and I am his” – Song of Solomon 6:3).
  8. In heaven they shall enjoy each other’s love in perfect and uninterrupted prosperity.
  9. In heaven all things shall conspire to promote their love, and give advantage for mutual enjoyment.
  10. The inhabitants of heaven shall know that they shall forever be continued in the perfect enjoyment of each other’s love.

As we sing, – “Behold his hands and side, rich wounds, yet visible above, in beauty glorified” – Jesus carried His wounds across the threshold of death, but in that transition from this life to the next, they were “glorified.”  They would have to be, and so must ours.

If being “gathered to my people” is to be a joyous reunion, then clearly there’s some work that’s going to have to be done between here and there. Nathan O’Halloran says that this is part of the saving work that is suggested by Revelation’s promise that God “will wipe every tear from their eyes” when the Kingdom has fully and finally come (21:4).

When and how this work of “final reconciliation” takes place is a topic of some theological debate in the church. But whether it happens suddenly, in the “twinkling of an eye,” at the moment of death, or gradually as the continuing work of sanctification begun in us now works its way to completion in some intermediate state “between this world and the next,” there’s little doubt that reconciliation is part of the work of redemption that will have to get finished for the life everlasting to be that world of love that Jonathan Edwards so richly described.

Josef Niewiadomski, the Polish-Austrian Catholic theologian, imagines an “inter-human process” after death when “all victims and perpetrators will face each other and in which the evil suffered and inflicted will be fully manifest to each person” with no one withholding forgiveness or insisting on revenge. What keeps this moment from degenerating into “a day of wrath” filled with desperate “self-justification” and angry condemnation, writes Miroslav Volf, is that it all “happens before Christ” who is “at the center of this reconciling work as the judge who suffered the victim’s fate and was judged in the perpetrators place.”

A picture of what this might look can be seen every year at the Vespers service on the Sunday evening before Lent begins in an Eastern Orthodox church. That’s when every minister and every member of that community of faith lines up and begins a miraculous dance of guilt and grace. One by one, one after the other, everyone in the church approaches everyone else in the church, face to face and hand in hand to say, “I’m sorry for all the ways that I have hurt you, and I am asking for your forgiveness.” 

The author of Hebrews said that we must “strive for peace with all people, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (12:14). Because being fully reconciled with other people and having a degree of personal sanctity sufficient to gain me access to the presence of the holy God are neither likely to be checked boxes in my life when it’s time to go, I must trust the promise that the good work begun in us will be brought to completion at the day of Jesus Christ (Philippians 1:6), because God is at work in us (Philippians 2:13).

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