Tag Archives: worldview

Reading the Bible with new eyes

I have been reading the Bible with new eyes the past couple of years.

My practical Dutch parents, although nominally Christian, were functionally humanistic in their outlook and worldview, and I imbibed a this-worldly perspective on life with my mother’s milk. Heaven wasn’t on our radar – our focus was very clearly on earthly affairs.

Although grateful for many positive aspects of my upbringing, as a young man my heart was hungry for spiritual reality. Yet even after coming to personal faith in Jesus, I could never seem to get really excited about going to heaven.

Jesus was now the Lord of my life, and I was certain that he had been raised from the dead and was alive. After being baptized in the Holy Spirit, an increasing body of personal experience had convinced me that there was a realm of existence beyond what I could see with my eyes and touch with my hands, and that there were real, accessible heavenly powers which could touch and transform our earthly life.

In church we would sometimes sing hymns about spending eternity in glory, singing to Jesus. I was learning to love Jesus more and more, and I wanted to be with him.  I loved what I had already experienced of the glorious presence of God, and looked forward to more. I also loved to sing. But something didn’t quite add up. What about all those guys who loved to build houses, or fix cars? Would they have a place in heaven? If they did, would they enjoy it? I sure appreciated their help when I had jobs that had to be done. Was that somehow unspiritual? Didn’t God make them to enjoy doing those things? Did they have to become choirboys to serve God and enjoy what He had in store for them? My heart was telling me that there had to be more to God’s plan than this.

Much of what Christians traditionally believe about heaven is gleaned from descriptions of the New Jerusalem in the Book of Revelation. But John wasn’t describing a place that we would go after we die. He was describing a glorious city that would come to a restored earth after Jesus returned to banish evil forever. So why didn’t the church believe – and preach – what the Bible taught?

The answer lies partly in a process that began in the fourth century after Christ. By this time, Christianity had spread throughout the Roman Empire. In the great university at Alexandria, intellectuals who had been raised on Greek philosophy began trying to meld their new Christian faith with the worldview that they had brought with them from Plato. The result was a hybrid – a synthesis of Platonic philosophy and Biblical belief that influenced the entire course of Christian thinking for centuries. Whereas the Bible views the heavens and the earth as one continuous reality, with constant interchange between the two, Plato divided reality into the material and non-material realms, and taught that only the immaterial was “really real”. Christian theologians and philosophers who sought to integrate the Bible with Plato’s philosophy ended up distorting the simple message of the Scriptures, so that the goal of faith became to flee the evils of the material world and escape to some non-material spiritual realm.

So, over the past couple of years I have embarked on a major Bible study project. I am learning to read the Bible with new eyes, seeking to allow its worldview to speak for itself.

Guess what? The Bible, taken on its own merits, doesn’t teach that God’s purpose for our lives is to escape to some non-material glorious realm of bliss. Nor does it teach the popular modern view that life is really all about the here and now, and that God’s purpose for our lives is to transform this world and make it heaven on earth. The Bible presents the overarching purpose of God as a restored creation, in which we will have resurrected and glorified bodies, and God’s will is done on earth as in the heavens.  The way to participate in that glorious new creation (also called the Kingdom of God) is by conforming our lives to the crucified and risen Messiah, Jesus, who came to earth to pay the price of our rebellion and demonstrate the power and purity of a life lived in faith, love, and servanthood.

So what happens when you die? The Bible does indeed teach that until Jesus returns and death is rolled back, those who die in faith will be with Jesus after they die. But nowhere does it imply that this is our final destination. Throughout the New Testament the message is the same. To sum it up very briefly, Jesus is seated at the Father’s right hand, waiting for the great day when he returns to finish what he started. After all nations have heard the good news of the Kingdom of God and Jesus’ bride has made herself ready for him, there will be a final time of struggle in which the powers of darkness will seek to destroy the people of God. Jesus will return to earth for his bride, will win a great victory and usher in a glorious Kingdom on a restored earth.  Eventually, Satan will escape from his prison and start one last war, after which evil will be banished forever and all things will be made new.

So what happens between now and then? I’m very thankful that we get to do more than just wait. We get to grow up in our salvation, so that Jesus can return for a bride who is truly glorious. Those who belong to Jesus receive the Holy Spirit now, in this age, as a down payment or advance taste of the glories of the Age to Come. By the power of the Holy Spirit working through people of faith, wonderful things can happen. People are healed, set free from demonic oppression, receive dreams and visions, and more. But the people who experience all of these wonderful things – called signs in the Bible – will still die. The signs of the Kingdom point us to a coming new age when death itself will be rolled back and Jesus will rule openly on a restored earth.

Some may say that this is beyond belief – a fairy tale. Surely, they say, you can’t believe that. Yet this is the simple faith of the apostolic church, which transformed the entire Roman world. It’s also the faith that springs up whenever the Holy Spirit is poured out in power in times of renewal. It’s what inspires and gives courage to those who are persecuted or imprisoned for their faith – as described in my previous post.

Greek philosophy, while fascinating, is vastly different from Biblical faith. Although I’ve been dimly aware of its influence for years, it is only recently that I have seen the extent of this influence, and I am still learning to recognize and shed the “old skin” of Platonic thinking. I don’t have it all figured out. But I do understand that there is a reason why I could never get excited about going to heaven. God doesn’t want me to escape from earth. He wants me to look forward eagerly to a transformed life as part of a resurrected people living on a restored earth under renewed heavens. That is the new creation that Jesus died for, and it’s what I’m living for.


Change your underwear

According to published reports, Ottawa Senators‘ centre Jason Spezza will continue to change his underwear despite his recent scoring streak.   Unlike some hockey players who continue to wear the same (unwashed) underwear during a winning streak, superstitiously fearing that a change in their apparel will disrupt their good fortune, he will wear clean underwear every day.  Spezza, you see, does not credit his success to his undergarments.

It is amazing, really, what people will do to get good luck or to avoid what they consider to be bad luck.  Hotels and office buildings frequently do not have a thirteenth floor, considering it bad luck.   Of course, the thirteenth floor is still there – they just assign it a different number (like 12a or 14).   Some believe that throwing a pinch of salt over one’s shoulder wards off bad luck.  Others try to avoid black cats, believing that they bring bad fortune – though some cultures see black cats as bringing good luck, not bad.  Many read their horoscope and take it seriously, believing that it tells them something about their character and future prospects.   Lots of people say things like cross your fingers or knock on wood, implying that doing this will bring good luck or ward off bad luck.  At least one of Canada’s prime ministers was known to consult mediums, looking for reassurance from the spirit world. Many people will visit the booth of a fortune-teller at the local county fair, and nowadays psychics market their services quite openly, apparently attracting plenty of customers.

Superstitious practices generally are based on some form of belief about the supernatural.  The avoidance of black cats is probably based on a medieval belief that witches sometimes appeared in this form.  Throwing salt was supposed to ward off evil spirits.  Mediums are supposed to be able to put us in touch with the departed who can give us guidance, reassurance or comfort – and so on.  But whatever the specific beliefs that underlie a particular superstition, the motivation behind such practices is a desire for control.

The world can be a frightening place.  Many things happen to us, or could happen to us, which we fear we cannot control.   All of us are aware that in the physical realm we have to contend with wars, natural disasters, diseases, pollutants and other hostile forces.  What if, in addition to the physical realm, we have to contend with possibly hostile spiritual powers as well?  In that case, the reasoning goes, we need all the help we can get – we need to enlist the help of whatever beneficial powers might be out there, and we need to ward off the schemes of dark powers in any way open to us.  And if we can get insight about the future through fortune-tellers, mediums or tarot cards, why not?

Why not, indeed?  Well – it all depends on what you believe about the universe.

If you believe in the reality of the spiritual realm, but you don’t really trust any of the powers out there, you may use various superstitions or magical practices to try to manipulate or influence otherwise hostile or indifferent powers to do you good and not harm.  With some variations, and at the risk of oversimplifying, this is the basic worldview and mindset behind Wicca and all forms of paganism.   Haitian Vodou (see my last post) is a good example of such a belief system.  The idea is that spiritual powers are real, but not necessarily friendly.  Some are helpful and some are harmful, and they are also potentially open to influence.  So, it is in one’s best interest to learn how to influence the spiritual powers, co-operating with the helpful ones and seeking to avoid being harmed by the nasty ones.

The mindset behind such belief systems is essentially self-centred, the key to success is knowledge, and the goal is power.  The problem with this approach is that you never really know if it’s going to work.  It might, or it might not.  You may think you have a pretty strong hand, but if  someone else with more power than you comes along and trumps you, you’re in trouble.  You can never be sure.  One can see this basic insecurity reflected in the Harry Potter movies and books, and all forms of fantasy literature.  People who place their hope in superstitions or various forms of magic can never be truly secure.  The best they can do is to hope that everything will pan out in their favour.

If you believe that we’re entirely on our own, and that all events have a natural (physical) explanation, then you probably aren’t reading this blog – but if you are, you will of course agree (being a completely rational person) that all superstitious practices are totally nonsensical because there are no spiritual powers out there to affect us, for good or ill.  However, like the pagan, you can never be totally secure if you hold such a belief system.  Ultimately you are not in control, and you’re not really sure who is – so you do the best you can, and take your chances.   I’m not 100% sure, but my guess is that this what Jason Spezza believes.  It’s how an increasing number of post-Christian North Americans live their lives.

But if you believe that you were made in the image of the God of the Universe, that He cares about your life, and that He has the power to preserve and bless those who entrust themselves to Him, then things look very different.  As one who has placed his hope in the Holy One, I don’t deny that there are many things I can’t control, but this thought doesn’t frighten me.  I know that my Redeemer has come, that He has risen from the dead to conquer the powers of evil, and that He is coming again to establish His Kingdom on the earth.   I know the spiritual realm is real, but instead of trying to placate a plethora of potentially hostile powers, I place my trust in the One who has won the right to rule over all other powers, and whose name is love.

Consequently, I have no need for superstitious practices, and I don’t need to worry about the future.  I still make plans, but my trust is not in my own plans but in the One who is ultimately trustworthy.  I can make use of every legitimate means to improve my life, but ultimately my hope is not in these secondary methods, but in the One who made heaven and earth, and to whom I belong.  Because I don’t live for myself, but for His Kingdom and glory, I can trust Him to look after me.  That doesn’t mean nothing bad will ever happen to me – in fact, Jesus made it very clear that his followers should not be surprised by trouble – but it means that even in the midst of trouble I can have peace, because I’ve read the last chapter of the book and I know how it ends – I know who wins the battle.

So – will I still change my underwear the next time I beat Joe at racquetball?  Well – first of all I have to beat him, of course – which is an uncertain proposition at best.  But if I do, it won’t have anything to do with my underwear – or his, for that matter.   Not only that, I am totally unimpressed by horoscopes, unafraid of black cats, and have no fear of walking under ladders.  I also choose not to complain about the weather, or worry about my health or the stock market.  If I can make something better, I try to, but I find that life goes better if I place my concerns in the Lord’s hands, do my best, and live free from worry and anxiety.   He knows the future, and I have found that my life goes much better if I trust Him to manage all the stuff that I can’t really control anyway.   Just some food for thought …


Circle of life?

Recently several of my friends and colleagues have lost loved ones.  My own father and mother died in 2007 and 2008, and my wife’s parents are in their upper 80s and dealing with diminished capacities.  All of this has prompted me to reflect again on life, death, and eternity.

As we move from childlike innocence to adulthood, all of us have to learn to reckon with events over which we have little or no control, events that threaten our sense of order.  When a loved one dies, your country is suddenly plunged into war, you lose your job and cannot pay your bills, or your health is threatened, it can feel as though your life is sliding from order to chaos.

From what I can observe, our dog Cookie doesn’t spend much time worrying about why things are the way they are, or what will happen to her tomorrow.  But humans are different from dogs – we have a built-in drive to make sense of life in some way.  So, we try to come up with explanations that comfort us and give meaning to our lives.

One very common way of coping with the reality of aging, illness and death is to see them as simply an inevitable part of “the circle of life”.  We live; we grow old; we die.  The ancient Greeks added the belief that death was a welcome release for the soul, which they saw as having been trapped for a time in the physical realm.  In this view, death is not an enemy, not something to be feared or even resisted, but simply a natural and even welcome part of the life process.  All living things come from the earth and must go back to the earth; when your time comes, you die, and your soul goes to some sort of (hopefully friendly) afterworld.

This way of thinking is quite ancient but still very popular today.  It has the appearance of wisdom, and with the addition of a belief in heaven it can even masquerade as a Christian outlook.  But although there are elements of truth and wisdom in this way of looking at life, at its core are two beliefs that are totally contrary to Christian faith: the view that death in its proper time is a friend, not an enemy; and the view that we all automatically go to some state of bliss after we die.

In contrast, the Bible clearly portrays death as an enemy, not a friend.  In Biblical thinking, humans were made for an unbroken relationship with God, and death is an unwelcome intruder, the tragic consequence of our first parents’ decision to turn away from God towards independence.  It is true that believers in the risen Christ do not need to fear death; but that’s not because death is our friend, it’s because Jesus has risen from the dead to conquer our enemy.

But why does this matter?  Does it make a difference what you believe about such things?

Yes it does.  Beliefs have consequences.   If humans are just souls trapped inside bodies for a while, then by killing someone you are really doing him a favour.  Then Hitler was doing those 6 million Jews a favour by incinerating them; he was just liberating their souls from their bodies.  You can see where that type of thinking leads – abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide all become acceptable and even compassionate choices.   If, on the other hand, we were  made for an eternal purpose and we have an eternal destiny in a renewed and restored earth,  then each human life has eternal value.  This has huge consequences both for how I conduct my own life and the degree of respect with which I treat the lives of others.

Probably all of us who have watched a loved one die slowly can relate at some level to the idea of death as a friend.  I have to admit that I was relieved when my mother died, because I felt she had suffered long enough, and I was confident that she was going into the presence of the Lord.   I am so thankful that she met her Redeemer before she died and that she is in His presence today.  However, I did not see her death as simply a natural culmination of her life, but rather as an expression of humanity’s broken condition and our need for a Redeemer; and while I was in agreement with the family decision to let her die without trying to bring her back to life artificially, I could never have agreed to any form of euthanasia because I do not believe that her life was mine to end.

I believe that my life is headed somewhere – it is a journey with a destination, not a circle.  I believe that Jesus rose from the dead to set me free from the power of death and the fear of death, and that regardless of what trials I may face in my life,  I have a glorious destiny in a renewed heaven and earth.  I also believe that I will one day face the one who made me and redeemed me and give an account for what I have done with my life while I am on this earth.  I’m thankful that I don’t need to fear judgment, since Jesus has paid the price for my sins, but I want to live in a way that brings joy to the One who suffered so much for me.

Life is not a circle but a journey with a destination.  All of us are headed somewhere.  Whether we are headed for glory or misery depends on our response to the One who gave His all for our freedom.  The price has been paid, and the gift of eternal life has been purchased for us, at an incredibly high price – the lifeblood of the only truly pure man who ever lived.  What we do with that gift determines our eternal destiny.  The value we place on the lives of others – especially the weak and helpless – says much about the value we assign to His sacrifice.

Over to you …