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There are too many questions and not enough answers about the afterlife

Why It’s Hard for Me to Believe, Part 4 – How do I witness to someone who doesn’t believe in an afterlife?

 

What makes it hard for you to believe? Or for a friend to believe in Jesus as Savior and Lord? We’ve been addressing those obstacles of faith over the past few weeks, and we have been encouraged by the tender grace of God who knows our weaknesses and provides counsel through the Holy Spirit to help all those who ask in their struggles of faith.

 

It is okay to voice our doubts. In fact, if you pay attention to how the New Testament is put together, you quickly see that most of it, after the gospel accounts, is full of responses for those who were asking questions, who were doubting, who struggled either in understanding faith or living it out. The Apostle Paul writes letters of responses to address the questions of life with God.

 

So one exercise of our faith that we must learn, and especially if we are still young or young in faith, is learning how to talk about faith: to ask questions, to respond to those mysteries of life and God by putting words to what is hard to understand. I had a conversation just the other day with a parent of young adults. And we sad how we long for spiritual discussions with our young adult kids, so that together we can learn to express both the questions of faith and how best to respond in faith.

You might say but I don’t even know what to ask, how to say it! We only learn by trying to say it, finding ways to ask it. Remember the Holy Spirit is with you and the Spirit can even give meaning to our sighs!

And you have friends, you have been blessed with elders and deacons, spiritual fathers and mothers and brothers and sisters, too, so that we can receive and respond to the grace and truth of God.

 

Today’s obstacle is about eternal life. The question is, How do we witness to those who don’t believe in an afterlife? What can we say to someone who insists that the material world is all there is to our existence?

After all, foundational to the Christian faith is that we ‘believe in the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting’ (the closing words of the Apostles’ Creed).

We get this doctrine from verses like

1 Corinthians 15:12ff - But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.

19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.

 

Let’s recognize from the start that believing in life everlasting, heaven and hell, is hard to fully comprehend. I know most of us have heard our whole lives about heaven. We have seen artistic renderings of eternal life that have both comforted us and excited us. We have felt the comfort of resurrection promises at funerals. We have read the words of scripture that describe heaven as a place of no more tears or pain, a place like a city park full of laughter and play and young and old, a celebration that gathers every nation, tribe and tongue putting an end to racism and social divide bringing peace, a celebration happier than a wedding banquet:

 

I love Adrian Plass’ take on it all in his poem:

Heavenly Playground

Oh God, I’m not anxious to snuff it,

but when the Grim Reaper reaps me,

I’ll try to rely on

my vision of Zion,

I know how I want it to be.

As soon as you greet me in Heaven,

and ask what I’d like, I shall say,

“I just want a chance

for my spirit to dance,

I want to be able to play.

Tell the angels to build a soft playground,

designed and equipped just for me,

with a vertical slide

that’s abnormally wide,

and oceans of green PVC.

There’ll be reinforced netting to climb on,

and rubberized floors that will bend,

and no one can die,

so I needn’t be shy

if I’m tempted to land on a friend!

I’m gonna go mad in the soft, squashy mangle,

and balmy with balls in the swamp,

coloured and spherical,

I’ll be hysterical!

I’ll have a heavenly romp!

There’ll be cushions and punch bags and tires

in purple and yellow and red,

and a mushroomy thing

that will suddenly sing

when I kick it or sit on its head.

There’ll be fountains of sweets to refresh me

and feed my continual thirst,

and none of that stuff

about “You’ve had enough,

surely heavenly bladders won’t burst.

I suppose I might be too tall for the entrance,

but Lord, chuck the rules in the bin.

If I am too large,

tell the angel in charge

to let me bow down and come in.”

 

And our songs of praise and thanks continually remind us that heaven is our home and what a home it will be, like we just sang:

In mansions of glory and endless delight

I’ll ever adore thee in heaven so bright

I’ll sing with the glittering crown on my brow

If ever I loved thee my Jesus ‘tis now

 

So we’re used to talk of heaven

if you can ever get used to something

“. . . no eye has seen, [and]

    what no ear has heard,

and what no human mind has conceived”—

    the things God has prepared for those who love him . . .

 

But it is something almost too wonderful to believe.

So it’s no wonder people think there are too many questions and not enough answers when it comes to the afterlife.

You may, too.

We’ve said questions aren’t bad.

Not searching through them is what causes problems.

Like your teachers say:

the only bad question is one that isn’t asked.

So kids, here’s your challenge today:

today ask dad or mom 1 question about faith and let them ask you 1 question, too. I think most fathers would love the Father’s Day gift of a spiritual conversation with their kids.

 

So what can we say about questions of eternal life?

Let’s start with those who are convinced that the material world is all that there is, who would say how can there be a heaven? We’ve been to the far reaches of our galaxy, and we’ve seen beyond that space is all there is. How could Jesus have ascended to heaven, where is it? See, I can’t believe there is an afterlife.

 

So if they can’t perceive eternal life yet,

how about we start then with this life!

It could be that some have trouble with believing in God, or even reject faith in God, because of a limited understanding of the gospel.

It could be that this obstacle is there for some because if you’d ask them the message of XTNY they might say something like XTNY says those who are good enough go to heaven when they die, and those who aren’t go to hell. So by focusing first on this life you can open a person to a more accurate, fuller presentation of God and the gospel of Jesus Christ:

that heaven and eternal life are God’s gifts through grace alone, not by our achieving them or earning them.

You can help others focus on this by asking:

Do you suppose that if there is a God there would be good to be received from God in this life?

Then show how the Christian faith is not just about heaven, but God’s will on earth as it is in heaven.

You can point to the historic blessings XTNY has brought to the world: from education to medical advancement and care, the ongoing relief work that is largely supported and done by Christians, the gifts of freedom that have been built into nations with a Christian founding, the abolition of slavery in England and in the US. All of these and more were the result of Christians motivated to bring the blessings of God to this world.

And can you point to your own life?

Can you give a personal testimony how the gospel has changed or added to your life:

how you live and love and give and serve?

How this hope helps you in trouble.

And if you are having a hard time answering that question, maybe you have to go back to your understanding of the gospel and remember that Jesus called you to follow him and love him by obeying his commands.

 

The second response we can give to those who question eternal life is about the purpose and meaning of life if there is no afterlife. What happens to life’s value if there is no final justice? What are the alternatives and what do those alternatives communicate about life’s purpose, meaning and value?

 

Notice, here is where you can ask questions rather than searching for defenses and arguments. As witnesses we don’t have to be know-it-alls or fear to say anything because we don’t have all the answers and aren’t philosophical or scientific experts.

Is there anything that is beyond material experience or measure?

What are the prevailing worldviews for materialists?

That’s what you can ask: ok, if there is no afterlife, how should we live?

Paul mentions one way people live without thought of the afterlife here in our Bible reading:

It’s a worldview of  despair – ‘Eat drink and be merry for tomorrow we die.’ It is life reduced to a Woody Allen movie.

Paul says here: 32 If I fought wild beasts in Ephesus for merely human reasons, what have I gained? If the dead are not raised, "Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die."

So you can ask: Can you think of anyone who sacrificed themselves or something of themselves for you? Why would they do that? Have you done that, why? Why do we value taking on the burdens of those in need if we, in the words of an old pop song are, here for a good time, not a long time?

 

What about how people give themselves to others without return?

What about forgiveness, why should that exist or even be valued?

What about Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery and those who gave their lives for your freedom?

Doesn’t all of that become absurd with no afterlife, so how do you explain such actions?

 

Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,

And then is heard no more. It is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.”

― William Shakespeare, Macbeth

 

Ps 49 - 12 People, despite their wealth, do not endure;

    they are like the beasts that perish.

 

So where is the room for valuing life enough

to sacrifice yours for another if

this material world is all there is?

The thing is we do value people above the beasts. How come if this mortal life is all there is?

 

So what is your view of the meaning and purpose of life if there is no final justice? What is life for? If it’s only for the next generation’s advances that too is meaningless and invites despair.

And then what of evil? What of injustice?

See, not believing in an afterlife raises its own questions that can’t be answered well.

 

What you are doing with this type of conversation

is exposing the consequences of unbelief in order to

awaken a hunger to search out the things of God.

 

Our third response has to do with trust.

When we have questions about eternal life we turn to the Bible. We listen to the witness of Scripture. We take to heart words like these from our text in 1st Corinthians 15 –

20 But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21 For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. 22 For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.

We trust the word of Jesus recorded in John 14 –

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. 2 My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.

 

Now I’m aware that someone may say that’s all fine for you, but I don’t believe that the Bible is the word of God. So I have no reason to trust what it says about God, eternal life, or salvation.

Our temptation as a first response is to give arguments why the Bible is trustworthy, infallible and true, and there may be a time to do that.

But a better first response may be something like:

If you don’t trust the Word of God on this matter, who or what do you trust, and why? Every person has a text, a source of trust, and it is worth asking whether that source is worthy of such ultimate trust. We can then ask for proof: what proves to you there is no afterlife?

 

Francis Collins - Francis Sellers Collins (born April 14, 1950) is an American physician-geneticist noted for his discoveries of disease genes and his leadership of the Human Genome Project.

While examining an elderly patient he was asked, what do you believe about God and life after death? He says that question from a little old lady was a turning point in his life. Because he had no idea how to answer her question.

His trusted sources of science and his own reasoning were limited and couldn’t help him with these basic questions.

He realized that there are some things, important things, that science cannot answer. He is a leading North American scientist and a Christian. When asked about whether science and faith are in opposition to each other he would say with others that science and faith are opposed to one another in the sense that the thumb and forefinger are in opposition to one another, and that opposition allows us to grasp things we may not have been able to otherwise. His story help us understand that science is not a finished product, and so to base our lives on science alone leaves us with crucial questions that it is important for us to search out in order to live well: q’s like why is there something rather than nothing? why is that something so beautiful and orderly? how are we to conduct ourselves in the world?

 

So if you don’t trust the Bible, who or what do you trust?

Your own smarts? But who can ever experience enough or know enough to trust your own self with these things? Do you trust your friend, or a professor? But it’s the same thing, they’re just mortal people like you with their own limitations.

 

Then you may have an opportunity to explain why you trust the Bible. Could you share a little about that with someone who trusts a different text?  Why do these words in 1 Cor 15 speak to you? Do you live it out?

 

Our fourth response has to do with the hope of heaven and celebration. Why is celebration so important to us if there is no final celebration to look forward to? My son, my daughter, a cousin of mine and me were fortunate enough to be in Soldier Field Thursday for the Blackhawks rally. We were part of the 2 million happy people who fought the crowds, and the weather, and the traffic, to celebrate the Stanley Cup. Why would normal people do that? The players themselves looked and sounded exhausted, yet they took the time to stand in front of unknown masses to sing and say thanks. We bumped into people after who said it was a great day.

We are made to celebrate.

We celebrate today the gift of fathers and men and boys.

We’ve been at graduations and weddings and birthdays and anniversaries to celebrate too in the last few weeks.

To me that’s a powerful witness of the human spirit that says something of what we’re made for:

celebration completes the good gifts of life.

And it makes complete sense that there would be a final celebration someday of life.

So ask where does celebration fit in the evolutionary scheme of things?

Or at the end of life if life just comes to an end?

Our own needs to mark grand occasions tell us there are grand occasions beyond us to which life is moving.

 

There are more responses we can give to this obstacle. Maybe the Holy Spirit has given you another, so why not share that after the service?

 

I know, to speak of heaven is to speak of mystery, but there are answers for our questions in the one who died and rose again and promised to prepare a place for us. And if these thoughts are too much for you, how about just being aware of the little, normal, everyday indications given to us that there may be more than we experience by our five senses:

think of your desires and how to fill them, and how often our happiness is fleeting, as if we were made for more. I know, just because we’re hungry doesn’t mean we have food, but doesn’t hunger indicate we were made for food, to be filled?

So wouldn’t a desire for life suggest we were made to live and not just die and that be the end of it?

Let me end with this:

CS Lewis found it both puzzling and suggestive that we human beings have a hard time with time. We say things like, where did the time go, or, is it over already, or time flies, or my afternoon at work really dragged. It makes you think that time is something foreign to us. Could it be that these very ordinary everyday experiences point to the fact that we weren’t made for time but for eternity?

Come, Lord Jesus, come.

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