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It has often been said that there are only 2 things for certain, death and taxes. As we all know, the latter is not certain, since many pay no taxes. Death however is something that none of us will escape, that is, if past history is a reliable guide to the future. And in this case, it is.
Understandably the question of what, if anything, happens after death has fueled the careers of many philosophers and theologians. Life is much like an unfinished novel left behind by a deceased author. Many try to complete the novel with their own idea of how it should end. Interesting. But no one can really know how the author intended to end the story.
What happens after we die? It seems absurd to assume that this brief material existence is all that there is. The material body decays and eventually returns to the vast repository of elements from which it was composed. But surely something–call it consciousness, spirit, soul, or whatever—continues on in some form or other.
Recently, while serving as a volunteer usher at local theater, I listened in on a discussion about the theater’s resident ghost that apparently chooses to manifest himself from time to time. One individual assured her audience that a colleague swears to have seen him while closing one evening. Others claim to have seen the ghost, also. As the discussion continued, it became clear that there are rumors of ghosts hanging out in a number of the old mansions and downtown buildings. It is, after all, a very historic city. I hesitate to name the city for fear that our relatively quiet community might be suddenly invaded by ghost hunters and others attracted to locations of reported paranormal phenomena. Having ghosts sighted may be as destructive of a community’s tranquility as a visit from extra-terrestrials. Need I mention Roswell, New Mexico?
The above is a rather lengthy introduction to a short review of a rather brief book by Tony Evans, ETERNITY: UNDERSTANDING LIFE AFTER DEATH (Chicago: Moody Press, 2016, 80 pp.). Dr. Evans is a much-respected evangelical Christian pastor and author of a number of books dedicated to helping Christian lay people understand their faith in the Gospel, or good news, that Christians have testified to throughout history since the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I have benefited from reading several of his books. We need servants in the Church like Tony Evans, Francis Schaeffer, Tim Keller, and many others who can communicate profound truths in prose that the average lay person can understand.
ETERNITY has the appearance of being a summary of what was perhaps a sermon series on the question of what awaits the individual after death. For the Christian whatever knowledge is available on that question must come from the Christian Bible, which Christians affirm is the only reliable and infallible truth regarding all matters of faith and practice. But it is more complicated than that. It is easier for us to agree on the Bible’s infallibility and inerrancy than it is to agree on what it reveals or teaches. Since the 16th-century Protestant Reformation, there is no agreed upon authority to which the individual believer can turn for a definitive interpretation of the Bible on any particular issue.
Dr. Evans presents his interpretation of various Bible passages that together provide a picture of what eternity holds in store for the believer. The event we refer to as “death” is a conjunction, or bridge, “between this life and the life to come” (p. 7). From the moment we begin our life in a physical body, we are on our way to a destination, a place where we will spend eternity. For the believer, that means eternity in the presence of God, eternal fellowship with our risen Lord Jesus Christ, and the saints, all those believers who preceded us or will follow us. It is a specific place, prepared for us by our Lord, where we shall truly live as we never have here, in our resurrected bodies. It is not some mysterious, shadowy realm of disembodied spirits or winged angels in white robes sitting on puffy, white clouds while playing harps.
I find Dr. Evans’s description of eternity interesting. I have heard other descriptions in sermons from the pulpit. They vary. Some have believers eternally gathered around the throne praising God along with the heavenly host of angels, cherubim, etc. The truth is that none of us know exactly what awaits the believer after death. We know that death, called the last enemy in the Bible, was defeated when Jesus Christ rose from the dead. We know that we will spend eternity in his presence in a place he has prepared for us. Beyond that, we can only speculate on what certain verses may mean.
I am of the opinion that Dr. Evans takes too much liberty with the biblical text, taking as literal what is most likely only figurative language. Eternity as described by Evans is a place where there are class distinctions, where some live in the heavenly Jerusalem and others reside outside and only make pilgrimages to Jerusalem as Muslims do to Mecca in this fallen world, and where those who “go into eternity after the millennium” will enter with “physical glorified bodies, not spiritual glorified bodies like we will have, because they did not experience death and resurrection” (p. 45). The latter are the “millennial saints” who will require constant nourishment provided by “the leaves of the tree of life. . . as they carry on life as we know it, except without sin, as they fill the earth” (p. 46). I am sorry, but I find much of this rather bizarre speculation unjustified by the text cited. The notion of a thousand-year millennium itself is questionable, being considered by many Christians more a theological construct than biblical teaching.
Dr. Evans concludes with a description of Hell, which is also generously seasoned with his own speculation of what may be. At one point in Mark’s gospel, when Jesus makes a reference to hell, he describes it as a place where
“‘the worms that eat them do not die,
and the fire is not quenched,”
a reference to Isaiah 66:24 in the Old Testament. Are we to assume that the souls in hell are literally being gnawed on by worms and burned by flames for eternity? Or, is Jesus using figurative language to describe an existence forever separated from God’s presence? I think that all we can say with certainty, based upon images used in the Bible, is that heaven is a beautiful existence of eternal fellowship with our Lord and fellow saints for those who accept God’s free gift of grace through faith in Jesus Christ, and hell is just the opposite. The former is desirable, a wise choice. Hell is a most unpleasant place to be avoided.
So long as one understands that Tony Evans’s ETERNITY: UNDERSTANDING LIFE AFTER DEATH is one person’s idea of what the Bible teaches concerning eternity, it is worth reading. Whether this 80 page “sermon” is worth the purchase price is another matter.
Until next time, be good to all God’s creatures and always go under the mercy.
We are living in a period of our history when it is all the more vital for those who profess to be followers of Jesus Christ to live out the truth that all human beings are created by God in his image, and therefore entitled to dignity and respect. We do not have to “like” everyone we meet, but we who follow Christ must acknowledge that we are but one member of one family, one race. God makes only one distinction between humans and that is between those who have accepted his offer of free grace through faith in Jesus Christ and those who are yet in bondage to Satan.
When it comes to the work of racial reconciliation, meaning the struggle for civil rights for all, especially between African Americans and Americans of European descent, the name of John M. Perkins comes immediately to mind. No one individual has done more than Perkins to minister the healing balm of the Christian gospel to the centuries-old racial strife in our country, particularly in the state of Mississippi.
I first met John Perkins in the mid-1980’s, when my wife and I went with a group of college students from the Chicago area on a short-term home mission trip to Jackson, Mississippi. The goal was to spend a couple weeks working with Voice of Calvary Ministry, founded by John Perkins. Some worked in a secondhand store. Others painted and worked on repairing homes in Jackson. Like Habitat for Humanity, helping with Voice of Calvary was a way of actually getting involved in the lives of the people who needed a human touch as well as a helping hand.
In 1993, I took a teaching position at Belhaven College in Jackson. The life of the college and John Perkins’s ministry crossed paths in many ways over the 23 years I spent in Jackson. The college has as a vital part of its mission to be a place of racial reconciliation. Over my 23 years in Mississippi, I got to know John Perkins and the many wonderful people who have worked with him, e. g., Dolphus Weary of Mission Mississippi.
PARTING WORDS TO THE CHURCH ON RACE AND LOVE (Chicago: Moody, 2018) is not Perkins’s first, last, or even “best” book. He has written many on how to empower the poor by helping them to provide for their families and thus restore in them a sense of pride in who they are as children of God. His books are a mix of common-sense theology and Bible study, how to minister to the poor, how to build trust and respect between races after centuries of distrust and exploitation, and much more.
Chapter titles reveal the book’s content. “The Church Should Look Like That,” argues that twelve o’clock on Sunday morning should not be the most segregated hour in America. “Tear Down This Wall” uses the example of The Berlin Wall that divided the German people from 1961 to 1989 as a symbol of the need to tear down the manmade walls that divide even believing Christians into racial ghettoes. “Prayer, the Weapon of Our Warfare” reminds us that we must invoke the healing power of God’s grace rather than look to political power to heal our wounds. Laws can help to control behavior, but laws cannot compel us to love one another.
Interspersed through the book are 4 short testimonies to efforts at racial reconciliation from Little Rock, Arkansas, Monrovia and Fontana, California, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Each chapter is followed by a brief prayer that the reader can participate in as he or she personalizes the book’s message. At the back of the book is a chapter by chapter Study Guide for personal or group study.
Throughout the Bible we are given a vision of the people of God as a mixed bag of a vastly diverse humanity redeemed by the blood of the Lamb. Perkins concludes PARTING WORDS with a few lines from a popular hymn:
“When we all get to heaven,
what a day of rejoicing that will be!
When we all see Jesus,
We’ll sing and shout the victory!”
We need not wait until we get to heaven to experience the fellowship of God’s family. We who have experienced God’s Grace can, through prayer and works, enjoy a taste of it here on our pilgrimage back to Eden.
Until next time, be good to all God’s creatures and live under the mercy.
As one who was in high school and college during the 1960’s, I have always had an interest in the Vietnam War. I went to two draft physicals, one in 1964 and another in 1969, but managed to avoid being drafted. I had many friends and family members who were not so lucky.
During my forty years as a history professor, I taught courses on the Vietnam War. I read many books on the subject and talked to many veterans who served in Vietnam. They too were lucky, in that they survived. I have an abiding respect for those who served and morn those who died in a senseless and wasteful episode of the Cold War. The Vietnam War was but one of a number of proxy wars fought between the two Cold War super powers.
Of the many good books on the Vietnam War, Daniel H. Weiss’ IN THAT TIME: MICHAEL O’DONNELL AND THE TRAGIC ERA OF VIETNAM (New York: Public Affairs, 2019) is the one I would recommend for the general reader who wants some understanding of the war without all the detail included in more scholarly books.
Daniel Weiss, president and CEO of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was deeply moved by the story of Michael O’Donnell, just one of 58,220 Americans and millions of Vietnamese who lost their lives in a war that should never have happened. Weiss lets the reader know at the outset one reason why he chose to write and publish this book at this time: “I wanted to understand how a democratic government, presumably with all the best intentions and led by people who considered themselves honorable, effectively decided to sacrifice the lives of its own citizens to advance an ill-considered and poorly developed political idea. If we understand the taking of life to be the ultimate human transgression, we need to understand how such decisions are made—in this case without a substantive understanding of purpose or consequences.” Perhaps by sharing Daniel Weiss’ journey to understanding, we may be able understand why our national leaders chose during President George W. Bush’s administration to repeat that same error, taking us into the war in Afghanistan.
Michael O’Donnell was piloting a helicopter on a mission in March 1970 to rescue American soldiers trapped inside Cambodia. After picking up eight, O’Donnell was ascending when his helicopter was hit by enemy fire and exploded in fireball. Because of the enemy’s strong position in the area, and the fact that “officially” American forces were not operating inside Cambodia, the remains of O’Donnell and those who died with him remained in the jungle where they died until January 1998, when they were finally recovered and returned to the United States for burial.
Weiss does an admirable job of communicating the tragedy, not only of O’Donnell’s death and those who died with him, but of that whole era in American history. This is a book that should be read by everyone who desires some real insight into that era. I especially recommend it to those of us who were in high school and college during the sixties and still wonder why it all happened.
After reading IN THAT TIME, I recommend for those wishing further insight two additional books on the Vietnam War: James Wright’s ENDURING VIETNAM: AN AMERICAN GENERATION AND ITS WAR (New York: St Martin’s Press, 2017) and Christian G. Appy’s PATRIOTS: THE VIETNAM WAR REMEMBERED FROM ALL SIDES (New York: Viking, 2003).
Until next time be good to call God’s creation and always walk under the mercy.