Pie: What’s There Not to Like?

Pie: What’s There Not to Like?

Many people accuse Christians of being concerned solely about “pie in the sky by and by,” thereby shirking responsibilities in this world. That accusation is valid in many cases because, sadly, many believers imagine that the promise of “pie in the sky by and by” relieves them of responsibilities in this life other than evangelism. Yet that accusation in no way describes all Christians. [Just for kicks, check out this song. I’m not making a point with it—it’s just fun.]

Don’t be deceived: Yes, overly emphasizing the afterlife can be destructive. On the other hand, the “pie” is everything! We will live forever! It’s our Lord’s gracious gift to us. The cost to him was unimaginably painful, but he was willing to bear it for our sake.

Serving, not shirking!

A believer’s legitimate response to anticipating eternal, glorious, joy-filled life, however, should evoke a response precisely opposite that of those who historically abused the promise by shirking earthly responsibilities. It should turn our hearts toward service to this world, not away from it. Knowing I’m going to live for trillions of years in unspeakable joy, I need pay little attention to rewards in this life, grasping at present pleasures. I know what’s in store for me. I need wait only a few more years!

Of course, I will be thankful for every pleasure of this age that comes my way: enjoying close friendships, hiking mountain trails, playing pat-a-cake with children, listening to Mozart piano concertos, paddling canoes down rugged rivers, watching birds play at my feeder, making love with my spouse, eating homemade tacos with friends and family, jamming bluegrass tunes with friends, cultivating flowers and vegetables in my yard, dancing into the night, enjoying holiday dinners with those I love. All incredible gifts!

But I will not cling to these things—I have forever to do stuff like that on an even higher level! When such blessings are available, I will rejoice in them as I rejoice in the presence of my Lord. When the blessings are absent, when I am stripped of all pleasures, I will still rejoice in the presence of my Lord.

Confidence in future joys frees me to “take up my cross and follow” Jesus. It’s all OK. I can spend my time doing whatever my Lord calls me to do in this life, no matter what the pain. I can emulate Jesus who, “for the joy that was set before him, endured the cross—Hebrews 12:2 RSV.”

[Side note for Christians of a certain persuasion who assume our calling is solely as suffering servants: God’s calling is not at all focused on suffering. Although God may call me to poverty or to martyrdom, he may also call me to a successful business career or to a high-profile life in music or broadcasting (but not to the extravagant, self-indulgent lifestyle that often accompanies such careers). Anyone who seriously follows Jesus in this life will almost certainly experience a significant amount of pain. But that’s only because this is a fallen world, and to truly be in it in an incarnational way, we almost inevitably will intersect narratives that expose us to deep darkness. We also will experience joys that those who do not know Jesus cannot fathom.]

It is not uncommon for us to face tragedy and pain and suffering and heartbreak. When such things occur, it is not because God makes them happen. Do not imagine that God actually wants you to suffer in this life! He’s your Daddy! He adores you, and he wants your happiness even more than you do—and he experiences the suffering of every creature. These things occur simply because we are part of this dreadfully fallen world.

Volunteering

Whether or not it involves what we usually think of as suffering, voluntary acts of selflessness and sacrifice are always-present possibilities.

  • If a disabled friend needs regular help, but the time frame he needs would require that I give up my weekly basketball game—one of the great joys of my life—I may decide I can make that sacrifice because, after all, I’ll have millions of years to play basketball.
  • If we have the opportunity to take in refugees from Central America, even though we love our privacy and our living quarters would be cramped and our new baby is on the way and we would have to radically change our daily routine, we can do that knowing that we’ll have millions of years to enjoy whatever quietness and comfortable living we desire.
  • If we have adequate funds to afford several trips to Europe, where we’ve always wanted to visit, we can freely decide instead to give that money to those who are desperately poor, knowing that we have millions of years to visit places immeasurably more delightful than this fallen planet’s version of Europe.
  • We can choose to live in a house significantly more humble than we can afford, giving the difference to those more needy than ourselves.

And so on. God leaves many such opportunities to our discretion. Yes, sometimes he may say, “I want you to. . .” and it will be our joy to obey, even if it requires great sacrifice. At other times, we are simply presented with a possibility and God waits to see our response. He doesn’t condemn us for spending our money on that luxurious vacation (house, car, whatever. . .); but when we voluntarily choose the more sacrificial path (as long as our choice is joyful/gracious and not perfunctory!), our Daddy beams with pleasure. We can always choose a sacrificial path in this age, knowing that in the coming age we will in no way regret that choice—but I repeat: only if our sacrifice is made in love rather than grudgingly, and is not made explicitly to receive a reward [how tacky]!

I am humbled­­

My comments that belief in resurrection empowers us to sacrificial living apply, I believe, to most people, certainly not everyone. Hats off to those individuals, many of them atheist or agnostic, who, even without anticipating joy in a life after this one, nevertheless pour themselves out in service to the poor and powerless. I have known many people who, whether atheist or Buddhist or agnostic or whatever, have devoted their lives in very sacrificial ways to serving others. They are a small portion of the population. And they are heroes. They are much better people, much more inherently righteous, than I am. According to Matthew 25:34-40, they have a delightful surprise awaiting them.

 Not sufficiently sophisticated?

Opposition to the view that a glorious, very tangible future awaits God’s creatures comes primarily from two sources: (1) It comes from nonbelievers—but their skepticism is understandable because they have no reason to accept such a seemingly outlandish idea. (2) It also comes from many Christians who remain agnostic about the afterlife. In my observation, some skeptical believers unconsciously choose to disbelieve in the resurrection solely because it is “unsophisticated”—i.e., intellectually unacceptable among these people’s Important Acquaintances. (For deeper exploration of such motives, see C. S. Lewis’s “The Inner Ring.”)

In bowing to the tastes of Important Acquaintances, some Christians may acquiesce to all kinds of things such as reincarnation, astrology, use of Ouija boards, Buddhism, etc.—things that, strangely enough, tend to be acceptable in “sophisticated” circles (go figure!). Yet these same Christians feel embarrassed to confess belief in a personal God who directly intervenes in this world, who will raise his people bodily to a life of eternal joy. That is thoroughly uncool and unsophisticated!

Pudding?

A large number of Christians, including some of my close friends, cannot bring themselves to believe in a bodily resurrection. That idea seems so ingenuous that these brothers and sisters feel compelled to reject it. In their minds resurrection is merely a metaphor for something “more spiritual” (in other words, “more amorphous”). If they believe in any kind of afterlife, they tend to advocate a vanilla-pudding-in-the-ether scenario: In the afterlife we become some kind of disembodied spirits that are absorbed in an indescribable way into the Whole that circumscribes both God and the entire universe. Or whatever. It’s a very monistic, Hindu-like view. Anything more tangible seems to be a mark of unsophisticated minds.

I subscribed to this theory when I first became a Christian, precisely for the fustian reasons mentioned above. It seemed so naïve to take all those biblical portrayals of life in the new creation literally. Please note that I am NOT a literalist or a fundamentalist when interpreting the Bible! But as I came to know God more intimately and to study scripture more thoroughly, I increasingly found no reason not to accept the pervasive message, reiterated over and over, that our forever-life will be quite recognizable. And why not? God created this universe, this world, because he liked it—a lot (see Genesis 1:31)! It makes no sense that he would change his mind in favor of insubstantial parts-of-the whole or whatever.

For the most part it is relatively well-off individuals, raised in affluent or at least middle-class surroundings, who can afford a doctrine that the blessings of knowing God are to be had only in this life, that death does not lead to glory. That doctrine is a luxury of the Haves of this world. Yet the promise of resurrection is a sine qua non of the good news of Jesus the Messiah. Millions of individuals have been martyred mercilessly because of their trust in Jesus. Millions of other believers have lived in deplorable conditions for their entire lives, the only promise holding their lives together being that they looked steadily forward to a future world in which they would know rest and joy and fulfillment.

With the exception of those fortunate (but rare) individuals whose existence in this life has been generally pleasant, life for most people on this planet has included major components of misery. The good news of Jesus is that, in the end, they will experience joy that they cannot imagine. The Darkness will not last forever. There is nothing in scripture to suggest that life after death will consist of incorporeal absorption into some Ethereal Whole, a kind of custard-in-the-sky. The promise of scripture is of bodily resurrection: fingernails and arms and legs and all the rest; trees and grass and flowers and waterfalls and songbirds and all that reasonably ought to accompany them.

Keep It Nebulous?

The offense of the tangible: that’s what trips up so many people. At least in the West, many people feel uneasy, hesitant, emotionally squishy whenever spiritual topics trend toward physical stuff.

Even if we believe that God answers prayer and intervenes in human lives, we often limit such interventions to nonphysical phenomena. Perhaps we’re comfortable praying for God to heal a person suffering from anxiety or fear or PTSD, all infirmities that are seemingly immaterial; but when presented with something physical like cancer or a broken bone or a communicable disease, we tend to pray for the doctors to know what they’re doing—we’re too embarrassed to pray for healing. We’re offended by the idea of God’s being involved with tangible things. Just last week I attended a meeting during which a number of urgent prayer needs were mentioned. Consistently, those involving emotional pain or psychological disorders received prayers for healing; those involving physical ailments (cancer, cardiac dysfunction) garnered a number of prayers for the doctors, the surgeons, etc., as well as for the families’ comfort, but no mentions of healing.

Similarly, consider spiritual gifts. Over the past few decades, many evangelicals have become relatively comfortable with the idea that Christians can exercise gifts of the Holy Spirit. But except among Pentecostals and Charismatics, that comfort extends primarily to gifts that are intangible: teaching, evangelism, helping, administrating, etc. Discomfort increases exponentially whenever something palpable is introduced: speaking in tongues or healing, for example. Those are physical things that we can see and touch, and we therefore prefer that they be kept off the menu.

The same holds true for worship in many segments of the church, especially in the West. Staid believers might put up with all sorts of deviations from the norm as long as they remain in the realm of beliefs, of the mind. Once we were members of an Episcopal church whose rector, a wonderful man, was quite evangelical; but when he was a absent, the substitute priest preached something more akin to Hinduism than biblical faith. No one batted an eye. Yet the slightest departure from tradition that is physical in nature—raising one’s hands, clapping, not to mention something as ill-mannered as dancing—would have caused some devout brethren to have a stroke.

Perhaps the greatest offense caused by tangible things in the church relates to sex and the human body. Although the Jewish scriptures demonstrated healthy respect for humans’ sexual lives, in the first few centuries of the Christian era pagan beliefs about sex and about bodies in general crept into the church until they took over the entire belief system. Augustine (AD 354-430) was one of the primary advocates of such doctrines. The disastrous final result was exaltation of celibacy over normal sexual experience in marriage. It was better not to experience sex at all than to do so even within marriage! Only individuals following that higher, more moral, more godly path could be God’s direct ministers to the church, whether church hierarchy, priests, monks, or nuns. There was something ungodly, tainted about enjoying physical pleasures. Celibacy, inordinate fasting, deprivations during Lent, even self-flagellation, were/are seen as great virtues. Note, however, that the Torah rarely calls for fasting. It’s not a strong biblical tradition, even though we read clear accounts of individuals’ voluntarily fasting for certain periods of time—the most dramatic example being Jesus’ 40-day fast before beginning his ministry. But it was never anything imposed on individuals. I have fasted quite a lot, usually with pretty unambiguous results in terms of the power of my ministry. But again, it’s always something that’s between an individual and God—not a universal rule, and certainly nothing that marks someone as being more spiritual than others. Ditto for celibacy. I like to remind people that some scholars believe Deuteronomy 34:7, which says 120-year-old Moses’ “vigor was unimpaired” (NJB), was referring to the fact that, to use somewhat delicate terminology, he could still get it up!

So it is with life after death. I know a number of Christians who believe there is no such thing: This is the most tangible thing you can think of, and it is simply too offensive, too unsophisticated, for them to admit into their enlightened sensibilities. Other Christians do believe in life after death, but hold to the giant-vanilla-pudding theory: somehow that is more acceptable, more sophisticated in their minds than the idea that God will actually raise his kids with bodies that can run and sing and eat and play, into a world of trees and grass and waterfalls and songbirds and bunny rabbits (there have got to be bunny rabbits!).

And yet that is what God promises. Every mention of future times in the Old Testament’s prophetic writings speaks of a world much like our own. Ditto for the many scenes in Revelation.

The overall discomfort with tangible things, when we associate them with God, as mentioned earlier, historically traces back to the early Christian centuries when writers such as Augustine introduced Greek (and various pagan) philosophical concepts into the church. Plato, of whom Augustine was a great admirer, opined that what we see and touch in this world are only shadows of the real—the true real was the idea or the form (two of the more common translations of the Greek ἰδέα) of something. Such concepts easily transmogrified into beliefs that physical things in this world are unimportant, even worthless.

Similar feelings prevail among many believers today, even though they don’t understand why they feel as they do. They have a kind of allergy to conjoining spirituality with physical stuff.

Don’t be quick to condemn

This quick note should not be necessary. Unfortunately, however, many believers continue to have the idea that people are acceptable to God (or not) in part on the basis of their doctrinal beliefs. That is SO wrong-headed! Read the New Testament epistles carefully and you will realize that early Christians were hopelessly contaminated with misguided doctrines (as well as immoral practices). It took me a while to understand this: But there are innumerable Christians who love Jesus and whose lives exhibit his love but who believe all sorts of things that horrify evangelical believers—for example, that there is no resurrection. They are wrong, but they are no less God’s adopted children. The confession that seemed to be central to the New Testament church was “Jesus is Lord.” All the other stuff involves side issues that, while important, can be sorted out later after the resurrection.

The biblical picture of resurrection life

We have to begin, of course, with the idea of resurrection itself. Jesus was raised from the dead, and we are promised that our experience will mirror his. The New Testament never addresses exactly how that works. Jesus had a physical/tangible body; his wounds were still apparent; he ate normal food. But he also appeared and disappeared without warning; he seemed to “teleport” himself, to use a modern term, in ways that Scotty would envy; eventually he rose bodily into the sky until he disappeared from view. Does this presage a new kind of physics that we can’t imagine? Seems reasonable to me. The idea is never addressed in scripture, other than by Paul (1 Corinthians 15) who says, in so many words, that the resurrection body consists of a new kind of “stuff,” different from the stuff of which our current bodies are made. And that new kind of stuff will never decay. (Will the Second Law of Thermodynamics be repealed?)

It is reasonable to infer that everything will be made of a new kind of stuff. Isaiah 65:17, Isiah 66:22, and Revelation 21:1 describe God’s plan to ditch the current creation and start over again: new physical creation (“new earth”), new spiritual creation (“new heavens”). I am deeply curious to know exactly how that will work, and I hope God will hold a press conference after the resurrection, during which we can ask him to describe the physics/chemistry of this new stuff (will there still be atoms, or will he invent something even better?). But that’s just me.

Suffice it to say that, whatever it is all made of, a plethora of scriptural passages describe our future life as something we will definitely recognize.

Note that scripture never describes our “going to heaven” after we die. That’s an unfortunate phrase. It’s possible that something like that happens immediately after earthly death, and before the final resurrection, as suggested by Paul’s statement in 2 Corinthians 5:8 (“we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. RSV”) and by the incident wherein Moses and Elijah appeared to Jesus not long before the Passion (see Matthew 17:1 ff.): Those guys presumably had been somewhere in the interim! But again, scripture never addresses such questions. The clearest explanations we have are those of Paul, who talks of an eventual resurrection in which everyone receives a new body. Those bodies clearly will inhabit the new earth, not heaven (which = the “spiritual realm” within much modern terminology). And various passages suggest that the resurrection will happen close to the end of all things. So maybe we “go to heaven” temporarily, with some version of a body (Version 1.0?). But our forever home will be in new bodies (Version 2.0?) made of a new kind of imperishable stuff, on the new earth that also will be made of imperishable stuff. A new earth with all the best features of this one, but immeasurably cooler.