Friday, April 26, 2013

God's Earth versus the 'Human Waiting Room'

            This Sunday, April 28th, we will celebrate Earth Day at Meriden United Methodist Church.  The service will include special music from the children in our Sunday-School and conclude with the planting of new shrubbery at the front entrance of our building. 

As part of our special Earth Day service, my sermon is entitled, “God’s Earth versus the ‘Human Waiting Room,’” which is a continuation of my current Easter sermon series, entitled “What Happens to Me After I Die?”  The scriptural text for this proclamation will be Genesis 2: 4b-25.

            At first glance, an Earth Day sermon may seem to be an abrupt digression in a series of sermons on Resurrection, Life Eternal, and the End Times.  Afterall, the focus of this series is on what happens when we die and at the end of time.  We might well ask how focusing on our present time and place is relevant to reflection on our individual destiny at the end of times? 

Although I recognize that this is counter-intuitive, I believe that a complete exploration of resurrection, life eternal, and the end times must include reflection on our relationship to—as well as responsibilities for—God’s Creation in the present.  It is a profound mistake to separate God’s physical Creation and the environment from our understanding of life eternal and the end of the world, as some well-meaning Christians have done historically.

            It has been nearly 50 years since the historian Lynn White, Jr. published his controversial article, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis.”[1]  In order to address what were then emerging environmental crises, White argued that we must first examine and critique our religious beliefs about nature.  He said:  “What people do about their ecology depends on what they think about themselves in relation to things around them.  Human ecology is deeply conditioned by beliefs about our nature and destiny – that is, by religion.”

In his analysis, White noted that the human capacity to wreak damage and destruction upon the environment grows out of Western technological and scientific advances.  These advances have occurred in a social context in which Western Christianity was the dominant religion.  Turning to an analysis of religion, White argues that Western Christianity makes it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference because "nature has no reason [for] existence save to serve [humans] man."  In other words, for Christians nature is simply the stage upon which the drama of human salvation is played out—or, the waiting room before we enter Heaven.  White asserts that Christian arrogance toward nature "bears a huge burden of guilt" for the contemporary ecological crisis.

Needless to say, White’s essay touched off a firestorm of protest from Christian believers, who primarily argued that White had misunderstood the Christian faith’s attitude toward nature.  They argued that Christians have taken a positive view of nature and have understood that humans have a special role to play as wise stewards, or caretakers, of the Earth. As with most controversies, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.  On the one hand, White’s critics are absolutely correct in that the affirmation of Creation is an important theme in the Bible and Christian thought.  On the other hand, White is correct to observe that historically Christians have frequently exploited nature with indifference.

In our reflections about what happens to us after we die, our understanding of God’s Creation in the story of humans is an important question.  Is this Earth merely humans’ “waiting room,” before we die and go to heaven?  Or, is this Earth in itself important to God? 

I think that Genesis 2: 4b-25 provides a very poignant answer to these questions.  Unlike the Creation story in Genesis 1, in Genesis 2 the account of creation begins with the first man, Adam (v. 7).  After Adam is created, God creates the rest of nature as a gift for humans.  Then God places Adam in the Garden of Eden, as recorded in verse 15:  “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.”  The Hebrew word in verse 15, which Biblical scholars translate into English as “to till it and keep it” is ābad.  This is a very interesting word choice.  In Hebrew, this word, ābad, means to “serve,” and it usually refers to a slave who serves a master.  So, Adam is to serve the rest of Creation.

            To summarize, in Genesis 2 the rest of nature is given to humans as a special gift from God and at the same time God asks humans to care for – or, serve – God’s good Creation.  Clearly, from the scriptures, God values our Earthly home much, much more than seeing it simply as the human waiting room for Heaven.  This understanding of Creation also fits with our earlier discussion of Revelation 21, where at the end time God will transform all of Creation into a New Creation:  “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away…” (Revelation 21:1).[2]


            Feel free to post your comments on this blog.  I realize that there are other interpretations and answers to some of the questions concerning what happens to us when we die.  In exploring these issues, I am not trying to convince everyone that they must accept my answers.  In fact, I think it is important for each person to develop their own answers.  And, Christians of good will can disagree. 

However, even in disagreements, there are opportunities for spiritual growth.  When we encounter persons who disagree with us, that very disagreement can challenge us to think more deeply and come to a better understanding of our own answers.  This can lead to a deeper faith and a stronger conviction and assurance.

            At the same time, even though Christians may disagree concerning how we answer these questions of ultimate meaning, I think that we can all agree that God has given us this beautiful planet as a precious gift for safe-keeping.

If you live in the Meriden-area and do not have a regular church home, please consider attending Meriden United Methodist Church this Sunday.  Meriden UMC is located at the corner of Dawson and Main.  Our worship service starts on Sundays at 10 am.  Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.


[1] Lynn White, Jr., “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis,” Science Vol 155, pp. 1203-1207 (10 March 1967).
[2] For a more detailed discussion, see my earlier blog, entitled: “’Freeze or Fry,’ The End of the Universe and the End Times.”

Friday, April 19, 2013

What We Can Already Know about Heaven and Life Eternal

            What do you think Heaven will be like?

            Although the promise of resurrection and life everlasting in Heaven is central to Christian faith, no definitive picture of Heaven emerges from Christian scriptures.  Why is that?  As persons of faith, we can reasonably expect that Heaven will be this wonderful place of beauty, abundance, joy, and peace.  We can also reasonably expect that in Heaven we will experience a renewed and much closer relationship with God, who loves us.  Perhaps the Bible does not provide a definitive picture because Heaven will be so incredibly awesome that it is beyond the ability of current human words to describe and beyond our present mental abilities to even conceive.  As God says in the book of Isaiah:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts
nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
for as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
     and my thoughts than your thoughts.[1]

Perhaps Heaven is just so incredibly beautiful, abundant, joyful, and peaceful that it is beyond our earthly comprehension—and thus, there is no definitive Biblical description of it.

            This Sunday, April 21st, I will be preaching on what we can already know about Heaven.  My sermon is part of a six-sermon series on “What Happens to Me When I Die?”  Selections from the Gospel of John 14 will form the foundation for my reflections and proclamation.  In this chapter, Jesus describes Heaven in terms of God’s heavenly mansion, with many rooms.  Jesus reassures his disciples and other followers that he has prepared a place for each of them individually in God’s heavenly mansion.

            As we reflect on what Heaven will be like, I will explore the phenomenon of “Near Death Experiences” (NDEs) and whether persons who have had NDEs are eyewitnesses, who have briefly visited Heaven.  I will discuss two books on NDEs; the first is Heaven is for Real, which describes the NDE of Colton Burpo, the four year-old son of a Nebraska pastor.  The second book is Proof of Heaven:  A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife, written by Eben Alexander.[2]  I will also explore criticisms of NDEs, such as the suggestion by neurologist Oliver Sacks that NDEs are not actually journeys to Heaven, but rather hallucinations.

            From a Christian point of view, it would be great if NDEs are actually reports on Heaven.  Many—perhaps most—Christians probably see these NDE stories as exciting eyewitness accounts of the existence of Heaven.  However, the Christian promise of resurrection and an afterlife in Heaven with God is not dependent upon these NDE eyewitness accounts.  So Christians of good will may disagree about the importance and credibility of NDE accounts. 

Many Christians will definitely disagree with me on this, and I would be grateful if someone could convince me that I am wrong, but I am highly skeptical that NDE accounts are eyewitness accounts of what Heaven actually is.  While I think the concerns raised by critics such as Dr. Sacks are very serious, the principal reason for my doubt is a lack of consistency between NDEs, such as those reported by Colton Burpo and Dr. Eben Alexander.  If both individuals went to the literal, actual Heaven during their NDEs, wouldn’t we expect that there would be at least some correlation between the accounts of Colton Burpo and Dr. Eben Alexander?  In actuality, the two accounts appear to describe two very different places.

As Christians, what are we to make of these NDEs if they were not actual journeys to Heaven?  Rather than calling them hallucinations as skeptics do, I would suggest that they are, in fact, deep encounters with the Divine in which God provides NDEs as visions designed to encourage and support our faith—but, they are not actual visits to Heaven.  And, so I see accounts of NDEs as visions which can strengthen my faith, but which do not describe the actual Heaven.

I should also point out that this interpretation of NDEs as visions to strengthen faith fits more consistently with my overall understanding of the Resurrection of Christ as an actual physical resurrection.  This interpretation also fits more consistently with my view that our resurrection will occur at the end time as part of the New Creation when everything—indeed, the universe itself—will be transformed, in accordance with God’s plan from the very beginning.

Always feel free to post your comments on this blog. If you live in the Meriden-area and do not have a regular church home, please consider attending Meriden United Methodist Church this Sunday. Meriden UMC is located at the corner of Dawson and Main. Our worship service starts on Sundays at 10 am. Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all. Also, feel free to check out my webpage at

[1] Isaiah 55: 8-9
[2] Todd Burpo and Lynn Vincent, Heaven is for Real:  A Little boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back (Nashville, TN:  Thomas Nelson, 2010) and Eben Alexander, Proof of Heaven:  A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife  (New York:  Simon & Schuster, 2012).

Saturday, April 13, 2013

'Freeze or Fry,' The End of the Universe and the End Times

Some of the times when I most powerfully feel God’s Presence have occurred on warm nights, when I can sit back, relax, and gaze up at a clear, night sky.  On such nights, I look into the vast night sky, filled with millions of twinkling stars, and I realize how small humans are in comparison with the huge spaces of the universe and the millions of other possible planets.  In those moments, I feel God’s Holy Spirit rushing in to fill me with the Divine Presence.  And, I gain a sudden, new insight into how truly awesome God’s Creation truly is. 

There are no words, which can adequately describe this feeling of wonder and awe, when one tries to fully comprehend the universe.  Yet, despite their inadequacy, I love the way Stuart Hine expresses this wonder and awe in the first verse of his hymn, “How Great Thou Art”

“O Lord my God! When I in awesome wonder
consider all the worlds they hands have made,
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder,
thy power throughout the universe displayed.

Then sings my soul, my Savior God to thee;
How great thou art, how great thou art!
Then sings my soul, my Savior God to thee;
How great thou art, how great thou art![1]

            Scientists tell us that our universe began approximately 13.7 billion years ago, in an initial state in which all space and matter were compacted down into a tiny point.  This tiny point erupted in an event we know as the Big Bang.  Through a process called primordial nucleosynthesis, our universe expanded and cooled until it created a misty fog of primordial cosmic plasma.  Through continued cooling the quarks and other building blocks of the universe began to emerge.  Eventually galaxies, solar systems, and planets were all formed.

            The universe has continued to expand since the Big Bang. We know that it continues to expand because all of the stars and galaxies that we see in the night sky are actually moving away from us and our vantage point on Earth.   Edwin Hubble proved that the universe is expanding in the 1920s, by observing redlight shifts in stars.  As had already been shown by physicists, light moving away from an observer will be stretched.  Since red is on the long-wavelength side of the spectrum, light moving away from the observer appears redder.  When Hubble observed this redshift in the light from stars, he knew that they were moving away from us and the universe was expanding. 

            There are two main scenarios for the ultimate fate of life as we know it in the universe:  (1) Closed.  In the first scenario, the universe will continue expanding as it is now, until eventually gravity stops the expansion.  At that point, it will have reached its maximum size, and the process will reverse, as the universe begins contracting back to the initial point of the Big Bang.  As it contracts, temperatures will increase to the point, so that life as we know it will become impossible.  In essence, life will “fry.”  (2) Open or flat.  In the second scenario, the universe is “open” in that it continues to expand forever at a finite rate; or, the universe is “flat” in that it continues to expand at a decreasing rate, but never quite stopping.  In both an “open” or “flat” scenario, temperatures continue to cool from the initial Big Bang.  As temperatures continue to cool, life as we know it is no longer viable because of the extreme cold; in other words life will “freeze.” 

            In the addition to the principal “freeze or fry” scenario, scientific cosmologists have proposed some other scenarios.  However, even in these alternative scenarios, the fate of life in the universe remains the same.  At some point, billions of years from now, our universe will become inhospitable to life as we know it.

 Christian thought and faith has always encompassed “eschatology,” or study of the end times and Jesus’ Second Coming.  So, it is certainly consistent with Christian faith to learn what scientists think about the future of the universe and then to ask about these implications for our faith.  For instance, if the universe is closed and it will eventually contract again to a single point, where would we expect Heaven to be?  And, if regardless of the scenario, the universe will ultimately be inhospitable to life, where will resurrected bodies exist?  In my sermon this Sunday, April 14th, I will explore these questions concerning the end of times. 

Basing my sermon on Revelation 21: 1-7, I will suggest that at the end time, God will transform the universe into a New Creation. In my thinking on these implications, I have been really helped by theologians John Polkinghorne and Gabriel Daly, who caution that we should not think about the New Creation as replacing the “old” universe that we experience and live in now.  Rather, the New Creation is a transformation of that “old” universe.[2] 

Further, Jesus’ Resurrection on the first Easter would be the initiation of this redemption which will be finally completed at the end times, with the advent of this New (transformed) Creation.  And, as physicist and theologian Bob Russell has argued, this new act of redemption at the resurrection of Jesus would not be reducible or explainable by the current laws of nature, since they will be transformed as a part of the transformation of the physical world at the end time.  Similarly, the ultimate fate of biological life at the end time would not be the predicted “freeze or fry” alternative, but something transformed—a New Creation.[3]

 Always feel free to post your comments on this blog. If you live in the Meriden-area and do not have a regular church home, please consider attending Meriden United Methodist Church this Sunday.Meriden UMC is located at the corner of Dawson and Main. Our worship service starts on Sundays at 10 am. Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all. Also, feel free to check out my webpage at

[1] Stuart K. Hine, “How Great Thou Art” (1953), in The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 77.
[2] John Polkinghorne, Faith of a Physicist (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 1996).  Polkinghorne cites Daly on p. 167.
[3] Robert John Russell, “Resurrection of the Body, Eschatology and Cosmology:  Theology and Science in Mutual Creative Interaction ,” in Cosmology, From Alpha to Omega, essays by Robert Russell (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 2008).

Saturday, April 6, 2013

What and Where Is the 'Human Soul'?

            This Sunday, April 7th, I will continue with the second of my sermons in the series, “What Happens to Me After I Die?”  The focus this week is the “Human Soul.” 

The concept of a human soul is integral to Christian thought and belief.  It is frequently referenced in the Bible and the term may be used in a variety of different ways.  For Christians, our soul forms the connection and the continuity for individuals between this earthly life that each of us lives now and the eternal life, which we will live following our death and resurrection.   So, the soul is at the core of the Christian concept of life everlasting. 

Yet, despite its importance, the Bible and subsequent Christian thought have been vague about precisely what the soul is – and where it is.  This is not unique to Christian thought.  Other writers have an equally difficult time explaining what the soul is.  For instance, in a brilliant book, Care of the Soul, A Guide for Cultivating Depth and Sacredness in Everyday Life, the psychiatrist Thomas Moore writes:  “It is impossible to define precisely what the soul is. …We know intuitively that soul has to do with genuineness and depth, as when we say certain music has soul or a remarkable person is soulful.  When you look closely at the image of soulfulness, you see that it is tied to life in all its particulars—good food, satisfying conversation, genuine friends, and experiences that stay in the memory and touch the heart.  Soul is revealed in attachment, love, and community, as well as in retreat on behalf of inner communing and intimacy.”[1]  Moore’s description of the soul seems more like the description of a good and happy lifestyle, rather than actually defining the soul itself.

Whatever it is, the soul is important for our understanding of what it means to be the unique human persons that we actually are.  Within the scriptures there are two main theories of what it means to be a human person with a soul:

1.      Dualist.  At a basic level, the Dualist theory holds that as human persons, we are dually comprised of two different quantities.  On the one hand, we have a physical body for this life in the physical, material world.  On the other hand, we also have a spiritual self, which is our true essence and who we really are.  At death, our spiritual soul leaves our dead physical body and it is through this spiritual soul that we experience the resurrection.  An example of the dualist theory in the Bible would be what the Apostle Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5: 1-10. This theory is sometimes called the Greek perspective because it is also the viewpoint held by some Greek philosophers, such as Plato.

2.      Monist or Physicalist.  The alternative theory holds that the soul is integrally part of the person’s physical body.  This view sees my soul as inseparable from my body and who I am as a person.  Thus, according to this view, the soul cannot simply detach from the physical body at death, in the same way that a space probe may detach from the mother ship in a movie about space travel.  This perspective would seem to require that the resurrection be a physical resurrection of the whole body.  An example of the Physicalist theory in the Bible would again be provided by the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15: 42-58.  This theory is sometimes called a Hebraic perspective because it seems to follow the view presented in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament).

Based purely on anecdotal evidence from talking with many people, I believe that most American Christians embrace the first, dualist theory of what the human soul is.  There are many good arguments for this position and a strong scriptural case in support of this view may be made, as well.  Of course, I may be wrong on this point.  Nonetheless, in my sermon I will claim that contrary to popular opinion, the second, Physicalist theory is actually the more correct understanding of the human soul.

There are several reasons why I find the Physicalist theory more persuasive than the Dualist theory.  First, I believe that the scriptural evidence supporting the Physicalist theory is stronger than scriptural evidence for the Dualist perspective, even though I acknowledge that some passages of scripture seem to support dualism.  Second, I find that the Physicalist theory fits better with my overarching view of God’s relationship with Creation.  Third, the Physicalist theory is more consistent with the Resurrection of Jesus as a bodily resurrection.

At the same time, I must acknowledge that the Physicalist theory faces a major challenge from contemporary neuroscience because there is no evidence of how a human soul could be part of the human mind, as we are beginning to understand it.  Recent advances in neuroscience have helped us understand a great deal about the physical brain and how it operates, including being able to see what parts of the brain are active during different types of activities and experiences.

Based on these significant advances, some have argued for a reductive materialist understanding of the brain.  They have argued that despite the brain’s wonderful ability to think and reason creatively, ultimately thinking and the mind are nothing more than the firing of physical neurons in the physical brain.  In this argument, there is nothing there but the physical brain.  Yet, despite the great advances in neuroscience, human consciousness seems to require a greater explanation than just the firing of neurons in the physical brain.  When it comes to explaining human consciousness, many find the explanation by reductive materialists to be incomplete.  There seems to be something else going on.

Theologian Nancey Murphy has argued persuasively for an alternative model to reductive materialism.  She calls her approach nonreductive physicalism.  This model takes seriously the physical dimensions of the brain, but it also argues that there is more to the explanation than simply the firing of neurons in the brain.  Murphy argues, “In brief, this is the view that the human nervous system, operating in concert with the rest of the body in its environment, is the seat of consciousness (and also of human spiritual or religious capacities).  Consciousness and religious awareness are emergent properties and they have top-down causal influence on the body.”[2]  In other words, there might be an explanation which takes seriously all of the neuroscience research into the physical brain, yet also provides a reasonable explanation for the existence and role of the human soul in our lives here on Earth.
Always feel free to post your comments on this blog.  If you live in the Meriden-area and do not have a regular church home, please consider attending Meriden United Methodist Church this Sunday.  Meriden UMC is located at the corner of Dawson and Main.  Our worship service starts on Sundays at 10 am.  Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.  Also, feel free to check out my webpage at

[1] Thomas Moore, Care of the Soul, A Guide for Cultivating Depth and Sacredness in Everyday Lie (New York:  HarperCollins Books, 1994), 5.
[2] Nancey Murphy, “Nonreductive Physicalism:  Philosophical Issues,” in Whatever Happened to the Soul, edited by Warren S. Brown, Nancy Murphy, and H. Newton Malony (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 1998), 130-131.