Working and Serving Together

Franklin Community Church

Five Things Science Cannot Prove (that are necessary to do science)

Perhaps the most common misunderstanding of science today is the idea that it alone operates only on what can be proven.  The scientist, we are told, unlike the historian, sociologist, or (shudder) the theologian, believes nothing except what is proven to be true by the scientific method; therefore he or she alone is the oracle of true knowledge of the physical world.

It is remarkable how prevalent this thought is, even when not articulated, since it is so easily shown to be not the case.  Science is a wonderful and noble way of exploring and understanding this world we find ourselves in, but it in no way operates solely on the basis of proof. Some things it must assume. I will list a few of them.

[Note: nothing I can say will stop some people from viewing this as an attack on science; it is anything but, as I think any reasonable reading will show. ]

  1. 1. Reality is rational.

That is, its makeup is such that it exhibits order and consistency, so that we can make predictions and postulate laws and theories.  Now this may seem like common sense, but that would be common only to sensibilities formed in and shaped by what could loosely be defined as “western” thought (though of course we mean history more than geography here).  To the ancients, and to many of the east today, the idea that the universe is rational and subject completely in its physical workings to consistency and order is not something assumed at all.

Nor can reality be “proven” to be rational.  Indeed, ask yourself how this would be proven from the viewpoint of someone within this reality.  You cannot prove it by experiment, for you cannot experiment on reality as a whole. You cannot prove it by induction, arguing that since everything we have studied has proven rational that reality itself must be. An inductive argument like this fails for four reasons.  First, an inductive argument of this sort will only grant a probable truth, not a certain one, so the best we could say is that, “reality is probably rational” which is a world different from saying “reality is rational”. Second, we have no way of measuring how much of reality we have “figured out” versus how much we have not, so there is no way of knowing if we have high probability or very low probability for our inductive claim.  Thirdly, it is simply not the case that we have figured out everything we have been able to study.  When Richard Fenyman wrote, ‘I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics,’ he was including himself which is disconcerting given how many books he wrote on that very subject.  No-one today can give a satisfactory answer to the most basic question of physics (how quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity can both be true since they contradict each other) nor can astronomers and astrophysicists give an agreed upon answer to the quandary that most of the matter of the universe (dark matter and dark energy) cannot even be observed (but must be assumed to make sense of everything else).  Fourth, even if everything we can study shows rationality, that is no proof that we do not inhabit a slice or bubble of the universe that has qualities different than the universe as a whole (an idea which some astrophysicists argue as possible).

Now, I do believe reality is rational, for I believe it is the creation of a rational being.  And I suspect the legacy of this belief gives a clue to why science developed more successfully in theistic societies than pagan, pantheistic or animistic ones.  So I am not arguing that reality is not rational, but that science is logically dependent on a belief that it cannot prove.  Unless reality is rational, science is not possible.

  1. 2. Reality is knowable.

This is not the same argument as above.  The success of the scientific method assumes not only that reality has the quality of rationality, but that it is also knowable. That is, it is conceivable that realist is rational, but I could be irrational, and not able to form valid conclusions about reality.  My mind must be “on the same wavelength” to capture its rationality.

Steven Pinker, the famous evolutionary biologist, unwittingly encounters this very issue when he writes on page 561 of “How the Mind Works”:

We are organisms, not angels, and our minds are organs, not pipelines to the truth. Our minds evolved by natural selection to solve problems that were life-and-death matters to our ancestors, not to commune with correctness or to answer any question we are capable of asking.

Somehow, one gets the impression that Pinker feels his own mind is an exception to this rule, else why would he write the book (or even ask us to believe the above quote).

But indeed, how could we prove that the human mind is a capable tool for understanding reality and finding truth, especially on the assumptions Pinker makes (that the mind evolved to solve practical problems that affect reproductive success, not to find truth)?  But without the belief that the human mind can understand reality, there is no reason to study reality.  One is better off not wasting the time.

Again, I am not arguing that reality is not knowable.  I believe it is because I believe the same rational being who created reality (thus ensuring its rationality) also created mankind in His own image, thus ensuring the possibility of valid knowledge of, and reasoning about, that reality. No, I cannot prove that scientifically.  But neither can the scientist prove that his or her mind is capable of anything more than an utilitarian problem solving that may or may not speak actual truth.

  1. 3. The uniformity of nature across time and space

Quick, what is the speed of light?  299 792 458 meters per second, of course.   But what was speed of light a second after the big bang? Or 4 billion years ago?  Or what will it be 4 billion years from now (or even next week?)  Of course we don’t know, in one sense. No-one measured the speed of light 4 billion years ago, and any knowledge of the measuring of the speed of light in the future is inaccessible to us.  Nor can we measure the speed of light right now except in that small sliver of the universe we can actually observe.  And the same is true of other laws of nature: gravity, the interplay of the parts of the atom, etc…

It should be noted here that the speed of light, for example, is derived from observation.  Every time we observe it, it is always that speed (or its speed makes possible other equations that correspond to present reality). But nothing in the nature of reality mandates that it must be at that speed; other speeds for light are at least conceivable.

So how do we know that the speed of light or other laws of physics apply across the universe (when we’ve only studied a sliver) and across time (when we only have access to the present?).  Technically, we do not know.  We assume.  Since all the places and times we have been able to observe follow these laws, it seems logical to assume that is also the case for the places and times we cannot observe.  But notice, this is an inductive argument, and as such can only give a probable conclusion, not an air-tight certainty.  Yet every science, if you dig deep enough, operates on the assumption of continuity and uniformity.  This is no mark against science; it can hardly do otherwise.  But it is still worth noting that the foundation is an assumed deduction, not a proven fact.

  1. 4. Causation

Surely, if there is one thing science can prove, it is that one thing causes another, right?  Actually, nothing could be farther from the case.  The very idea of causation must be assumed.

David Hume, of course, is the one who most famously has shown this.  Imagine, he said, I have one hundred windows in a row, and I take a hammer and hit the first 99.  All of them shatter.  I approach the last one.  Will it shatter also when I hit it?  Hume argues that you cannot know that, for there is no way of proving that the impact of the hammer caused the other windows to break. It is conceivable (even if unlikely) that some other forces or forces broke the windows at the exact time the hammer hit them.  Causation, he argued, is an attribute of the mind, by which it tries to make sense what happens in the world.  But there is no way to prove beyond doubt that causality applies beyond the mind’s interpretation.

Hume’s argument is epistemological, that is, a question of how we know things.  But 20th century science (in the form of quantum mechanics) itself has undermined the concept of causation (please read up on simultaneous causation and the uncertainty principle to see this).

Also, as I am writing this, the world of science has been shocked by the apparent find of a team at the European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN) that some particles travel faster than the speed of light. One article notes,

The existence of faster-than-light particles would wreak havoc on scientific theories of cause and effect.

“If things travel faster than the speed of light, A can cause B, [but] B can also cause A,” Parke [head of the theoretical physics department at the U.S. government-run Fermilab near Chicago, Illinois] said.

“If that happens, the concept of causality becomes ambiguous, and that would cause a great deal of trouble.”

At this point, both philosophically and scientifically, the simple idea of causation (A causes B) is very much a working assumption that makes science possible, not the result of science itself.  [Please note I am talking about the concept of causation, not examples of one thing causing another].

  1. 5. The very existence of an external universe consisting of matter

I will spend the least time here, for this is unable to be proven by any worldview or any method of knowledge.  Suffice it to say that both solipsism and idealism would deny the existence of an externally existing material universe.   Solipsism argues this world does not exist outside my mental projections, or, as my epistemology professor put it, “I’m the only pebble on the beach. And there is no beach”. Idealism argues that only the spiritual is real, and the material world is an illusion (or, as for Berkeley, real only as the thoughts of God).  Technically, neither idea is refutable (any arguments against them must come from inside the projection or illusion).

Again, this does not count in any way against science.  Of all the five things on this list, this is to me the least substantial (since no-one can consistently live out this idea).  I include it here to remind us of the need for intellectual humility, whether we are a scientist or theologian.

Other presuppositions of science include the following:

  • The laws of logic (especially the law of non-contradiction)
  • The adequacy of language to communicate reality and truth
  • The existence of numbers

All these have been argued by philosophers and others, and none of them can be proven by the scientific method.  In short, they are metaphysical assumptions, not proven facts.

Also, related to this but somewhat a distinct issue is that science assumes certain values in order to proceed, without being able to scientifically prove the validity of these values.  Chief among these values is that of honesty.

All this to say that science is a wonderful tool for granting knowledge about this universe we find ourselves in.  It in no way is to be despised or denigrated.  But enough of the foolish talk that it alone traffics in certainty and what is beyond doubt.  It is an invaluable servant, but makes a terrible idol.

Family

Looking for a church where you are part of a family, not just part of a crowd?

 

The Meaning of 666: The Mark of the Beast

Perhaps no part of the book of Revelation is as well-known as the allusion to the mark of the beast, identified with the number 666. In fact, some people who do not even know this is a biblical allusion have some vague idea that 666 is evil, ominous, or of the devil. But what exactly does it mean?

Lets start with the text. The end of Revelation chapter 13 describes an unholy trinity of evil (dragon, first beast, second beast, or, as it is sometimes called, Satan, the Anti-Christ and the False Prophet). We are told that the second beast (the false prophet) causes the majority of humanity to be marked with some sort of sign denoting allegiance to the first beast (the anti-christ). Here is the passage in the ESV:

16 Also it causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, 17 so that no one can buy or sell unless he has the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name. 18 This calls for wisdom: let the one who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man, and his number is 666.

Here is the same passage in the NIV

16 It also forced all people, great and small, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hands or on their foreheads, 17 so that they could not buy or sell unless they had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of its name. 18 This calls for wisdom. Let the person who has insight calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man.[e] That number is 666.

Let us first make a couple notes about the verses, then lay out some options, and then, finally, offer some conclusions.

Notes:

The English versions reflect the ambiguity of the Greek on whether the “mark” is the name of the beast or the number of his name.
We are told that we can “calculate” the number of the beast, but warned it will take wisdom and insight. That is, it will require spiritual perception.
The early church did not have a standard interpretation of what the number of the beast represented.
The footnote [e] in verse 18 of the NIV denotes a note in the newer editions of the NIV which states, “Or is humanity’s number”.

Options:


A. Numeric understandings of 666 (Gematria)

Gematria is the practice of biblical numerology, based on the fact that the biblical languages of Greek and Hebrew assign numeric value to letters. That is, the ancient languages did not have dedicated number symbols (such as 1, 2, etc…). Think Roman numerals here.

In regards to this passage, then, gematria means finding a name whose numeric value equals 666.

The most common ancient name produced by this method is that of the emperor Nero. If you take the name, “Nero Caesar”, put it into Hebrew letters, you can come up with 666. Since Nero was a great persecutor of the Christians, had the power of an empire, and fits some other characteristics of the first beast, this is a common interpretation.

Nonetheless, there are a few problems with this interpretation. In the first place, to get 666 from Nero Caesar you have to use, not Greek letters or Latin letters, but Hebrew letters. This is possible (especially if John wanted to really hide the meaning from the persecuting Roman authorities) but may have been too obscure for his mostly gentile audience in Asia Minor. Second, the name Nero Caesar written in Hebrew in the usual way does not add up to 666. You can only arrive at that number by using a variant way of spelling that name (dropping the yod). While we do have evidence that his name was written that way in at least one document, it is definitely not the norm. Further, most scholars feel Revelation was written around 95 AD, while Nero committed suicide in 68 AD. There were rumors that his death was faked and he would return, but these rumors were certainly waning almost 30 years later. Also, the early church did not seem to make this identification of Nero as the beast. Finally, while Nero has some likeness to the beast of Revelation 13, one must strain the interpretation of that passage to make it fit him.

Other examples of Gematria are a little more subtle. One scholar (Giet) finds that the initials of Roman Emperors from Julius Caesar to Vespasian add up to 666 (but he has to omit Otho and Vitellius to make it work). Another scholar (Stauffer) suggests John was counting up an abbreviated form in Greek of the full Latin title of the emperor Domitian.

Others have tried to get the names of modern people (Hitler, Kissinger, etc…) to add up to 666. History obviously has not proved kind to these interpretations.

Another interpretation begins by noting that the beast is described as the 8th king in Revelation 17:11. It then notes that 666 is the triangular number of 36 (1 plus 2 plus 3 etc. up to 360) and 36 is the triangular number of 8.

B. Theological understandings of 666

These views do not try to add up anyone’s name, but seek to understand what 666 could mean theologically.

Many have noted that 7 is often used as the number of perfection or completeness in apocalyptic writings like Revelation. Also, while this is less obvious, 3 seems to be a number of intensification. For instance, the majestic beings of Revelation 4:8 worship God with the repeated phrase, “Holy, Holy, Holy”. Thus, it could be argued that the “number of perfection” is 777. In a similar way, if 7 is the number of perfection or fullness, 777 could be “the number” of the trinity. Thus 666 would be Satan’s attempt to ape the trinity, but also describe his utter failure to do so.

Related to the above, some have noted the possible way of translating “It is the number of a man” to mean something like, “It is the number of man” or “it is mankind’s number” (see NIV text note above). Thus, 666 would be a way of describing mankind as always trying to elevate itself to God (in rebellion) , while consistently failing to do so. (Some see here an allusion to Genesis 1, where the realm of man or creation is described in six days, while God’s days are seven).

Finally, one other item is worth noting here. It is the numerology of Jesus’ name. The name Jesus in Greek is Ἰησοῦς (English transliteration: iesous, with the “I” making the “y” sound as in “year”). For those interested in how this became “Jesus” in English, please see this chart:

Anyway, the numeric value of the name Jesus in Greek is this:

iesous = I (10) + e (8) + s (200) + o (70) + u (400) + s (200) = 888.

Thus, one way to interpret the numerology is to view 777 as the number of complete perfection, with 666 falling tragically (and sinfully) short of this, while 888 would speak hyperbolically of something like the exceeding fullness of Jesus’ perfection.

Conclusion:


You may have noted that not all of these options are mutually exclusive. Careful readers of Biblical prophecy know that many, if not most, Bible prophecies are fulfilled on more than one level. For example, Psalm 16 is considered a Messianic Psalm (a psalm pointing to the Messiah in the future) because Peter could apply the words to Jesus (see Acts 2:25-28). In other words, the words applied on one level to David, even as a fuller and deeper meaning of the words would only be fulfilled a thousand years later in the resurrection of Jesus. In a similar way, Psalm 8 applies first to David, then to Jesus in his perfect humanity during the incarnation, and most fully to Jesus in His future role as visible head over all creation (see this three-fold fulfillment in Hebrews 2:5-9). And in a further sense, Psalm 8 is fulfilled in the lives of mankind most fully because they apply to Jesus, the one who not only fulfills mankind’s role but shares it with those who have place their faith in Him. In other words, many prophecies work on more than one level, and we should not quickly assume that the prophecy about the mark of the beast has only one way of being fulfilled.

My own understanding, then, is this. First, I believe John used the figure of Nero as a way to give shape to the idea of the future anti-christ, and point out some features of his reign. Nero, then, was a template, or a foreshadowing, of one who will come. John did not expect Nero to come back, but used the popular motif of a Nero returning from death as a symbol of the false resurrection of the anti-christ (see Revelation 13: 3, 12). Part of the reason Nero is appropriate is because of his persecution of God’s people, his desire to be worshipped as a god, and his violent end. Furthermore, as emperor he also symbolized something likely to be true of the anti-christ: He embodies a world-wide and very powerful kingdom.

I think it likely that some sort of theological interpretation of the symbolism is also likely in play. That is, I think it likely that 666 not only looked back to Nero as a symbol, but looks theologically to the meaning and nature of the anti-christ and his kingdom. In particular, the last paragraph of the theological discussion (before the conclusion) seems especially intriguing and helpful to me. I don’t think one can be too dogmatic about this, however.

Does the meaning of 666 look not only backwards (to Nero), but does it also look forward to the anti-christ? That is, will the anti-christ have a name whose numerical value is 666? I would say this is possible, but by no means necessary. It is just as likely we are to understand 666 as giving us the symbol and meaning of the anti-christ, rather than a numeric clue to his identity.

May 22 Worship

The Beasley family will be leaving soon to minister with a church in Taiwan.  Maurice Richter had the wonderful idea of recording part of the service where the Beasleys lead us in a song which has a chorus in Chinese.  This video can be shown to their church, and in turn we will hopefully watch a video of the Taiwanese church singing the same song when the Beasleys return.

Anyway, some may be interested in the video, so here it is.  Thanks to Maurice for recording and editing this. (The first couple minutes are of a different song).

The Agape Fallacy

 Well, I heard it again this last weekend.  The speaker brought out his PowerPoint slides to explain that Greek language had four different words that we translate as “love”, and that one of these is the love God has for us and that we should have for each other.  Hogwash.

 If you are not familiar with “the four loves”, here is a quick summary of what you will often hear: 

Storge is familial love 

Eros is sexual or romantic love

Phileo is friendship love

Agape is godly love (usually defined as unconditional, giving, and volitional as opposed to emotive).   

The point of most of these talks is to convince us to love God and others with agape love, not the other kinds (it is usually contrasted most with phileo).

Again, hogwash.  It is all a fallacy. 

Agape and phileo have overlapping meanings, and the exact shade of meaning for “love” in any New Testament passage depends on the context of that passage, not which Greek word is behind the translation.

 If you believe that phileo is an inferior type of love, you will have a little trouble with the following verses:

  • John 5:20, For the Father loves (phileo) the Son…
  • John 16:27, For the Father himself loves (phileo) you, because ye have loved (phileo) me
  • Titus 2:24, wives are…to love (phileo) their husbands…
  • Titus 3:4, the kindness and love (phileo) of God our Saviour
  • II. Tim. 4:10, For Demas hath forsaken me, having loved (agape) this present world
  • II Samuel 13 describes Amnon’s lust for his half-sister, which led him to rape.  Verse 15 says afterwards, “he hated her more than he had loved her”, and the Greek translation of the Old Testament used agape to describe that “love”. 

More importantly the two Greek words seemed to be used interchangeably:

  • Rev. 3:9, and to know that I have loved (agape) thee.
  • Rev. 3:19, As many as I love (phileo), I rebuke and chasten…

 

  • John 11:5, Now Jesus loved (agape) Martha
  • John 20:2, the other disciple, whom Jesus loved (phileo)

 

  • John 3:35, The Father loves (agape) the Son
  • John 5:20, For the Father loves (phileo) the Son

 

Note, I am not arguing that phileo and agape are complete synonyms, that is, that they have the exact same meaning and nuance.  Rather, like the English words “soil” and “dirt”, their meanings overlap greatly, and can often be used synonymously.  The main point I am making is that it is illegitimate to base the meaning of “love” in a passage on the basis of which Greek word underlies the English word.  Their certainly are different kinds and types of love, but the context itself is the only key to meaning in this case.

What is Heaven?

Few words carry such meaning and confusion as “Heaven”.  Little children address assign both their prayers and hopes to heaven, while the word’s sheer breadth of meaning confuse elderly academics. 

Part of the confusion stems from what C. S. Lewis called transposition.  That word derives from the activity of re-composing a piece written for one musical instrument, say, the piano, for another instrument, say, a guitar.  The piano, of course, can play many more notes than the guitar, so often several notes or chords written for the piano piece will be represented by only one note or chord on the guitar. 

In the same way, the word “heaven” is used to describe more than one thing.  In fact, it designates several related but separate ideas, and only by pulling the strands of the knot apart can we gain access to the meaning.

First, heaven can mean the air or the atmosphere.  Birds and clouds fill this heaven, and it is from this heaven that the rain quenches the thirst of the earth.

Second, heaven can mean what we refer to as space, or what is beyond our atmosphere. This heaven is populated not with birds, but stars and planets. 

Now, both these two senses sometimes blend together to refer to all things that are above the earth.  In this sense, sometimes all physical creation is designated by the terms, “the heavens and the earth”, as in Genesis 1:1.  But they can also be distinguished.  For example, Psalm 8 refers to the heavens in verse 3 as being filled with the “moon and stars, which you have set in place”.  That same Psalm could later speak of man’s role of dominion over the things of this planet, which include the beasts of the field, the fish of the sea, and the birds of the heavens (verses 6-8). 

Another sense of the word heaven is also used in that same psalm.  Verse five says that mankind has been made, “a little lower than the heavenly beings”.  Both the context and the New Testament usage (Hebrews 2:5-8) tell us that this means that mankind is made a little lower than angelic beings, that is, inhabitants of the spirit world.

The third sense heaven, then is as a spiritual realm, not a place in the universe.  Heaven in this sense is not somewhere one could travel physically; it is nowhere on the map on the universe, nor does it exist physically “outside” the universe.  This is apparently what Paul meant when he said he was given a vision of “the third heaven” ( II Corinthians 12:2). I will be speaking of this heaven the rest of the way.

This meaning of heaven is inherently difficult for those not in heaven to understand, just as a three-dimensional universe would be inherently obscure to a person who lived in only two dimensions (as Edwin Abbot illustrated in his wonderful classic novel, Flatland).  It speaks of what is both beyond this world, and what is not like this world.  Yet, as Ecclesiastes seems to hint in that enigmatic phrase, “you have set eternity in our hearts”, humans have been reluctant to give up the idea that something is “beyond”, even if it proves difficult to comprehend.

It may be helpful to distinguish four aspects of this third sense of heaven.  These distinctions are conceptual, not actual (or noetic, not ontological, if you like being technical).  That is, they distinguish between four different aspects of the third meaning of heaven, not four different additional heavens.

The first aspect of this heaven (that would be 3a for you obsessive types), is that of the spirit world.  Psalm Eight calls angels heavenly beings because heaven is their abode, as it were (though again, not physical abode).  It is their sphere of existence and activity.  Of course, angels also interact with humanity, for humans are spiritual beings as well as physical beings, and humans alone are, by nature, both physical and spiritual.  Angels are not.  They have, by nature, no physical body, though they can adopt at least the appearance of one in order to communicate with mankind. 

By the way, in this sense, even demons (fallen angels) are said to exist in heaven.  Paul reminds us that our struggle is not against physical foes, but spiritual ones, who exist “in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12). 

In this sense, then, the main emphasis is on what heaven is not: a physical place in the universe.  It exists in a totally different (and more fundamental way) than the universe.  Think of an aquarium constructed at the factory, then filled with water, plants and fish by the hobbyist.  What exists outside the aquarium is both prior to and more fundamental than what exists inside it (since forces and wills outside the aquarium affect what is inside it).

The second aspect of heaven (3b) is as the place where God “dwells”.  Now, of course, both the scriptures and all orthodox Christian theology insist that God does not have a body of any kind.  He is a spiritual being (John 4:24) and thus does not occupy space.  Space and time are features of this universe, and the concepts of time and space simply do not apply to the one who created this universe with its space and time.  We use phrases like that God existed before the universe or exists outside the universe, but these expressions are concessions to the poverty of our words to express what we have no experience of; they are not technically accurate.

What can it mean, then, when scripture pictures God as dwelling in heaven?  Why would Jesus teach us to pray, for example, “our father, which art in Heaven?” God is emphasizing, through metaphor, His transcendence over our existence, and his control over all that happens in this universe.  Transcendence means that He is not contained in this universe, nor limited by anything in this universe (neither the laws and forces of nature or the schemes and power of man).  To say that God is “in heaven” is to affirm not that he exists physically in a place one could point to on a map, but that this world can neither contain Him nor limit Him. 

For the believer, one other thing about heaven as God’s existence is also dear. That is the idea that we will in some way share that dwelling with Him.  This is the idea behind the promise of Jesus that “in my father’s house are many rooms…I am going to prepare a place for you….on that day you will realize that I am in my father, and you are in me, and I am in you” (John 14).  The mystery and ambiguity of what this actually looks like spring from the incredible, category-breaking nature of the promise: that somehow, physical and once-fallen beings like ourselves will dwell with the Spirit who is beyond all. 

The third aspect of heaven (3c) is the place of perfection and power which somehow exists “alongside” this world we experience.  Though heaven in this aspect is often seen as being “above” our world, this is metaphorical, not literal.  It is good to raise our eyes or voice to heaven, as long as we understand the reality beyond the symbol. 

In this sense, help comes from heaven to the supplicant believer.  Isaiah 57:15 says,

 For this is what the high and exalted One says—
   he who lives forever, whose name is holy:
“I live in a high and holy place,
   but also with the one who is contrite and lowly in spirit,
to revive the spirit of the lowly
   and to revive the heart of the contrite.

James 3:15-17 speaks of wisdom that comes “from heaven”, Psalm 14:2 says the Lord examines men by looking down from heaven, while psalm 105:40 testifies that he satisfied his people by sending the “bread of heaven” (manna).   All these verses, and dozens more, speak of heaven as not only the place God dwells, but the place from which he interacts with this world.

Finally, the fourth aspect of heaven(3d) describes the coming, perfect kingdom: the perfect order and beauty of the eternal state, the place where true believers will, in a resurrected body, commune with God, worship God, and rule with God over a perfected physical creation.  Interestingly, this is not usually called “heaven” in the scriptures, but in many ways this is the goal and fulfillment of the first three aspects of heaven. The eternal dwelling of God in the spirit realm, with all its beauty, holiness, power, and perfection, is now open to a new humanity.  As the oak replaces the acorn, the new heaven and new earth (that is, the entirety of the physical creation) replace the old heaven and old earth.   This New Jerusalem both comes down from heaven (Rev. 21:2) and becomes heaven, the place where God and His people now dwell together.  The shout raised at the event will celebrate the marriage of heaven and earth, of God and His people: “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them, and be their God.  He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away (Rev. 21:3-4). 

One final question needs to be addressed: Is it correct to say that when a believer dies, they “go to heaven”? 

I think the answer to this is yes, but we should understand that in a full way, not a simplistic, childish way.  God is not dwelling on a cloud somewhere beyond the planets, waiting for us to come and pick up our harps and join him. And certainly the fullest and final expression of heaven (3d) awaits the judgment and resurrection, events that are still in the future from our perspective.  Yet, Paul could also speak of his impending death with the comforting thought that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (Phil. 1:19-26), and Jesus could promise the thief on the cross, “Today you will be with me in paradise”. 

The paradox between these two themes (immediate communion with Christ after death versus the wait for the judgment, resurrection, marriage feast and New Jerusalem) has led many biblical scholars to posit something of an intermediate state between our present death and our future resurrection.  That is, when we die we exist in some state in communion with Christ, but are not resurrected bodily till the general resurrection in the last days.  Others have suggested that the intermediary state should be called soul-sleep, that is, that our body seems to be asleep while our soul is with Christ.  My own problem with this is understanding how we could exist in a disembodied state.  The idea goes beyond our human experience, and thus, our human reason.  This does not mean it should be rejected, but it does suggest we leave the description of the intermediate state open. 

But perhaps the tension between our immediate communion with Christ (at death) and our delayed resurrection should not bother us too much if we remember that time is a category of this world only, and that what we may experience immediately (while not in this world) may, from the perspective of this world, be far in the future. 

So, in this sense, I think it is permissible to speak of believers going to heaven when they die, as long as we understand that the emphasis of the scripture is not on our individual entrance to the pearly gates, but God’s plan to redeem and perfect creation (of which we, amazingly, can be a part). It is when we fully understand that the overwhelming purpose of God is to create a new resurrected humanity capable of dwelling with Him as rulers over a perfected new creation, so that He can expand the circle of Trinitarian love to (for He is love), that we truly long with creation itself (Romans 8: 18-25) for the day when the voice cries out: “Now [at last!] the dwelling of God is with men!”. Come quickly, Lord Jesus!

Five Views of the Book of Revelation

One of the reasons Revelation is (I think) the most difficult book of the Bible is that not only are there disputes about particular verses, but the purpose and the interpretation of the book as a whole are also disputed.  No other book has had such a wide diversity about its basic meaning and interpretation.  Here is a brief chart listing the five main ways Revelation has been understood through the centuries. (click on the chart for a better resolution)

Christian Science

No, I am not talking about the religion called “Christian Science”.  That religion always reminds me of Grape Nuts (its neither grapes, nor nuts).  I am talking about how a Christian does science, or understands science, or appreciates science. 

This is not a question to be settled only by the people in the lab coats.  All of us are affected by science, and oft those outside the trenches are best able to take in the meaning of the battle.  I claim no expertise, then, but simply lay out my opinion for your comments and thoughts.

First, a Christian doing science will use the same methodology as anyone else doing science.  He or she will use the scientific method appropriate to the field of study.  Appeals to the bible or the viewpoints of the church (as if the church was univocal) will be totally out of place in deciding scientific questions. Nor will the Christian scientist be affected by the question of whether or not God exists.  The reason is that if God does exist, he has presumably left the area of science under investigation subject to the natural laws of physics he established.  Miracles are more the realm of the historian than of the scientist.  This combination (of belief in God and metaphysical neutrality in methodology) actually gives the Christian an advantage: He or she is able to be content with saying of some things: “we don’t know”, rather than forcing facts into ill-fitting theories that try to explain everything from a naturalistic viewpoint. 

Second, the Christian doing science or appreciating science is able to understand the picture, not just examine the brushstrokes.  I take this metaphor from the times I have stood staring at a Van Gogh at a local museum.  With my face a few inches from the glass I have wondered and been amazed at how the crazy brushstrokes conveyed the weary face of the farm worker, or the beautiful mess of the haystack.  And the crucial work of those in the lab coats is to unveil or to shine light on, the various parts of the painting.  A few, whom I will call meta-scientists, will step a few feet back and show how all the parts of the painting work together to create, not isolated images, but a blended panorama.  A Christian (or, substitute most religious persons here) are not those who see different things in the painting, but are those who can consult, as it were, Van Gogh’s diary on why he painted what he did.  They see not just the beauty of the painting, but the meaning of the painting.  They praise not only the glory of the masterpiece, but the glory of the master.

Of course, others are free to view with skepticism whether the religious folk have the real diary, or even if the painting had a painter.  But those are not scientific questions.  And the religious folks, alleged diary in hand, are free to respond, “And what is your explanation, not for what the painting is, but what it means, and how do you justify that explanation? I’m all ears.”