First Presbyterian Church
First Forum: Questions and Answers
May 16, 2007
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
Dr. Derek W. H. Thomas
Questions from Congregation Presented by Mr. Nate Shurden
Q: Will the “nice” non-Christian be beside a notorious person like Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Ivan the Terrible–folks like that? Will there be, in other words, a quality of punishment for those who will be in hell?
A: Dr. Duncan: I’ll start off, and then Derek can correct my answer. The question is essentially, “Is there going to be a distinction between the kinds of judgment that are meted out against those who are unbelievers in the Day of the Lord, and is there going to be a greater or more stringent, more harsh, if you will, judgment for those who have been the great villains of history as opposed to those who have not?” And of course we don't have a lot of biblical data to go to on a lot of questions like this, so I want to try and be as close as we can to the Scripture; and we want to acknowledge that we cannot answer every question as fully as we might long for an answer to be given to it.
But one thing that I can say, over and over in the Psalms and again in the judgment passages in the New Testament, it is emphasized that God's judgment, in distinction from the often unjust judgment that is meted out in the world, will be a judgment that fits the crime. That is, that everybody in the world will be compelled to acknowledge when God hands out His judgment that that judgment is in fact just, and that His sentence fits the crime. I think that actually helps us in this particular area because it suggests to us that God will take into account the deeds of every life lived, and that His judgment on those who do not trust in Christ will take into account the specific crimes of those who have committed those crimes, in distinction from others who have not committed the same crimes. So, just as we would expect a good judge in our society to mete out a lesser penalty for running a red light than for the genocide of twenty million people, so also we can expect our heavenly Father, who is the greatest and most just Judge of all, to mete out appropriate punishment.
Now again, the Bible doesn't get as explicit as we might like to have answer to this question. There's no addendum where you have Dante's “nine circles of hell,” and the worst ones down in the ninth circle (Judas and Brutus, and Satan himself), and then others in the first circle, and the second circle, and so on. We don't have an addendum like that, but we do have an assurance that God's justice will be impeccable and will fit the crime. And I think that that's the important thing for us to recognize — that at the end everyone will have to say (even though the unbelievers will not like it and their hearts will not melt with appreciation before the Lord when His judgment is meted out)…everyone will have to say the Judge of the earth has done right. And that's a question from the Bible itself: “Shall not the Judge of the earth do right?” And the biblical answer to that is, “Yes, He will do right.” And everyone in the world will have to acknowledge that on the last day. I think that's very important in regard to this question. Derek?
Dr. Thomas: A couple of passages come to mind on this issue, and thinking about these two passages I think is helpful to give us a perspective on (a) the nature of the character of God in His justice, in His righteousness, in His integrity; but also, I think, to help us think through what is true in nature in this world isn't going to be undone in the world to come. In the sense that the question recognizes “nice unbelievers”…and we all recognize them…they may be members of our family, or they may be friends with whom we work, and they’re good, moral, upright, dependable, loyal friends, but they’re not Christians. And we don't put them in the same category and capacity as Hitler or Mussolini or Stalin.
Paul, in a very important passage–a definitive passage, really–on the whole issue of judgment, in Romans 2 says in verses 12 and following:
“For all who have sinned without the Law will also perish without the Law; and all who have sinned under the Law will be judged by the Law.”
And he goes on to develop that thought, but it's clearly saying that there is a Judgment that is according to the light that has been received. And it's not quite so much the category of “nice unbelievers” and Hitler, it's how much light has this person received, and how much light has this person sinned against? And it's certainly giving us at least an indication that there is a gradation of punishment in the world to come, just as there would be a gradation of punishment in jurisprudence, a law court, in this world; and we would all expect that. And therefore, in the world to come, there will be a gradation of punishment. And I think Jesus is saying something like that when He says, “Woe to you, Corizin and Bethsaida,” and He contrasts Corizin and Bethsaida (which are cities within, as it were, the covenant land) and Tyre and Sidon (which are cities outside the covenant land). Corizin and Bethsaida had heard Jesus preach and seen His miracles, but they had spurned Him. Tyre and Sidon had not, and it would be “more favorable for Tyre and Sidon” on the Day of Judgment than Corizin and Bethsaida, again just giving us, I think, an indication of gradation of punishment according to the light that has been received.
Q: The same gradation that we are speaking about in terms of Judgment, can we expect in terms of heaven, with regards to righteousness?
A: Dr. Thomas: Yes. I actually do a little naughty test in one of my classes with my students, and I ask them (pretty much every year I ask them) this question about just as there will be gradation of punishment in hell, so will there be gradation of rewards in heaven. And at that point, pretty much ninety percent of my students balk at that idea, and largely because I think their view of heaven is egalitarian–that it is unfair for one to receive more than another.
Now the origins of that view are decidedly not biblical, and they’re more in line I think with a Communist egalitarianism–not that Communism has ever been egalitarian! The concern for the proletariat in Communism never extended to those who ruled in Communism, and they always wanted more than the proletariat, to be sure!
Yes, I think…I often think of the words of George Whitefield and Wesley, when Wesley was saying the most atrociously bad things about Whitefield because of his doctrine of predestination, and he was saying some really, really bad things about George Whitefield. When Whitefield was asked about it, his reply was that Wesley would be closer to the throne in the kingdom to come than he would be — simply giving vent to the idea at least that there are gradations of blessing and gradations of glory in the world to come; that there is a judgment according to works, even for the believer.
Now I think that statement raises a host of other questions, but I’ll pass that over now to Ligon!
Dr. Duncan: That's good!
Q: To pick up on the Dante theme, in terms of the forms of reality after death which are proposed…we see this in church history, we see it in our world today…what are we to make of ideas like soul sleep, purgatory, annihilation, universalism?
A: Dr. Duncan: Are you all familiar with the terms soul sleep, annihilation, purgatory? Purgatory I know you’ll know of… universalism you’ll know of. Annihilationism is the teaching that at some point after Judgment the bodies and souls of resurrected unbelievers cease to exist. It is a view that has often been offered as a more palatable alternative to the doctrine of eternal punishment. The doctrine of soul sleep, which was a doctrine popular amongst some Anabaptists (not to be confused with Baptists, but Anabaptists in the time of the Reformation) posited the eternal sleep of a soul in response to the waiting through the intermediate state until the time of Judgment and thereafter.
The doctrine of purgatory of course is the Roman Catholic doctrine that after death, unless you are a beatified saint and have lived such a perfect life that you have not only perfect merit for yourself to enter into heaven, but have enough left over to help other people out, and thus you’re acknowledged as a saint by the Roman Catholic church and people can pray to you and get some of your benefits applied to their accounts…unless you’re in that category, then after death you go to purgatory, where (though you’re a believer, you believe in Christ, you've been through the sacramental system of the Roman Catholic church, you’re in fellowship with the church) your sins are purged away in that time of purgatory. The more sins you have to purge away, the longer that you’re in purgatory. And finally, when your sins are cleansed you are then able to be ushered into glory above.
Universalism is of course the teaching that everyone goes to heaven, and some forms of universalism would even include the devil in that particular assertion. And so the question, I suppose is, compare that to a biblical view, the historic Christian view of life after death.
Well, one is universalism flatly contradicts the assertion of Jesus, of the Apostle Paul, and in fact all the teachers of Scripture from Genesis to Revelation, which steadfastly assert that there are two types of human beings: those who are in fellowship with God, and those who are not; and that those who are in fellowship with God will remain in fellowship with God forever, and those who are not in fellowship with God will not. And that truth is spread from the very…the second page of the Bible all the way to the last page of the Bible. That truth is just pounded home everywhere and you have to reject that to embrace the view that everyone goes to heaven.
With regard to annihilationism, I would just say very briefly–and Derek may want to direct you to specific texts– but with regard to annihilationism, Jesus speaks as much or more about eternal punishment as He does about eternal life, everlasting life. And so if you argue for a cessation or a termination of punishment, you've got a problem on the other side of that as well.
With regard to soul sleep, it has been uniformly rejected by orthodox interpreters of the Scripture. And have I covered those four now? Derek?
Dr. Thomas: Let me add a couple of things about soul sleep. It's very interesting. John Calvin, before he became the great Reformer that we all know him to be now, after writing what was basically his doctoral dissertation on the Roman jurist, Seneca, wrote his first book on soul sleep. It was called Psychopannychia. It wouldn't be a best-seller today, but it was on this issue. It was a very dominant, prevalent, worrying issue in the sixteenth century–that after death there is unconsciousness, there is lack of consciousness between death and the resurrection of Christ (the bodily resurrection at the time of the Second Coming of Christ). Now the answer to that of course would be Scriptures like Jesus’ words to the dying thief: “Today you will be with Me in paradise.”
Now how do the soul sleep folk treat that text? Well, of course it's to do with grammar. They insert a comma. “Jesus said, ‘Today you will be with Me in paradise’” and they read that to be “Jesus said to him today [comma] you will be with Me in paradise.” And the insertion of a comma at a certain point changes the meaning entirely. Now there are lots of good, sound exegetical reasons for placing the comma in the grammar as we have it in our English Bibles so that Jesus is saying that very day the dying thief would have a consciousness of being with Christ in heaven.
Paul can say (and Ligon's about to come to it in Philippians), “To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.” He wrestles, you remember, in Philippians 1–“I have a desire to depart and to be with Christ, which is far better…” and he has a longing also to stay because it will be good for the Philippians if he does so. So those would be passages, biblical passages denying soul sleep.
On annihilationism, a view largely that comes, I think, in the tidal wave of philosophical objections to the idea of eternal punishment…. Annihilation says that all those who are unbelievers will be annihilated at the point of death, perhaps, or maybe at the point of the Day of Judgment, but there is no eternal punishment. And there are a whole slew of reasons why annihilationism is favored. Some of it is philosophical. They will sometimes say things like it's based on the view that the soul is immortal, and that that is a Hellenistic (or Greek) idea, not a biblical idea. You read a lot of that in some current literature. And another view that is sometimes put forth is that the idea of conscious eternal punishment is somehow sub-Christian. Well, the fact of the matter is that there are exegetical reasons for supporting eternal punishment, and it's as simple as the use of the term eternal. It's the same word (ionos in Greek) that is used of eternal life, as is used of eternal punishment. And if you tamper with it on one side, you’ll tamper with it on the other.
It seems to me that the very closing verses of the Bible seem to want to make the point that there is an “outside.” There are those who are outside in Revelation 22, as he is describing the eternal city. There is an “outside” to this city, and it is not empty. It is not vacant. It is actually populated, and it seems to me that the closing verses of the Bible seem to anticipate the very storm that we are facing in almost the eclipse in certain quarters of a biblical doctrine of hell and eternal punishment that has been a motivating factor for evangelism and missions and a whole host of other things.
Q: When Dr. Duncan talked about Judgment and talked about at Judgment all of our idle thoughts, our words, and our actions are being known–and we all had a little concern about that, a little worry about that! If we are all judged at the same time, does everyone hear about our sins? And how do we reconcile that with a verse like Hebrews 8:12 — “For I will be merciful to their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more”?
A: Dr. Duncan: Obviously, I don't know the specific form in which God's Judgment is going to be carried out. In fact, many of these questions are questions that pertain to that very issue — what is the nature of the setting and of the circumstances surrounding the way Judgment is going to be conducted? How long is it going to take? What is its spatial location going to be? What are going to be the arrangements of announcing the sentences, and things of this nature? And the Bible doesn't give us, again, answers to all the specific questions that we could ask in that regard.
Again, though, the Scriptures make it clear that–and Jesus is one of the ones who says this most emphatically–for every idle word there will be an account. That's not the speculation of someone; that's just Bible. How that happens, I don't know. But it will happen in a way such that God is glorified, so that believers are vindicated, and so that we rejoice in God's just judgment and revel in His grace. And I think it's very important for believers to recognize that. It will be a great and terrible Day of the Lord, but fundamentally for believers the Day of Judgment is a day of vindication, of acceptance.
And I think that part of the answer to this is the theological transformation that will have occurred in us. Just like in our present state it is very, very difficult to admit that one has committed a serious sin, and the more embarrassing that sin is the more difficult it is to admit even to our dearest friends–especially to our dearest friends!–and one of the reasons that sometimes Satan is able to get us to hold on longer to the acknowledgement of a sin, rather than confessing it and repenting of it more quickly, is because of our fear of embarrassment. We do not want to be humiliated! And how often that has been used to ruin friendships and marriages — the fear of humiliation in the confession of a particular sin.
And what is it that keeps us from being able to do this? Pride. We don't want to lose the esteem of another. We don't want to lose face. When we are glorified–understand, my friends, that pride will no longer exist in you, because of the enormous security that you will have in knowing for the first time ever, perfectly, what it means to be justified by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, having been glorified and made like Him. And all we will want to see in that context is God exalted, because we will have absolutely not the slightest tinge of fear that something less than glorious is in store for us. And so it is the very reality of glorification that will change the way we view the great and awesome Judgment Day. We will be perfectly secure, because actually we are perfectly secure now…which ought to motivate us now to be more willing to confess our sins to one another, because as hard as that is, we are secure in the Savior. And ultimately He will allow nothing to happen to us that is not for our everlasting good. So I think that's as far as I want to go with that. Derek?
Dr. Thomas: A couple of verses come to mind. Again, Romans 2:6 — “He will render to each one according to his works.” And again in II Corinthians 5, where Paul says,
“We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.”
And part of the problem related to this question, I think, is that the idea of judgment according to works (or judgment where sin is exposed in heaven, if our sins are already forgiven)…part of the problem I think is that we tend to think that grace ought to imply equality of some kind; and the fact of the matter is that we're not equal in grace in terms of gifting in this world. There are Christians who are far more gifted than I am. There are Christians who display far more fruits of the Spirit in this world than I do. And I think that is perfectly compatible with the idea that we're justified by grace, but that produces states of inequality in terms of gifting. And similarly, when it comes to heaven and when it comes to judgment – the exposure of our sins – I don't see that as negating the principle of justification by grace.
Q: Dr. Thomas, you mentioned a well-known verse a little bit ago with the thief on the cross and Christ as they were talking to one another, and Christ says to the thief, “Today you will be with Me in paradise.” How do we understand Jesus’ words there with the words of The Apostles’ Creed, with Jesus being sent into hell? How do we understand what's going on there?
A: Dr. Thomas: Ligon and I agree on almost everything…except I Peter 3, so I'm glad you asked me first! It's actually a very interesting and difficult question in some respects–the descendit ad inferna clause…the “He descended into hell” clause of The Apostles’ Creed. Whenever The Apostles’ Creed was written in its final form, and in its form as we know it (probably seventh or eighth century, but it has some origins that go way back beyond that) there's no doubt in my mind that in its original intent the “descent into hell” clause meant something that you and I would find objectionable, and that is the idea of the ravaging of hell…some capacity or other, Jesus actually went into hell, whether to pronounce His judgment on Satan and his minions, or else to announce His triumph. I think all of us would find that objectionable.
I personally have to support something that I said in a sermon a long time ago now, when I went through I Peter, and I Peter 3 (and it's a notoriously difficult passage…a passage about Noah preaching to the spirits in prison, in I Peter 3–and what does that mean). And I argued then, and still hold out to some extent that there is a chronology in the passage itself–that something happens: Jesus dies; He's buried; this preaching to the spirits in prison takes place; and then, there is a resurrection. And if that is implying some kind of temporal chronological sequence of thought, then Jesus does something after He is buried and before He is resurrected.
And on my better days, according to Ligon, I just adopt Calvin's view of this passage, who basically just reinterprets the passage and says, you know, “Live with it!” And that is, “He descended into hell” means what Jesus experienced on the cross: that when He cried, “My God! My God! Why have You forsaken Me?” quoting from Psalm 22, that He was in effect experiencing hell, the total and utter withdrawal of God's presence; the abandonment of Christ, as it were, from any assurance of His native Sonship, and the anathema of the covenant because of our imputed sin laid upon Him; and at that moment, He descends into hell in the sense that He experienced what hell is, of being away totally and utterly from the presence of God.
Now Ligon's going to correct me now, so….
Dr. Duncan: No…no. All I'm going to say is this: I don't think that any Christian should allow your certainty of the immediacy of your communion with the Savior upon the first millionth of a nanosecond of your death to be compromised by any fear of reading some chronology from
I Peter 3 back into Jesus’ words to the thief on the cross: “Today you will be with Me in paradise.” As Derek has indicated, the best interpreters on the planet in the history of the Christian church have wrestled with what exactly to do with Peter, whereas Jesus and Paul and numerous other New Testament writers affirm to us repeatedly that, in Paul's words, “To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.” And so I would not let that worry your pretty head one second on that particular issue, because you've got multiple passages confirming the immediate conscious experience of the believer of Christ upon the moment of death. And that's just one of those things that you can get in line with me that you want to ask the Savior when you get to heaven.
Q: What happens to young children of unbelievers who die before accepting Christ?
A: Dr. Duncan: You’re right. There's no question that the issue of the status, especially of the very young, is one of the most emotionally fraught and experientially intense questions relating to death that we can possibly encounter; and so, obviously, when we speak about it, we need to speak about it with great pastoral and personal sensitivity, especially when we're talking to somebody who is in their own experience wrestling with that.
Let me say a couple of things. Over the course of time, there have been those that have tried to address this question by arguing that there was an age of accountability before which you reach you are considered innocent, and therefore a candidate for heaven. Now the idea that there would be some particular age in the course of normal childhood before which all children would be saved because they are not yet accountable for their sin…that idea is absolutely unbiblical. The age of accountability is conception. David says, “I was conceived in sin.” In Adam we all fell, and so when I was born into this world I was born a sinner. That didn't happen when I got to be six or seven or eight. So the going of the route of trying to find an age before which you are not accountable and after which you are accountable is not a helpful or biblical way of going about addressing this question.
Secondly, let me say that most Christians have had, over the course of history, two views of this issue. They have either believed, with theologians like Charles Hodge and B. B. Warfield, two outstanding Presbyterian theologians, that in fact all infants are elect–the infants of believers and unbelievers–and that therefore all in infancy who die go to heaven. C.H. Spurgeon held to that view…B.B. Warfield, Charles Hodge, and others. I can show you through the course of history a variety…and their arguments obviously are complex, because there is again not a lot of biblical data to help you in this area.
The other view which has been articulated, and it's been articulated by theologians like Palmer Robertson, who grew up in this congregation, is that the only positive assurance that we can give is that the children of believers who die in their infancy are saved and go to heaven, because of the covenant promises of God given to believers and their children. And both of these groups of Christians would appeal to passages like the story of the death of David's illegitimate child by Bathsheba. You remember when he had his adulterous affair with Bathsheba a child was conceived and born, but the child was very sickly. And while the child was alive, David covered himself with sackcloth and ashes, and he fasted and he prayed day and night that the child would live. The minute that the child died, he stopped fasting; he cleaned himself up, he adorned himself with his best clothes and anointed himself with oil and went about his business. And his friends were baffled by this. They were expecting the other way around–you know, now that your child is dead, now's the time for fasting and sackcloth and ashes. And David said in response, as you all know, “He will not come again to me, but I will go to him.” Now some have said all David was saying is he's not going to come back from the dead, but I'm going to die one day, too.
However, that does not sound very comforting to me. I can't imagine that would account for David anointing himself and garbing himself as he did. I think what David is saying (and most Christians have believed that what David was saying) was that he anticipated a reunion with that infant child who died in the earliest hours of his life, in the life hereafter, and that this was what enabled David to move on, as it were, upon the death of his child. And so again Presbyterians, among most Christians, have held one of those two views. Derek, you may want to comment on the biblical rationale, or add to that, or improve it in some way.
Dr. Thomas: Thank you, Ligon. Obviously this is a very, very sensitive issue. First of all, The Westminster Confession says elect infants who die in infancy are saved. Now when you think through that statement, of course it's not saying anything! Of course elect infants are saved. But what that shows you is that the men, these phenomenal minds who put together The Westminster Confession, were not in fact agreed among themselves as to what they could say from the point of view of biblical exegesis. Now all of them can agree — and every one of us can agree — that all elect infants who die are saved. That goes without saying. But I think it shows that even some of the best minds in history and some of our own history have been divided on this issue.
Now to put it in even more of a context, the majority of children in the seventeenth century (when The Confession was written, in the 1640's)…the majority of children died in infancy. John Owen had eleven children, and ten of them died in infancy and the eleventh died when she was in her mid-twenties. It was just a reality of life. And it's only in our generation in this room that can expect infant mortality to be at the level that it is, so it is an enormously important issue throughout the history of the church.
Secondly, if I may just tell a little story here–because this is a question I don't want to answer! When I was ordained back in 1978, I had been a minister for less than a year, and one of my dearest friends who had just been ordained the year after me…I had in fact married him to his wife, a daughter of one of the elders in my own church…and they had announced that they were pregnant, and she was expecting a baby. And then I was called one day to their home. I knew as soon as I walked in there was bad news. And she had had a scan (remember, this is back in 1979, when this would have happened) and the baby was – basically, it had no head…or at least, no brain. An enormous amount of pressure was put on her to have an abortion, and she refused that. In the socialized medicine world of Britain, the pressures were enormous. She carried the baby to full term knowing the baby would die within a couple of minutes of being born, but they felt that it was important to do that. I was asked to be there when the baby was born. I was behind a curtain, and then when the baby was delivered, I came out. They just wanted me to pray with them and for the baby, and they wanted to give the baby a name. They did not want the baby baptized. They thought that was just too superstitious an act, which I fully approved of. The baby lived–I don't know, thirty seconds, a minute, something like that–and all the doctors and nurses, anesthetists, were in the room, and I prayed with them.
I’ll never forget the funeral. We had a funeral for this little baby. I remember Stephen, the father, carrying what was basically a shoe box…it was just a white wooden box the size of this…and it was a very, very telling moment. But the question that I was asked many, many times was, “Is this little baby in heaven?” And it was important for me to be able to give them a pastoral answer that was also within my conscience of what I understood the Bible to say.
I really do believe that there are good exegetical reasons in the story that Ligon has said to us this evening from David and Bathsheba…an illegitimate child born of an adulterous affair, no less…I think there are good exegetical reasons for saying that David is saying more than ‘I'm going to be buried alongside him in the ground, and that's giving me a great deal of contentment and peace.’ I think he's saying more than that, and exegetically I would defend that. So at least in the place of the children of believers I have personally absolutely no doubt that children of believers, covenant children who die in infancy go to heaven. That's my belief of what the Scripture leads us to believe. Beyond that, I do not know.
Q: What about near-death experiences? People who say that they've had them claim that they've visited heaven, seen a great light…been in a tragic accident or injury, and have come back on this side and reported. What they have told, what are we to make of that?
A: Dr. Duncan: I’ll start off on that just saying that I think it's very, very important that we make sure that we draw our conception of heaven, of the afterlife, and of what it is going to be like to be with Christ from the Bible and not from any claimed experiences of heaven in a near-death experience, because that's not authoritative for us. The Bible is. And there are all sorts of fantastic stories that circulate.
There's a book that has been on The New York Times best-seller list for a number of months that some of you have read, and interestingly it's a very long book with a very, very short period of description of what life was like for that person in the thirty minutes or nine minutes or whatever it was that he was supposedly dead. And I would just say that it's important for us to say, “Lord, I want to know about heaven from You in Your word.” It's interesting to me that the only person in the Bible said to have gone to heaven and come back said that he “saw things that it was not permissible for a man to speak.” It's the Apostle Paul, and he never ever spoke or wrote about it. I think that's interesting.
Dr. Thomas: Yes. I've not read Don Piper's book, Ninety Minutes in Heaven. I've seen it at the Atlanta airport many a time, but I've just never read it…and would be, I think, inherently suspicious of the popularity of a book like that. I think we live in an age — and we have to recognize it, you and I — where experience is a very powerful tool and weapon. There is no counterargument to somebody who says, “But this is what I feel” or “This is what I've seen.” And unless we build all of our life and all of our theology and all of our thinking on the solid platform of what does the Bible say…. I think we need to be a Billy Graham at that point. You know, “The Bible says….” Remember Billy Graham in the 50's and 60's and 70's? He's holding a Bible in his hand…you know, “What does the Bible say?” And that's all that was important to him, and I think that picture of Billy Graham is a phenomenally important picture, regardless of whatever other things we might have differences of opinion about with Dr. Graham, but that picture of him saying, “What does the Bible say?”
I've had some pretty weird dreams in my life; and I've shared a couple of them with Rosemary, but I doubt she would share them with you! And they are bizarre, and usually it's because Rosemary's been experimenting with curry or something the night before…food…and while they’re interesting and I've pondered a couple of them on occasion, I certainly don't want to talk to anybody else about them, and certainly not in any formal capacity. And I most certainly don't want to write a book about it. So you know, we are fearfully and wonderfully made, and there are some outstanding physicians here in this room tonight who know far more than I do about the state of the brain when certain chemicals and oxygen and whatever else is deprived of those brain cells, and I doubt that we know a miniscule amount of what we are capable of seeing and experiencing. And yes, they may reflect certain things that are true of the life to come. I have no way whatsoever of proving it or disproving it, and they’re of interest…but that's all.
Q: How do we prepare ourselves for the death of an unbeliever?
A: Dr. Duncan: I think this is one of the hardest questions that believers who take seriously the Bible's teaching about God's judgment, and yet who have a heart of love for someone who is not in Christ, can ever face.
The first sermon I ever heard at Reformed Theological Seminary was preached in chapel by a man who has been Professor of Missions at RTS. His name is Dr. Sam Rowen. He had grown up as an unbeliever in an unbelieving home in West Philadelphia. He had been converted to Christ in his twenties–gloriously converted and called into the ministry. He had been a Christian educator here and around the world, had been involved in ministry and missions. And over the course of the last twenty years of his life he had cultivated a friendship with his Dad that he had never had growing up. And he loved his Dad deeply, but his Dad did not love Christ and did not trust in Him. And really, during the first many years that Sam tried to talk to his Dad, his Dad wasn't interested in hearing. But over the last few years and months of his Dad's life, he really got interested in what Sam had to say about Jesus and about the gospel. But Sam never ever saw his Dad make a profession of faith in Christ, or hear him express his trust in Jesus Christ, though they had talked about what that meant many times. I think it was something like a week or two between the last time that Sam saw his Dad and the time that Sam's Dad died. And Sam, in that chapel, message, was talking to us about trusting in God's character and goodness even when we don't understand our circumstances; and he ended that sermon by saying, “I don't know where my Dad is today; but what I do know is that God is good and just, and wherever my Dad is, my God will have done the right thing, and I trust Him.”
I was pinned against the pew. I couldn't move. I was immobilized. And that was…I think that is as powerful a Christian sentiment as I can imagine, because our God is infinitely more loving than we are, and yet sometimes when we love an unbeliever, we begin to think that we're more loving than God…and if God would just do things the way that we think they ought to be done, well, you know…God would just take that person right to heaven. And the believing, the biblical way, however, of thinking about that is to say, “’What e’er my God ordains is right,’ and I trust Him.” And I think that's the first thing that we have to say.
If we look for comfort in the answer to that specific question, then in most cases we’ll have to make up an answer because we ourselves haven't plumbed the depths of Sheol or climbed the heights of heaven to ascertain the empirical verification of where that person is, so we've got to make up an answer for that. It's far better to find our place of comfort in the character of God than in the specific answer that we so long in our hearts to have regarding the person. And I think that's part of what Moses meant in Deuteronomy 29, when he talked about the secret things belonging to the Lord, but the revealed things to us and to our children. I think there is no horror for a believer that has been deepened in love and grace to realize that …not just friends and loved ones, but anyone…eternally separated from God. And yet Jesus talks about that more than anybody else in the Bible, and we know that He's the most loving human being that ever lived. And so we need to take Him seriously, and we need to figure out how to grapple with that. But that's how I would start. That's a great question, and I will come back to that.
But there are other questions. Yes, sir?
Q: You were saying that if there was no sin and no death, and people lived forever…well, where would all the people go?
A: Dr. Duncan. Well, the Bible never addresses that question directly. It addresses it indirectly by speaking of what God is going to do when Jesus comes again. In Romans 4:11 or 13 (I can't remember right off the top of my head, it's one of the two…I think it may be 13), God says that His promise to Abraham was for Abraham to be an heir of the cosmos; so, not just to Palestine, and not just to this whole earth, but to the whole world. And the picture that John paints of heaven as it comes down (interestingly, in the book of Revelation we don't go up, but heaven comes down to us in the book of Revelation), is one of expansion of all reality in terms of what we have experienced. And he does that with a couple of different pictures. There's an Old Testament picture and a New Testament picture.
The Old Testament picture comes out of Ezekiel. If you remember the picture of Ezekiel's temple that is painted in chapters 40-48, if you work out the measurements for Ezekiel's temple described and given in Ezekiel 40-48, the dimensions of that temple would have actually taken it outside the walls of Jerusalem in its day. So that the point of describing a temple in detail that was bigger than the city of Jerusalem was to say that God was going to do something beyond anything that you had currently experienced.
John does that by speaking of the new heavens and the new earth in Revelation 21 and 22. You remember he talks about how wide it was and how long it was, and how high it was. And if you work out the square miles of the description that he gives of the new heavens and the new earth, it was larger than the square miles in Israel. And so again John is saying what God is going to do here is bigger, it's beyond what you have presently experienced.
So does the Bible then give us warrant to say that if Adam had never fallen into sin that He would have done a like expansion of the known universe as it is, that we would continue to inhabit and dwell in it? Maybe so. But I know for certain that the way that a multitude that no man can number of God's children from every tribe, tongue, and people and nation throughout the whole world in the new heavens and the new earth is going to be greater than anything that we've ever experienced in this world. And so the whole of the cosmos will be renovated and will be ours. Does that mean that each of us can get a planet to take care of? I don't know! But I do think that we will…whatever we're doing and wherever we are, we will experience the abundance that only God can create and provide.
Q: What happens when we die, believer? How does our personhood change after death? Our gifts, our callings, our vocations, our character, our personality?
A: Dr. Duncan: One word: More. One word: Bigger. One word: We grow.
Q: Does our life on earth affect what our life in heaven will be like?
A: Dr. Duncan: Yes, yes. This is the place of preparation for a life of joy and service there. Yes, it matters.
Q: What happens after death for Old Testament believers before Christ came? For New Testament believers after Christ has come?
A: Dr. Duncan: The answer is the same: To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.
Q: What about grieving? What does it mean to grieve Christian-ly?
A: Dr. Duncan: It means to grieve, but not without hope. In a sentence, it means to grieve, but not without hope. It would be a travesty not to treasure those whom we love best and who have loved us best in the hour of their loss to us. Yes, it is the hour of their gain, but it is also the hour of their loss to us. It would be a travesty for us not to grieve those that we love the best and those who love us the best. God did not make us emotionless automatons. We’re not robots. We’re men and women of flesh, with hearts that break. Jesus gives us this permission as He stands at the tomb of His friend, Lazarus, and He weeps–though He knows that He's going to raise Lazarus from the dead–because he knows the pain and the heartache of Mary and Martha, whom He loves. And He knows the pain in His own heart at the thought of the death of His godly ones. So Your Lord and Savior gives you permission to weep, but He also gives you the power not to weep without hope, because you remember He turns to Mary and He says, “Mary, I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes on Me will never die, and whoever lives and believes in Me, though he were dead, yet shall he live.”
So we grieve, but not without hope.
Q: How do we conquer the innate fear of death that remains even when we've accepted Christ, His atoning work, and are anticipating His resurrection?
A: By meditating upon the greatness of our sin and what it deserves; by meditating on the greatness of our Savior and His salvation; by meditating upon the world of love that He is creating for us and which awaits us in the hour of death. That is why Jonathan Edwards said it was his endeavor to meditate upon heaven twenty minutes a day, every day of his life. That's why Richard Baxter, on what he thought was his deathbed, wrote 600 pages on what happens to believers after they die. You know, you've gotten — what – forty minutes today? There are 600 pages waiting for you in The Saint's Everlasting Rest. Think of it, friends! A page a day for two years! The Saint's Everlasting Rest.
Q: How do we prepare to die?
A: Dr. Duncan: Friends, let me say this. Very often money and wills divide families in the hour of death. Make that a part of your preparation before you die, so that what you leave behind doesn't rip asunder the thing that you care most about — your family.
Q: What about dying wishes?
A: Dr. Duncan: Think about and tell your family now the Scriptures and the hymns that have been so encouraging to you, so that those things can be used to celebrate the Lord's faithfulness to you in grace in the hour of your death.
Q: What about the infants of believers who die in infancy? They've never trusted in Jesus Christ. They were too young to profess faith. Perhaps in the womb; perhaps just weeks old; perhaps only a year or two old?
A: Dr. Duncan: Bible-believing Christians since the Reformation have been confident because of the goodness of God and because of what God says in His word that every believer can take comfort that he or she will see his or her child, having died in infancy, in glory.
On what basis?
Turn with me in your Bibles to the book of Samuel…right before Kings…II Samuel 12. You know the story. David has sinned with Bathsheba, and they've had a child. And the child is clinging to life.
II Samuel 12:15:
“Then the Lord struck the child that Uriah's widow bore to David so that he was very sick. David therefore inquired of God for the child, and David fasted and went and lay all night on the ground. The elders of his household stood beside him in order to raise him up from the ground, but he was unwilling. He wouldn't even eat food with them. Now it happened on the seventh day the child died. And the servants of David were afraid to tell him that the child was dead, because they said, ‘Behold, when the child was still alive we spoke to him and he didn't listen to our voice. How can we tell him that the child is dead, for he might do himself harm?’”
[You know, they've seen this man on his face before God, begging God to spare this child, and they think ‘How can we tell David he's died? He’ll take his own life.’]
“But when David saw his servants whispering, he perceived that the child was dead; so David said to his servants, ‘Is the child dead?’ And they said, ‘He is dead.’ So David arose from the ground, washed himself, anointed himself, changed his clothes, came into the house of the Lord and worshiped. Then he came to his own house, and when he requested, they set food before him and he ate. Then his servants said to him, ‘What is this thing that you have done? While the child was alive, you fasted and wept; but when the child died, you arose and ate food?’ And he said, ‘While the child was alive, I fasted and wept; for I said, ‘Who knows, the Lord may be gracious to me, that the child should live.’ Now that he has died, why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.’”
Now, it seems to me that the transforming reality, the transforming truth for David, is not this: ‘He died; I'm going to die, too.’ It is a confident belief that he will see that child because of the grace of God to him. That's why we do not hesitate to give comfort to every believer that he or she will see his or her child again.
Q: What about appearing before the Tribunal?
A: By that I simply mean that their consciences will never ever have relief from the sense of just judgment that is given on the Judgment Day. In other words, let's think in this world. In this world sometimes we do things that deeply hurt the people that we love the most, and sometimes it takes a long, long time to sort that out. And until we do, how do we feel inside? Miserable. Think of that never ever going away. That's a picture of hell: never ever resolved with God or anyone else; never ever forgiven; never ever reconciled; never ever at peace; never ever at rest. That's why it is not the physical pictures of hell in the Scriptures that strike most terror into my heart; it is the picture of the total absence of God's blessing and the presence of an awakened conscience with no hope for resolution, ever.
Do you remember how Dante, in The Inferno, has written over the gates of hell the words–what? “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” In a sense that is a profoundly biblical view of the hard place.
Q: This question came from a member in the church who comes from a long line of sickly family members, and in death has decided to give over their body to UMC for research. What does the Bible, if anything, have to say about the body after death and our treatment of it?
A: Dr. Duncan: Can I–given the time–can I use this as an opportunity to address, or to begin to address the question that I got more than any other that is somewhat related to that? And that's the question about cremation. I've been asked about cremation 174 times in the last six weeks! So it's related to this question, and let me just say a couple of things about it.
I've got some articles up here, if anybody's interested. I've been reading this, but let me address it this way. I want to read to you a very brief article from Christian History and Biography. It's a magazine published by Christianity Today, and it will give you a quick historical overview of this question. The author is a woman named Elesha Coffman, and she said:
“I was recently intrigued by a comment on NPR (National Public Radio) that cremation has become more popular in America — requested in about 25% of deaths nationwide, with much higher percentages in Florida and California, as Americans shift from a Judeo-Christian emphasis on the body to a more Greek or Hindu emphasis on the soul.”
[Now that's the statement that she heard from the NPR radio commentator, who obviously had no personal opinion about that but was just reporting this in a matter of fact way. It got her thinking, and she says this.]
“It had never occurred to me that there was anything un-Judeo-Christian about cremation. None of the evangelical churches I attended made a big deal about it. Historically though, the NPR commentator has a point. Acceptance of cremation among Christians is very recent and hardly universal.
“While surrounding cultures practiced a variety of death rites from mummification to incineration on elaborate funeral pyres, the Old Testament Jews clearly preferred burial, often in a cave, and usually near other family members. Old Testament law, however, said nothing definitive about burial regulations. Death by burning was prescribed as a punishment for particularly heinous offenders, and denial of a proper burial was viewed as a disgrace. New Testament Jews and Christians favored burial as well, though the New Testament also lacks specific regulations for handling the dead. Its sparse texts on the topic seem to be descriptive. As Christianity spread and eventually became the official religion of the Roman Empire and elsewhere, culturally Christian burial practices spread as well.
“The growing importance of relics added more weight to a tradition of bodily preservation, and when Christian missionaries encountered cultures with different funerary practices, the adoption of Christian customs became a sign of changed allegiance. For example, the body of King Olaf Haraldson of Norway, who is credited with the conversion of his people to Christianity in the eleventh century, was hidden in sand, dug up and re-buried by the new members of his culture who had embraced Christianity, because in the past they had used funeral pyres and burned people.
“Cremation did not emerge as a major concern in traditionally Christian lands until 1870, when an Italian professor named Brunetti developed the first modern cremation apparatus. The Catholic church responded in 1886 with an official ban on cremations. The Catholic Encyclopedia of 1908 says: “The church has opposed from the beginning this practice which ahs been used chiefly by the enemies of the Christian faith…”
But I might also add that since Vatican II in 1963, and in 1969, the Roman Catholic church has dropped that ban on cremation, although Roman Catholics require that if you do cremation, you must have a burial of the ashes. The Eastern Orthodox churches still forbid all forms of cremation. Evangelical Protestants have been more mixed in their attitudes toward cremation.
Why is there such a condemnation over the course of Christian history for the practice of something that is not addressed more clearly biblically? This article, I think, gives the four answers to that question. One is simply that interment is a rite…the burial of Christians is a rite which has a tradition of almost 2,000 years amongst Christians universally–Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant. And it's bound up with the Christian view of the body.
Secondly is that specific Christian view of the body, which is that our bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit are the creation of God, and thus to be treated with dignity even after death, in view of the resurrection of the body.
Thirdly, that the very interment of the body has a teaching value to the Christian church, as the minister says, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” but in the hope of the resurrection of the body to everlasting life.
And then, fourth, the chief reason for the Christian reaction to cremation rites was the expressly anti-Christian philosophy that was often part of the first advocates of cremation. Interestingly, The Encyclopedia Britannica of the early 1900's says that the first cremation in Britain was done in 1870 by a Welsh physician who was a radical free-thinker, and he named his child Jesus Christ…and the child died in infancy, and he took him out into the middle of the street in his town and attempted to burn him. And the whole town came out and prevented the doctor from doing this. This forced British jurisprudence to come up with laws relating to cremation.
So here's what I do. I never encourage someone to do cremation. If somebody comes to me and says ‘I want you to do my funeral and we're going to do a cremation,’ I'm not going to say, no, I'm not going to do that. But if somebody comes and asks me ‘What do you recommend?’ I'm not going to recommend cremation. And in that regard, our Session's policy on funerals just very lightly and pastorally makes this remark:
“Over the years the people of God have generally avoided the practice of cremation. The Scriptures teach that the human body is good and holy, and to be treated with the greatest respect, in anticipation of the resurrection. Indeed, our Shorter Catechism reminds us that our bodies, even as they are resting in the grave, are still united to Christ.”
And it just makes that comment pastorally by way of information and instruction to our congregation, and we move on.
And so I think for me the issue that I want to ask is what's motivating that desire to do that? I want to make sure that all Christians approaching burial or whatever are approaching it with distinctly Christian hopes for the resurrection of the body.
The issue has never been ‘Is it easier for God to resurrect an urn of ashes or a decomposed body?’ That's a no-brainer, you know! It's going to be an amazing thing to see what Jesus does to all those burial urns when He speaks that word on the Last Day, and those people are recomposed. The question is ‘What does our treatment of the body after death say about our view of the body as good, and about our hope of the bodily resurrection?’ These are the issues that I'm most concerned that Christians wrestle with as they’re working through those kinds of issues.
So we don't have a position that prohibits one practice or another, but we want to encourage amongst all believers in the family of Christians called First Presbyterian Church to have distinctly Christian views of what is entailed in death and burial.
Heavenly Father, thank You for this extraordinary opportunity in the last few weeks to think about death, and to try and think about it biblically. Lord, thank You for Donna Dobbs, who just in her talking with believers in our congregation who have deep pastoral and Christian concerns in these areas had a burden on her heart for us to talk about this as a congregation, and thus who set about the work of pulling this series together. I thank You for the way that she ministers to us in a thousand ways every year, and sometimes ways that we don't even know.
Thank You for all the people who've come out week after week because they’re concerned about Your word, and they’re concerned about the life hereafter. How refreshing that is, in a world full of people increasingly who don't even believe in a life hereafter, and certainly who do not spend much time thinking about it.
Lord, grant us biblical hope, so that we will not grieve as those who do not have that hope; especially, Lord God, for those here tonight who have been in all of our fellowships, who have themselves experienced personally the deep grief of the sundering of fellowship with loved ones who have been called up now into the grave. We ask, O God, that they would take deep gospel comfort in the truths of Scripture that we have spent time studying in the last weeks. We ask that together we would all magnify the name of the Lord in our thinking and in our living, in accordance with the truth that to live is Christ, and to die is gain. This we ask in Jesus' name. Amen.