Postcards From the Edge of Non-Liberal Protestantism

A response to Bishop Spong

Bishop John Shelby Spong's questioning of the existence of the afterlife is revealing in many respects.

One can sympathize with the argument that much that passes for belief in the afterlife in the church is not well-grounded in Christian theology or the Scriptures. It is simply wishful thinking. One can also agree with the complaint that it is wrong to suggest that life is meaningless without a vibrant belief in the afterlife.

There is a difference, however, between a life that has meaning and one that is grounded in something of eternal significance. It is also easy to understand, and even identify with, a brave struggle toward a viable faith in an afterlife after having witnessed profound suffering.

What is missing, however, in this whole debate is any sort of solid grounding in the Scriptures. The reason, it appears to me, is a loss of belief in the authority of what the Scriptures teach on such matters.

Here are my responses to the bishop's reflections:

* Heaven and hell are not symbols; they are places in the universe that parallel the material universe--namely, the spiritual realm. Consider for a moment just the New Testament. In the Gospel of Matthew alone, the term "heaven" recurs repeatedly as a roundabout way of referring to God, so certain is the author that there is a place where God dwells, namely heaven. In the earliest Gospel, Mark 1:11 records the fact that God spoke to Jesus from heaven--a place, not merely a state of altered consciousness. One may also wish to consider the likely authentic parable of Jesus about heaven and hell in Luke 16:19-31. Though the parable involves metaphorical speech, it is metaphorical speech that speaks about a real place. In John 14:2, Jesus speaks of the spaciousness of heaven, where there is plenty of room for those who believe in God and in Jesus. In Acts 2, the church is said to have received the Holy Spirit from heaven; and Paul speaks plainly about life in heaven, where one is "absent from the body and present with the Lord" (2 Corinthians 5). Finally, the book of Revelation is replete with visions from and of heaven, something John of Patmos fervently believed in as a place separate from earth and the material realm.


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