Good Joke with a Bad Message

Good Joke with a Bad Message

There is an old joke about a man who wanted to take his valuables to heaven with him. He bound them carefully in a package and told his wife he was placing them in the attic right above his bed. He planned to die in bed, and as his spirit soared upward, he was going to pick up the package and take it to heaven with him. The old man did die in bed as he had planned. Sometime later, his wife remembered that he had this plan to pick up his valuables, so she went upstairs into the attic to see if he had been successful. The package was still there right where he had put it. Confronted with this, his oldest son remarked, “Well what he should have done was to place it in the cellar.” Good joke with a bad message.

This is a bad message because it conveys a wrong idea about life after this life. The Bible talks about streets of gold and gates of pearls to get us to understand that being with God brings beauty and rewards beyond what any of us can imagine. It does not mean that we will be in a physical city with real gold used to build its streets. Quite frankly, that would be interesting for just a few hours at the most. Heaven is a timeless existence free of all of the pain and problems of this life. Our feeble minds can’t comprehend the beauty and the joy of heaven.

As I get older, I’m looking forward to not having any more tears, any more death of those I care about, any more sorrow, or any more pain. The promise of Revelation 21:4 means more and more as I experience bad things here on Earth. It’s a good joke with a bad message because it has a wrong understanding of heaven. We need to be reminded that not only is heaven better than anything we can imagine, but hell not a dark place with flaming sulfur (brimstone). Hell is separation from God and all the spiritual blessings of God. However, the fundamental point of the joke remains: “You can’t take it with you.”

— John N. Clayton © 2021

Theological Objections to God’s Existence

Theological Objections to GodMany times what we present in this daily column is a function of our mail and what we hear from you, our readers. In addition to believers with questions, we also hear from atheists and skeptics who have theological objections to God. They say they simply don’t like the God they read about in the Bible. Here is an example:

“How can I believe in a God who creates people against their will, doesn’t allow them the freedom to live as they wish, and condemns them to eternal hell when they don’t conform to his desires.”

This is a person who is willing to reject all evidence of God and deny any hope of life beyond our physical existence because of his interpretations of the Bible. This person’s theological objections to God amounts to what I call theological atheism. I would suggest that this person has misconceptions and misunderstandings. Let me highlight a few:

#1) This person is assuming that in a previous existence, people could have had a choice as to whether to be created or not. There is no evidence of a prior existence of any kind. Assuming people would prefer non-existence to life is an assumption that is poorly supported.

#2) Bible events that skeptics attribute to God are often actions of humans. The Bible is reporting the events that transpired, not what God desired to happen. God did not tell Joseph’s brothers to throw him into a pit and sell him as a slave. God used an evil action of men to accomplish good. Most of the Old Testament is a record of the events that happened, not what God caused or commanded to happen. Humans consistently do horrible, stupid, violent, abusive, sinful things by choice. The consequences of those bad choices are not the will of God. The Bible honestly reports what happened, and God’s ultimate response to the needs of humanity.

#3) God gives humans complete freedom. You are free to jump off a cliff any time you choose to do so. What God does not do is to step in and remove the consequences of whatever free choice you make. God doesn’t turn off gravity for you no matter who you are. Actions that you choose have consequences.

#4) Hell is not a torture chamber, and physical interpretations miss the mark. The passage that is misused by atheists and some Christians alike to support hell as a torture chamber is Luke 16:19-31. This is a parable in a series of parables with the name “Lazarus” literally meaning” without help.” We have discussed this previously. People who use hell to portray God as an evil demagogue who takes delight in seeing innocent people scream in agony for eternity misunderstand God, human nature, and what is intended by the descriptions of hell. Matthew 10:28 indicates that the soul can die, and that would mean that a person is put back into the non-existence from which they came. That doesn’t deny the judgment and punishment for those who reject God.

Theological objections to God’s existence are poorly thought out, and they are often based on bad theology. We will continue examining theological atheism tomorrow.
— John N. Clayton © 2019

What Is Hell?

What Is Hell?What is hell, and why does God threaten to send us there? For the past two days, we have been looking at the challenges of this email we received:
“How can you expect me to believe in a God who created me against my wishes and without my consent, and then because I don’t do things the way he thinks I should, sends me to eternal suffering in hell? That is a product of a twisted mind and is not something I can believe in or serve. I didn’t ask to be born, and I won’t spend my life worshiping an evil, abusive God who rejoices in bringing pain to everything he touches.”

The emailer’s understanding of hell is traditional, not biblical. No one can answer all the questions about hell with authority, because no one has been there and returned to tell about it. Works like Dante’s Inferno have influenced us. Preachers who have used hell as a scare tactic to control their audiences. Misconceptions abound.

So what is hell? We tend to portray hell as a place of eternal punishing rather than a place of eternal punishment. There is a difference. When Jesus talked about hell, He used clearly symbolic words. He spoke of hell as a place of flames and burning sulfur (brimstone). Another time he called it a place of darkness (see Matthew 8:12; 22:13). Sometimes we hear hell explained by the story Jesus told of the rich man and Lazarus. The description of hell is presumed to be taken as literal. However, no Christian sees it as an instruction to pray to Abraham or that Abraham is the judge. Those things are presented in the story.

What we can say about hell is that it is total separation from God. An atheist who never wanted anything to do with God in life is going to be granted that same wish in hell. God never forces himself on any person. We are always free to reject God if we so choose. The only problem is that we must also suffer the consequences of that rejection of God. God is love, light, good, compassion, justice, etc. All of those things will be a part of heaven. None of those things will exist in hell. Being lost is frequently described in the Bible as “the second death” (see Revelation 2:11; 20:6, 14; 21:8). Theologians argue endlessly over what this means, and whether the soul can die. I certainly have nothing to add to the discussion, but I know that being separated from God and all the blessings of God is not something I wish even to consider.

The emailer states everything in diametric opposition to the truth. God is good, not evil. God is love, not hate. Hell is simply the separation from God that the emailer claims to desire. God clearly says that He does not want anyone to be lost, but for all to inherit eternal life (2 Peter 3:9). However, God also allows us to reject Him and all He offers. This is like the parent who painfully releases a child to travel a road the parent wishes they would not travel, hoping they will learn from the wrong choices and return to the parent’s loving embrace. The Prodigal Son story in Luke 15 makes this so obvious that no one can miss it.

Our rejection is not what God desires, and He always is there to welcome us back. What is hell? Our wrong choices can bring us death and eternal separation from God. That is hell, and you do not want any part of it. Come to God, obey His love and blessings. Enjoy eternal life with love, peace, joy, compassion, forgiveness, and freedom from pain that we can only dimly imagine.
— John N. Clayton © 2019

-May/June 2006

Nature of Heaven and Hell

Nature of Heaven and HellCecil May Jr. had a joke in the winter 2019 issue of Preacher Talk from Faulkner University. It raises serious issues that need to be addressed because of the confusion of both believers and atheists concerning the nature of Heaven and Hell. The joke goes like this:

Oral Roberts, Billy Graham, and Jim Bakker all died and arrived at the Pearly Gates at the same time. St. Peter told them, “There is a place reserved here for each of you, but we are in the midst of renovations, and we need to send you to the other place temporarily. We will call you back as soon as we can.” In less than a week Satan called St. Peter saying, “Hey, you’ve got to come and get these guys. Oral Roberts has healed everybody, Billy Graham has saved everybody, and Jim Bakker has raised enough money to air-condition the place.”

Without getting into any of the three people involved or the denominational views they represent, how many errors do you see about the nature of heaven and hell? Here are a dozen leading questions for you:

1) Are there “Pearly Gates” at the entrance to heaven?
2) Does Saint Peter act as the guardian or caretaker of the gates?
3) Does anyone have individual “places” in heaven?
4) Would Heaven ever need renovations?
5) Is hell a second class place to heaven?
6) Would any saint ever be in hell?
7) Does the word “temporary” have any meaning in heaven?
8) Are there weeks in heaven?
9) Does anyone in hell get relief or healing?
10) Is anyone in hell ever going to be saved?
11) Can any physical change ever be made in heaven or hell?
12) Is there money in heaven or hell?
The answer to each of these 12 is “No”!

Here are some biblical considerations:

1) Hell is complete separation from God. Matthew 25:31-46.
2) The Bible describes Hell in pictorial terms which are not physical.
A place of darkness – Matthew 8: 12, Jude 13, Matthew 22:13, 25:30, Romans 13:12 Ephesians 5:8,11.
A place of fire – Jude 7, Matthew 3:12, 5:22, 13:42,49,50, 25:41.
3) Hell is not a torture chamber – a physical place. Matthew 10:28, Luke 12:4-5.
Luke 16 is a parable, not history.
4) Hell is not a courtroom for debate. Matthew 25:31-46 has explanations, not bargaining or arguing.
5) Nothing physical remains after the second coming. 2 Peter 3:8-13.
6) God’s judgment is sure, fair and logical. Romans 2:2, Luke 16:15, Romans 9:14-16.
We are not the judge, nor is it up to us to tell God how to use His mercy.
7) Do you really believe that this life is all there is?
Have you researched the evidence for God’s existence?
Do you want to take any chance of going to hell?
Do you understand the nature of heaven and hell?

We can start you on the road to being confident about your salvation. Read 1 John 1:5-10.
Go to doesgodexist.org and take lesson # 1 of the free correspondence course.
— John N. Clayton © 2019

Is Hell a Physical Place?

Is Hell a Physical Place?
The October issue of Smithsonian magazine (page 14) contains a book review and discussion of portrayals of hell dating back to 400 BC. The pictures in the magazine are horrible scenes of torture and suffering with many of the images related to Catholic teachings on purgatory. All of the pictures reflect a belief that hell is a physical place with physical torture techniques applied to those rejected by God. But is hell a physical place?

We see the same portrayals in our newspapers with cartoons showing little men with horns and pitchforks doing nasty things to those condemned to eternal torture. We get frequent letters from unbelievers and people with doubts questioning the concept of hell. They argue that it is impossible to believe in a God who would punish anyone with eternal physical torture, especially those who never had the opportunity to hear the gospel. Because the media continues to feed those images to the public, a high percentage of our population believes that the Bible teaches this physical abuse.

There is no question that the Bible clearly indicates that there is eternal punishment for those who choose to reject God. But there is a difference between eternal punishment and eternal punishing. A person executed for a crime is penalized eternally, but the execution is not eternal torture.

Jesus spoke of the difference between these two in Matthew 10:28, “Fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” There are numerous other passages which speak of hell as a separation from God and all that goes with God–love, peace, joy, etc. Torturing is not something God does. Then is hell a physical place or is it more likely an eternal separation from God and everything that is good and pleasing?
–John N. Clayton © 2018