joi, 29 mai 2008
Where have we come from, and where are we going? Can we know the answers? One person certainly did. 'I came from the Father and entered the world; now I am leaving the world and going back to the Father,' he said (John 16: 28).
The man of the world believes this life is the only life he has, and lives and acts according to that belief. If there is an after life, he thinks, we do not know much if anything about it, and the best thing to do is to enjoy the life we have on this earth and make the most of it.
Most religions, on the other hand, place a strong emphasis on the after life. Most religious people believe that the next life will either be wonderfully happy in heaven or horribly miserable in hell for ever. Our final destination depends on our faith or actions in this life. Many people hold this theory, but few of them are able to live in accordance with what they believe. Most of them watch the majority of their fellow beings, usually including many of their own relations, heading for eternal torment, and feel powerless to do anything about it.
Hindus and Buddhists believe in reincarnation. We progress through many lives on this earth, they believe, hopefully making spiritual progress each time we come, until we finally attain enlightenment and do not need to return. I do not believe this teaching, but I do find it more logical than the idea that we have one short - maybe very short - life on earth after which we will go immediately to eternal bliss or eternal torment (more probably the latter) depending on decisions often made with little on which to base them.
I believe in the eventual restitution of all things or universal reconciliation. God plans 'to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross' (Col 1: 20). I also believe that we pre-existed as spirits with God before we entered our earthly bodies.
These two beliefs change the whole perspective of our earthly life. It becomes a smaller part of something very much larger. The vast differences in our experiences and opportunities in this world become much smaller when seen against a background of what went before and what comes afterwards.
We will examine the scriptural evidence for our pre-existence, but, before we do so, we will consider how such a view could be correct if so few people now believe it or have seen it in scripture.
Why truth is hidden
Firstly, truth is hidden until God chooses to reveal it. In the old covenant, truth was hidden in types and shadows - pictures and stories - and later revealed when Jesus came as the mediator of the new covenant. The truth was there, but hidden until the time came for its revelation.
Most obviously this was true when the apostle Paul re-read the Hebrew scriptures with enlightened eyes, and saw things which he said were 'the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past, but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God, so that all nations might believe and obey him' (Rom 16: 25, 26).
In the new testament, Jesus spoke in parables so that truth could be revealed to those whom he chose, but not to the multitudes.
So we will find some truth stated clearly in scripture for all to understand. Other truth we will find hidden in all kinds of ways, limited only by the imagination of God. Laws, stories, words, numbers and much more, all contain truth that God is able and willing to reveal when and to whom he pleases.
Secondly, we find that truth is hidden by man's sin and corruption. The doctrine of universal reconciliation is hidden by mistranslation of key Greek words. The church in general knew little of a gospel of grace and mercy, and needed a doctrine of eternal damnation to control its members and frighten them into submission. The ecclesiastical authorities were more than happy with inaccurate translation.
Thirdly we find that truth is hidden behind other truth. The traditional church view of eternal judgement makes it quite impossible for anyone to believe in any kind of pre-existence. Jesus said that he came from the Father and went back to the Father. Could it make any sense that we also came into this world from the Father, and the majority of us then went on to the devil? What father could send his children on any venture that in all probability would end in their suffering unspeakable torment for ever and ever?
If you hold the traditional majority teaching that most of the human race is destined for perpetual and indescribable torment, then pre-existence with God becomes an absurd impossibility.
The teachings of universal reconciliation and pre-existence are linked. If you believe in eternal damnation, you cannot possibly believe in. pre-existence as a spirit with God. If you believe in pre-existence, it is a strong argument for believing in universal reconciliation.
Fourthly, I must add that many in the early church believed both in universal reconciliation and in pre-existence. I've read that 'Until the sixth century A.D., early Christianity taught that we had a pre-earth life. Then the doctrine of a pre-existence was condemned by the council of Constantinople in A.D. 553.' Like many other truths, these truths were lost until the reformation and more recent times.
We will look now at universal reconciliation. I have written separately on this subject, under the title Universal Reconciliation, and so will write only briefly here.
The Life to Come
Does the Bible really teach that unbelievers will suffer eternal torment? I believe the answer is an emphatic NO.
Most English Bible translations contradict themselves on the subject of salvation. The following verses state directly or indirectly that all mankind will eventually be saved:
For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive (1 Co 15: 22)
For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross (Col 1: 19, 20).
And every created thing that is in heaven and on the earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all things in them, I heard saying, "To Him who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb, be blessing and honour and glory and dominion and power for ever and ever" (Rev 5: 13).
For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things (Rom 11: 36).
Other scriptures indicate that the majority of mankind will go into everlasting torment. Here are 3 of them:
Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels (Mat 25:41).
They will be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up for ever and ever ... (Rev 14: 10,11).
Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life (Mat 25: 46).
They will be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power (2 Thes 1: 9).
At face value these, and many other scriptures contradict each other. The problem is solved when we turn to the original Greek. The words translated for ever and ever (eiV aiwnaV aiwnwn) should rightly be translated for ages of ages. The word translated everlasting or eternal (aiwnioV)should be translated age-lasting.
Future, corrective punishment exists, but its duration is not for ever and ever. Fire and brimstone (sulphur) are both purifying agents. The lake of fire - the second death - will serve its purifying purpose, and will cease to exist when Christ overcomes death, the last enemy. The time will then come when, according to John's vision, 'every created thing that is in heaven and on the earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all things in them, (will be) heard saying, "To Him who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb, be blessing and honour and glory and dominion and power for ever and ever"' (Rev 5: 13).
We can now consider the scriptural arguments for pre-existence as spirits with God.
Many scriptures testify to the pre-existence of Jesus. 'In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God' (John 1: 1). 'He made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness' (Phil 2: 7). He himself said, 'I came from the Father and entered the world; now I am leaving the world and going back to the Father' (John 16: 28). He had no doubts about where he came from, and none about where he was going. He came from the Father and was returning to the Father. He also said, 'Before Abraham was, I am' (John 8: 58).
Jesus had no doubts about his own pre-existence, but what did he say of his disciples? Referring to them, he said: 'As you sent me into the world, I sent them into the world' (John 17: 18). In Greek the verb sent is in the simple past tense in both parts of this statement, though some English translations change it to have sent in the second part.
In Ecclesiastes chapter 12 we find a poetic description of old age and death. It ends with the words: 'Remember your creator in the days of your youth … before the silver cord is severed, or the golden bowl is broken; before the pitcher is shattered at the spring, or the wheel broken at the well, and the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it' (Ecc 12: 6, 7). This is a clear and unambiguous statement. The spirit came from God and the spirit returns to God.
Jeremiah describes his call to God's service as follows: 'The word of the Lord came to me, saying, "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations"' (Jer 1: 4, 5). God knew Jeremiah before he entered his mother's womb. This also indicates that Jeremiah (and we) existed as spirits before we entered our human bodies.
Dead and alive
Turning to the New Testament, we find the truth of our pre-existence implied, rather than stated. The New Testament describes the unbeliever as being in a state of death. Jesus said, 'I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has passed from death to life' (John 5: 24). You can't pass from death into life, unless you are in a state of death. Paul wrote, 'God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions' (Eph 2: 5). John uses similar language: 'We know that we have passed from death to life' (1 John 3: 14). Jesus, Paul and John all describe unbelievers as being dead. The word dead, according to both my dictionaries, means no longer alive. In other words, you have to be alive first before you can be dead. You know whenever you see a dead animal or bird or plant that it was previously alive. The scriptural teaching that the natural man is in a state of death implies that in some way he has previously been alive.
Similarly Paul describes people as alienated from God: ‘Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behaviour. But now he has reconciled you’ (Col 1: 21). You can only be alienated from people whom you previously knew and with whom you had good relationships. You cannot be alienated from people you never knew in the first place. If we start our lives on earth in a state of alienation from God, then we must have previously existed in good relationship with him.
Paul writes at some length on the subject of reconciliation to God: 'All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men's sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ's behalf: Be reconciled to God' (2 Cor 5: 18-20). Reconciliation does not mean making friends with someone you've never met and don't know. It means restoring a relationship that previously existed and has been broken. So we cannot be reconciled to God unless we previously knew him and were in relationship with him. If indeed it is true that 'I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me' (Ps 51: 5) then that previous relationship can only have been in a previous existence.
The word redeem with its imagery tells us the same story. The meaning of the word redeem is to buy back what one previously owned. You cannot redeem something that was not previously yours. The meaning comes from the laws of the Old Testament. We find a clear illustration in Leviticus 25: 25: 'If one of your countrymen becomes poor and sells some of his property, his nearest relative is to come and redeem what his countryman has sold.' Not only property, but also people could be redeemed: 'he retains the right of redemption after he has sold himself. One of his relatives may redeem him: an uncle or a cousin or any blood-relative in his clan may redeem him. Or if he prospers, he may redeem himself' (Lev 25: 48, 49). Again we see clearly that redemption brings a person back to the free status he previously enjoyed. We see that we belonged to God before birth into our physical bodies and consequent sin separated us from him.
We must now take a fresh look at John chapter 3, the chapter where Jesus speaks about the new birth. Or does he? You may be surprised to know that the phrases new birth and new life occur nowhere in the Bible. Instead we find the words rebirth and resurrection. In fact new birth and re-birth are almost opposite in meaning. One has happened before, and the other has not. Nicodemus misunderstood Jesus when he asked, 'How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter the second time into his mother's womb, and be born?' Jesus was not referring to a repeat physical birth, but to a repeat spiritual birth. When we enter this world, we suffer spiritual death through sin. We must be born again into spiritual life.
We experience spiritual death when we enter this world. Jesus was without sin, and therefore did not experience spiritual death when he took a human body. For him, both physical death and spiritual death took place when he carried our sin and suffered on the cross. Similarly he experienced both physical and spiritual resurrection when he rose from the dead. Our spiritual resurrection is the same as our spiritual rebirth. It takes place when we receive Jesus as our saviour. Our bodily resurrection is yet to come.
So we find that the words redemption, reconciliation, rebirth and resurrection all tell us the same story. We are returning to a state we previously experienced and enjoyed.
Chosen before the foundation of the earth
Paul wrote, 'He chose us in Him (Christ) before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before Him' (Eph 1: 4). Were we chosen before we existed? It's possible, but it certainly makes better sense if we already existed before the foundation of the world at the time when we were chosen. This scripture also suggests an existence before we came into this world.
Living in tents
'Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling' (2 Cor 5: 1). Paul here describes the human body as a tent or temporary dwelling. In normal thinking we do not progress from tents to houses. We live in houses and move temporarily into tents and then return to houses. Bible imagery was the same. Abraham dwelt in tents, but was born in a solid house in Ur of the Chaldees. God instituted the festival of tabernacles (tents) to remind the people of Israel that they had dwelt in tents during their journey from Egypt to Canaan. To describe the body as a tent naturally implies both pre-existence and post-existence in a more permanent state.
Strangers and foreigners
We find this phrase in 1 Pet 2: 11: 'Dear friends, I urge you, as strangers and foreigners in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul' and Heb 11:13: 'confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth.' You can only be a stranger or a foreigner if you have come from somewhere else. The Greek word for foreigner (parepidhmoV) means someone who comes from a foreign country.
Came naked into the world
'For we have brought nothing into the world, so we cannot take anything out of it either' (1 Tim 6: 7). These words of Paul also imply both pre and post existence. To take something out implies going to another place or existence. To bring something in implies coming from another place
An Alternative Explanation
At this point we must consider an alternative explanation for some (but not all) of the above scriptures. Paul wrote, 'As in Adam all die, so in Christ shall all be made alive.' Death, alienation, reconciliation and redemption can all be seen as happening to the human race as a whole, rather than to each individual member of it.
The story of the children of Israel in Egypt supports this view. God redeemed the people as a whole from Egypt rather than as individuals. Jacob went down into Egypt with 70 people. Many more were then born and died in Egypt. Generations later Moses then brought a million or so people out of Egypt. No individual went down into Egypt, lived there, and then returned to the land of Canaan. Only the people as a whole did that.
So is it individual members of the human race that die and become alive, are alienated and then reconciled, and are sold into sin and then redeemed? Is it not rather the human race as a whole?
The answer is not either .. or, but both .. and. These things happen both to the human race as a whole and to its individual members.
The scriptures have many interpretations and fulfilments. All too often one valid interpretation of scripture has blinded our eyes to any other! Every one knows that the Holy Spirit descended on the church as a whole on the day of Pentecost. Generations of believers have been blind to the fact that he also falls on individuals.
Books have been written about the wonderful way in which Jesus fulfilled the festivals of the old covenant and the Tabernacle. We thrill to the greater understanding of Jesus that such writings have given us. However we are thrilled a second time when we see that the ancient festivals also are a pattern for our own spiritual growth and walk with God.
The scriptures contain heavenly patterns, which often have more than one earthly fulfilment. So also death and resurrection, alienation and reconciliation, slavery and redemption happen in different ways to the Jewish people, the human race as a whole, and also to its individual members.
An Anecdote and a Poem
One day a very little girl told her parents that she wanted to go and talk to their new baby on her own. The parents had installed an intercom so that they could hear when baby cried. They told her to go ahead and wondered what she was going to say. With the intercom switched on in the baby's room, they were able to listen to everything the little girl said. She went over to the crib and the parents heard her say, "Since I have been on the earth I have forgotten what Father was like. Could you tell me what He is like?"
This beautiful little story is reminiscent of the following lines from the ode: Intimations of immortality from recollections of early childhood by the English poet William Wordsworth:
Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting
The soul that rises with us, our life's star
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar;
Not in entire forgetfulness
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy.
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing boy,
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy.
What implications does pre-existence have, and how does it change our attitudes?
We will consider first general implications and then personal implications.
Traditional teaching has presented this life as the start of our existence. This life might be long or short, happy or miserable, privileged or unprivileged, lived in heathen darkness or with every opportunity for spiritual light. Some people are born into a good family in a free country and live many years in health and happiness and plenty. Others are born into poverty and depravation or under evil governments, or live their lives with every kind of suffering for no obvious fault of their own.
The man of the world repeatedly tells us it is unfair. How can God be just when existence is so unequal?
In the past we might have replied that this life is not the whole story. Anyone who repents of his sins and believes in Jesus for salvation will go to heaven when he dies, and his sufferings will turn to infinite joy. The unrepentant will go into eternal torment.
Our friend replies that this is even less fair. Not only is this life unjust, but the next is infinitely worse. Many people live out this life in suffering and misery, only to find that far worse awaits them in the eternity that follows.
Thank God the true gospel is infinitely better than this. Our life in this world is a small part of a vastly greater picture. It is neither the beginning nor the end. Our true beginning with God was good. Our eventual state with him will be better far. That state of heavenly blessing can begin for us even now.
Paul wrote: 'our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all' (1 Cor 4: 17). Jesus himself suffered beyond anything we may imagine, when the inconceivable darkness and burden of the sins of the world broke his hitherto perfect communion with his father. In varying degrees all other members of the human race suffer a breach in their relation with our Father. Finally all will return to perfect communion with him. Long or short, small or great, the suffering of this life will seem little compared with the glory that will eventually come for all mankind.
Someone looking at one square inch of a great oil painting could easily say that it made no sense. Reveal the whole picture to him, and he would see a brilliant masterpiece. When we look at this life with our limited human sight, we are seeing only a small part of a vastly greater whole. God’s creation is like an enormous and perfect tapestry. For now, we can see only an infinitesimal part of it. He looks at the whole from eternity to eternity and declares, as recorded in the book of Genesis, that it is very good.
What difference does our pre-existence make for us at the personal level?
We are returning, like the prodigal son, to a father we have previously known and loved. We are not going to a new country, where we have never been before. We come back like a traveller from a foreign country to the home and place where we belong.
Reconciliation with God is not making friends with someone we've never met before. It is restoring a lost and broken relationship, and lifting it to a new and far more wonderful level.
We are not purchased by a new owner whom we have never met, but redeemed by our original loving heavenly Father.