Are Hades and Hell the Same Place? (post #1 of 2)

Paula Jarvis Garland has asked the question: “Are Hades and Hell the same place?” The short answer is, Yes, but the whole subject is one of the Bible’s most complex and far reaching. That’s why I’m splitting my answer into two posts. Here’s part 1.

For centuries the classic King James translation of the Bible was the favored one for the English-speaking world. Many of us grew up reading the K.J.V. and memorizing its verses, and undoubtedly it’s a generally solid translation. Unfortunately, the way it uses the word “hell” has been a longstanding problem.

In the K.J.V.’s New Testament, three very different Greek words describing three very different places all get translated as the one word “hell.” This has caused untold confusion among sincere students of the Bible. The three words are TartarusGehenna, and Hades. I could devote an entire series of posts to explaining what the Bible teaches about each place, but for this post let me just offer the basics.

First, I’ll name Tartarus. Tartarus is a place exclusively for the imprisonment of fallen angels. No human souls have ever been or ever will be incarcerated in Tartarus. 2 Peter 2:4 speaks of a certain group of fallen angels and says that God has “…cast them down to hell…” (K.J.V.N.K.J.V.). The original Greek behind that phrase “cast them down to hell” uses the Greek verb tartaroo, from which we get the noun form Tartarus. (By the way, if you are wondering what those fallen angels did to get themselves imprisoned in Tartarus, you’ll find the answer in Genesis 6:1-4. These angels are the “sons of God” referred to in that passage.)

Just to clarify, though, while 2 Peter 2:4 is the only verse that actually uses the word tartarus (at least the verb form of it), it certainly isn’t the only New Testament passage in which Tartarus is described. Tartarus, you see, goes by two other names. In the book of The Revelation, it is “the bottomless pit” mentioned in chapters 9,11,17, and 20. Likewise, it is “the deep” mentioned in Luke 8:31 and Romans 10:7. Those terms “the bottomless pit” and “the deep” both translate the Greek word abussos, from which we get our English word “abyss.” Putting everything together, Tartarus, the bottomless pit, the deep, and the abyss are all the same place, and it’s a place not built for human souls. It’s a prison for fallen angels.

Second, Gehenna is the infamous eternal lake of fire that is mentioned so prominently in chapters 19-21 of The Revelation. Even though this place is in existence right now, it currently stands as completely empty. Its first occupants will be the Antichrist and the False Prophet from the coming tribulation period (Revelation 19:20). They will be cast into Gehenna in the aftermath of the Battle of Armageddon that ends the tribulation period. Ultimately, though, Gehenna will be the place where all of history’s lost people will spend eternity.

This leaves us with Hades. Hades is the New Testament Greek’s word for the place, but the Old Testament Hebrew’s word for it is Sheol.  And what is Hades (Sheol)? It’s best to think of it as being the afterlife realm of the dead. As proof of this, I’ll point out that the Old Testament of the K.J.V. translates the name Sheol as “hell” in thirty-one instances and as “the grave” in another thirty-one instances. What am I saying? I’m saying that in Old Testament days the soul of every deceased person, regardless of whether the person was saved or lost, went to Hades (Sheol). As scriptural evidence of this, Psalm 9:17 puts the lost souls of the wicked there, but 2 Samuel 22:6 puts the soul of David, who was at the time living under a death sentence from King Saul, dangerously close to being there.

Someone might ask, “But how could God allow the souls of all the Old Testament people to go to the same afterlife abode?” The answer is simple: Hades (Sheol) consists of TWO sections. God designed one section to house the souls of saved believers and the other section to house the souls of lost unbelievers. While the Old Testament certainly hints at these two sections, the New Testament comes right out and describes each one.

The passage is Luke 16:19-31, which is Christ’s story of the rich man and the beggar Lazarus. In the story, the souls of the rich man and the beggar both go to Hades (Sheol) upon death. (The Greek word translated as “hell” in the K.J.V. of the passage is Hades.) The beggar’s soul goes to the bliss section of the place, where he is comforted by the soul of Abraham, an Old Testament believer. But the rich man’s soul goes to the torment section, where there is no comfort. Even though the rich man can engage in a brief conversation with Abraham and Lazarus, a great gulf prevents him from passing over to that other section.

It is this torment section of Hades (Sheol) that people nowadays have in mind when they talk about someone dying and going to “hell.” Just as was the case in Old Testament times, the souls of lost people still go to the torment section of Hades. It is a place of torment and flame (Luke 16:24). It is a place of painful remembrance of the events of your earthly life (Luke 16:25). It is a place where all your requests are denied (Luke 16:24, 27-28, 30-31).

And would you believe that Hades (both sides) is literally located in the heart of the earth? The Old Testament always speaks of the place in terms of being “down.” For your homework, read the story of how God allowed a medium to conjure up the soul of the deceased prophet Samuel so that Samuel could pronounce a word of doom upon King Saul (1 Samuel 28:3-25). According to that story, Samuel’s soul ascended up out of the earth, not down from heaven. Furthermore, not only is Hades (Sheol) located somewhere in the heart of the earth, the Bible also teaches that the place has gates (Job 17:16, Matthew 16:18).

But here now is where we bring this whole topic into our current era. Please take special note of what you’re about to read: When Jesus ascended back to heaven forty days after His resurrection, He emptied the bliss section of Hades and took those saved souls into heaven with Him. The passage on this is Ephesians 4:8-10, which reads in the New King James translation:

Therefore He says: “When He ascended on high, He led captivity captive, And gave gifts to men.” (Now this, “He ascended – what does it mean but that He also first descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is also the One who ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things.)

What Paul is doing in this passage is playing off the scene of a Roman general leading a procession through the streets of Rome after a victorious military campaign. The general would be at the front of the parade in such a procession, and behind him would be the “trophies” he had “won” through his military victories. Some of those “trophies” would be people who had been captured as prisoners of war by the general’s army.

And so, using this earthly illustration, Paul describes how Jesus “won” the souls out of the bliss section of Hades. First, Jesus descended into the lower parts of the earth. (Remember that Hades is located somewhere deep in the heart of the earth.) Second, He ascended to heaven with those souls. Third, He marched victoriously into heaven with those souls behind Him. The N.I.V. translation does the best job of conveying Paul’s imagery. It renders Ephesians 4:8 as, “…he led captives in his train…”

You ask, “But why did all those saved souls have to wait until Christ’s resurrection and ascension before they could formally enter heaven?” It was because Jesus had to officially shed His blood in time and history before their sins could be eternally cleansed. Keep in mind that Hebrews 10:4 says that it wasn’t possible for the blood of the Old Testament sacrifices to take away sin. The best such blood could do was cover sin and keep the wrath of God off those believers. It is only Christ’s literal blood that can eternally cleanse sin. As I once heard a Bible teacher say, “Really, the Old Testament believers were saved on credit by looking ahead to Christ’s death on the cross just as we look back to it.”

And so what does all this mean for the Christian today? It means that at the moment of death the Christian’s soul goes straight up to heaven. There is now no longer a need for the bliss section of Hades. That section does still exist, but it’s empty. It has had its time. It has served its purpose. It is now closed for business and no longer receives saved souls.

If we needed any further proof of this, the same Paul who wrote about how the resurrected, ascended Jesus entered into heaven with those saved souls from Hades (Sheol) also taught in 2 Corinthians 5:1-8 that now when a Christian is absent from the body, that Christian is present with the Lord. Paul also said in Philippians 1:23 that he desired to depart this earth and be with Christ, which is far better. When he said that he knew full well that Jesus is now seated at the right hand of God the Father in heaven. For that matter, just before Steven died his martyr’s death he saw Jesus in heaven standing to receive his soul (Acts 7:54-60). The obvious implication was that Stephen’s soul was about to enter into heaven, not into the bliss section of Hades (Sheol).

Okay, that covers the fact that Hades (Sheol) has two sections and that Jesus emptied the souls from the bliss section and took them into heaven with Him. That just leaves the torment section open for business. But what about its future? Will that section ever be emptied of its souls? And if so, where will those souls be transported? Well, those answers will take us into a whole other part of this topic, and that’s the part that I will tackle in the next post. See you then.

Posted in Angels, Christ's Death, Christ's Resurrection, Death, Eternity, God's Judgment, Heaven, Hell | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Beasts at Ephesus

…I have fought with the beasts at Ephesus… (1 Corinthians 15:32, N.K.J.V.)

In 1 Corinthians 15:32, the apostle Paul says that he fought with beasts at Ephesus. Some translations add the adjective “wild” to describe the beasts. But is Paul describing literal creatures from the animal kingdom or is he using the word metaphorically to describe men who violently opposed his ministry in Ephesus? Well, now you’re on a subject.

The Greek word for the beasts is a variation of therion, a word that almost always refers to some type of literal creature. For example, therion is used in Acts 28:4 to describe the venomous snake that bit Paul when he was shipwrecked on the island of Malta. It is also used in Mark 1:13 to describe the beasts that surrounded Jesus when He was being tempted in the Judean wilderness, and in Acts 10:12 to describe the beasts Peter saw as part of his God-induced trance.

This leads some commentators to conclude that Paul fought actual animals in Ephesus. Perhaps it was an arena fight akin to a Roman Damnatio Ad Bestias (Condemnation to Beasts). Perhaps it was part of the public games that were held in honor of Diana, the fabled goddess of the Ephesians. Perhaps it was a fight in which Paul fought with bulls. As Marvin Vincent mentions in his Word Studies in the New Testament, the young men of Ephesus were famous for their bull-fighting.

There are, however, a couple of significant problems with interpreting Paul’s beasts as literal animals. One, Paul was an official Roman citizen who, as such, could not have been forced (at least legally) to engage in some type of arena fight with wild animals. Two, the account given in Acts 19:1-41 of Paul’s two years at Ephesus makes no mention of him being arrested, let alone him being condemned to an arena fight with a man-eating beast.

What the account does say is that after two years of Paul’s relatively peaceful and highly fruitful ministry in Ephesus, a silversmith named Demetrius got the local silversmiths stirred up against Paul and Paul’s traveling companions (19:23-28). The problem was that Paul and his ministry team were costing Demetrius and his fellow silversmiths money. Every Ephesian won to Jesus was one less Ephesian to buy a silver shine to use in the worship of the false goddess Diana.

The efforts of Demetrius and the other silversmiths resulted in two of Paul’s companions — Gaius and Aristarchus — being seized and taken to the amphitheater in Ephesus (19:29). Paul tried to get into the site to defend his friends, but some of the local Christians, fearing that Paul might be killed, refused to allow him to get involved (19:30-31). Fortunately, the city clerk spoke words of reasoning and logic to the mob, and in so doing defused the whole situation (19:35-41). Afterward, everyone went home and Gaius and Aristarchus were released. But the incident did prompt Paul to leave Ephesus and head for Macedonia (Acts 20:1). Even before the riot, he had decided to leave Ephesus and start making his way to Jerusalem (Acts 19:21)

This, then, circles us back around to the question: When Paul talks about fighting with beasts at Ephesus, is he talking about literal beasts or metaphorical ones? The fact that either type of beast would have been dangerous enough to have caused physical death to Paul only makes the interpretation harder. One thing is for sure, Paul fully expected to one day be killed. He frequently wrote about the hardships of his ministry and the physical death that constantly loomed over him (2 Corinthians 1:8-9; 4:8-16; 5:1-8; 6:4-5; and 11:22-28). This seems to be the meaning of his famous words “I die daily” in our text’s preceding verse, 1 Corinthians 15:31. Again, though, was his close encounter at Ephesus due to animals or people?

After consulting a slew of commentators, I find that the majority of them take the beasts to be people who opposed Paul’s ministry. Perhaps the reference really is to Demetrius, his fellow silversmiths, and that mob. I will say, though, that there is not complete agreement on the matter, and even many of the commentators who favor the metaphorical interpretation allow for the fact that a literal one, such as an arena fight with some type of animal, isn’t completely out of the question.

As for me, I tend to go with the metaphorical interpretation as well. I’m reminded of something I once heard a pastor friend of mine say. In reference to one of his former churches, he said, “I fought with the beasts at ………. church.” That was a funny line, but the emotion of his voice left no doubt that there was a harpoon of truth in his words. He was talking about real issues he had had with real people. Truth be told, I myself have had a few fights with a few beasts in various situations throughout the course of my life and ministry. I guess such fights are part and parcel to the job of serving Jesus. This is something that Paul knew all too well, and it’s something that you’ll learn too if your efforts for Christ ever get you into the wheelhouse of a Demetrius.

Posted in Adversity, Courage, God's Work, Ministry, Persecution, Perseverance, Spiritual Warfare | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

God & Evil

Malcolm Woody has asked: “If God is all good, and all knowing, and all powerful, and all loving, why is there evil in the world?”

Mathew 5:48 says that God is “perfect.” 1st John 1:5 says: “…God is light and in Him is no darkness at all.” James 1:13 says: “…God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He Himself tempt anyone.” Genesis 1:31 says of creation: “Then God saw everything that He had made, and indeed it was very good…” Each of the verses speaks to the impeccable character and undiluted goodness of God.

Then we have other verses that affirm God’s complete sovereignty over all creation. For example, Psalm 115:3 says: “But our God is in heaven; He does whatever He pleases.” In Job 42:2, Job says of God: “I know that you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted” (N.I.V.). In Isaiah 46:9-10, God says of Himself, “…I am God, and there is no other; I am God and there is none like me. I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. I say: My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please” (N.I.V.).

With all this in mind, it is fair to ask, “Why is the world such a hard place in which to live?” Murders. Rapes. Lying. Cheating. Stealing. Drug addiction. Alcohol addiction. Pornography addiction. Droughts. Floods. Blizzards. Tornadoes. Hurricanes. Earthquakes. Cancer. Strokes. Heart attacks. Shark attacks. If God is all good and all powerful, how do we explain things that are decidedly not good?

First and foremost, we have to understand that God’s creation is no longer in its original, pristine condition. Sin has entered into the once idyllic picture, and it has brought death with it. We all know about Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, but the problem of sin actually goes back even further than that. You see, the first sin had nothing to do with forbidden fruit. No, the first sin that ever messed up creation was pride, the pride found in an angel named Lucifer. (As you probably know, he also goes by the name “Satan” and the title “the devil.)

Lucifer’s sinful pride is described in Isaiah 14:12-15 and Ezekiel 28:1-19. On the one hand, each of these passages is a prophecy spoken against a literal earthly ruler — the King of Babylon, the King of Tyre. On the other hand, though, each of the prophecies also deals with the fallen angel Lucifer, who is the true power behind every worldly throne. The King of Babylon could never have been described as being “fallen from heaven,” just as the King of Tyre could never have been described as being “the anointed cherub” who was “in Eden” and “perfect” in his ways until the day iniquity was found in him.

And Lucifer wasn’t the only one of God’s created angels who went rogue. Revelation 12:4 symbolically refers to Lucifer as a dragon with a tail and says his tail drew a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the ground. Clearly, those symbolic “stars” are Lucifer’s fellow fallen angels, which the New Testament also refers to as “demons.” Needless to say, a whole lot of evil is produced by fallen angels.

It was Lucifer who demon possessed the body of Eden’s serpent and spoke words of temptation to Eve. When she and Adam yielded to the temptation by eating Eden’s forbidden fruit, the entire human race became tragically corrupted and crippled by sin. God had decreed that in the day the couple ate the fruit, they would surely die. The Hebrew behind those words literally means “dying you shall die.” This means that even though Adam and Eve did not drop dead the moment they ate the forbidden fruit, the aging process was begun in their bodies, and that aging process would ultimately lead to their physical deaths. The phrase “dying you shall die” also explains why humans are so susceptible to the litany of sicknesses and diseases that we know so well.

The effects of the human race’s plunge into sin don’t stop there, either. Because of what went on in Eden, each member of Adam’s race is a sinner from the moment of conception in the womb (Psalm 51:5) and is born “dead in trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1). And what do sinners do? They do what comes naturally: sin. This throws the door wide open for murders, rapes, lying, cheating, stealing, drug addiction, alcohol addiction, pornography addiction, and any and all others acts of sin that human inflict upon either themselves or others.

Someone says, “But neither the angelic rebellion nor mankind’s sin accounts for droughts, floods, blizzards, tornadoes, hurricanes, and earthquakes.” Yes, they do. For one thing, Satan killing Job’s children by way of a catastrophic “whirlwind” serves as Biblical evidence that Satan isn’t completely helpless when it comes to creating natural disasters (Job 1:1-19). For another, Genesis 3:17-19 says that Adam’s sin caused God to curse the ground for Adam’s sake, and Romans 8:20-22 takes the matter even further by saying that all of creation was subjected to futility and now groans and labors in bondage. This throws the door wide open for the earth to experience all types of natural disasters including even either meteor strikes or asteroid strikes.

To sum up then, sin has created scores of angels that are fallen, a human race of sinners for whom sin comes as naturally as breathing, and a creation that, while still retaining much of its original beauty, is groaning and laboring in the bondage of futility. And it is from these three categories that all evil stems. This answers the question, “Where does evil come from?” But the question it doesn’t answer is, “Why does God allow evil?”

At the risk of sounding trite, I’ll answer that question by saying that God doesn’t want robots. This applies to angels as well as to humans. That’s why He built a moral free will into each member of each group. Even though God could easily MAKE every angel and every human being serve Him perfectly, He has no interest in doing that. He wants volunteers, not draftees. Of course, the price that God must pay for Him giving angels and humans the option of free will is the price of Him allowing evil to occur in its multitude of forms.

Even more than God simply paying this price, He actually takes up the challenge of in one way or another using every act of evil in the accomplishing of His plans. Would you and I chose to handle the problem of evil in this way? No. I suppose we would instantaneously cut all sin out of every fallen angel and every human being and then restore creation back to its “factory” state. But would there be any difference between us cutting out all sin and us mass producing robots that have to act in perfect morality? Not really. That’s why God doesn’t go that route. He’s simply not interested in a set up where submission to Him and servitude of Him are compulsory. He’d rather allow evil to occur and work in the midst of it. That’s what He’s been doing since Lucifer first rebelled.

Posted in Addiction, Aging, Angels, Creation, Death, Demons, God's Sovereignty, Pride, Satan, Sickness, Sin, Spiritual Warfare, The Devil, Weather | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Kingdom Facts

Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now My kingdom is not from here.” (John 18:36, N.K.J.V.)
What I’d like to do with this post is briefly walk us through what the Bible teaches about Christ’s kingdom. I’ll do this by way of stating 10 facts. I won’t provide much commentary alongside each fact, but I would encourage you to sit down with a Bible sometime and read for yourself the references that I cite. Okay, here we go:
Fact #1: Jesus is a King and He does have a kingdom, but His kingdom is a heavenly one, not an earthly one. Jesus Himself referred to His kingdom as “the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 4:17) and “the kingdom of God” (Matthew 12:28). This kingdom was a major focus of His preaching (Luke 8:1; Luke 9:2). The New Testament even refers to the gospel of Christ as “the gospel of the kingdom” (Matthew 9:35; Matthew 24:14) and “the word of the kingdom” (Matthew 13:19). Christ’s kingdom was also the subject of many of His parables (Matthew 13:24-52).
Fact #2: Even though Christ’s kingdom is not an earthly one, God remains sovereign over all creation and that includes the earth. Some proof texts for this are: 1 Chronicles 16:31, Psalm 24:1, Psalm 47:7-8, and 1 Corinthians 10:26,28.
Fact #3: Because of mankind’s sin God is allowing Satan to occupy the place of rulership over this world system (not the planet itself but the system that marks it). Basically, this means that right now Satan is the acting ruler of every earthly kingdom (Matthew 4:8; John 12:31-33; John 14:30; John 16:11; 2 Corinthians 4:4). He is the true power behind each throne. Each earthly kingdom is a part of his one worldwide kingdom.
Fact #4: To be a citizen of Satan’s worldwide kingdom, all you have to do is be born on planet earth. It is an automatic type of deal (Colossians 1:13).
Fact #5: When a person believes in Jesus as Savior and in so doing becomes a Christian, that person becomes a citizen of Jesus’ heavenly kingdom. 1 Thessalonians 2:12 teaches that the Christian has been “called” into Christ’s kingdom, and Colossians 1:13 teaches that the Christian has been transferred (“conveyed,” “rescued,” “translated” “brought”) from Satan’s kingdom into Christ’s kingdom. The fact is that each Christian is a citizen of a kingdom that he or she has never visibly seen (Philippians 3:20).
Fact #6: In order for the Christian to get to visibly see Christ’s kingdom, he or she must physically die and go out into eternity. In the afterlife, Christ’s kingdom awaits those who have made their citizenship in that kingdom sure while living upon the earth (2 Peter 1:10-11).
Fact #7: Jesus brought a touch of His kingdom everywhere He went by teaching, performing miracles, and casting out demons. As He says in Matthew 12:28, “But if I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, surely the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Matthew 12:28, N.K.J.V.).
Fact #8: Now that Jesus has died, resurrected, and ascended backto heaven, He expects each Christian to carry on His work of bringing the principles and standards of His kingdom to bear upon every situation. This is the whole point of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapters 5-7). As Christians live out Christ’s principles and standards (go the second mile, love your enemies, don’t brag about your charitable deeds, don’t publicize your prayer life, trust God to meet your needs, don’t judge hypocritically, etc.) we bring a touch of His kingdom down to the earth. To use Jesus’ own descriptive language, we bring Kingdom “salt” and “light” into this world of Satan’s kingdom.
Fact #9: The Bible teaches that one day Jesus will return to this earth and it’s then that His kingdom and the kingdom of this world will become one and the same.We call this event Christ’s 2nd Coming. (Please note that this event and the Rapture are not the same.) At Christ’s 2nd Coming, Satan will be bound and imprisoned in a bottomless pit for 1,000 years and Jesus will reign over the earth from His throne in Jerusalem for those 1,000 years (Isaiah 2:2-4; Isaiah 9:6-7; Jeremiah 3:17; Jeremiah 23:5-6; Zechariah 14:9; Micah 4:1-3; Matthew 25:24; Revelation 20:1-6). This is why Jesus taught His followers to pray to God the Father, “Your kingdom COME. Your will be done ON EARTH as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).
Fact #10: Following Christ’s 1,000-year reign upon the earth, His kingdom will seamlessly become the one and only eternal kingdom (Daniel 2:44; Daniel 7:14; Luke 1:32-33). For the record, the eternal home for the citizens of that kingdom will be the glorious capital city of New Jerusalem that is described in detail in Revelation chapters 21 and 22.
Posted in Christ's Second Coming, Christ's Return, God's Sovereignty, God's Work, Good Works, Salvation | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Can Prayer Change God’s Mind?

Paula Jarvis Garland wrote:

“Here’s my question: If everything is predestined, then how does prayer change things? Can our prayers cause God to change his mind?”

Paula, thanks for your question. It’s actually two questions, one concerning predestination and the other concerning the impact of prayer. I’ll take the one about predestination first and then close with the one about prayer. Here goes.

The word “predestination” (or some form of it) is used four times in scripture. In Romans 8:29, the predestining is the Christian being predestined to be conformed to the image of Jesus. In Romans 8:30, it is associated with the Christian being called, justified, and glorified. In Ephesians 1:5, it is the Christian being predestined to adoption into God’s family. In Ephesians 1:11, it is the Christian being predestined to obtain a heavenly inheritance.

You’ll notice in these references that the Biblical definition of predestination has to do with the rewards of salvation. The predestining is to the eternal blessings that flow out of the salvation experience, not to the salvation experience itself. Predestination centers around promises, promises that God makes to the Christian. As J. Vernon McGee says in his commentary on Romans,  “Predestination means that, when God saves you, He is going to see you through.”

Predestination is not God handpicking some to be on the “saved” list and others to be on the “damned” list. It isn’t Him forcing anyone to do anything. Instead, it is Him saying to the person who has voluntarily placed saving belief in Jesus Christ, “Okay, now that you’ve done that, here are My promises to you.” As Harry Ironside writes in his commentary on Ephesians:

You see, predestination is not God from eternity saying, “This man goes to heaven and this man to hell.” No, but predestination teaches me that when I have believed in Christ, when I have trusted Him as my Savior, I may know on the authority of God that it is settled forever that some day I am to become exactly like my Savior. It settles the question of the security of my salvation. Whatever my present unsatisfactory experiences may be, some day I shall be altogether like the One who has redeemed me.

Similarly, Herbert Lockyer states:

What must be borne in mind is the fact that predestination is not God’s predetermining from past ages who should and who should not be saved. Scripture does not teach this view. What it does teach is that the doctrine of predestination concerns the future of believers.

The point in all this is that everything is not predestined. Truth be told, Biblical predestination really has nothing to do with earthly happenings. Yes, God always has a will in every earthly situation, but He doesn’t stack the deck to ensure that His will gets done. To the contrary, it is rare when His will does get done upon the earth.

For example, it isn’t God’s will for a gunman to walk into a movie theater and open fire. It isn’t His will for a thief to rob someone’s money. It isn’t His will for a mother to abort her baby. It isn’t His will for a pastor to have an affair with the church secretary. God certainly doesn’t predestine these acts. He allows them, and He can even use them in His plans (as He did with the Jews and the Romans working in concert to unjustly get Jesus crucified), but He doesn’t predestine them. These are the acts of sinful people, not holy God.

Acts 2:23 says that Jesus was delivered to death “…by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God…” (N.K.J.V.). Notice that it doesn’t say that Jesus was delivered to death by the predestination of God. That would imply that the Jews and the Romans had no choice in what they did. It would mean that God programmed them to carry out His plan regardless of their objections. You see, God having a foreknowledge that something is going to happen is not the same thing as Him willing or predestining that something to happen.

Now let me move on to the question about God changing His mind in response to prayer. For an answer, the best I can do is offer a list of examples straight from scripture. Here are 10:

  1. In Genesis chapter 18, three men visit Abraham. In actuality, these “men” are two angels and none other than Jesus (making a pre-incarnate appearance in the Old Testament). After announcing that Abraham and Sarah will have a son in nine months time (18:9-15), Jesus dispatches the two angels and tells Abraham that the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah are slated for destruction (18:16-22). This is sad news for Abraham because Abraham’s nephew Lot and his family live in Sodom. And so Abraham enters into negotiations with the Lord (18:23-33), negotiations that amount to prayers because Abraham is talking directly to Jesus. “Lord, what if you find 50 righteous people in Sodom? Will you still destroy it?” “No.” “Lord, what if you find 45 righteous people? Will you still destroy it?” “No.” “What if you find 40?” “No.” “What about 30?” “No.” How about 20?” “No.” “Lord, suppose you find 10 righteous people there? Will you still destroy it?” “No.” That’s as far as Abraham went, but who can deny that his prayer had a definite impact upon the Lord’s plans? Unfortunately, the Lord didn’t find even 10 righteous people in Sodom.
  2. In Exodus chapter 32, while Moses is atop Mount Sinai communing with God, the Israelites make a golden calf to worship. The act angers God so much that He says to Moses, “I’m going to consume these stiff-necked people and use you to begin a whole new nation” (Exodus 32:7-10). In response to that, Moses pleads with God not to destroy the Israelites (Exodus 32:11-14). Since Moses is talking directly to God, it isn’t a stretch to classify those pleadings as a prayer. And does that prayer have an effect? Yes, Exodus 32:14 says: “So the Lord relented from the harm which He said He would do to His people” (N.K.J.V.).
  3. In Numbers chapter 14, the Israelites commit another great sin by refusing to enter the promised land of Canaan (14:1-10). Similar to what He had once told Moses on Mount Sinai, God tells Moses that He is going to strike the Israelites with a pestilence, disinherit them, and start a new nation with him (14:11-12). Once again, though, Moses begs God not to do it (14:13-19) and God spares the lives of the Israelites. God does, however, decree that all the Israelites 20 years old or older (except for Joshua and Caleb) will never enter Canaan (14:20-38).
  4. In 2 Kings chapter 20, Judah’s King Hezekiah is sick and near death. The prophet Isaiah goes to him and tells him to set his house in order because he will not live (20:1-2). Hezekiah turns his face toward the wall and prays, asking God to remember how he has walked before Him in truth (20:3). God hears the prayer, and even before Isaiah has gotten out of the palace God says to him, “Return to Hezekiah and tell him that I have heard his prayer. Tell him that I am going to heal him, add fifteen more years to his life, and deliver Jerusalem from the hand of the Assyrians” (20-4-6). How’s that for prayer having a positive effect? This same story is also told in Isaiah chapter 38 and referenced in Jeremiah 26:19.
  5. In Jeremiah 18:7-8, God says, “The instant I speak concerning a nation and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, to pull down, and to destroy it, if that nation against whom I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I thought to bring upon it” (N.K.J.V.). While it’s true that prayer isn’t specifically mentioned in this passage, the basic idea is that even when God has judgment planned for a nation, the response of that nation’s citizens can alter the plan.
  6. In Amos 7:1-6, God gives the prophet Amos two visions of two devastating judgments that He is going to inflict upon Israel. One is an invasion of locusts that will devour Israel’s crops. The other is a wildfire that will devour the land. After each vision, Amos begs God not to send the judgment. And how does God respond to Amos’ two “prayers”? In each instance, He relents and doesn’t send the judgment.
  7. In the story of Jonah, God sends the prophet to cry out against the city of Nineveh because of the wickedness of its inhabitants (1:1-2; 3:1-2). The message God gives Jonah to preach to those citizens is, “In 40 days Nineveh will be overthrown” (3:4). The message is simple, blunt, and seemingly final. However, in response to those citizens entering into a time of fasting and repentance, God relents from the judgment He has said would come upon the city (3:5-10). Here again, prayer isn’t mentioned as part of what those citizens did, but it is undeniable that God does respond positively to their actions. Jonah even gets mad at God for relenting from the judgment and says to Him, “Isn’t this what I said you would do even before I came here?” (4:1-2).
  8. Matthew 13:53-58 and Mark 6:1-6 record the story of a ministry trip that Jesus made to His hometown of Nazareth. Because of the unbelief on the part of the citizens, Jesus could do no mighty work there except for a few cases of healing. This story proves that God responds accordingly to our actions (belief, prayers, etc.).
  9. Matthew 17:14-21 and Mark 9:14-29 record the story of a father and his demon-possessed son. 9 of the chosen 12 disciples try to cast out the demon but fail. Jesus then comes onto the scene and gets the job done. When the disciples ask Him why they couldn’t cast out the demon, Jesus explains, “This kind can come out by nothing but prayer and fasting.” The obvious teaching is that prayer and fasting are what make the difference in the outcome of certain situations.
  10. In James 5:13-18, the New Testament sings the praises of the power that prayer has to change circumstances. According to the passage, prayer (along with anointing) can lead to the sick being healed. In the case of the prophet Elijah, it can cause God to withhold rain for three-and-a-half years. While there is a fair amount of debate about the specifics of how this passage should be applied, we can at least say with certainty that the passage teaches that prayer changes things.

So, it’s along about now that someone says, “Great. All these passages clear up the matter entirely. My prayers can get God to change His mind.” Well, you might want to slow your roll on that and not run hog wild with the idea. I say that because there are some other passages that must be taken into account concerning this subject, and they take things to a deeper level. Here are five of them (all from the N.K.J.V.):

  1. Malachi 3:6: “For I am the Lord, I do not change…”
  2. James 1:17: Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning.
  3. Numbers 23:19: God is not a man, that He should lie, Nor a son of man that He should repent…
  4. 1 Samuel 15:29: “…the Strength of Israel will not lie nor relent. For He is not a man, that He should relent.”
  5. Romans 11:29: For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.

To add a little more spice to this gumbo, we must also take into account God’s perfect foreknowledge. Here are just three passages (all from the N.K.J.V.) from that sizable category:

  1.  Isaiah 46:9-10: “Remember the former things of old, For I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like Me, Declaring the end from the beginning, And from ancient times things that are not yet done, Saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, And I will do all My pleasure.”
  2. Jeremiah 1:4-5: Then the word of the Lord came to me, saying: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you; Before you were born I sanctified you; I ordained you a prophet to the nations.”
  3. 1 Peter 1:1-2: Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To the pilgrims of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, elect according to the foreknowledge of God the father, in sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ:

It is at this point that the question becomes: “How can we correctly blend all of these different ideas about God and all of these different passages together?” And I’ll answer that question by offering seven basic thoughts as the close to this post. Hopefully, these will help us seamlessly weave all this post’s information into our walk with the Lord. Ready? Here goes:

  1. God, from before Genesis 1:1, has had a perfect foreknowledge of all human history. In a very real sense, everything we do is a rerun to Him. Nothing takes Him by surprise. Nothing confuses Him. Nothing alters His historical timeline.
  2. Prayer can, in certain instances, cause God to change His mind about something. The scriptural cases are too many and too easily understood to be ignored.
  3. Even when God changes His mind, the change of mind has been foreseen and accounted for since before Genesis 1:1 and has been incorporated into the historical timeline.
  4. God changes His mind not only to encourage us to pray but also to “humanize” Himself to us. It is a part of Him interacting with us on a deeply personal, intimate level. He doesn’t change His mind because His original plan was a mistake or could stand some improvement; He changes it because He enjoys allowing us to play a role in helping Him shape history.
  5. Despite the fact that God is eternal, He takes great delight in interjecting Himself into time so that He can meet with us for fellowship, communion, worship, and prayer. And as a part of Him meeting with us, He dialogues with us in prayer and even allows our prayers to change His mind when the change fits His purposes.
  6. No matter what God plans to do for us, in us, and through us, He always painstakingly works through the detailed step-by-step process of bringing the thing to pass. Putting it another way, God chooses to get us involved in making something happen rather than just arbitrarily making it happen all by Himself. This is why He encourages us, even commands us, to cast our cares upon Him (1 Peter 5:6-7) and take our requests to Him (Philippians 4:6).
  7. The same Bible that talks about predestination and God’s foreknowledge also says quite clearly: “…you do not have because you do not ask” (James 4:2, N.K.J.V.). In light of this spiritual truth, we are crazy not to ask God for what we want. Like any good parent, His answer will oftentimes be, “No,” but also like any good parent, He won’t hate the child for asking.
Posted in Desires, God's Omniscience, God's Sovereignty, God's Will, God's Work, Influence, Prayer, Prayer Requests, Reward, Salvation | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Be Careful About Signs

Dr. Lehman Strauss was one of the best preachers America has ever produced. Over the course of his sixty-year ministry, he successfully served in the various roles of pastor, evangelist, teacher, and commentator. He truly was a great man of God, a man with much wisdom and discernment.

Strauss used to tell the story of a certain church member that he once had. This church member was a devout Christian who owned a farm in Pennsylvania. One day the farmer said to Strauss, “Lehman, I believe God is calling me to preach.” Even though Strauss and the man were good friends, and Strauss had no doubts about the man’s sincerity, he did have serious doubts about the man’s call to preach. So Strauss asked the farmer, “What gave you the idea God called you to preach?” The farmer answered, “Yesterday I was in the fields plowing, and I saw in a cloud formation the two letters PC. I knew at once it was a vision from God telling me to PREACH CHRIST.” To that Strauss wryly replied, “Is is possible God was telling you to PLANT CORN?”

I use this story as an illustration to warn you about attempting to discern God’s will by way of “signs.” I’m reminded of the old joke about the woman who was attempting to diet. She loved the doughnuts from a particular doughnut shop in her hometown and stopped there for breakfast every morning on her way to work. But when she began her diet, she knew those doughnuts were off limits. So, on her way to work one morning she prayed, “Lord, if it is your will for me to stop and get a doughnut for breakfast this morning, help there to be a parking space right in front of the shop as I drive by.” And low and behold, as she drove by, she did find a perfect parking spot right in front of the shop. Of course, that spot didn’t open up until her fifth time circling the store!

How do you determine God’s will for any given situation? First, you find out what the Bible has to say about the situation. God’s will never contradicts God’s word. Second, you pay attention to that burden you feel, that burden to either do something or stop doing something, that burden you just can’t shake, that burden that gnaws at you. When God wants you to either do something or stop doing something, He gives you a burden that aligns with His will. Third, you take circumstances into account. Is there a pathway that will allow you to act upon your burden? Is there an open door for you? If there isn’t, either that burden you feel isn’t from God or the timing isn’t right yet for you to act upon it. (Sometimes God’s will for your life can be thwarted by other people, but if that happens God will remove the burden from you.) Lastly, once you have acted upon your burden, do you have a deep-settled inner peace about your course of action? If you do, that is a tell-tale indicator that you’ve done God’s will.

But what about “signs”? Well, did you know that the Bible uses the word “sign” to refer to nothing less than a bona fide miracle? You see, we water down, even trivialize, the whole idea of “signs” when we attempt to put our modern-day spin on it. Here are a few examples of such spin:

  • “I’m trying to decide which college God wants me to attend, and I just happened to see a person wearing a t-shirt with the logo of one of my options. Is that God speaking to me about my choice?”
  • “I’m planning to break up with my boyfriend, but I heard our song on the radio today. Is that God’s way of telling me not to break up with him?”
  • “I had a dream last night that I quit my job. Does that mean that God wants me to turn in my resignation?”

Cloud formations? Parking spots? T-shirt messages? Songs on the radio? Dreams? Oh, dear friend, be careful about using such things to try to determine God’s will for your life. I’m not saying that God can’t use anything and everything to make His will known to you if He so chooses, but I am saying that only a true miracle qualifies as a Biblical “sign.” As for anything less, my standardized advice to you is, don’t believe the hype.

Posted in Bible Study, Choices, Desires, Dreams, God's Will, Scripture, The Bible | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Questions & Answers

I had one of my regular readers contact me on Facebook and ask if I would consider doing a Question & Answer post. So, this is that post. If any of you out there has a question that you’d like to ask me, I promise to give you the best answer I can. You can send your question to me in one of two ways. One, you can leave the question as a reply to this post. Two, you can go to the Disciples Road blog Facebook page and leave the question there as a private message. Either way, I’ll read the question and at some point devote a blog post to the answer.

This won’t be my first rodeo in regards to doing questions and answers. I served as the pastor of Disciples Road Church for over eight years, and every Sunday morning I incorporated a Question & Answer time into the worship service. I used to tell those folks, “Preachers sometimes get accused of answering questions that no one is asking, so now I’m giving you a chance to ask any questions that I haven’t been answering.” At first there was no shortage of questions, and most of them had basic Bible answers. After a few years, though, the questions stopped flowing so easily and the ones that did get asked were deeper and harder to answer.

I’m even open to answering questions of a personal nature, but on those I’ll reserve the right to take a pass if I so choose. I guess the old saying applies here: “The only dumb question is the one that you don’t ask.” Please understand that this isn’t some sneaky ploy to get new material for the blog. I already have some new posts in mind to write, which means that if I don’t receive any questions it won’t be the end of the world. It’s just that I’ve been praying about that reader’s request and feel like God wants me to pursue it. And that’s what I’m doing.

Lastly, there isn’t a statute of limitations on this offer. If you don’t have a question right now, but one crops up in your life at any time, feel free to either respond to this post or leave me a message on Facebook. I will read the question. Even when this specific post gets several months or several years old, I’ll still receive immediate notification when any new comment comes in under it. That means that your question won’t get lost in the blog’s backwater. It will get read, and I will get you an answer. So, in closing, let me say that I look forward to hearing from you. Remember, you’ll never know if you don’t ask, and this is your golden opportunity to ask.

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