A Sunday School class in my congregation studied a lesson on Job and several members of the class had questions about the book. They invited me in to teach about Job the next Sunday. That discussion led to more even questions. I invited the class to email their questions to me, telling them I would answer them as best I could. The following are the first set of questions I got from a parishioner and my answers. I copied her questions and wrote my answers below.
Another parishioner asked me to post this exchange to my blog. A whole lot of discussion took place behind these questions and answers, so please keep in mind that I can’t provide the whole of that context here. The parts marked “Addition:” are sections I have added to my original answers in an attempt to shed some light on pieces of that missing context, but it is likely inadequate. Nevertheless, here we go:
- Does Satan control events in our life?
Satan does not control us directly. We are not puppets on a string. However, much the same way Eve and Adam were enticed to disobey God, we are enticed to disobey God. We are tempted to sin and, because of the Fall from Original Righteousness, we have, as Charles Wesley writes, a “bent to sinning” (see Love Divine, All Loves Excelling, stanza 2, The United Methodist Hymnal #384), which means we have an inclination to sin due to the fact that the image of God in which we are created has been damaged/distorted through the Fall. With free will, we choose to give in to Satan’s enticements. We choose to sin. Satan can’t force us to do it. So, no, Satan does not directly control events in our life. But Satan does try to get us to choose the wrong things all the time. When we do, we’re essentially allowing Satan to exercise a kind of indirect control.
- If so, does God give Satan permission?
God does not give Satan permission to tempt us, but Satan does it anyway. That is part of Satan’s disobedience to God. Remember that, according to pieces of our faith’s tradition, there was once a time when Satan was the most perfect of the heavenly host and a member of the heavenly court. It was then that God put the one we call Satan in charge of our world. That’s why he’s called the prince of this world. Logically, the angels cannot have been cast out of heaven unless they were there before they fell (sinned).
Check out the hymn, A Mighty Fortress Is Our God (The United Methodist Hymnal #110). Stanza 1 mentions “…our ancient foe… his craft and power are great, and armed with cruel hate, on earth is not his equal.” Stanza 3 says, “The Prince of Darkness grim.” Satan is powerful. Since God created all things, including Satan, that power was given to Satan by God. It’s not God’s fault, however, that Satan makes bad choices and misuses the gifts God gave any more than it’s God’s fault that I make bad choices and misuse the gifts I’ve been given. The trouble with gifting any creature with a free will is not that the creature will use it, but that the creature might choose to misuse it. That’s what both fallen angels (demons) and human beings have done.
Addition: For further reading, there are a few New Testament references to the fall of angelic beings:
- 2 Peter 2:4, “God didn’t spare the angels when they sinned but cast them into the lowest level of the underworld and committed them to chains of darkness, keeping them there until the judgment” (CEB).
- Jude 1:6, “I remind you too of the angels who didn’t keep their position of authority but deserted their own home. The Lord has kept them in eternal chains in the underworld until the judgment of the great day” (CEB).
- Revelation 12:7-9, “Then there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, but they did not prevail, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. So the great dragon was thrown down. The old snake, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world, was thrown down to the earth; and his angels were thrown down with him” (CEB).
The idea that Satan and the fallen angels were cast down to Earth was taken up by C.S. Lewis in his Sci-Fi/Fantasy Space Trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet / Perelandra / That Hideous Strength). Lewis demonstrated a fascinating cosmic theology in his fiction writing.
- Describe “grace”.
The easiest way I can describe it is alongside those other words: Justice and Mercy.
- Justice is getting what you deserve (a sentence for doing wrong).
- Mercy is not getting what you deserve (a sentence pardoned/forgiven for doing wrong).
- Grace is getting what you don’t deserve (God’s love despite what we’ve done wrong). Grace is God’s loving activity on our behalf, and God’s real presence with us in our every day.
Addition: John Wesley mentions certain means of grace, which are channels through which we receive God’s grace. In his sermon, On Zeal, he placed the means of grace into two categories: works of mercy and works of piety.
Works of mercy are things we do for others and include visiting the sick and imprisoned, feeding the hungry, clothing and sheltering the poor, giving generously so the needs of others can be met, seeking justice for the oppressed, working to end discrimination, assisting victims of natural disaster, etc.
Works of piety are things we do to intentionally grow in our faith or honor God and include devoting time to private or group prayer and Bible study, fasting or abstinence, healthy living, attending public worship with the gathered faith community, baptism, Eucharist (holy communion), Christian conferencing (such as an accountability group, youth group, or even attending Annual Conference).
God is always present with us, but the means of grace are things we can do to draw ourselves close to—center ourselves within—God.
- Explain your belief of what happens to our soul at the end our physical death [she meant life].
The difficulty with answering this question is that there is no definitive answer (certainly not one in the Bible, as the ideas shifted from Sheol to things like Gehenna, Hades, and Heaven). Any answer a person gives, therefore, will include some speculation. Personally, I believe we experience resurrection and go to heaven with God when we die. I also believe that heaven does not necessarily exist within chronological time, nor would it necessarily be subject to it. God created time and, therefore, exists beyond it.
Eventually (or possibly immediately as I believe), we will experience a physical resurrection, as Jesus experienced a physical resurrection. Our resurrection body will be a physical, glorified body that is a perfect instrument of our will. Now, it is possible that we live with God in Heaven for a while as disembodied spirits until the Day of Judgment and Resurrection. I kind of like to think that God is more efficient than that, and wouldn’t want us to exist in that kind of half-life. I imagine God would want us whole as soon as possible. Since God isn’t subject to time, the Day of Resurrection could be the exact same moment in heaven for the entirety of the human race. I mean, it’s outside of time, so we might show up there at the exact same moment as Moses without any of us experiencing that soul-sleep thing that neither of us like.
Addition: First, I would add that there is no permanent end of our physical existence. Christianity believes in the resurrection of the body (see The Apostle’s Creed, The United Methodist Hymnal #882). When Jesus appeared before his disciples after his resurrection, he could be touched, he had scars, he could walk and talk, he ate food, and he cooked breakfast. His body was raised from death. He was not a disembodied ghost.
Regarding time, I liken this idea of Heaven existing outside of chronological time to looking at a history book with a timeline across the pages. We can see everything on the timeline all at once. We can see George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt – when they lived and what they did – marked on the pages, but those people are stuck in their places on the timeline. God can see all of history – the entire timeline, including what hasn’t happened yet for us – and is present in each moment across the whole thing.
We tend to think of everything in terms of chronological time but, since God created time, God is not limited to time as we are. From our perspective within time, the Day of Resurrection is a future event. For God, however, the perspective is not limited to present, past, and future. God sees the whole of time all at once and can reach into time to act in any moment. (God has shown that God is intimately involved within time. God is not a disinterested actor. The Son of God became a human being and lived within time for a while). If Heaven is where God dwells and God is not subject to chronological time, then Heaven is not subject to chronological time either. That’s how I can posit the idea that every person on the chronological timeline might end up in heaven in the exact same moment without any chronological delay or soul-sleep.
The parishioner who asked these questions didn’t like the idea that our souls might “sleep” until the Day of Resurrection. She thought it would be a colossal waste of time. While some of us might relish the idea of a nice, long nap, I agree with her wholeheartedly.
The shifting of thought about our post-mortem existence (Sheol, Gehenna, Hades, Heaven) that we find in the Scriptures is a whole other matter that would take way too much time to get into in this post. The Bible does not speak with a single, united voice on this matter, which is why I stated there is no definitive answer.
- You believe we will meet family in heaven?
Yes, I do. Human beings are created to live in community and I doubt God will sunder us from those we have loved while we live on Earth. I think we’ll all have one heck of a reunion in Heaven when God creates Heaven and Earth anew. I invite you to check out another hymn by Charles Wesley, Come, Let Us Join Our Friends Above (The United Methodist Hymnal #709). It talks about that very reunion. If you’ve never read C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, you should give it a try. Book 7, The Last Battle, gets into that a lot. They are quick reads, since they’re children’s books.
Addition: Until moving here, I had never heard of the idea that we would not meet and know our families and loved ones in heaven. So far, two parishioners have told me that’s what they believe.
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Thanks for asking your questions. They’re really excellent! If I haven’t answered something sufficiently for you, please let me know.