Folk religion and life after death part 2

Folk religion and life after death part 2 August 5, 2011

Continuing on from where I left off…

So, traditional Christian belief about life after death is, I believe, virtually disappearing from American Christians’ consciousness due to folk religion conveyed through popular culture, funeral sermons, popular hymns and songs and the lingering influence of Spiritualism (a type of gnosticism) in American religious history.  A major recent influence on this disappearance of traditional belief about life after death is the spate of books and television programs about so-called “near death experiences.”  Unfortunately, too many Christians are basing their ideas about life after death on all of these rather than on sound biblical teaching or theological reflection.  I have found many committed evangelical Christians (and others) highly resistant to any correction of their folk religious visions of life after death.

The prevailing folk religious view is that upon dying a person goes immediately and directly to “heaven” in the sense of the fullness of being in God’s presence–the consummation of the blessed hope of redeemed existence with Christ and all the saints.  Lost is any idea of an intermediate state distinct from the future resurrection, judgment and new creation that forms the true blessed hope of the New Testament.  I have yet to see or read in any of these reports of death experiences any reference to bodily resurrection, new creation (new heaven and new earth), future universal judgment or an intermediate state called “paradise” where the dead in Christ await all of that.  Rather, nearly all the popular images portray the afterlife as complete and final immediately after death.  In other words, at best, the consummation of God’s promises to the redeemed is collapsed into a bodiless spiritual bliss in a heavenly realm with God, Christ and all the saints sometimes even including mansions, pearly gates, streets of gold, etc.

Sidebar: SOME Christian scholars reject traditional Christian teaching about the intermediate state of conscious but bodiless existence in paradise with Christ awaiting resurrection and heaven for reasons not related to folk religion.  This is a completely different phenomenon.  One could mention Oscar Cullman, Stanley Grenz and a host of other mostly 20th century theologians who rejected the intermediate state–collapsing it into the future resurrection and fullness of heaven (new heaven and new earth).  The reasons usually given (I had many long talks with Stan Grenz about this) have to do with belief in a holistic unity of the human person–a so-called “Hebraic” versus “Greekish” view of human personhood.  I won’t get into that very much now; suffice it to say I’ve never been convinced that a cautious duality (not dualism) of body and soul/spirit is necessarily “Greekish.”  It seems to me to be presupposed everywhere in Scripture.

So, now we have two rejections of the intermediate state–one based on folk religion that collapses the ultimate future (heaven) into the intermediate state (paradise) and one that collapses the intermediate state (paradise) into the ultimate future.  The former denies or at least neglects the bodily nature of full redemption and the latter denies the possibility of bodiless, conscience existence and thus has to adopt something like soul sleep.  (Stan Grenz claimed that upon death a person leaps directly into the ultimate future–something I find in conflict with Paul’s teaching about the future in his Thessalonian letters.)

(I can’t resist a side bar comment here about Stan and me.  We were very close friends–almost like brothers.  We always roomed together at professional society meetings and stayed awake until 2:00 AM or later debating theology.  One of our friendly arguments was over the intermediate state.  He denied it.  When he died a very untimely and tragic death at age 55 in 2005 I thought to myself and said to a few shared friends that now he knows I am right about this!  I don’t mean that in any disrespectful way; I mean it as an expression of my genuine belief that Stan is now with the Lord and will be raised together with all of God’s people in that final future we call heaven that will be inaugurated when Christ returns.)

So why believe in a bodiless, conscious intermediate existence between bodily death and heaven?  (Here and henceforth I use “heaven” as a cipher for the new heaven and new earth Paul talks about in Romans 8 and that is foretold in Revelation and elsewhere.)  I could argue that it is traditional Christian belief.  One finds it in nearly all the church fathers and medieval theologians and Protestant reformers and post-Reformation evangelical theologians.  It is the mainstream Christian consensus.  But I won’t rely on that.  Rather, I’ll point to what I believe is irrefutable Scriptural evidence for it.

First, Jesus said to the thief on the cross that he would be with him in paradise that very day.  Some have tried to say that Jesus meant “I tell you today, you will be with me in paradise,” but I consider that construal of Jesus’ promise ludicrous.  Second, the story of Jesus’ meeting with Moses and Elijah on the Mount of Transfiguration assumes it.  Third, New Testament references to Jesus descent into Sheol to preach assumes it.  Fourth, reports of saints being seen walking the streets of Jerusalem after Jesus’ death (whether interpreted literally or not) demonstrates that the writers of the New Testament believed in an intermediate conscious state.  Fifth, Jesus promised his disciples that he would go away and prepare a place for them so that when he returned he would take them there to be with him.  That proves that the fullness of heaven is only at the parousia or afterwards.  Sixth, Paul spoke about a man he knew (probably himself) who died and went to the third heaven and heard things not to be repeated.  Seventh, the entirety of 1 Corinthians 15 assumes the futurity of full redemption and emphasizes its bodily nature.  Together with Romans 8:18-25 this demonstrates that at least Paul believed in a future (eschatological) fulfillment of redemption such that mere “life after death” cannot be that fulfillment.  Eighth, Paul talked about being away from the body and present with the Lord (with the body being “this earthly tent” and death its being “taken down”).

I could marshal more evidence from Scripture for a bodiless but conscious intermediate state BEFORE the resurrection and heaven.  But I’ll stop with those points for now.

This discourse about personal eschatology, life after death, is meant as a case study in folk religion invading American Christianity.  (I would like to hear from Christians in other parts of the world about this there.)  I could talk about folk religious belief about the Trinity (“one in three, three in one”), the person of Jesus Christ (“God in human skin”), the atonement (“Jesus got in the way of God’s wrath”), the Holy Spirit (a force or power, not a person), the church (an aggregate of individuals rather than a communal reality), baptism among Baptists (baptizing little children and calling it “adult baptism!”), the Bible (bumper sticker seen recently: “If it ain’t King James it ain’t Bible!”), etc., etc., etc.

My point takes the form of a question: What has happened to doctrinal teaching in American churches–beyond fundamentalist churches?  I had the privilege of growing up in a Pentecostal church where I was exposed to lots of Bible study and doctrinal teaching.  Some of it was distorted, but at least the pastor and the elders and teachers really believed it was important to inculcate sound doctrine in believers.  (Fortunately, in this particular church, asking questions and even expressing certain doubts was not forbidden or cause for ostracism.)  I know without any doubt that IF someone had expressed any other belief than the one I’ve outlined above he or she would have been gently corrected by the church’s leaders.  We were inoculated against theology in popular culture–which is not to say we thought everything in popular culture was wrong.  We were taught to check everything by the Bible and not swallow images, ideas, beliefs just because they sounded spiritual or comforting.  Funeral sermons were about the resurrection, not some folk religious “heaven” immediately after death.  There is much I disdain and regret about the church(es) I grew up in; they were far from perfect.  Spiritual abuse was rampant.  There was a very strong anti-intellectualism with regard to philosophy and science.  But at least we were “grounded in the Word.”  I first read the Bible cover to cover at age 10 which was normal in our church.  I knew large portions of the Bible by heart (whole psalms and entire chapters of the New Testament).  One thing my pastor (who happened to be my father) did that was especially helpful was stop and explain the meanings of hymn lyrics.  Many hymns sung became springboards for mini-sermons about theology.  I now know he wasn’t always theologically right, but at least he wanted to make sure we didn’t just sing hymns without thinking about the words and the messages.

So, is heresy a problem in American Christianity?  Yes, to be sure.  But a much greater problem, I believe, is the replacement of biblical, doctrinal and theological knowledge by folk religion.  Many Christian young people know more about The Matrix than about Romans–and that from their own Sunday School classes and youth group meetings!

End of tirade. 🙂

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  • JohnM

    I wish there were more such tirades, especially from pulpits. I wich more pulpits were part of the solution instead of a source of the problem. I have to wonder if there’s not a fine line between folk religion (pop theology I call it) and heresy. Heretical or not, along with everything else that’s wrong about it is that it’s just so bland. Like I used to attribute blandness to mainline churches. Bland I guess isn’t the worse thing about pop theology, but still, you’d think it’d wear thin even with the bumper sticker and churchy knick-knack crowd. Oh, and imagine trying to use contemporary praise and worship choruses as springboards for sermons. Well, that’s my mini tirade (but probably not the last).

  • Jerry

    Good post but I think this decline has been going on for a long time and is a part of American revivalistic or “folk” Christianity. For example, the 1929 gospel song “I’ll Fly Away” conveys the idea of transport to “God’s celestial shore” immediately after death. This song may have shaped our thinking as much or more than some of the other items you mentioned.

    • rogereolson

      Yes, I did mention hymns and popular songs. That would be one of them. There are many others and perhaps especially Southern Gospel songs (that convey the folk religious view of personal eschatology). Sometimes songs sung on the Gaither Homecoming programs (on TV and on DVDs) contradict each other theologically–especially in this matter of life after death. One says “I’ll have a new body, praise the Lord! I’ll have a new life.” It focuses mostly on the eschatological resurrection. Another one, however, says “You can kill my body but not my soul; my soul is gonna live on….” No hint of anything more than immortality of the soul. No wonder people are confused!

  • “I could talk about folk religious belief about the Trinity (“one in three, three in one”), the person of Jesus Christ (“God in human skin”), the atonement (“Jesus got in the way of God’s wrath”), the Holy Spirit (a force or power, not a person), the church (an aggregate of individuals rather than a communal reality), baptism among Baptists (baptizing little children and calling it “adult baptism!”), the Bible (bumper sticker seen recently: “If it ain’t King James it ain’t Bible!”), etc., etc., etc.”

    Please do, Roger.

    I am extremely uncomfortable with the folk religion. I have been calling it that for awhile – it seems to be almost all that can be found in evangelical churches in my area. I have thought that it was due to lack of education of the clergy. I’m located in S. Indiana, and while there is a General Baptist school not far from here (it churns out ministers consistently and there are many GB churches here too) I have to wonder at the quality of the school based upon the teaching/preaching of the ministers.

    We visited one such church last week. The minister was very likeable, interesting, etc. But he made so many errors that I knew I couldn’t go back and sit regularly under his teaching. He was preaching on Daniel in the fiery furnace, and made a big deal how the scriptures said that Jesus was in the furnace with the three Hebrew men. The text says “He said, “Look! I see four men walking around in the fire, unbound and unharmed, and the fourth looks like a son of the gods.” He took from his “careful study” of the scriptures the concept that it was Jesus in the furnace. I doubted the careful study part.

    Many of the smaller churches (UMC, Wesleyan, Nazarene) in our area use lay pastors, and you see much of the same thing. You hear the same phrasing, over and over – I’ve just assumed it’s lack of education, but it makes me want to beat my head against a wall.

  • Brian

    I have personally known two people who related near-death experiences to me. I don’t deny their experiences, but I don’t build my theology on them either.

    For years I wrestled with the apparent tension between the passages that talk about the general resurrection, and the passages that talk about being immediately in the presence of God after death (which you have listed). I finally concluded that we will experience an intermediate state of disembodied consciousness but eventually will receive resurrected bodies at the general resurrection–which is how I am understanding your position as well.

    I am wondering, however, with new scientific understandings of the relativity of space and time, if we are thinking too linearly. Could it be that once a believer dies s/he will immediately receive a resurrected body at the general resurrection? If so, this could resolve the tension between the two types of passages I mentioned above. Anyway, this is more of a thought experiment than a firmly held idea.

    • rogereolson

      The problem with that is it would require that, in some sense, Christ has already returned and the dead in Christ have already been raised before us. That seems inconsistent with 1 Thessalonians 4 and 2 Thessalonians 2.

      • Leigh

        Barth and Augustine have contributions on earth time vs eternity. Could you explain your position on how humanity’s construct of time fits with eternity.

        Particularly, in light of Barth’s view of the (eternal? not just historical) incarnation of Jesus Christ? (re Olson & Hall, The Trinity, p97):

        “Barth’s doctrine raises many questions about God’s relationship with time and history, and in typical dialectical fashion he seems to affirm contrary things.”

        And what’s wrong with that? 🙂 A day is like a thousand years, and vice versa?

        Such discussion on God’s (porous?) view of time vs eternity is central to clarifying the strength of your whole argument – and the real question of assuming linear time-space.

        (PS – love your work).

        • rogereolson

          Narrative theology plays an important role in my thinking and it seems to me speculative (and thus far beyond anything the narrative tells us) to think of God outside of time or of all times as simultaneous to God. In my opinion, Augustine was unduly influenced by neo-Platonism (as were some pre-Augustinian theologians) and injected certain speculative theories from it into the stream of Christian thought. I find nothing in the biblical narrative that points to a God outside of time or in some “eternal now” mode of existence. That a day is like a thousand years and vice versa only refers to God’s everlastingness. I recommend you (and everyone interested in this issue) read “God Everlasting” by Nicholas Wolterstorff in God and the Good edited by Orlebeke and Smedes (Eerdmans). It’s out of print, but it should be available at any Christian college or university library or through ILL.

      • Brian

        Again, that is linear thinking.

        • rogereolson

          What’s wrong with linear thinking?

          • Brian

            Well, I am not sure you understood the point of my post. I was trying to resolve the tension between passages that speak about being immediately in the presence of God and those that talk about being raised at the general resurrection. What if upon death someone enters something like a wormhole and immediately is raised at the future resurrection. From our perspective here on earth it is still a future event. From the perspective of the person who dies it is a present event. I don’t think that is inconsistent with the Thessalonian passages you cited. The only passages that would speak against this idea are those that speak about the saints in heaven who are interacting in some way with the events on earth, which is what we may have in Revelation. Anyway, it is only a speculative idea that I formulated in light of current thinking in cosmology and theoretical physics.

  • Ross

    NT Wright’s “Surprised by Hope” is largely directed against this sort of over-spiritualized heaven, which makes me think that it is at least a British problem as well.

  • Rob

    Aristotle would have been upset to find out that Plato’s understanding of the soul and body has become The Greek view.

    So are hymns like “I’ll fly away” symptoms of the Spiritualist influence?

    • rogereolson

      I can’t say so about that particular Southern gospel song, but I could mention other hymns and spiritual songs with strong spiritualist influences. One talks about “Someday the silver cord will break….” Another uses the term “Summerland above” for heaven (paradise). These are terms borrowed from Spiritualist literature (whether the song writers knew it or not).

      • Tim Reisdorf

        “the silver cord” is also found at the end of Ecclesiastes.

        “Remember him–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, . . .” Ecc 12:6

        It may well be misapplied or misconstrued, but the term does have its place in the Biblical text.

        I must say that I lean towards Mr. Grenz’s position (though maybe less so than before this discussion). It seems to work very nicely together with the Annihilationism view of hell. The idea that people are actually mortal and actually die and stop existing seems to make sense of the OT to me – and the NT by extension. While there are things that I simply shrug my shoulders about (Transfiguration, Saul’s seance), I still think it makes the best case out of the Biblical evidence.

  • Stan Fowler

    Thank you, Roger, for saying what must be said. I have often wanted to interrupt an evangelical Christian funeral service to scream, “Doesn’t anyone here know anything about resurrection?” As you pointed out, the Bible affirms the reality of the intermediate state without giving us much detail about the nature of it. In any case, it is clear that the focus of Christian hope is resurrection of the body and life as whole persons in a redeemed creation.

    A suggestion about terminology: If we go on using “heaven” to describe the eternal state of the redeemed, we seem to perpetuate the idea that final salvation is about liberation from the physical creation. Wouldn’t it be better to speak of the age to come, the new creation, the new heaven and new earth, and studiously avoid “going to heaven” as the way to describe final salvation?

    • rogereolson

      I don’t know any way to discard the term “heaven” when referring to life after death, so I prefer to use it for the new heaven and new earth (as Scripture sometimes does) and use “paradise” for the intermediate state (of the redeemed) (as Scripture sometimes does). I think those uses are most nearly theologically correct, but, of course, in the current state of folk religion it may be impossible to sort things out and get the terminology right. I just don’t want to give up the good world “heaven” to folk religion for the vague reality of paradise. Heaven is usually associated with glorious, communal existence with God forever–praising and glorifying him together with all the saints. That’s after the parousia. To allow it to be co-opted to use for paradise (about which we know almost nothing) is, I think, a mistake. But maybe it’s too late.

  • Great post! Thanks.

  • gingoro


    I which you had chosen a different illustration for folk Christianity, some other area than the end times and life after death. Fifty or sixty years ago when I was young, people argued and split churches over whether one was pre trib, mid trib etc. I became so disenchanted over the whole subject that I adopted the position that:
    a. Christ promised to prepare a place for us (and I believe him)
    b. Eventually there will be a new heaven and a new earth. Where by new earth I tend towards the view that the existing earth will not be totally destroyed but will be transformed, perhaps in a cataclysm, into Gods ultimate place where he can relate to his creation as he intended originally.

    I have heard too many pastors say at funerals that the dear departed is at this minute united with family who have gone before or some such activity and far from finding it comforting I wonder how they know as I do not find that in scripture. This is apart from issues of simultaneity. If we don’t know what simultaneity means across galactic distances how do we know what it means between here and the place that Christ has prepared?
    Dave W

  • gingoro

    Sorry “I which” should be “I wish”.

  • Clay

    Yep. We certainly have bought into the “folk religion” way of doing theology. As a hospice chaplain I can say from experience that the impulse to soft sell the more mentally and spiritually demanding aspects of our faith is constantly with us. It takes a measure of courage, and not an insignificant measure of wisdom, to tell the truth in a way that does bring lasting comfort to those facing death. In most cases they (and their loved ones) are simply not getting what they need to handle the end-of-life crisis with grace and genuine faith. May the Lord have mercy on those of us who serve as ministers for our our lack of concern for his written word and the hearts of those He has committed into our hands.

  • Dr. Olson: Please be patient with me, but if little is known of the “intermediate state” . . . why quibble over it? Shall we dismiss silmple folks who find comfort in believing departed loved ones are with the Lord (wherever that is) because they confuse “paradise” with “heaven”? Your two posts are superb, but can the theologians provide a concise answer to the question: What precisely happens when a believer dies? Many thanks!

    Dan Johnson Sr.

    • rogereolson

      I think our answer should be that we know little of what happens beyond that the person is in paradise with Jesus. In itself that communicates a lot–a peaceful existence with their Lord and Savior. But our emphasis should fall, as does that of the New Testament, on future resurrection and the new creation (heaven). Otherwise we end up with a gnostic-like (or at least Hellenistic) immortality of souls that slides into a view of the body as a prison to be escaped.

  • vervain

    I wonder how much confusion there really is on this, or if this isn’t a case of a convention of jewelers critiquing an inexpensive but servicable watch.

    I don’t know an evangelical who does not agree that the Scriptures teach of “an intermediate state of conscious but bodiless existence in paradise with Christ” and a separate, future physical resurrection. No evangelicals I know expect any tomb but that of Jesus to be empty. And if they are a bit unclear about the timing of when each part of the whole is with Christ, is that really “a bigger problem than heresy”?

    I know that you use a broader definition of heresy that allows some errors to be “nonfatal,” but to the average evangelical, a heresy is, by definition, fatal to salvation. And that’s not a bad way to keep things straight, in my opinion. Seems like the jeweler is more forgiving in his evaluation of a diamond than of a Timex.

    I especially enjoy your take on 5 point Calvinism and Arminianism– It’s encouraging to me to read a solid analysis that ends up where I did by hunt and peck.

  • Fred

    I like this tirade. Keep it up.

    I have to say that, in the light of the recent passing of John Stott, our mind does matter. Much of the cause for this folk religion you mention seems to me to be that we ignore our minds. This is a larger, cultural issue (anti-intellectualism) but the church has bought into it. Seldom are we ever asked or given opportunity to think. Most often, we sit quietly and listen to a preacher tell us what to think.

    I know, I know. Most churches have small groups. But those small groups are usually led by a local business person who lives an exemplary life but has no appreciable understanding of Bible or the learning process. They may provide limited opportunity for fellowship but very little thinking actually goes on.

    I loved that old hymn you spoke of, but when it comes to the evangelical church today, I just want to fly away.

  • Matt W

    I used to have a very ambiguous – folk religion – conception of life after death. When I went to seminary I learned that John Wesley articulated a very Biblical understanding of the ‘intermediate state.’ I was surprised to learn this and changed my thinking accordingly.

    When I share this idea of Paradise with people, many get adamantly opposed to the idea of an intermediate state (maybe because of a Bible-Belt-Bias against anything that might hint at Catholic teachings about purgatory).

    In my experience most (but not all) of the people who give me push-back about this idea are Dispensationalists. Although they have mapped out a future chronology of Tribulation / Rapture / Millennium sometimes they do not leave room for what happens to a person right after they die.

    Phrases I hear are ‘Absent from the body… present with the Lord.’ (2 Cor 5). Granted, one could be with the Lord (Jesus) in Paradise waiting for the further unfolding of God’s eschatological glory. Yet, Church tradition teaches that Jesus is currently at the right hand of the Father (Ecumenical Creeds) and therefore not necessarily in Paradise.

    • rogereolson

      Well, perhaps not confined there, but certainly there. “Today you will be with me in paradise.”

  • John Metz

    I am pleasantly surprised at the many positive responses to your last two posts. My apologies to you and your readers!

    It seems to me that the more common (common, not biblical) teaching concerning paradise as described in Luke 16 and elsewhere is as follows: Yes, there was such a paradise referred to by the Jews as Abraham’s bosom but it was transferred to “heaven” upon the resurrection. This was tied to the leading of a train of vanquished foes in Ephesians 4 and other arguments.

    I find these arguments lacking but I wonder if you would like to comment on them. At times, “heaven” has been likened to the happy hunting ground of the Native Americans or other “folksy” descriptions. One evangelist stated that he hoped there would be golf courses in heaven. Many such ideas abound. I hope you would comment on some of them.

    Like you, I prefer the term new heaven and new earth to describe eternity. After all, in Revelation 21, the New Jerusalem was seen by John “coming down out of heaven from God.”

    Thanks for your posts on this subject. I really expected you to catch a lot of flack but, I say again, I have been pleasantly surprised.

    • rogereolson

      Thanks. I suspect most visitors here are not into folk religion, but I posted those messages about folk religion to help (hopefully) reflective Christians identify and deal with that phenomenon. One popular folk religious view about “heaven” (life after death for the saved) is that our “dearly departed loved ones” are watching us. I don’t find any biblical justification for that. Maybe they are; maybe they aren’t. The biblical portrayal of paradise is just so vague. That’s the problem–for many people. They’re not content to leave paradise (what they call heaven) as vague as the Bible does, so they fill it in with images drawn from the Bible (about heaven) and movies and TV shows and popular literature, etc. I remember two newspaper articles (from the “Religion” pages) some years ago. I cut them out and kept them for a while. One was about dogs going to heaven and the other one was about baseball in heaven. Such speculation!

    • CarolJean

      Hello John,

      I frequently hear the same thing about the afterlife that you spoke of, that Abraham’s bosom (paradise) was emptied by Jesus upon his ascent to heaven to be seated at the right hand of the Father. I don’t recall the other verses of scripture that are used in order to teach it.

      Dr Olson, in what form is Jesus in paradise with those who are awaiting their change? In his bodily form?

      • rogereolson

        I don’t think he has any other form since the resurrection.

      • John Metz

        Usually a few verses are cited like the verses from Ephesians 4 that I referenced above. It is also claimed that since “inasmuch as it is reserved for men to die once, and after this comes judgment” (Heb. 9:7)then, there was no place left for those dead saints who were seen alive in Jerusalem upon the Lord’s death & resurrection. Therefore, they had to be taken to heaven. These are the arguments I have heard.

        The Eph. 4 verses fail the argument because the result of the train of vanquished foes was that gifts (i.e. gifted individuals) were given to the church, not to heaven.

        The later verse also fails because it does not take into account Lazarus (the brother of Mary and Martha), others raised from the dead by the Lord and the apostles, and those raised from the dead in the Old Testament. Did they also translate into heaven? No evidence.

        Maybe Roger could address this as well. Roger is right about how little we know about paradise; it is vague. We know the rich man in torments could converse with Lazarus (the beggar) and Abraham but the gulf between them could not be crossed. The rich man was aware of his brother who still lived but there is no solid indication one way or the other that he could see what the brother was doing.

        We also know that in Revelation the souls in paradise cry out to God, “How long…” Interesting subject.

        • rogereolson

          Personally, I do not put much stock in the imagery of the story of the rich man and Lazarus. I think Jesus was simply using a common story with some common images to make a story. I would not draw any theological conclusions about the nature of the afterlife from it.

  • Annie

    What about the “cloud of witnesses” in Hebrews 12 I think. How do you understand this passage? ?

    • John Metz

      Good point1

      • Percival

        Witness are of two types. One is the witnessing of events — observing, the other is bearing the witness of the experience the person has been through. Hebrews 12 seems to refer to the second type.

  • Roger said, “I have yet to see or read in any of these reports of death experiences any reference to bodily resurrection, new creation (new heaven and new earth), future universal judgment or an intermediate state called ‘paradise’ where the dead in Christ await all of that.”

    I agree that most reports of near death experiences do not mention these things, but I also do not see at least most accounts of near death experiences precluding “bodily resurrection, new creation (new heaven and new earth), future universal judgment or an intermediate state called ‘paradise’ where the dead in Christ await all of that.” Roger, are you convinced that all or most accounts of near death experiences preclude these Christian doctrines?

    • rogereolson

      No. My point was that Christians should not base their whole view of life after death, personal eschatology, on these reported experiences. And those who use them to “teach” other Christians about life after death (e.g., Christian authors of books about “heaven” based on their own personal near death experiences) should make clear in their books and talks that our blessed hope is resurrection and heaven (new creation) rather than some vague intermediate state.

  • Rather, I’ll point to what I believe is irrefutable Scriptural evidence for [a conscious disembodied state].

    I respectfully beg to differ that the evidence you provide is irrefutable! I would love to engage you on that evidence, but I doubt it would be appreciated if I typed out a lengthy rebuttal in these comments 🙂

    Bringing things back to the topic of folk religion, I will say that in my estimation, many of passages you cite are interpreted in a dualistic way only because Christians smuggle in dualistic assumptions—assumptions that they picked up from culture at large and not Scripture.

    My reading of the NT is that our hope—indeed our only hope—for life after death is resurrection.

  • Russ

    This may be unrelated and/or a good topic to address at a later time:

    I came across these statements by the English literatist, Charles Child Walcutt, who was reviewing the allegory of the white whale, Moby Dick, in Herman Melvilles novel. In his explanation of the whale’s “tale” (pun intended) he gave six observations and I wondered if there were either more or less than these six criterions, and what your thoughts might be on the nature of evil and the universe given these observations (each briefly stated and possibly inaccurately associated by Walcutt). Is this short summary sufficient or has it missed the mark? Thanks!

    1 – The transcendental view that the universe and God are all-good and essentially spiritual which unites God, man and nature in mutual perfection.

    2 – That the universe is controlled by an omnipotent and benevolent God who pemits evil in man and nature. This is Christian dualism which carries an enormous range of dogma, interpretation and philosophy.

    3 – That good and evil are independent, equally powerful principles perpetually at war for control of the universe. This is Zoroastrianism or Manichaeanism.

    4 – That the universe of God is essentially evil.

    5 – That the universe is chaotic.

    6 – That the universe is orderly but godless, therefore indifferent.

    • rogereolson

      I don’t find that any of those 6 views expresses mine and what I think is the best interpretation of the biblical narrative. In a nutshell: “The universe was created and is overseen by an omnipotent and benevolent God….” I don’t consider that dualistic. It involves a duality, of course, but not a dualism. And I don’t think of God as controlling the universe.

      • Russ

        At some point, when you can, I’d like to hear your thoughts on this range more fully discussed… but I did think #2 was the prefered selection yet with a different interpretation. When I saw this I thought that many of the historical Christian forms could probably be charted from this “good-bad” range (which I took as a “westernized” view of the world and not an eastern view of the world). Thanks again.

  • Elliott Scott

    As several posters have pointed out, N.T. Wright’s works, “Suprised by Hope” and “The Resurrection of the Son of God” address these issues with great clarity and detail. I’d also like to add that Randy Alcorn’s book “Heaven,” which is popular with the masses, does a good job of talking about the difference between the intermediate state and the final hope.

    Personally, I’ve preached many times on these things both on Sunday mornings and at funerals. I’ve used Wright’s language of “life after death and life after life after death.”

    People always appreciate it. Very few people are excited about the vague shadowy afterlife of folk relgion. People get very excited when they understand the biblical hope of paradise, the resurrection, and the new heaven and new earth.

    And I know I’m not the only pastor out there preaching this stuff.

  • Kyle

    Dr Olson,
    I’d like to hear more about folk religion and the trinity. Could you expound on that?

    • rogereolson

      Folk religion tends to reduce the Trinity to contradiction and revels in theologically flawed (to say the least) analogies drawn from nature (e.g., egg, water, etc.). I once saw a children’s book that attempted to teach the Trinity by comparing the Godhead to an apple.