Imagine there’s No Heaven, said John Lennon

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An Olympic ice skater in Sochi, Russia chose John Lennon’s Imagine as the song to accompany her performance. The tune is quite beautiful, but it was the words that struck me. I know, I know, the song was written in the 1970s and I’m decades behind the times. But the song’s iconic status and recent use in the Olympics makes it timely. Here are the opening lyrics to Lennon’s song:

Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people living for today

The song continues, asking us to imagine a world with “no countries … no religion … no possessions … all the people sharing all the world.” “No heaven … no hell … living for today.” In John Lennon’s imagination this would enable people to live in peace and harmony.

As a follower of Jesus Christ, and one who believes that He was physically and eternally raised from the dead as confirmation that he is the Lord and Savior of all who believe, I see things quite differently than John Lennon did. If indeed there is no heaven and no hell, there is then no resurrection of the dead, no ultimate judgment and no eternal existence for human beings. Another way of saying this is that if John Lennon is right, then there is no ultimate justice in the world.

On what does our hope for justice rest? It rests on the reality that every person will ultimately answer to God for the life he has lived and that God’s perfect love and discrimination enables Him to know what it right, and God’s absolute power enables Him to do what He knows is right. If this is not true, then there is no ultimate justice. If there is no ultimate justice then life’s winners are those who live long upon this earth and get everything they want by any means they choose. Life’s losers would include all those whose lives are cut short by whatever cause, and those who do not “get from this world” the good life (good food in sufficient quantity, peace and prosperity, freedom from bloodshed and violence, etc.).

In short, if John Lennon is right, and there is no afterlife, and no God to whom we must answer, then Hitler was a winner based on the fact that he lived a much longer life than most of his millions of victims, and he enjoyed far more prosperity that most. The same could be said of Joseph Stalin, who died an old man, and yet he was responsible for the early death of tens of millions. If Lennon is right, every aborted baby, every child who dies, every person whose life is taken early by cancer or violence, and the millions who live on battlefields (Syrians, Afghans, Sudanese, etc. of our day), are losers.

I could carry this argument on until it is book-length, but I hope you can see that there is no justice if there is no heaven and hell and judgment from a God who has ultimate love and power. Moreover, if there is no justice, there is no ultimate fairness and there is no true basis for hope. My brother died at age 14 from an unknown cause. His heart simply stopped while he was running. How does a family deal with that if there is no hope of heaven?

My hope for justice and mercy and fairness is founded upon a God who knows the right and will do the right. If I did not believe this, life would be void of meaning. Life would “boil down” to the survival-of-the-fittest, with the certainty that advancing age robs every person of their fitness for life.

As the Scripture says, “Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor. 15:20). And, “We will all be changed – in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will all be changed (1 Cor. 15:51b-52).

Encouraging Statistics on the Growth of Christianity

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While preparing to speak at a conference on reaching international students, I discovered some information on the worldwide growth of the Church that is both fascinating and encouraging. Note the 20 nations in which Christianity is growing the fastest:

Top 20 Countries Where Christianity has Highest Percentage Annual Growth

1. Nepal – 10.93%
2. China – 10.86%
3. United Arab Emirates – 9.34%
4. Saudi Arabia – 9.27%
5. Qatar – 7.81%
6. Oman – 7.62
7. Yemen – 7.09%
8. Mongolia – 5.96%
9. Cambodia – 5.87%
10. Bahrain – 5.49%
11. Benin – 4.85%
12. Burkina Faso – 4.81%
13. South Sudan – 4.67%
14. Bhutan – 4.60%
15. Mali – 4.54%
16. Brunei – 4.49%
17. Guinea – 4.44%
18. Kuwait – 4.26%
19. Singapore – 4.12
20. Turks and Caicos Islands – 3.97%

Some things to note in this list are that 19 of the 20 are in Asia and Africa (Turks and Caicos Islands is in the Caribbean). Eleven are in majority Muslim countries, and not one country is in Europe, North America or Latin America. The source for this information is The Center for the Study of Global Christianity based at Gordon Conwell Seminary, published in June 2013. The full report can be found online at http://www.globalchristianity.org/globalcontext. The report is extensive, numbering 92 pages.

The World Status of Bible Translation (Wycliffe Bible Translators 2013)

Bob Creson, President of Wycliffe Bible Translators, has said that the Bible could be translated into every language by 2025. With that in mind, note the current statistics relating to the availability of the Scriptures today:

1. 6,900+ … languages spoken in the world today
2. 1,900+ … languages without any of the Bible, numbering 180 million people
3. 2,167 … total number of current translation programs, on behalf of 1.9 billion people
4. 1,294 … language groups that have access to the New Testament in their heart language, numbering 598 million people
5. 513 … language groups have access to the entire Bible in their heart language
6. 1,010 … languages have some portions of Scripture available in their language (one or more books)

International Students

In the 2012/2013 school year a record number of international students came to U.S. colleges, nearly 820,000 students. These students contributed over 24 billion dollars to the economy. Overall, students from China, India and South Korea make up 49% of all international students in the U.S. China leads the way with 235,000 students, up from 194,000 the year prior. Statistics from some universities in the Northwest are:

1. Univ. of Washington – 9% international, but 20% of freshman students are internationals
2. Univ. of Oregon – 10%, totaling 2,946 students
3. Oregon State Univ. – 5%
4. Portland State Univ. – 5%
5. Washington State Univ. – 4%
6. Eastern Washington Univ. – 3%
7. Univ. of Idaho – 4.7%, 551 students from 70 nations

There are a few matters I will mention from these numbers. First, the Church is growing among many peoples in the world, and it is growing among peoples where opposition to the Gospel is often intense and violent. Seventy-five percent of the world’s population lives in places hostile to the good news of Jesus Christ, and yet it is among these peoples where the growth rate is often greatest.

Second, the Scriptures, or a portion thereof, has been translated into the languages more than 97% of the world’s peoples. This doesn’t mean that 97% can access the Scriptures, or read them, but the translation work is complete or partly complete.

Third, the world’s peoples are represented in our nation’s colleges in the form of international students. These students are the future leaders in their countries. We must do all we can to reach them. And consider this, only about 25% of international students are invited into the home of an American family. When invited they will come. And when they come into our homes we have the opportunity to show them love and demonstrate the truth of Christ for them.

Have you hosted an international student, or an immigrant, in your home? My wife and I have been privileged to have people from Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Uganda, Malawi, Mexico stay with us, and others from China, Iran, India, and South Korea have dined with us. Usually our guests are greatly honored at being in our home because it’s an uncommon experience for them.

Additional Thoughts on Spiritual Awakening

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“Son of man, can these bones live?” That was God’s question to Ezekiel as he looked upon a valley of human bones, which symbolized the hopelessness of the Jewish people. I wrote about spiritual awakening a couple of weeks ago, taking the “dry bones” of Ezekiel 37 as a text (you can read this in a previous post). With many praying for awakening I have given additional thought to Ezekiel’s dramatic vision and the lessons we can learn from it. So here are some additional thoughts on spiritual awakening.

First, it could be said of us that while we are dying, we are not dead. Ezekiel’s vision was of total death, annihilation, bare bones. With Jerusalem obliterated, tens of thousands dead, and the survivors in captivity, it wasn’t hard to imagine that Israel’s national identity was obliterated, utterly destroyed, never to rise again.

But that is not our situation in the American church. While the church in America is declining in numbers (as a percentage of the population) and influence (as seen by rapid cultural changes which are contrary to biblical teaching), we still have millions who love God and love their neighbors and who strive to honor Jesus Christ in their daily lives. Each week tens of millions of American Christians find spiritual satisfaction in weekly worship experiences in some 300,000+ congregations numbering from 30 to 3,000 to 10,000 worshippers.

And that could be part of our problem. Not only are we not yet dead, we’re not on spiritual life-support. We have so much money, so many people and buildings that we can live off the spiritual achievements of our forefathers for a couple of decades. Like trust-fund babies, we have inherited the structures and infrastructures built by previous generations and these can sustain us for many years. My first pastorate was a church that hadn’t baptized anyone in four years and the ten adult attenders had been there for decades. Few were spiritually birthed in that church in the 25 years previous, but the faithful few still met to sing together and “here a sermon,” and they’d been doing that for a long, long time.

Death, or impending death, evokes agony and desperation. Could it be that we have too much life left to feel desperate, and to act on that desperation with the kind of prayer and cross-bearing and total obedience necessary for God to do great things? William Carey famously said “Expect Great things from God, Attempt Great things for God.” Can we honestly say that we are attempting “great things” in total obedience to God, desperate for Him to revive us and do great things among us?

Second, while the darkness is increasing in our nation, the eyes of many believers are adjusting to the darkness and now see our darkened world as the “new normal.” Each of us has experienced a room suddenly going dark when the lights are turned off. At first you can see nothing, but your eyes quickly adjust to the darkness and you can begin to see things.

In Washington State we have recently witnessed the legalization of selling and using marijuana. Homosexual marriage is now legal as well. I live in Clark County, across the Columbia River from Portland, OR. Marriage ceremonies have surged in our county with almost all of the growth coming from homosexuals in Oregon coming to Clark County in Washington to get married. Articles in our local paper have celebrated this, as have some local religious leaders. Prolife religious organizations and businesses are currently battling our own government in the court system over the requirement to provide contraceptive drugs and abortion services to employees through company-provided health insurance benefits. These are just a few indications of growing darkness in our land. Add to this the proliferation of pornography via the internet, state-supported gambling enterprises via lotteries, increases in divorce rates, out-of-wedlock birth rates, and cohabitation before marriage, and even a child could argue that morally our nation is running from God and biblical teachings.

Some questions for churches are: are your eyes adjusting to the deeper darkness? Are pastors preaching prophetically, with love? Are we making disciples, even of our own children, and teaching them to obey “everything” that Jesus has commanded us (Matt. 28:20)? My concern is not for “the culture.” My concern is for the Church. Spiritual awakening begins with the Church, your church, you. We must shine in the darkness, not just in the church-house.

“O Lord, send us revival! Send it today!

Childcare God Can Trust, Part 2

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It was a little church with ten attendees and not much hope. I was a young pastor with no church, little experience, and an eagerness to preach.

The ten were told that they should disband the church. The rationale was that they hadn’t been doing anything, didn’t want to do anything, so why go on? They chose to dig in, hold on, and give it one more try. I was grateful for their decision because it gave me the opportunity to pastor my first church.

The church hadn’t baptized anyone in four years. As deeply saddening as that was, it was equally sad that they had little to offer a new believer. There were no Bible classes or prayer meetings, and no ministries. There was little beyond the Sunday morning worship service.

To be honest, there was no reason for the Father to entrust a new believer to our church. If they came, who would disciple them? Who would teach them Scripture? What opportunities would they have to serve, learn how to share their faith, and do missions?

My experience with that church planted the thought in my brain that if a church wasn’t going to nurture God’s new children, God wouldn’t entrust any to us. We addressed the problem by beginning a prayer meeting the first week, Bible study classes the first month, and a witnessing training class shortly thereafter.

Our visits in the community bore fruit quickly. Our first new believer was a 44 year-old man who is still active in that church these 28 years later. Many more followed him. We used the Survival Kit for New Christians to help them begin their new walk with Jesus. After one year we took 18 to Glorieta Baptist Conference Center for Discipleship Week. As a service project we adopted a 3 mile stretch of the farm-to-market road on which our church was located. Church members picked up trash and road signs told the community that our church was serving them in this way. We even initiated a new church start and bought an old feed store that we turned into a church building. In the three and a half years we were there, we saw God take a handful of people and use them to bring real transformation to individuals, families and even a community.
We have learned much in the years since then, but the basics have not changed. God blesses a people who share the gospel and train-up babes in Christ.

Let me share some practical things you can do to help new Christians follow Jesus. First, have mentors and materials ready before you have new Christians. Assign a mentor to each new believer. The mentor could come from their Sunday school class, but remember that young people enjoy being taught by an older, experienced person.

Regarding materials, the Northwest Baptist Convention will provide, free-of-charge, the new believer’s book Following Jesus from the Beginning. This is a seven-week study, which I have written, specifically for new Christians. Your Cooperative Program and NWBC Mission’s Offering giving allows us to provide this to all of our churches for new believer training. It is currently available in English, and will soon be in Spanish and Korean. Other materials include Henry Blackaby’s Experiencing God: Knowing and Doing the Will of God, Revised and Expanded. Blackaby has several books and studies from which new believers will benefit greatly. I’m a Christian Now is a four week study for children grades 1-6 who have received Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior (you can order it, and other resources for new believers, through http://www.lifeway.com).

Second, provide witness training for new believers. Following Jesus from the Beginning teaches new Christians to share Jesus using MY316. Students are led to write down the name of every unbeliever in their life so that they can pray for them, serve them, and share Jesus with them. Often our most effective and eager witnesses are new Christians.

Third, provide ministry and mission opportunities for new believers. Opportunities to serve and share the gospel should be provided to every believer, young and old. We learn to follow Jesus by doing ministry, not just by sitting in a classroom listening to someone teach us.

I firmly believe that the Jesus who said, “Let the little children come to me,” is the Jesus who will entrust His children to a church that will care for His little ones by training and teaching them well.

Childcare God Can Trust

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When our first child was six months old, my wife and I flew overseas … without him. It was difficult, even traumatic, to leave our little boy for almost two weeks. We even had a passport made for him, just in case.
But leave him we did. That was the first of several times we left our children while we did mission trips overseas (as they grew we had the joy of taking them with us!).

The question is, “How could we do it?” How could we leave a little child, and travel thousands of miles away, with no easy way to communicate or return home in case of an emergency? The simple answer is that we left him in the care of someone we trusted completely.

Ann was like a grandmother to our boys. A godly servant of Christ Jesus, she raised three children of her own, and graciously ministered to our family. Our confidence in her was complete. We knew she loved our child. We knew she was capable of caring for him. We had no fear that he would miss meals or be left in a dirty diaper, or worse. Thus, we trusted her with our baby while we were away.

I thought of this story while discussing the care of baby Christians in our churches. The question that arose from a recent conversation was this, “Can God trust us with His little children?” To make this more helpful the question should be personalized, “Can God trust you and your church with a new believer?” When a person comes to faith in Christ can you, and your church, be counted on to help this spiritual babe begin their new life with Christ?

Let’s put some specifics to this question. If and when a person prays to receive Christ, what do they experience from your church? Do they receive encouragement from the pastor or church leader regarding their new life in Christ? Do they learn the meaning of baptism and are they encouraged to follow Jesus in water baptism?

Do new believers in your church receive new Christian training? Do they learn how to share their faith, and are they led to do it? Are they taught how to read God’s Word and pray?

When a new believer is baptized into the membership of your church, what opportunities do they have to serve others? Are they presented evangelism and mission opportunities? Will a small group class reach out to them, involve them, and deploy them in ministry to the community?

I believe these are deeply important questions because they strike at the heart of what God wants for His children. If we will only entrust our children to people who will love and provide for them, it makes sense that God will do the same. If we create opportunities for our kids to learn and grow, why wouldn’t God entrust His babes to a people who will do the same for them?

Another way to think about this is even more personal. When your child, or grandchild, comes to faith in Christ, would you want them to experience the love, teaching, fellowship and ministry opportunities that your church offers to new Christians? If your answer is, “Yes, our church disciples new believers and leads them to serve and minister to others,” then praise God! But if you are uncertain as to how your church helps new believers to grow and mature in their walk with Christ, then do something about it.
One person can have a huge impact in the life of a new Christian. Most churches average 50 or less in Sunday school or small groups. Most of these churches, and many larger than these, have bi-vocational pastors who need the help of a dedicated lay person who is willing to step up and do a ministry like this. You might say, “But I don’t know what to do to help a new believer.” Fair enough. In my next article I will give you some practical things that you and your church can do in order to help a babe in Christ begin their walk with Jesus.

Jesus’ commission to the church is to “make disciples,” and a church that faithfully teaches new believers is a church to whom God will entrust new believers. If your church reaches few for Christ, could it be that our Father in heaven wants something better for His children that to put them in a church that won’t help them grow? If your child “walks the aisle” of your church, are you confident they will be taught to follow Jesus?

The Challenge of Spiritual Awakening

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This evening in Spokane we have the first of many prayer gatherings in the Northwest to plead for God to send us revival.  “Awaken us to Yourself!  Bring us back through repentance to You, O God!”  That is our cry and our only hope.

Considering our great need (only 4 percent attending church on Sunday in the NW, declining baptisms and attendance and giving in our churches, the rapid endorsement of godlessness and wickedness in our nation), and recognizing our complete and utter inadequacy to accomplish anything on our own, we are left with only one thing – our God.  If strategies and work were enough to overcome the evil one and “win the day for God,” we would be in pretty good shape.  But they are not enough and they never have been.

As we consider our challenge, consider the challenged posed by one of the greatest questions ever asked.  It was God Himself who asked His servant this question: “Son of man,” He said, “can these bones live?” (Ezekiel 37:3)

Ezekiel stood in a valley of death, full of bones, when God asked this question.  Everywhere he turned there were piles of human bones, bleaching and rotting beneath the sun.  The utter desolation of this ancient battlefield represented what had become of Ezekiel’s people, the nation of Judah.  Judah was in exile in Babylon and her heart was broken, her spirit crushed.  The national existence destroyed, ruined forever.  Jerusalem was a heap of stones.  Tens of thousands were dead.  The last King of Judah, Zedekiah, watched all of his sons slaughtered by Babylon’s King Nebuchadnezzar before his own eyes were poked out.

The air was thick with defeatism and despair.  And it was to rebuke that defeatist spirit that God interrupted Ezekiel’s thoughts with the question, “Can these bones live?”  Ezekiel didn’t quite know how to answer.  He was too much of a believer to say “No.”  But the desperate impossibility of the situation made it hard for him to say “Yes.”  And so he answered neither one or the other.  Rather he said, “Lord, you alone know.”  And then, immediately he got his answer, and his commission in verse 4 – “Then He said to me, ‘Prophecy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord’.”

Those of you who are preachers or Bible teachers, isn’t your first thought, especially if you didn’t know the end of the story, “Poor Ezekiel!  Prophecy to the bones!  Preach to the dead!”  Yes, but don’t forget that the foolishness of preaching is the wisdom of God.  And the message that God gave Ezekiel was, “Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord!”

Do you remember being taught that God always honors His Word, that God’s Word never, ever returns empty?  In our world we suffer an incessant, deluge of words.  But this word was different.  This was the Word of God.  One word, if it is God’s, can cut right to the heart.  God’s Word can divide and penetrate.  It can dissect and cut through the strongholds of sin in a man’s life.  God’s Word like a lightning bolt can tear into your heart and change you forever!

Ernest Hemingway is said to have wagered with fellow writers that he could write a story with 6 words that had a beginning, middle and end.  They all took the wager.  And he quickly wrote 6 works.  “For sale.  Baby’s shoes.  Never worn.”  And his friends paid the wager.  Great men have all learned the power in a few well-chosen words: “I have a dream,” “Ask not what your country can do for you,” “Tear down this wall.”

Yes, but then there are these words:  “I am the bread of life.”  “I am the light of the world.”  “I am the resurrection and the life.”  Or, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”  “Blessed are you when men cast insults at you, and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely, on account of Me.”

God gave Ezekiel a word to say.  God gave Ezekiel a word to say!  The foolishness of preaching!  Yes, the human element in preaching and witness and praying is poor and pathetic and weak.  But what if, in spite of the human element, God speaks?  What if the words in the Bible are nothing less than Resurrection trumpets blown by the lips of Almighty God!?

So there’s Ezekiel, looking at a valley of bones.  But we see in this text some hope.  And we see in this text a path to take.  Ezekiel responded, “So I prophesied as I was commanded” (37:7).  That’s an act of faith.  That’s an act of obedience!  It’s like in John 9 when Jesus told the man born blind to go wash in the pool of Siloam and the man did as he was told.  And he received sight!  He obeyed.  He believed.  He believed.  He obeyed.  Or what of Simon and Andrew in Mark 1 when Jesus saw them fishing and said, “Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men.  And immediately they left their nets and followed Him” (Mark 1:17-18).  They left their jobs.  They left their families.  They followed Jesus.  They did what He said.  Obedience.

Ezekiel prophesied as he was commanded.  And when he did there was a noise, behold a rattling, and the bones came together, bone leaping to bone.  And the flesh and the sinews and skin covered them.  And the breath came too.  A body can look like a body and have no life.  A people can look like a church, organize like a church, work like a church, and have no life.  We must have God’s breath of life.  And as Ezekiel saw this miracle unfurled before him, God told him, “This is Israel.  This is my people whom I will bring to life.   And in whom I will put My Spirit.  And I will place them in their own land.”

As we pray for spiritual awakening and revival we are praying to the God who does these things.  We are praying to a God who allowed one of the persons of the Trinity, His own Son, become a corpse for 3 days dead – as dead as dry bones.  And then – Resurrection!  That is, as I understand it, the challenge of spiritual awakening.  It is God bringing to life that which is dead – God reviving that which cannot revive itself.

Randy Adams

Executive Director-Treasurer

Northwest Baptist Convention