Tuesday, November 29, 2016

What is Hell?

I was once asked how I could believe in Hell if I was a Christian.  On the surface of it, the very notion of a place like Hell seems to be contrary to the idea of a loving God.  Some today might try to argue around the doctrine of Hell by calling it out as an extra-biblical idea that the church has adopted over the centuries.  After all, the concept of a place of conscious eternal torment is only mentioned a few times in the Bible.  Perhaps we are reading too much into it.

The argument that Hell is an extra-Christian idea might hold weight if one of the principle biblical lecturers on the subject was not in fact Christ Himself.

There are several verses where Jesus describes this place of suffering.  From Jesus own words we learn that this place is eternal (Matthew 25:46), painful (Matthew 13:50), and comes as a consequence of sin (Mark 9:43).  It is a place of judgment where people get what they deserve.

There are however, many misconceptions about Hell.  Hell is not a place where the Devil is king.  That concept was adopted from Greek mythology where Hades is ruler of the underworld (a concept vastly different from the biblical idea of Hell).  In fact, Hell will be a punishment for Satan as well (Revelation 20:10).  Hell is not the Devil’s home base out of which he sends demons to pester the people of Earth.  Hell is nothing but a punishment.  Though it is the rightful destination of all evil, evil has no power there.

It is also a place of equitable punishment.  It seems from the Bible that not everyone will be punished equally in Hell, but will be punished according to what they have done and what they knew (see for example Luke 12:47-48).  It is a place of just punishment.  No more or less than we deserve.

The other interesting thing about Hell is that it appears that those in it never seem to repent.  Jesus told a story of a rich man and a poor man named Lazarus who died.  The rich man went to Hell, and the poor man went to heaven to be with Abraham.  In this story, the rich man is in agony.  Being a descendent of Abraham, he calls up to heaven and asks Abraham to send Lazarus to make him feel better.  I can think of nothing more self-centered than asking someone to join you in Hell just so that you can feel better, but that is just what the rich man does.  He doesn’t care if Lazarus suffers so long as he feels a little bit better.  To achieve his goal he attempts to appeal to Abraham’s nepotism even calling him “father.”  He doesn’t even bother to talk to Lazarus whom he is asking to sacrifice for him.

The Rich Man and Lazarus on Earth as illustrated by Gustave Dore

When the rich man doesn’t get what he wants he tries to have Lazarus sent back from the dead to warn his brothers.  At first this seems like a good idea, but if you read between the lines it is almost as if he was saying, “If only I had had the right miracle happen, I would have repented.”  Of course he wouldn’t have repented even if someone came back from the dead.  Even seeing the truth of Hell from the inside, he doesn’t repent.  At no time does the rich man ever say, “I’m sorry God! I messed up!  Please forgive me!”  In fact, he never addresses God at all from his agony.  Even in the face of Hell the rich man is still acting as he did his whole life, trampling over others to get what he desires.  Hell had no power to reform him.

The ironic thing is that it seems that those in Hell get what they are after their entire lives.  Many people want to get away from God.  Hell is the place where that is possible.  It may be that those in Hell get not only what they deserve, but what they sought their entire lives.  As C. S. Lewis once wrote, “All get what they want; they do not always like it.”

From this perspective, Hell seems to fit with God’s justice, but what about God’s mercy?  Why would God make a place from which no one can be rescued and no one can escape?

Well, He did make an escape.  We know there is a way out of Hell because someone went there and came back again.  That person is Jesus.  He took our punishment for us, and in doing so He made a way out of Hell.  He paid our debt, so that God’s justice can be satisfied and His mercy and grace can flow.  Perfect justice meets amazing grace in the person of Jesus.

But that’s not all God did to provide a way out of Hell.  He left a powerful siege weapon here on Earth to break down the gates of Hell and free the captives.  Jesus said about this weapon, “the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.”  That weapon is the Church.

The Church is everyone around the world who believes that Jesus Christ is God, that He took on flesh, that He died for our sins, and that He rose again.  It is those who are trusting Jesus alone for their salvation from Hell.  If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you are saved, and you need not fear Hell.  But more than that, you along with your fellow believers can storm the gates of Hell and rescue the lost.  We do this by telling others the message of the hope of salvation in Jesus.

Can evil hold this message back?  Not a chance in . . . you get the idea.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Is This Heaven?

Earlier this year, I was driving my father-in-law from Sofia back to his hometown of Kostenets.  As we drove over the Vakarel pass the beautiful Ihtiman valley spread out before us with the massive snow capped Rilla mountain to our right.  As we gazed at this breathtaking site I mentioned how beautiful Bulgaria is.  My father-in-law responded by saying, “It’s a piece of heaven.”

Bulgaria certainly seems like a piece of heaven to me.  I love it here.  I think it’s beautiful, and I love the people and culture.  I have close friends and family in Bulgaria.  This place is my home.

Yet there are many people who don’t think that highly of Bulgaria.  Part of the reason for this is that we get some bad press.  Generally speaking, the only news westerners hear about Bulgaria is bad news.  “Bulgaria is one of the European Union’s poorest country.”  “Bulgarian immigrants are taking Western jobs.”  “Bulgaria is overcrowded with refugees.”  These are not exactly the most flattering headlines.

Often times, this hidden little gem of a country gets overlooked or scoffed at as a sort of backwoods place with poorly educated people.  It is not a fair view of Bulgaria, but it is a common one.

Back in the first century there was a tiny little town that people viewed in a similar way to how they might view Bulgaria today.  It was so decidedly below average that one first century leader once asked if anything good could come from there.  In this town there once lived a man who had a very common name that today would be translated as “Joshua.”  Joshua was of a minority people group in his country and a member of a minority religion.  When he grew up he went into ministry.  His ministry lasted for just three years when he was condemned by the religious and academic elites of the time and executed by the local Roman governor.

But Joshua’s story did not end there.  You see the town in question was Nazareth, and the name "Joshua," when referring to Him, is more commonly translated as "Jesus."  Out of this little town of Nazareth, pathetic in every way, came a man who would transform the world.  Nazareth was so much a part of who Jesus was, that one of the early names for Christianity was “The Nazarene Sect” (Acts 24:5).

Just as Heaven came to Nazareth, and transformed the world, I believe God can take this little piece of Heaven called Bulgaria and transform the world.  We are strategically placed between Europe and Asia, and not to far from Africa.  People from all over the world come through here.  We merely need the right people who are willing to give everything for God that the light of Jesus might shine around the world out of Bulgaria.

Sometimes I look around Bulgaria and ask, “Is this heaven?”

No.  It’s Nazareth.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

My Chariot of Fire

Tonight I went out to meet with a group of young men and women as I do every Thursday night.  It’s a great group of young people from around Europe led by three middle aged American missionaries of whom I am one.  We teach the Bible and are trying, by God’s grace, to help them grow into the future leaders of the Church in Europe.

Tonight it was my night to teach.  I love teaching.  I especially love teaching about the Bible.  I have heard that where passion meets talent is where one finds his sweet spot in life.  My talent is teaching, my passion is God’s word.  Bible teaching is fun for me.

Fun may not be the best word to describe it actually.  Fun is watching a baseball game.  Fun is playing a board game with my daughters.  Fun is bowling with my wife.  For me, teaching the Bible gives me a sort of high.

This is not like a drug high, or an endorphin high that one might get from a good run in the morning.  It’s not an emotional high like the one I had the day I asked Sasha to marry me or when my daughters were born.  It’s a sweet spot high.  It comes from being right where God made me to be and doing what He wants me to do.

Eric Liddell was a very famous and very fast runner.  The movie "Chariots of Fire" was largely about him.  He was once quoted as saying, “God made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure.”

God did not make me fast.  He made me to teach His word, and when I do, I feel His pleasure.

You who are reading this, I don’t know what your purpose is.  I don’t know what in your life will be like running for Eric Liddell or teaching for me, but I encourage you to find what in your life gives God pleasure.  When you do, you might just find out what Eric felt when he ran and what keeps me awake in the middle of the night writing this blog.

May you find what in your life gives God pleasure, and may it bring you the joy you were made to have in Him.

Eric Liddell Running on July 19, 1924

Saturday, October 15, 2016

The First Decade

On October 16, 2006 our family of 4 landed in Berlin, boarded a van, and drove across the border to Szczecin, Poland.  This was day one for us, and it was a day we had worked hard to get to.

Here we are ten years later still serving in ministry in Europe (though now in Sofia, Bulgaria).  We have lived in four homes, in three cities, and in two countries.  We have had 5 wonderful teammates, two of whom are still serving in Europe with us.  We both learned Polish, and I learned Bulgarian.  We have worked with people from every inhabited continent, and made what we hope was lasting impact in people’s lives around Europe.

None of this was accomplished by our own power.  Everything we have accomplished came through the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives.  God has changed lives for the better.  We have been privileged to see people from around the world come to Christ, grow in Him, and go out to reach others.  There are people we have worked with now serving God on at least 4 other continents.

Thousands of years ago a servant of the Lord named Zerubbable was responsible for rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem to reestablish praise and worship there.  God sent a message to him:

“Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit.”  (Zechariah 4:6)

It is the same for us.  Everything we have accomplished, and have yet to accomplish is not by our might, our power, our planning, our intelligence, or our character, but by God’s Spirit working through us.

We are privileged to be used by God here in Europe.  We plan on being here for years to come, and look forward to seeing how God will use us to His glory.

It has been a good first decade.

Monday, October 10, 2016

What I've lost and What I've Gained

I’ve been living in Europe for about a decade now.  It’s interesting every time I go back to the U.S.  One would think that in this digital age people would stay up to date on the goings on around the world, but I never cease to be surprised by the things I miss out on by living thousands of miles from the place I grew up.

The first time I went back to the U.S. I had a conversation with my brother.  He told me how he would soon be getting his first iPhone.  He was quite excited.  I smiled and nodded at his excitement, but inside I was thinking, “What’s an iPhone?  I think I remember hearing about that once.”  They have iPhones in Europe now of course, but at the time, they were seldom seen in Eastern Europe.  I wasn’t sure what they were, but apparently they were important.

Another time, I heard a lot of buzz about these people called the Kardashians.  I had no idea who they were or why they were so important.  (I’m still not sure to be honest.)  They were not actors, or musicians.  They did not produce anything important, and when I finally saw a picture of them I realized that they really weren't even that good looking, but they seemed to be a big deal in the U.S.  I had no idea why.

Politics are a hit and miss thing.  I am up to date on the presidential election (more so than I would like to be), but I couldn’t tell you what the most recent thing is that Trump blamed Clinton for or vice versa.  I could probably name the Senators from my home state, but I’m not sure who my representative is.  Yet, I am surprisingly well informed on the scandal in the Stillwater, Minnesota school district thanks to a couple of Facebook friends.  (You know who you are.)

I am also disconnected from the Christian subculture.  Just today I realized that I have no idea who the big names are in Christian music.  I wanted to buy a praise album to listen to on my road trip tomorrow, and I had no idea what to get.  (My non-Christian readers will understand where I’m coming from.)

The last time I was in the States I was paying for gas at a station.  The cashier saw my phone and said, “A flip phone.  Old school.  Nice.”  This was about two years ago, and I still hadn’t gotten a smart phone because they are expensive, and I’m not someone with a lot of spare cash.  Apparently I had even fallen behind gas station attendants in my technological advancement.

Though I have fallen into much social and technological ineptness in my time abroad, I have also gained much.

For one thing, I’m not afraid of people from other cultures.  (I never really was, but I'm more comfortable around them now.)  I know that many of my brothers and sisters in America are concerned about refugees from the Middle-East.  I’m concerned for them, not about them.  I see them as people in need, not a threat to my way of life.  This is largely because I've already surrendered my way of life to God's will.

I’ve also found that there is a lot to learn from different cultures.  For example, I grew up in a loving family, but I never realized how close knit and supportive a family could be until I came to Eastern Europe.

By far, the best part of my time in Europe has been the friendships I have forged.

Actually, friendship is a mild term.  Family-ship is probably a better word.  There are people here that I am closer to than many of the people I grew up with.  I can’t explain why this happens psychologically, though I have my theories.  The best answer I can offer comes from Jesus:

“Truly I tell you, no one who has left home or wife or brothers or sisters or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will fail to receive many times as much in this age and in the age to come eternal life.” (Luke 18:29-30)

I’ve gained a lot living here.  Perhaps many who read this will not understand what I mean by this.  I left my comfort zone.  I have much less money than I would have had if I had stayed and worked just about any other job.  I also have fewer rights here than I do in America.  I even have less security.  How can I think I have gained from such a venture?

I don’t know that I can explain it to you.  If you want to find out just how much you can gain by packing up and leaving your home, then I suggest you try it.  If you are doing it for the sake of the kingdom of God, you will be surprised just how much you gain.

Come and see.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

The Gathering of the Clouds

As we sat by the Black Sea we noticed what we thought was a cloud gathering.  But it wasn’t a rain cloud.  It was a gathering of birds—storks to be exact.

A small portion of the storks over Nessebar, Bulgaria in August 2016

Every year in late summer storks from around Europe visit Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast.  They hover over the beaches for a while flying in circles, and then as a massive group, the fly south to Asia and Africa.  Some go as far as South Africa.

Why is Bulgaria their meeting place?  Just look at a map and the answer becomes clear.

Stork migration map from birdorable.com: Notice all the lines in Central and Eastern Europe converging in Bulgaria.

If you want to get from Europe to Asia and Africa by land, you have to go through Bulgaria.  True storks don’t actually travel by land, but they do have to fly over land in order to find food, water, and a place to rest when they get tired.  So they meet in Bulgaria and travel in a group for protection over the Middle-East, into Egypt, and down the Nile into the heart of Africa.  A stork that was hatched in central Bulgaria might now be nesting in Cape Town.

Storks are not the only ones who make their way through Bulgaria to the rest of the world.  People do as well.  Be it refugees from the east, businessmen from the west, or Bulgarians going abroad, our little country is a place that the whole world passes through.

This is why we are here.  Just as the storks fly throughout the world, we want the message of salvation through Jesus to spread throughout the world as well.

Come to the crossroads!  God is at work here.