Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Is Heaven for Real?

His Italian mother named him after the gospel writer, Mark, in the hopes that he too would tell the gospel truth. It is ironic that later when he wrote a bestselling book on his world travels cynics nicknamed it, Il Milione: The Book of a Million Lies. And Mark, whose mother hoped would grow up to tell the truth, was called Marco Milione.

13th century Europeans found it impossible to believe Mark’s tales of faraway lands. He claimed that, when he was only seventeen, he went on an epic journey lasting a quarter of a century, taking him across the steppes of Russia, the rugged mountains of Afghanistan, the wastelands of Persia, and over the top of the world through the Himalayas. In Mongolia he witnessed the horrifying funeral of Mangu Khan where 20,000 prisoners of war were buried alive to accompany the powerful prince into the afterworld.

He was also the first European to enter China. Through an amazing set of circumstances, he became a favorite of the most powerful ruler on planet earth, the Kublai Khan whose vast domain eclipsed that of the ancient Roman Empire. Marco saw cities that made European capitals look like roadside villages. The Khan’s palace dwarfed the largest castles and cathedrals in Europe. Made of gold-coated cane, each piece was held together by ropes of silk, so that the whole palace could be disassembled and moved at the whim of the Khan. Yet it was so massive that its banquet room alone could seat 6,000 diners at one time, each eating on a plate of gold.
Marco saw the world’s first paper money and marveled at the explosive power of gunpowder. It would be the 18th Century before Europe would manufacture as much steel as China was producing in the year 1267. He saw a postal service whose speed would not be equaled until the Pony Express some 600 years later. He became the first Italian to taste that Chinese culinary invention, pasta. As an officer of the Khan’s court, he travelled to places no European would see for another 500 years.

After serving Kublai Khan for 17 years, Marco began his journey home to Venice, loaded down with gold, silk, and spices. And, tucked away in his pocket was a recipe for making pasta! The Khan had sent him on his way with a guard of 1,000 men. By the time they reached the Indian Ocean, 600 had drowned or died of disease. After a harrowing two-year journey, a ragged Marco barely limped home, most of his riches lost along the way. People dismissed his stories of a mythical place called China. His family priest rebuked him for spinning lies. When further troubles landed Marco in prison, he dictated his fantastic yarns to another prisoner who had been a writer of romantic stories. His book was entitled The Travels of Marco Polo. But a skeptical public dismissed it as Il Milione: The Book of a Million Lies.

It is said that on his deathbed, his family, friends, and parish priest begged him to recant his tales of China lest he rot in hell for his lies. Setting his jaw and gasping for breath, Mark spit out his final words, “I have not even told you half of what I saw.”

The story of Marco Polo reminded me of the travels of another explorer—the apostle Paul, who perhaps went further than any human in history. According to Paul, the Lord gave him a vision an undiscovered country, heaven. He wrote about it in 1 Cor. 12:2-4:

“I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows.  And I know that this man was caught up into paradise—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows—and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter.”

Much like Marco Polo, Paul, who is not even willing to refer to himself, is saying here, “I have not even told you half of what I saw.” In fact, Paul goes on to say that in order to keep him humble and to keep him from thinking he was special for being given a glimpse of glory that God also allowed Paul to be tortured with a thorn in the flesh!

For many skeptics out there the idea of heaven is nothing more than lie cooked up by religious people to exert power over the na├»ve masses. The April 16, 2012 issue of Time magazine advertised the theme “Rethinking Heaven.” Toward the end of the main article, the author profiled the secular viewpoint of heaven with the testimony of Stephen Hawking, regarded by many to be world’s most brilliant physicist and astronomer. Hawking claimed, “I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when it components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers. Heaven is a fairy tale for people afraid of the dark.”[1]   

What’s most amusing about Hawking’s response is that he doesn’t realize that his position about the non-existence about heaven is not a scientific one, but an opinion based on faith in his materialistic worldview. Since heaven cannot be measured or examined through the scientific method then he can’t say with absolute, scientific certainty that there is no heaven.

So how can we know that there is a heaven? Well, the long and the short of it is that Jesus told us that heaven is a real place. Moments before his own crucifixion and death, Jesus gathered around His disciples and told them, “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father's house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (John 14:1-3).

Jesus says it and that settles it. He’s the foremost authority on all things theological. Not only is His track record flawless, but He demonstrated His audacious claims by backing it up with indisputable proof—signs and wonders and an empty tomb (Acts 2:22-24).

I like how R.C. Sproul commented on Jesus words by writing, “As he approaches the moment of his death, he says to them: "Trust me. Trust the Father. He has a huge house with many rooms in it." And he says, "If this were not so, if this were just fantasy, if this were just emotional wish projection, if this were a fairytale or human superstition, I wouldn't have told you this. Keep in mind that if Jesus Christ is God incarnate, he is the greatest theologian who ever walked the planet. He doesn't make theological mistakes, nor does he approve of theological error. He would not allow his disciples to go through the rest of their lives holding to a belief that was false. He says: "Your hope for life after death is not groundless. It is not a false hope. If it were a false hope, I would have told you. I would have corrected it.”[2]

When people deny the existence of heaven, they deny not only the written Word of God, but they also are calling Jesus a liar. Sorry, Stephen Hawking, I don’t care how many degrees you have on the wall, I’m trusting in the sinless Son of God, not the speculations of a scientist who commits their never-dying soul to “the great perhaps.” If Hawking and others of his ilk are wrong about eternity then they are the ultimate losers. -DM

[1] John Meacham, “Heaven Can’t Wait,” Time, 16 April 2012. 
[2] R.C. Sproul, “How Do We Know There Is A Heaven, And How Should It Effect Our Lives Now?” Christianity Today, 26 February 2013 <http://www.christianitytoday.com/biblestudies/bible-answers/spirituallife/how-do-we-know-there-is-heaven-and-how-should-it-affect.html?start=1> 

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