Sunday, September 11, 2011

Is Abraham Alive?

But concerning the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was spoken to you by God, saying ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? God is not the God of the dead, but of the living. Matt. 22:31-32

Glen was not a popular teacher, anyone who knows his story knows that. You could even say there were people who hated Glen and some called him a heretic.

But Glen was not deterred by these attacks, nor was he moved by praise. He often said to me, and anyone who would listen, “A good teacher does not convey a body of material, not as his main job, a book can do that. But what a teacher can do, that a book cannot do, is to reason with people, one at a time, and force them to think. A good teacher, forces people to think, quite often just to prove that he is wrong.”

The first time I heard him say that a good teacher forces people to think I questioned his use of the word “force”. “Isn’t that a little strong” I asked him. Wouldn’t it be better to say inspires them to think, or stimulates them to think?”

I still remember the look he gave me, he glared at me with his steely blue eyes. “If I had meant those things I would have said those things! There’s a lot of things I need in this life, but I don’t need anyone to tell me what I really meant or should have said. No, “force” is not too strong a word. You can inspire all day and stimulate too, but people don’t like to think! Don’t you get it? People are stumbling around in a hypnotic trance, they do their tasks very well, they give programmed answers to stock questions, but that is not thinking. That is like putting a coin in a gum machine and pulling the little handle. If the machine is stocked and you put in the right coin, you get your gum.”

The setting for this exchange was on a walk from the Oak Street Bible Shop to the house where Glen had his rented room. I had asked if he minded the company and he said I was welcome to walk along. “I do some of my best thinking while I walk” he told me.

People along his route were familiar with the sight of Glen walking rapidly, hands thrust into his pockets. He might wave a hand to return a greeting, but he kept moving forward. The only time he would stop is when one of the local dogs came out to meet him. Then his face would change from its customary far away look to his friendly smile as he focused on the eager upturned face of a dog waiting for a little pat and for the treat from the pocket of his field jacket. Today he had a Milk Bone for a little terrier, who caught it in mid air and whirled to run to its porch to enjoy it in leisure.

“That little fellow is conditioned to run to me as I come to its yard” he said, “and I guess you can say I am conditioned to give him his treat. Or, in this case, her treat. This works for both of us and that is the way it’s supposed to be. But it’s not supposed to be that way with people.”

Glen resumed his pace until we came to an intersection. We waited as a school bus full of children went by. “You see those little kids?” he looked at me. “Do you think anyone is inspiring them to think, or stimulating them to think?”

He was using my own words on me. I had to admit that no one was. They were, for the most part, being trained to answer standardized tests.

“Yes” he said with emphasis, “trained. You had Psychology 101, that’s just good old stimulus-response, right out of B.F. Skinner’s notebook, and the damned schools are little more than Skinner Boxes for the kids to be trained in.”

He slowed his pace and turned to look at me. “I doubt there is a lot that can be done to change that, people are so busy trying to make a living. They hardly know what goes on in the schools. But must our churches be like that too?"

Glen sensed my skepticism at this comment. “Think about it! Aren’t the people who teach and preach in the churches educated in Skinnerian schools?”

“And do people in churches and Sunday Schools give standardized answers like the kids in school do?” I asked.

Glen shook his head at my denseness. “You tell me! Are there many good Bereans in your church? Do people question what they hear? And I hate to say this” he added, “but are they even able to question?”

We had reached his house by now and we walked up the long drive to one of the big flower beds he tended. Looks awful doesn’t it” he said quietly. “I need to cut off those dead tops so things will be nice and neat next spring. My landlady used to like to do this, but it’s a little beyond her now. One of these times it will be beyond me too. I’ll be sleeping underground just like they are”. He pointed to the stems of some dormant oriental lilies. But they don’t know how long they are asleep, and neither will I.”

Conclusion: It was several months later when Glen invited me to one of his classes. He said he would try to demonstrate what he meant by a teacher’s main duty. This was years ago, but I remember that evening well and I still have my notes.

Glen had told his class that he wanted to go over material familiar to almost everyone “No surprises here” he said, “But maybe we could demonstrate how important it is to look at the Bible with fresh eyes.”

He walked to the blackboard and wrote:

Is Abraham alive?

Those familiar with Glen’s teaching sensed that this was more than the simple question it appeared to be. A man turned to his wife and said in a low voice “He’s not going to get me on this one.”

No one volunteered an answer, and Glen was prepared for this. He turned back to the blackboard, “Let me write down our alternatives” he said matter of factly, “for your consideration.”

1. Abraham is dead and his body is in the cave at Macpelah. He awaits his resurrection.

There was a stirring in the class as some demurred, thinking of what they considered the error of “ soul sleep”.

Glen waited for a reaction, then turned back to the board and wrote:
2. Abraham’s body is dead but his soul is in heaven.

Now there was a response, some people shifted in their seats and relaxed. I knew it was not going to be so simple though. Glen was setting his trap.

Glen spoke in a genial and non-confrontational way. “I said there would be no surprises. And for most of you there won’t be any surprises. Everybody knows the story of Lazarus and the rich man in Luke chapter sixteen. It is so simple that no thinking is needed. We all know that Jesus said that Lazarus was carried to the bosom of Abraham in hell.” Some murmured at the reference of Abraham being in hell. “But let me hasten to add” Glen continued, “That Abraham was, at that time, in paradise, which is in hell, but was a refuge for the righteous.”

There was a relaxation now, as most of the class were in familiar territory. “Everyone also knows that Abraham is no longer in paradise though, right?” There were nods of silent agreement. “In fact paradise is empty, am I right?” Again there was a general assent.

“Paradise is empty because while the body of Jesus was in the tomb his soul descended into hell and he preached to those in hell and then led them up to heaven. Then his soul came back down to earth and re-entered his body in time to come out of the tomb at his resurrection. This was once called ‘the harrowing of hell’ and is still generally believed and taught. Everyone knows this and it is in many Bible notes and Bible commentaries. Everyone knows it.” The class sensed the irony in Glen’s voice. “Then he spoke again, “Everyone knows this, except me.”

This had been too much for a middle aged man of conservative demeanor. “How can you contradict the very words of Jesus?” he asked in exasperation.

Glen had hoped for this question and he responded. “First of all, the harrowing of hell doctrine I just enunciated is not composed of the very words of Jesus. True or false, it is a construct, some of this, some of that, joined together. The very conservative Old Scofield Bible contains this doctrine in its notes. But the very conservative New Scofield (Glen held up his Bible) says that scripture does not support it. And a no less worthy than John MacArthur’s Study Bible says the story of Lazarus and the rich man is a parable.”

This was too much for the old gentleman. He turned in his seat as if to rise and walk away.

“But wait” said Glen, “as unlikely as it may seem to you, you and I agree on a wonderful point you made. You asked me how can we refute the very words of Jesus. I wish to hold you to this as well.”

Glen walked to the podium and began to leaf through his Bible. “Please turn with me to Matthew chapter twelve and let us begin at verse thirty one.” Glen then began to lay the framework of his argument: Jesus in proving that there is to be a resurrection, used the example of Abraham, saying God is not the God of the dead, but of the living.” Matt.2 2:32 .

He looked across the class, hoping to reach them with this truth. “Did Jesus say that God is the God of the living because Abraham’s soul was alive, or because Abraham would some day be resurrected?

Jesus equates Abraham’s being alive with his future resurrection. Jesus was arguing there will be a resurrection some day. That is the source of Abraham’s life, a future resurrection, not a present immortal soul.”

He waited for questions. There were none and he thanked the class for their attention and began to gather up his papers.

Later I said to Glen, reluctantly, “I’m not sure you reached many of them, maybe no one at all.”

We walked towards his van. “I am not accountable to anyone but Jesus” he told me. Some day I will stand before His bema throne. I hope I will have done what I should do, not just what people wanted me to do.

Glen, I don’t know where you are now, but you were wrong and you were right. You did teach me a body of knowledge, though you said that was not your job. But more than anything you taught me to think.

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