40 Questions about Heaven and Hell


For all you fans of last Thursday’s post. . . . 🙂

Alan W. Gomes. 40 Questions about Heaven and Hell. 384p., $25.99, Kregel Academic.

In 40 Questions About Heaven and Hell, Alan Gomes surveys the Old and New Testaments to present a comprehensive picture of the afterlife. The question-and-answer format makes it easy to find answers to specific questions on heaven, hell, the intermediate state, the final judgment, and life in eternity. Readers will find solid answers to many vital questions:

  • What should we conclude about those who claim to have seen heaven or hell?
  • Is it possible for us to communicate with the dead?
  • Is there such a place as purgatory?
  • What will our resurrected bodies be like?
  • What will we do in the eternal state?
  • Will there be animals in the eternal state?
  • What is hell like?
  • How can a God of love send people to an eternal hell?
  • Did Jesus “descend into hell” like the Apostles’ Creed says?

Study notes point to additional resources for learning, and reflection questions at the end of each chapter make the book ideal for small group studies.

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Lay It Down and Lay It Out (Retreat Session 3)


God has called each of us as individuals, and to respond to him in the unique way he’s called each of us . . . but we’re not in this alone. God wants us to share what he’s done and give him the glory for it—and he wants to accomplish much of that in the context of Christian relationship.

The trick here isn’t to pursue relationships with other Christians, but to pursue Jesus together as Christians. The two things sound similar, but there’s all the difference in the world between them. When Jesus is our focus, suddenly all the little things that often get in the way in our relationships don’t seem so important. When we pursue Jesus together, our relationships naturally become closer and deeper—because Jesus sets the tone. Jesus is never going to steer us the wrong way.

We’re going to use Romans 12 as our roadmap from the individual to the corporate. In some ways this “roadmap” seems all over the map, but as we work through it you’ll hopefully begin to observe the connections between who we individually should be before God, and how Jesus wants us to serve the world together as his body.

Read Romans 12:1–2, repeatedly. Reflect on your time spent on this retreat so far, and then take at least ten minutes to respond to these questions:

  • Based on what’s gone on between you and God so far, how do you believe he’s called you specifically to “present your bod[y] as a living sacrifice”? What do you think your next move actually looks like?
  • When do you find it easier to try harder—to “be conformed to this world”—to get things done, rather than be “a living sacrifice”? What would God’s “good and acceptable and perfect” will look like in those situations? (And if your answer is “I don’t know,” what do you need to change in your thinking to find out?)

Leaders: Have everyone get into their subgroups. Let them know they’ll be working together for the entire session. You’ll be prompting them along the way to transition from section to section, but otherwise the extent of your leadership is getting them started and wrapping things up. Introduce the session, saying something along the lines of our introduction. And then let your groups get to work. Allow fifteen minutes for them to talk through this first section; prompting them when there’s a few minutes left. In this group context, it’s only necessary to read the passage once. Also, encourage your subgroups to stop and pray for one another throughout their time together. Don’t just save it all up for the end of the session; begin inviting God in as you sense your need for him.

Read verses 3–5, again repeatedly. Then take at least fifteen minutes to reflect and write concerning the following questions:

  • Why is it important to remember that we’re part of a body—and only one part? Come up with at least one example to illustrate your answer.
  • Likewise, why is it important to remember that God has given each member a measure of faith?
  • When have you seen a healthy church body (or group) work together? What made it work so well?
  • On the other hand, when have you seen God’s purposes thwarted by his body? Complete this sentence in response to that situation: “If only. . . .”
  • What was your part in that “If only . . .”—or what should it have been?

Leaders: Give subgroups twenty minutes to talk through this section. Again, prompt them when they have a few minutes left.

Before beginning your next reading, take two or three minutes to think of all the commitments you’re responsible for in a given week, and write them down as they come to you.

Now, read and reread verses 6–10. Take at least fifteen minutes to journal on these questions:

  • Where do you fit into this “short list” of spiritual gifts—or wish you did? How else has God gifted you that’s not listed here?
  • Who exhibits some of the gifts that make you say “that’s so not me”? How could working with that person or people benefit both of you, as well as benefit those you’re serving (or would like to serve)?
  • Stay on those people you just thought of. How does showing mutual love and honoring those people help smooth over those places where it’s painfully obvious how different you are? Can you think of an example when that’s happened? Write that down as well
  • What would mutual love and honoring look like, specifically, in your life right now?
  • Look at the “commitments” list you made earlier. How does this passage, and your responses to it, help you keep “your” work for the Lord in perspective?

Leaders: Give subgroups twenty-five minutes to talk through this section. Again, prompt them when they have a few minutes left.

Go on to verses 11–20. Read it, then reread it. Take ten more minutes to reflect and respond:

  • Which of these commands—if any—do you look at and say, “Hey, no problem”? On the other hand, which of these commands just make you cringe? In both cases, why?
  • Reflect once more on your coworkers from the section above. What, specifically, could that person or persons teach you that you lack?

Leaders: Give subgroups thirty minutes to talk through the following section—but even moreso, to pray for one another. Help everyone to key in on the follow-up question below, “Which of these sections resonated most with you as you studied and journaled?” and pray together over each other’s answers. The Spirit is probably doing some serious work in people’s lives right now; take advantage of that. Encourage groups to open their hearts even further to God, and to one another. Encourage them to recognize and honor one another’s gifts as they pray. Again, let everyone know when there’s a few minutes left.

This session has probably brought up a lot of current struggles. The good news is: God wants to help you in those struggles, and so do the people you thought about during this session—more than you know, or likely suspect. Now’s the time to invite God in (and if you’re in a group, others as well).

Which of these sections resonated most with you as you studied and journaled? Spend time talking to God about it. Ask him for wisdom, and for people to walk alongside you, as you pursue God’s “good and acceptable and perfect” will for your life. Also ask that your heart be changed toward others, so that you may “[l]ove one another with brotherly affection” and “[o]utdo one another in showing honor.”

Leaders: Bring everyone back together. Invite people to share prayer requests, and how the Spirit has been moving among your entire group. Then spend at least a little more time praying together, and for what God wants to do in your midst next.

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40 Questions about Angels, Demons, and Spiritual Warfare


Everything you wanted to know, but was afraid to ask. . . .

John Gilhooly. 40 Questions about Angels, Demons, and Spiritual Warfare. 256p., $21.99, Kregel Academic.

In 40 Questions About Angels, Demons, and Spiritual Warfare, John Gilhooly provides a biblical and balanced perspective on the many issues surrounding the spiritual realm. Using a question-and-answer format, he explains spiritual warfare, angels and demons, the role of Satan, models and practices for spiritual warfare, and topics related to the occult. Beneficial as a comprehensive overview or as a reference guide to particular subjects, this volume provides concise but thorough answers to many important questions, including:

  • Do believers have guardian angels?Can Christians be demon-possessed?

  • Are there territorial spirits?

  • Why and when did the devil fall from heaven?

  • What is the role of prayer in spiritual warfare?

  • Are there such things as spiritual curses?

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Lay Down and Listen (Retreat Session 2)


Even if you’re with a group, this session is about you and God spending trail ridgetime together. Just you and God. This might seem scary, or lead to unrealistic expectations, if you’re not used to “wasting time with God.” Don’t let it be. I’ve had profound, life-changing experiences with God during these some of these retreat times. Other times, I didn’t sense God’s presence at all, even when I really desired to hear his answers. Yet other times, it was something in between—I felt God’s presence, if only briefly, but didn’t come back with “the answer from the mountaintop.” But my time with God has always been a time to be refreshed and to regain some perspective. If you go in with any expectations at all, let it be that.

Leaders: Instruct everyone to come back in ninety minutes. Chances are several will come back early; others may not return on time. Again, if God’s talking, don’t circumvent that. Move on together as a group at the ninety-minute mark, and let those who straggle in later share as they’re led. If your meeting location has a lot of property, or is located near a park or natural area, add up to thirty minutes to this “alone time with God” piece. This will give people time to find (and return from) a nice, secluded spot, and will be even more conducive to their hanging out with God just a little bit longer.

Take at least ninety minutes for your “alone time with God.” Find a secluded (or at least private) area; bring your book, your journal, and something to write with. Once you’ve found your spot, spend some time in prayer, asking God to prepare your heart. If some things from Session 1 have bubbled to the surface, spend time talking to God about them as well before moving on. Don’t be surprised if distracting thoughts pop up during your prayer time or “alone time.” If it’s something that has some legitimacy—for example, something you need to remember to do when you get back home—just jot it down in your journal, then forget about it and move on.

Read 1 Kings 18:17–19:18, slowly. Then read through it again, before proceeding.

Note that God not only provides sustenance, but also provides fellowship and support. In the midst of Elijah’s turmoil and depression, God points him toward Elisha, his disciple and successor. In our next session, we’ll focus more on the power of prayer and on those God provides to support us. (If you’re with a group, some of those people might even be waiting for you when you get back.) But for now, think about this:

  • When have you had an Elijah-type experience—where you’ve had a huge success, followed by an emotional/spiritual collapse? When have you wanted to (or did) say, “God, just kill me now?”
  • How did God meet you during that time—or do you still wonder where he was or why he allowed it to happen?

 

Be brutally honest with this question. It’s not as if God doesn’t know the answers already, but maybe you need to acknowledge the pain you still feel—or properly express the joy of having experienced God’s provision and deliverance. Or both. Talk to God about that time right now before moving on. Spend more time in repentance, if you need to. Cry, scream, shout in praise, or be quiet and calm—respond to God as you need right now. Again, take as much time as you need to “clear the decks.” But also, even now, begin giving God the opportunity to respond.

When you’re done, take at least fifteen minutes to be totally silent before God. You may or may not hear God’s “still small voice” during that time, but give him the chance to speak to your heart, and your mind. If God does bring something to mind, and/or you realize there’s more you want to speak to him about, write it down. But don’t interrupt your time of silence; save your words for later.

Afterward, reflect on these questions. Again, write out your answers, and include details—try to think through the “why behind the why”:

  • When have you found yourself expecting to hear God in the big circumstances—in the windstorms and earthquakes and fires—rather than in the calm that followed? When have you tried to “force” God to speak by creating a windstorm of your own?
  • When have you felt alone and abandoned, as Elijah did? Or that everything you’d truly felt you’d done for God was worth nothing? How did that affect the other parts of your life?
  • What might you have been expecting of God during those times that were more about what you wanted than what God wanted?

 

Again, when you’re done, take a couple more minutes to be silent. Deal with your feelings, and contrast them with God’s truth. Then, spend some more time talking things through with God before moving on.

When you’re ready, read through John 15—the entire chapter—at least once. Then, reflect on these questions, and respond to the corresponding prompts for prayer:

  • At what point do you usually realize you’ve stopped “remaining”? Why then?
  • Why is staying connected, rather than being connected in stops and starts, so critical to bearing fruit?

 

Ask forgiveness for the times you’ve turned away from Jesus—again, be specific if there are instances you haven’t already prayed about during your retreat time—and for the strength to “stay remained” in him.

  • How have you felt God pruning you over the last few months? What’s been the fruit of that process so far?

 

Thank God for the growth he’s produced in your life—and even for the pain that might have occurred in order for that growth to happen.

  • Conversely, how have you felt more connected to Jesus, or to other Christians, over the past few months? How can you strengthen those connections further?

 

Ask God for wisdom and insight on how to proceed.

  • What’s one way you need to remain in Jesus, in a way that you really haven’t? More specifically: What has God impressed upon you during this alone time, and what do you think he wants you to do about it? Who might he want you to do it with?

Close your alone time in prayer, thanking God for your time together, and asking for his strength and wisdom to live out those things he’s impressed upon you during your time together.

Leaders: Have a debriefing time together as a group to wrap up. Allow thirty to forty-five minutes for this time. It’s likely you’ll be amazed and blessed by what God has already shared with your group members. Start at the time you asked everyone to return, whether they’ve all returned yet or not. Open the floor up; invite people to share how they spent their time with God and what they heard. Chances are 1) they’ll have something to share, and 2) they won’t want to be the first ones to speak. Therefore, be ready to share your own story, to get the wheels rolling; then step back and watch what God does (and already has done).

Close your sharing time in prayer, thanking God for the opportunity to “waste time with him.” Thank him for what he’s revealed to each person in your group already, and ask him to help keep your eyes and ears open to his presence for the remainder of this retreat—and beyond. Then, enjoy your lunch together! Chances are, even more will get shared as you relax and enjoy your meal together.

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He Called Himself a Barnstormer


Another one from the fiction-based-on-fact department, this one in the more historical vein. . . .

Charlotte Reynolds. He Called Himself a Barnstormer. 334p., $15.99, Deep River Books.

He Called Himself a Barnstormer is a fictionalized story about a real man, James Scott, who seemed to have the hand of God on his young life. As a direct descendant, author Charlotte J. Reynolds shares the miraculous story of how James was the lone survivor of a deadly shipwreck in 1822. After being marooned on an island for two years, he was finally rescued and eventually made his way to Indiana in the mid-1800s.

Young James Scott couldn’t shake these nagging questions:

Why was I saved?

What is my purpose?

This is the story of the surprising way the Lord answered those questions.

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Lay Down . . . No, Seriously, LAY DOWN (Retreat Session 1)


During this retreat—this interlude—we’re going to, in the famous words of Thomas Merton, “waste time with God.” As we lay down our time and just immerse ourselves in God’s presence, we’ll more deeply realize that no time with God is wasted. In addition, we’ll begin converting into experience an idea we’ll be exploring from here on out: Eternal life starts now. As we learn to give more of our time to God, and encounter his infinitude, we very consciously and deliberately prepare ourselves us for eternity with him.

mountains ypsilonIn each of the following sessions, we’ll not only prepare our hearts but begin using practices we can integrate into our daily lives—and that we’ll get to practice more in the weeks to come. They’re commonly known as spiritual disciplines, but don’t let that phrase intimidate you. We’re going to take some tiny steps during this interlude, and trust God to move us forward from here.

We’re not to approach the disciplines as a way to “manipulate God,” but as we should approach God in every part of our lives—with a sensitive and repentant heart. In a sense, through the disciplines we preach God’s goodness to ourselves, even when we’re unable to feel it. We acknowledge that our hearts grow cold all too easily; but by choosing to focus on God’s presence, we also acknowledge our desire to truly know God better and to allow him to transform our hearts. From that position of weakness, God can make us truly strong. So let’s begin.

**********

In the second session of this retreat, we’ll focus specifically on listening to God and what he has to say to us right now. However, it’s hard to listen when your mind, heart, and spirit are so cluttered with everything but Jesus. This session, therefore, is about clearing the decks and beginning to prepare your heart so you can hear.

Be patient with yourself during this process, but be willing to deal honestly and thoroughly with the things that have come between you and Christ, and to give the Spirit permission to bring up those things.

Leaders: Before getting started, have your group forms smaller subgroups of three or four. Let everyone know that you’ll be working and discussing together in these subgroups often throughout this retreat. Once your subgroups have formed, tell everyone that for this first section, they’ll each need to find a place in their meeting area where they can think and write quietly. They can stay in their seats, if they want—as long as there’s plenty of space between them and others.

Instruct everyone to work through the reading and questions for Luke 10 below, and to plan on coming back together in twenty minutes. (You may even want to put these questions/instructions and the ones for Revelation 2 on a sheet of paper in advance.) It’s also a good idea to give people notice before bringing them back together. After fifteen minutes, quietly say, “You have five minutes left.”

Read Luke 10:38–42. Then read it again. Once more. Write down your immediate impressions.

Then, think about and write down your answers to the following questions, spending at least five minutes on each bullet-point group of questions:

  • If you’re a Martha:
    If you had (or have) a Mary in your life, what would your complaint(s) about her be?
    What do your complaints reveal about your own priorities?
    How do those priorities line up with Jesus’ priorities, especially in light of what you’ve studied these past several weeks?
  • If you’re a Mary:
    How do you react to the Marthas in your life?
    How guilty or anxious do you feel about all the things that aren’t done—or at least about how it’s making the Marthas in your life feel?
    What legitimate points do your Marthas have?
    How does all this distract you from sitting at Jesus’ feet and listening?
  • Why is it so hard to stop and listen to Jesus? What do you think you’re giving up by doing so? Be brutally honest with yourself here.

Leaders: Bring everyone back together and get them into their subgroups. Allow ten to fifteen minutes for subgroups to discuss insights from their reflection time. Afterward, gather everyone’s attention, and ask for a volunteer from each group to share their answers. Then, ask everyone to go back to their “quiet places” and spend thirty minutes working through the reading, questions, and activity for Revelation 2 (the remainder of this session). Again, give everyone a heads-up when your time is nearing a close.

Now, read Revelation 2:1–7. Again, read it a few times and write down your impressions before moving on.

Reflect on and write down your answers to the following questions, again spending at least five minutes on each bullet point:

  • What do you think—or at least hope—Jesus will commend you for? Again, be honest; this is an opportunity to invite Jesus into your struggles—and the things you take even legitimate pride in are part of that struggle.
  • Recall when you first came to know Jesus. What’s different now? How have you forgotten, or at least neglected, your first love?
  • What attitudes or activities have quenched your first love—complacency, opposition, inattention, busyness, something else? Name each of them now. Be specific; add detail as you need to.
  • How do you get back to where you once were “and do the works you did at first”? (Note: If your answer is “I don’t know,” don’t panic; you’re just starting this retreat. Just begin processing. Give the Spirit time to respond to, and shape, the desires of your heart.)

Note also that part of the answer to that final question can be found in your answers to the previous question, and in Revelation 2:5. We’ve considered how far we’ve fallen, and acknowledged our need “do the things [we] did at first.” There’s one word between those two phrases, though, that we’re going to deal with now: Repent.

Review your list of attitudes or activities that have quenched your first love. You’ve named them; now spend time in prayer lifting each of them up to God and repenting of them. “Repent” means to turn around, and by turning around we begin heading in the direction Jesus first pointed us in—and toward the destinations, both on this earth and beyond, he’s intended for us.

When you’re done, spend some more time remembering your first love in Jesus. Remember the joy you experienced in “do[ing] the things you did at first.” Then close your first session in prayer and thanksgiving—both for what Jesus has already done in your life and what he’s going to do as you lay down your life to him.

Leaders: Bring everyone back together after thirty minutes. Invite people to share how God spoke to them during this time, and invite prayer requests. If your group is ten people or less, close in prayer together for one another; if more than ten, have everyone get back in their subgroups to pray for one another and instruct them to stay or leave quietly as they finish.

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The Circle of Seven


A book for the wounded healers among us. . . . especially those who have been wounded while trying to bring healing. . . .

Rev. Mark William Ennis. The Circle of Seven: When His Servants Are Weak. 160p., $13.99, Deep River Books.

When a traumatized minister has nothing left to give and is on the brink of despair, how can he find the strength to go on? Who is going to minister to his wounded and broken spirit?

Along the path to hope and healing, Reverend William de Plore learns that true ministry is universally challenging, pastoral care is intense, and no one is immune to human limitations. Can restoration be found in a circle of seven ministers?

The Circle of Seven: When His Servants Are Weak is for ministers who have been wounded by the giving of intense pastoral care. It is also for Christians who care for ministers and wish to help and support them. . . . The stories presented here are real. They are not clean and pretty, but they are filled with faithful people in difficult circumstances finding their wounds healed by God’s grace. While specific details have been necessarily fictionalized, the reality of the traumatizing wounding and the restorative healing is entirely factual and based upon actual events.

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