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Review: Heaven Is For Real

A toddlers report that he has visited heaven is met with skepticism from everyone but his father.

mpaa rating:PGGenre:DramaDirected By: Randall Wallace Run Time: 1 hour 40 minutes Cast: Greg Kinnear, Kelly Reilly, Connor Corum, Margo Martindale Theatre Release:April 16, 2014 by For thematic material including some medical situations.

I believe heaven is for real. Allow me to get that out of the way up front. About the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting, I am as confident as I can be regarding any doctrine that is ultimately an article of faith.

But about Heaven is for Real, Todd Burpo's book chronicling his son Colton's emergency appendectomy and subsequent claim that he had visited heaven, I am a skeptic. It's awkward but necessary that I tell you that before I explain the ways in which I thought Randall Wallace's adaptation of Burpo's book improves upon its source material, and where, perhaps, the film may frustrate readers expecting less ambiguity and more vindication.

The film depicts many events from Burpo's book, though it obscures the timeline between Colton's operation and the first time he mentions to his father that he visited heaven. Gradually, under increasingly leading interrogations from his father, Colton reports having sat on Jesus's lap, seeing many animals, having angels sing to him, meeting Todd's grandfather, and, finally, meeting his own unborn sister, of whom he purportedly had no previous knowledge.

This compression is important because regardless of the content of Colton's memory, his level of recall seems contrary to the way most research demonstrates human memory actually operates. (For a good summary of social-science research on memory, see chapter three of Chabris's and Simon's The Invisible Gorilla).

Once Colton begins sharing his experience, the film deviates from the book more in tone than in substance. In his book, any doubts Todd has about the authenticity of Colton's experience are minimized. "By the time we rolled across the South Dakota ...

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Review: Heaven Is For Real

A toddlers report that he has visited heaven is met with skepticism from everyone but his father.

mpaa rating:PGGenre:DramaDirected By: Randall Wallace Run Time: 1 hour 40 minutes Cast: Greg Kinnear, Kelly Reilly, Connor Corum, Margo Martindale Theatre Release:April 16, 2014 by For thematic material including some medical situations.

I believe heaven is for real. Allow me to get that out of the way up front. About the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting, I am as confident as I can be regarding any doctrine that is ultimately an article of faith.

But about Heaven is for Real, Todd Burpo's book chronicling his son Colton's emergency appendectomy and subsequent claim that he had visited heaven, I am a skeptic. It's awkward but necessary that I tell you that before I explain the ways in which I thought Randall Wallace's adaptation of Burpo's book improves upon its source material, and where, perhaps, the film may frustrate readers expecting less ambiguity and more vindication.

The film depicts many events from Burpo's book, though it obscures the timeline between Colton's operation and the first time he mentions to his father that he visited heaven. Gradually, under increasingly leading interrogations from his father, Colton reports having sat on Jesus's lap, seeing many animals, having angels sing to him, meeting Todd's grandfather, and, finally, meeting his own unborn sister, of whom he purportedly had no previous knowledge.

This compression is important because regardless of the content of Colton's memory, his level of recall seems contrary to the way most research demonstrates human memory actually operates. (For a good summary of social-science research on memory, see chapter three of Chabris's and Simon's The Invisible Gorilla).

Once Colton begins sharing his experience, the film deviates from the book more in tone than in substance. In his book, any doubts Todd has about the authenticity of Colton's experience are minimized. "By the time we rolled across the South Dakota ...

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How God Became Jesus—and How I Came to Faith in Him

Bart Ehrmans narrative suggests the more educated you are, the less likely you are to believe. My life proves otherwise.

Bart Ehrman, a professor of religion at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is something of a celebrity skeptic. He's written a number of bestsellers exposing the alleged errors in traditional accounts of early Christianity. His book Misquoting Jesus (2007) asserts that the manuscripts used to compile the New Testament are corrupted and unreliable, deviant from original autographs. His book Forged (2011) claims that many of the New Testament writings were counterfeits written pseudonymously under the names of the apostles.

In his latest book, How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee, Ehrman argues that belief in Jesus' divinity evolved over the first few centuries and eventually crystallized into what we know today. Jesus didn't claim to be God; rather, his followers thought he was divine because they believed he rose from the dead. But even then, the understanding of Jesus' divinity was incredibly elastic, ranging from a man exalted to be God's vice-regent to a pre-existent person who was equal with God. Only much later was Jesus identified as the Almighty. You can read Ehrman's own summary of his book at The Huffington Post.

Ehrman has a famous de-conversion, turning from an evangelical Christian to an agnostic. And he loves to tell his story. Ehrman is a gifted communicator, never short of a provocative quote. He knows how to stir a crowd, and he does well in talk shows, conferences, presentations, and debates.

But I've got my own de-conversion story to match his.

From Skepticism to Faith

I grew up in a secular home in suburban Australia, where religion was categorically rejected—it was seen as a crutch, and people of faith were ...

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Saved from Hate: An Interview with Mark Phelps, Son of Westboro Founder Fred Phelps Sr.

Mark Phelps graciously shared a bit of his story with me over the last couple of weeks.

Ed Stetzer: First, tell us a little about your background.

Mark Phelps: I left my family and my father's "church" in 1973. I graduated college in 1976 with a degree in business finance. I married my wife of almost 38 years in August 1976. We started a business in 1978.

My wife and I lost three boys to miscarriage during the first 10 years of our marriage. I began doing business consulting in 1986. We adopted two little girls, one in 1987 and one in 1992. We lost our business of 32 years in 2010, and I am currently recovering from lung disease. I look forward to continuing my consulting business when my health allows.

Ed: How did you come to understand God as you do now?

Mark: The Lord saved me during a sermon at a Bible Conference in Ashland, Kentucky, in 1965, when I was eleven years old. I left my family and my father's "church" in 1973. My future wife, and her father and mother, were a loving support to me from the day I left my family.

Though the fear was paralyzing, from the treatment and teachings of my father, by 1983 I was able to start thinking about God again and begin attending church again. There were a group of godly men where I was attending church. I joined their Bible study and began to slowly open my heart, and learn the truth about the Lord.

I was finally able to start formal healing therapy in 1988 and worked toward healing and restoration, overcoming the horrible pain and fear from the 19 years of living with my father. I completed formal therapy in 1994 and I was baptized again, on purpose and with great delight, in the local church I attended. Not because I believed I had to, but because I wanted to celebrate what the Lord had done in my life.

I have continued to grow ...

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The Epic Jesus Follower Fail

The cringe-worthy subplot of Holy Week underscores the truth of the gospel.

On the Internet and in our culture, there's a lot of bluster, often warranted, about the failures of the church. We wince as another pastor is involved in scandal; another popular Christian leader says something unhelpful, insensitive, or heretical; another Christian blogger gang war erupts over the controversy du jour.

Every so often, someone pens a post breathlessly announcing the imminent doom of the church because of what a mess we Christians are. And then people like me talk about it. And tweet about it. And blog about it. And bicker about it. Again and again and again.

It's true. We are a mess and need to be quick to repent--doctrinal and moral failure among believers is serious and grievous. But from its earliest days, God has pursued and propelled the church in spite of our bumbling and failure.

And this week, Holy Week, we notice that in the midst of Christ's passion, death, and resurrection, we also find an embarrassingly painful display of the weakness, confusion, even imbecility of his earliest followers.

In each unfolding event of the week, the apostles disappoint. During the Last Supper, Jesus tells his friends that one of them will betray him and that they'll all abandon him. They respond by telling Jesus that he's underestimated them and arguing about who is the greatest, the most loyal disciple.

Then, they fall asleep, more than once, in Gethsemene, too weak to be a friend to Jesus when he is most desperate for one. Then, they panic and draw swords against those who arrested Jesus. Next, in a scene recounted with cringe-worthy detail, Peter swears up and down that he doesn't know Jesus even though it's pretty obvious to everyone around him that he does.

A damning ...

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Morning Roundup 4/16/14

Faces of 2050 America; Love Your City; Church and the Gospel

National Geographic Concludes What Americans Will Look Like in 2050, and It's BeautifulZak Cheney-Rice

Fascinating look at a possible racial future:

Love Your CityMatt Kladnik

Helpful look at loving your context.

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Five Errors to Drop From Your Easter Sermon

If you want to help people see Holy Week with fresh eyes, start by dropping these familiar fallacies.

1. Don't say Jesus died when he was 33 years old.

The common assertion seems reasonable that if Jesus "began his ministry" when he "was about thirty years of age" (Luke 3:23) and engaged in a three-year ministry (John mentions three Passovers, and there might have been a fourth one), then he was 33 years old at the time of his death. However, virtually no scholar believes Jesus was actually 33 when he died. Jesus was born before Herod the Great issued the decree to execute "all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under" (Matt. 2:16, ESV) and before Herod died in the spring of 4 B.C. If Jesus was born in the fall of 5 or 6 B.C., and if we remember that we don't count the "0" between B.C. and A.D., then Jesus would have been 37 or 38 years old when he died in the spring of A.D. 33 (as we believe is most likely). Even if Jesus died in the year A.D. 30 (the only serious alternative date), he would have been 34 or 35, not 33 years old. No major doctrine is affected by this common misconception. But don't damage your credibility by confidently proclaiming "facts" from the pulpit that are not true.

2. Don't explain the apparent absence of a lamb at the Last Supper by only saying Jesus is the ultimate Passover Lamb.

While it is gloriously true that Jesus is "the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29), this does not mean there was no physical paschal lamb at the Lord's Supper. In fact, there almost certainly was: "Then came the day of Unleavened Bread, on which the Passover lamb [pascha] had to be sacrificed. So Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, 'Go and prepare the Passover ...

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Five Errors to Drop From Your Easter Sermon

If you want to help people see Holy Week with fresh eyes, start by dropping these familiar fallacies.

1. Don't say Jesus died when he was 33 years old.

The common assertion seems reasonable that if Jesus "began his ministry" when he "was about thirty years of age" (Luke 3:23) and engaged in a three-year ministry (John mentions three Passovers, and there might have been a fourth one), then he was 33 years old at the time of his death. However, virtually no scholar believes Jesus was actually 33 when he died. Jesus was born before Herod the Great issued the decree to execute "all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under" (Matt. 2:16, ESV) and before Herod died in the spring of 4 B.C. If Jesus was born in the fall of 5 or 6 B.C., and if we remember that we don't count the "0" between B.C. and A.D., then Jesus would have been 37 or 38 years old when he died in the spring of A.D. 33 (as we believe is most likely). Even if Jesus died in the year A.D. 30 (the only serious alternative date), he would have been 34 or 35, not 33 years old. No major doctrine is affected by this common misconception. But don't damage your credibility by confidently proclaiming "facts" from the pulpit that are not true.

2. Don't explain the apparent absence of a lamb at the Last Supper by only saying Jesus is the ultimate Passover Lamb.

While it is gloriously true that Jesus is "the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29), this does not mean there was no physical paschal lamb at the Lord's Supper. In fact, there almost certainly was: "Then came the day of Unleavened Bread, on which the Passover lamb [pascha] had to be sacrificed. So Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, 'Go and prepare the Passover ...

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Why Resurrection People Remember the Dead

Keeping the memory of our deceased loved ones alive.

When I was a child, a family in our church lost their daughter in a tragic car accident weeks before her high school graduation. For years after Vicky died, my mother kept in contact with her parents, mentioning her in conversation long after our community had stopped talking about her.

On one occasion, my mother asked, "Do you ever wonder what Vicky's children would look like?" Talking about the dead in this way makes a lot of people uncomfortable. But for Vicky's parents, it was a breath of fresh air—healing air. At one point, Vicky's dad told my mother, "You are the only one who ever mentions Vicky's name. Everyone else is afraid to." He and his family were pained by losing the memory of Vicky, so speaking her name was for them a source of comfort.

Death is a cyclical reality in all communities, and often families are forced to travel the grieving journey alone. After his young son died, a close friend of mine said, "Pretty soon Isaac will fade from most people's memory. And any future children we have will never know him. Instead they will associate him with times of the year when Mom and Dad are sad—his birthday, the day he died, and Mother's and Father's Day." My friend was not only grieving the loss of Isaac; he was also grieving the loss of his memory in the community. Forgetting Isaac meant deep alienation for his family.

A year after Isaac died, another family from my circle of friends lost their little girl, Poppy, in the third trimester of pregnancy. As with Isaac's father, Poppy's parents were afraid that Poppy's memory would be lost. In a tender moment, Poppy's father said, "I am afraid to lose the pain over ...

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India's Christians Shrug

The countrys likely next leader is a Hindu nationalist who has suppressed other faiths. Why church leaders arent worried.

Narendra Modi, leader of India's divisive Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), will almost certainly become the country's next prime minister. But given the party's platform of Hindu nationalism and association with religious violence, it's surprising that many Christians aren't concerned about his election.

The reason? Modi is promising jobs.

"Believers . . . don't have any difficulties with Modi. In fact, they applaud his developmental efforts," the head of the Jacobite Syrian Church told reporters in January.

Since the economy peaked at 9.3 percent annual growth in 2011, growth has plummeted to about 5 percent. India's Christian minority has long backed the Congress party, which has been in power since 2009. But corruption, scandals, and ineffective economic policies have tarnished the party. "Congress can no longer be sure it retains the trust of the poor, the Dalits, the tribals, and the minorities, [who] voted for it all these years," John Dayal, cofounder of the All India Christian Council, announced on his blog.

The nation's economic downturn has allowed for the resurgence of the BJP, the Hindu nationalist group that governed India from 1998 to 2004. Many Christians have accused the BJP of inciting violence against Christians and Muslims.

Modi, 63, has been chief minister of the western Indian state of Gujarat since 2001. To the delight of India's corporate class, Gujarat now accounts for 72 percent of all new Indian jobs.

But Modi will find it hard to distance himself from one of India's worst recent cases of religious violence. In February 2002, Hindu rioters killed 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, in Gujarat. The attacks have been labeled a pogrom, ...

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Vietnam Is Getting Better, and Worse

Some see small signs of freedom even as the country moves up the list of top persecutors.

Secretary of State John Kerry's December trip to Vietnam was meant to improve relations and urge greater protection of human rights in a country that climbed three spots on a list of the world's worst persecutors of Christians.

Kerry attended Mass in Ho Chi Minh City, a move faith-based adviser Shaun Casey called a step "beyond rhetoric to highlight religious freedom."

Life Without Limbs evangelist Nick Vujicic's visit seven months earlier was even more notable, said Reg Reimer, former missionary and longtime advocate for religious freedom in Vietnam.

Vujicic took the stage before more than 60,000 Vietnamese in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, sparking hope that the Communist country may be easing its religious restrictions.

"Nick's visit was a bright spot in Vietnam's long, dreary, turn toward a better way of treating religions," Reimer said.

The visit indicated that some in the Vietnamese government are comfortable with foreigners publicly sharing their faith, said Institute for Global Engagement (IGE) president Chris Seiple. "It is also in Vietnam's self-interest to be known as open to such things."

It is encouragement sorely needed. Vietnam's Decree 92, which went into effect in January 2013 and was meant to clarify earlier laws, allows religious groups to legally register. But before they can preach, perform sacraments, or choose their own leaders, they must have worshiped for 20 years without disturbing the government.

The 2014 World Watch List, a ranking from Open Doors of the countries that most persecute Christians, put Vietnam at No. 18, up from No. 21 last year. Meanwhile, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) again ...

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Three Views: If a Cure for Down Syndrome Is Found, Should Parents Accept It?

To many families, the limitations are no match for love.

Cure, But Don't Harm

Leticia Velasquez

For years, I have grappled with whether I would welcome a cure for Down syndrome for Christina, my 11-year-old daughter. I was once forced to answer the question on live television in New York. "Would you take Christina's Down syndrome away if you could?" talk-show host Michael Coren asked me.

Shocked, I stared into the camera and said, "I love her as she is. Down syndrome has shaped her, but it does not define her. Yes, if there were a safe treatment to improve her memory and learning, I would give it to her."

It sounded like a politician's answer, but it is the truth. I love my daughter's loving and spontaneous personality. And I fear what a cognitive "cure" would do to affect her singular qualities, innocence, and complete lack of concern for the opinions of others. She has taught our family how to love unconditionally and approach God with childlike confidence.

Still, Down syndrome places real limits on Christina's life. She gets frustrated often by her inability to communicate effectively. It breaks my heart. When she was 5, she could speak very well. But her verbal abilities sharply declined after that. I can't help hoping that one of the many cognition-improving medicines currently in clinical trials may be a "cure" to help her speak and make friends.

I worry that it will become a societal goal to eliminate these loving members of society rather than to help them reach their potential. Jérôme Lejeune, the renowned French pediatrician who discovered the genetic cause of Down syndrome, sought treatments that physicians could apply in utero. In the late 1960s, Lejeune, a Christian, became ...

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Surprised by N.T. Wright

The Bible scholar's goal is to massively revise the way we talk about the Christian faith. By many accounts, he's already succeeded.

People who are asked to write about N. T. Wright may find they quickly run out of superlatives. He is the most prolific biblical scholar in a generation. Some say he is the most important apologist for the Christian faith since C. S. Lewis. He has written the most extensive series of popular commentaries on the New Testament since William Barclay. And, in case three careers sound like too few, he is also a church leader, having served as Bishop of Durham, England, before his current teaching post at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

But perhaps the most significant praise of all: When Wright speaks, preaches, or writes, folks say they see Jesus, and lives are transformed. A pastor friend of mine describes a church member walking into his office, hands trembling as he held a copy of Wright's Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. "If this book is true," he said, "then my whole life has to change."

The superlatives are striking, considering Wright's goal in his teaching and writing is to massively revise the way Christianity has been articulated for generations. Christian faith, for Wright, is not about going to heaven when you die. It is not about the triumph of grace over the law of the Old Testament. He says its key doctrine is not justification by grace alone, the cornerstone for the Protestant Reformers. The church has misread Paul so severely, it seems, that no one fully understood the gospel from the time of the apostle to the time a certain British scholar started reading Paul in Greek in graduate school.

"Apologist" and "revisionist" usually don't fit on the same business card. A significant New Testament ...

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