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Provocative Church, Blaise Pascal & Inbound Marketing

31 August 2014

Church in DublinEvery now and again you read a book which expresses an idea that crystallises everything you thought but had never put into words. One of those books for me was Provocative Church by Graham Tomlin. I read the book 7 years ago and it has shaped my approach to Christianity and church ever since.

The central theme of the book is actually based on a quote from Blaise Pascal, the 17th Century mathematician, philosopher and theologian. He famously said:

Make religion attractive, make good men wish it were true, and then show that it is. Worthy of reverence because it really understands human nature. Attractive because it promises true good.

3 weeks ago my manager at HubSpot, with whom I have many humorous discussions about Jesus being a fairytale, said to me “it’s a great idea Steve…be great if it were true!” Now whilst he thinks I am crazy for believing what I believe (and he really does!), at least he thinks it’s a good idea, at least he can see that it is attractive, it makes a difference to my life and if it were true, it would make a difference to the world. So according to Pascal, I am 50% of the way there…I now just need to show him it is true!!

Tomlin says at the start of his book:

One of the key themes of this book is that unless there is something about church, or Christians, or faith that intrigues, provokes or entices, then our message will fall on deaf ears. If churches cannot convey a sense of ‘reality’ then all our ‘truth’ will count for nothing. Unless someone wants to hear, there’s no point in shouting louder. Churches need to become provocative, arresting places which makes the searcher, casual visitors, want to come back for more.

He goes on to say:

Pascal’s point is that before we ever get to the stage of explaining or convincing, there needs to emerge in people the desire, the question, the hunger to discover more, to find God.

Provocative ChurchNow reading Tomlin got me back to reading my Bible (like all great Christian books should do!!) to see what God’s word actually said about the the nature and witness of God’s people (in the Old and New Testament). As I re-read the ‘big Bible story’ I could see that the idea of a “provocative people” was there all the way through.

  • Abraham and his descendants were to be a blessing to the nations (Genesis 12:1-3) and that they were to be distinct in the way they lived (Genesis 18:19).
  • Moses was given the law by God on Mount Sinai so as to show the wisdom and closeness of God to the nations (Deuteronomy 4:6-7)
  • The high point of God’s People in the Old Testament is 1 Kings 10 when the Queen of Sheba (probably the richest person in the world) comes to hear the wisdom of Solomon and delights in the happiness of his people.

And I could continue with more examples. Of course we know that God’s people made a complete mess of it, and we still do today. But God’s intention for his people and what we see when they get it right is a provocative people who cause those who don’t know God to start asking questions…to awaken a hunger in people that what they are seeing before their eyes is true!

So it is not surprising that when Jesus formed the new community of God and speaks the most famous sermon in the history of the world (The Sermon on the Mount) in Matthew 5-7, he describes the church like this:

“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.

This is not about people being bashed with the bible. This is about people seeing a light, a love, a hope, a joy, a strength and a wisdom among God’s people that causes them to investigate the light (on their terms!) and then, if they so decide, start to follow the light itself.

To bring this all up-to-date, modern marketers are now understanding what God had always intended (it’s good to see business and culture catching up with God’s eternal ways…haha!!). I work for HubSpot which is a software company which helps companies grow through implementing Inbound Marketing. Inbound Marketing for ChurchesInbound marketing is an idea that was first put into print by HubSpot’s 2 co-founders Brian Halligan and Dharmesh Shah October 2009 (the company was started in summer 2006). Inbound marketing is all about attracting people to your company/product through remarkable content (blogs, videos, whitepapers, ebooks etc) rather than forcing your company/product onto people through TV ads, billboards, spam mail etc (this approach is called outbound marketing and is said to be, mostly, ‘broken). So the idea of inbound marketing for your company/product is the same idea as what the Bible, Blaise Pascal and Graham Tomlin are saying about the church. Don’t force your way on people. Don’t interrupt them. Don’t shout louder. Attract them, lure them, bless them, delight them, help them, awaken a desire in them … and only when they want to engage with you, start to talk more about how what you are doing could be what they need!

That is my hope and desire for us as a church. That we would provoke questions, awaken desire and make people think. Many people will think we are nuts (they thought that of Jesus!) and many people will reject us (they rejected Jesus too!). But my hope is that many people will be intrigued enough to at least check out whether what we are saying could be true.

If you’re interested, we start a 5 week series called ‘Provocative Church’ on Sunday 7th September (next Sunday) at 4.15pm at Filmbase, Curved Street, Temple Bar. Our church then officially launches on Sunday 12th October, same time, same place. For more details about Christ City Church do read part 1 of a 6 part blog series looking at our vision and values.

I hope to see you soon.


Why Go To University In Dublin?

30 July 2014

This blog post was primarily written for those non-Irish prospective students who are considering moving from overseas to Dublin to study. Whenever you make a big decision like this it can be hard to know whether you should ‘take the plunge’. So here are 6 reasons why I think you should come to Dublin to study.

(1) Because of the Guinness. It really does taste better than Guinness anywhere else in the whole world. Read this post for more details…

(2) Because the Irish love the ‘craic’. What better place to study and have the time of your life than amongst the outgoing and fun-loving Irish, the most welcoming people in the world!

(3) Because of its vibrancy and beauty. Dublin is a city famous for its culture, history, tourism, music, sport and much more. It used to be famous for its Guinness and Jameson Whiskey factories but nowadays it’s better known as home to the European headquarters for Google, Facebook and many other worldwide, billion-dollar businesses. Dublin is also as beautiful as it is cosmopolitan. It has the picturesque River Liffey running through it and sandy beaches are only 15 minutes from the city centre. It is a short drive to the stunning Wicklow mountains and the west and south coasts of Ireland are breathtaking.

(4) Because there are 4 great universities in the city. Dublin is home to around 75,000 students. University College Dublin (UCD) is on the southside (25,000 students), Trinity College Dublin (TCD) is in the city centre (17,000 students) and Dublin City University (DCU) is on the northside (11,000 students). There is also the Dublin Institute of Technology, which has around 22,000 students among its various campuses. So Dublin is geared up for students with 100s of different courses.

(5) Because you’ll end up with much less debt. Whilst living costs in Dublin may be higher than in the UK, tuition fees for EU residents are much cheaper. Studying in the UK could cost you up to £9,000 per year but most EU students studying in Dublin would pay student fees of around £2,000 per year. This means you could save up to £7000 a year and around £21,000 over 3 years! So whilst there may be higher costs in the short term for studying in Dublin, imagine what you could do with a long-term saving of £21,000?**

(6) Because we are launching a church in a unique time in Irish history. Christ City Church DublinIn recent years Ireland has seen turmoil at its core – political, economic and religious. The very foundations of society have started to crumble. This has led to a collapse in hope and identity. This September we will be launching our church into the heart of the city centre (filmbase) with the aim of being a blessing to the city of Dublin, inspiring 18-35 year olds to discover their true purpose and to invest in the good of the city. To find out more check out or e-mail


If you want to read more about living in Dublin, do read this blog called “10 reasons Dublin is a great place to live”


* The Irish equivalent of UCAS is CAO (Central Applications Office). In Ireland applicants are made offers after receiving their exam results (this week), and any available places will then be advertised on the CAO website.

** Please note that fees in Ireland aren’t incorporated into a student loan as they are in the UK and that you may not be eligible for the same loans that you could apply for in the UK.

Internship Opportunity in Dublin, September 2014

22 May 2014

Internship DublinIf you’re interested in maturing as a person, developing your skills and investing in your theological and biblical understanding then the Christ City Church Internship could be just the thing for you. Additionally if you’re reading this and you’re not from Ireland, then you will also gain great experience in cross-cultural ministry and church planting.

This year our church has had the great privilege of having two interns with us, one for 6 months (Gabriel) and the other for 9 months (Christian). It’s been great to have them with us for the year and it’s been fantastic to see them grow, change, step outside of their comfort zones and be used by God.

The internship which is based around 3 areas

  1. Ministry experience (developing your skills)
  2. Theological training (developing a biblical worldview)
  3. Character growth (growing in Christ-likeness)

Each Intern will receive a mentor and line-manager. The mentor will help them with personal growth and the line-manager will help them structure their week/year.

We are looking for 2 new interns for when our church launches in September 2014. If you’re interested do get in touch ( and I can send you the application form and more details. Or else I can connect you with the 2 interns we had this year and you can chat to them first. The Internship can be full time (and we’ll help you with funding) or part time (and you work part time to earn some money) and it can be done for anywhere from 6-18 months.

All the information about the Internship can be found here


Baptism – A Life Transformed

19 May 2014

Max BaptismThis Sunday just gone we had our first baptism service at Christ City Church. You can read about why we baptise people here and see more photos on our facebook page. I asked Max, who came to me 3 weeks ago asking whether I would baptise him before he headed back to France, if I could publish his story on my blog. I said I would baptise him and I am very glad to say that he said I could publish his testimony of coming to faith and wanting to get baptised. This is what he read out before we plunged him into the water. Enjoy!

Hi my name is Max, I am going to be get baptised today and this is why.

I was born and raised in France. My mother was from a Catholic background but she wasn’t Christian. She brought me up with Christian values, but I wasn’t a Christian either. In fact I did not really care about Christianity, I even mistrusted people who talked to me about Jesus/God.

However things started to change in 2006, when I was 10 years old when other members of my family started to believe in God after facing many troubles. I started to go to church and study the bible. I met lots of nice people but I quickly lost my interest.

In the next years, I underwent many painful experiences and eventually got diagnosed of OCD, a mental illness that really hampered my life for a while and still affects me today. I then turned to God and decided to put more trust in him. But I was in truth “resorting to God” only when I had problems, and the rest of the time neglecting his presence and his Word. In fact most of my teenage years were marked by how I hated people, stole things and used lots of bad language.

However all this started to change when I came to Dublin in 2013 as part of an Erasmus programme. I felt suddenly more interested in Christianity again and decided to join a Christian student society in UCD-my university and other groups and started to learn about the gospel.

But it wasn’t enough, consequently when I went through an awful depression in Winter 2013, I almost denied the existence of any God and fell really low. To have some rest, I went back to France for the holidays and read a Christian book that a cool friend gave me before I left, it’s called “Unmerited Favour”, and was written by Joseph Prince, a Singaporean pastor. And thanks to that book, my life got transformed. I realised that Jesus was trying to save me but I just wanted to reject Him and sort myself out alone.

As I read the book I understood what it mean for God to send his only Son to Earth to die in suffering, in order to prevent the punishment we all deserved due to our neglecting of God and our unholy and violent behavior.

At that moment I can say I REALLY became a Christian and gave my whole life to Jesus

When I went back to Dublin for the second semester, I decided to join Christ City Church and I started to grow in confidence and understand how Jesus wanted to change my life. I also developed a love for the bible as a path for my life.

As I now look back on my life I can see that Jesus has kept me alive and kept me going. He saved me when I was in depression, He made me happy again, He helped and supported me a lot in my life, He took my burden when I was about to crumble.

I also came to realise how Jesus is the key for salvation. For me, the old covenant given to Moses long ago was no longer valid as Jesus made a new covenant with us.

The big difference is a personal resurrection, I put an end to my former life and got renewed with Jesus.

I consider I have a New Life. I do not identify myself anymore to the functioning of this world. I think I don’t belong anymore to this world. I want to follow Jesus and receive his blessings now and for eternal life when I’ll meet Him. I now realise that without Jesus my suffering would have been far worse

Since becoming a Christian my life has changed in 3 main ways

Firstly I am more confident. I have always been an idealist, but I lost complete confidence and hope when I realized that by myself I wouldn’t change anything, and this made me become violent and aggressive. Now that I am a Christian, I am able to do good around me without this being constantly giving up and I know in Heaven the existence of the ideal world I had been looking for.

Secondly my character has changed – God has made me I decided to be gentler, wiser, humbler, even when I don’t receive the same back off other people. However I still have a long way to go and I’d like to grow in my faith, especially in the areas of anxiety and forgiveness. I am a very anxious person and I want to learn to trust God more for the future. I’d also like to be less and less resentful towards people who hurt me.

Thirdly I have new ambitions – My goal is to know always more, and to change always more my knowledge about Christ. I have decided to let Jesus do everything for me without fearing the days to come.

Following Christ is however not always easy, especially about forgiveness and fear for me. I enjoy behaving kindly and trying to imitate Christ but of course I don’t enjoy being morally assaulted, insulted, beaten even or having to forgive my enemies. I think it’s one of the inevitable things to do when we follow Christ, we have to carry our cross with us.

The main reason I want to get baptised is because it is prescribed by our Lord Jesus and I want to mark my new life as a Christian in the way he told us how.

Thank you for listening.

The Dublin Banquet inspired by Jesus’ parable in Luke 14

11 May 2014

Last week I wrote this blog post regarding a banquet we were giving our Fearless Team 48 hours to prepare. It was inspired by Luke 14. Do read about why we did in that blog post. Here is a quick video of how it went…truly thrilling!



For more pictures and updates do check out the Facebook page and the twitter handle – @banquetdublin

Well done Christian and the team.

The Intro Course – How Do We Know If It’s True? (By Fergus Ryan)

8 May 2014

This week we started The Intro Course which is all about asking the big questions of life. Week 1 was all to do with meaning and finding the meaning of life. Week 2 is going to be about truth and how can we know anything at all and I am delighted to say that Fergus Ryan will be speaking.

Fergus is a man who wears many hats – husband, father, grandfather, (ex)pilot, (ex)church leader, professional artist and a (wannabe?) philosopher and theologian. I have known him for just over 2 years now and have learnt lots from him and enjoy every discussion I have with him (in every conversation we agree on about 20-70% of what we are talking about, which is why I so enjoy talking to him).

Anyway, do check out his website and Facebook page to find out more about him.  Here is a short synopsis of what we will be looking at next Wednesday, 14th May, at 6.30pm in the upstairs room of the Harbour Master Pub.

I miss the days when we could have good old old-fashioned arguments about which view of reality was really the truth—things like the meaning of being alive at all, about hope and love, and what is truly good or bad, and whether there is another dimension of existence after we die, or the reason for evil in the world, or whether there is a personal intelligence behind everything, a god of some kind. And how would you find out all this stuff?

Things have changed, though, and now whatever anyone thinks is their truth, it’s true for them. Now that really is a very big change indeed, and it changes the meaning of the word ‘true’! On the one hand it’s made us more tolerant of the views of others—everyone’s view is OK, but only so long as they don’t claim that what they think is actually true! Then they’re, well… wrong! The ‘idea’ of God may help some people, but that doesn’t say anything about whether it’s true or not.

Like I said, ‘true’ used to mean something like ‘the way it really is’. Like ‘God’, for example; or ‘no god’. So the big question then is how do you know anything at all? There have always been two ways of going about it. The first idea is that truth is sort of built into us, it’s innate, a sort of collective memory of reality, inside us. We just know things in our knower, like triangles are triangular. The other, more familiar way of knowing, is that we experience reality outside us; we can measure it, just like science does.

So how would we go about deciding whether the existence of God is a fact? There have been many arguments put forth for God’s existence, some quite good, others less so, and perhaps they help us get up the ladder some distance. But they aren’t proofs in the usual sense, because God is not a thing you can put in a laboratory and analyse. The methods of scientific analysis are simply not calibrated to demonstrate whether a non-material ultimate personality like God exists, even if he does. Just as a thermometer can’t measure hope, or a ruler beauty, or a microscope meaning. Yet these things exist. Science can say a lot about what is materially real, but it’s not a theory of everything. Love and meaning and hope and beauty and goodness is an awful lot not to be able to say anything about!

Christianity does not arise, as many think, from some philosophical or pseudo-scientific proofs for the existence of God. In fact the apostle Paul says quite the opposite, that God saw to it, in his wisdom, that mankind, in its wisdom, could never find God! Get that. Philosophy may be helpful in considering the case for a God, but it is not an instrument calibrated to introduce you to God himself. Personally. Relationally. The Christian claim is much more direct: God came down the ‘ladder’ looking for us, and appeared in our history as Jesus. He did this, the message goes, because we are of ultimate worth, of inestimable value. He came for relationship, to give us back our sense of magnificence, to restore us to our true destiny. Just saying this doesn’t make it true, of course, but it’s definitely a game changer in the conversation about what is true. The question is totally different now. Was Jesus Christ really God coming looking for us? Is he looking for us now? And what if he finds us, or we him? If that’s true, everything, absolutely everything, is different.

Hopefully I’ll see you on Wednesday, with a pint in hand, to discuss how can we know anything at all…and how could we know whether God existed!


The Intro Course – Asking The Big Questions Of Life (Through The Film Calvary)

5 May 2014

On Saturday Night I watched the film Calvary with a brilliant performance from Brendan Gleeson. He plays a priest in Sligo who is trying to fulfil his pastoral duties to a parish full of people with questions, needs, hurts and doubts. It is a stunning film though not always an easy watch. The different people that Father James Lavelle has to deal with each, in their very person, ask some of the biggest questions of life. Here are a few:


(1) Justice – The film opens with a parishioner telling the priest in confession that he first tasted semen when he was 7 years old and was repeatedly, regularly raped by his local priest for many years and who has since died. Where can justice be found?

(2) Fulfilment – There is a rich man who has all that life has to offer but it has all become meaningless to him – his wife, his family and his fortune. So he spends everyday drinking the finest alcohol to numb the emptiness he feels and offers to make atonement for his mistakes by giving to the church, hoping that this gesture might make him feel happier. Where can fulfilment be found?

(3) Forgiveness
– There is the story of Father James’ daughter who keeps giving herself to different men who leave her hurt and desperate to the point where she tries to commit suicide but fails. However she feels let down by her dad who left her after her mum died but as the two of them spend a week together they are able to forgive one another. Where can forgiveness be found?

(4) Hope – One of the characters in the story loses her husband in a car crash. As Father James consoles her we discover the only character with courage and bravery, apart from the priest himself, in the entire film. How can she rebuild her life after such an atrocity? Where can hope be found?

(5) The Evil in the Church – The whole film is a powerful retelling of some of the atrocities and evil done within the church in Ireland, both in terms of sexual abuse and financial exploitation. Plus there is a hypocritical priest who is so detached from reality it’s painful. The film vividly portrays people disillusionment with the church today. What is the role of the church today?

(6) The Evil outside the Church – Father James is one of the ‘good guys’ trying to make a difference in the world but in nearly every character he meets he finds spite, malicious, cynicism and confrontation. He also has to deal with a couple that are flagrantly committing adultery in full view of the whole town. The film shows the depravity, deceitfulfulness and hardness of the human heart in many guises…including father James when he is pushed over the limits. Where can internal and spiritual transformation be found?

(7) Jesus – Apart from as a swear word on the lips of Father James, Jesus is never raised as an answer to any of these questions. To the young man struggling with lust, pornography is suggested as a solution. To the suicidal young woman, ‘professional help’ is the answer and so on and so forth. Whilst some of the answers aren’t necessarily bad answers and may be helpful, the key thing is that Father James never points anyone to Jesus as a solution to their trials. Why not? Other than a swear word, where is Jesus to be found today?





The Intro Course is a 6 week course which offers guests a chance to ask the big questions of life and see whether Jesus can provide any of the answers. Over the 6 weeks we are going to examine (1) meaning (2) truth (3) love (4) hope (5) suffering and (6) religion. Everyone is welcome, whether you’re a believer (from any religion), an agnostic, an atheist or something in between. The only rule we have is that no question is too feisty and no question is too simple. However we do expect everyone to listen to others and respect their position, even if radically opposed to their own.

The next course starts this Wednesday (7th May), 6.30-8pm, at the Harbour Master Pub at the top of the IFSC. It is free of charge and there will be light refreshments for everyone.

To sign up please go to the facebook event. I hope we’ll see you there.


Why Is The Kingdom Of God Like A Banquet (In Dublin)?

4 May 2014

Dublin Fearless TeamThis past week our church has had the privilege of hosting 20 Interns from the UK for a week we called “Fearless”. The idea was to push the 20 interns out of their comfort zone by making them do things they have never done before and engage with people they wouldn’t normally have to engage with. Our hope also was to help the people of Dublin consider what it is like to live a life without fear, which was one of the reasons Jesus came to earth – see Hebrews 2.14-15 & 1 John 4.16-18. It has been super fun and I’ll hopefully collate the stories from the week and post them on this blog over the next few days.

However the climax to their week is, with 48 hours notice, to throw a banquet for the city of Dublin and invite everyone to come. That banquet is tonight, all details can be found here. So why are we hosting this banquet? Well it’s a final test for our fearless team. But more than that I was inspired by this last minute banquet that was held by my cousin Luke a few years ago in York and wanted to do the same in Dublin. Both banquets are inspired by Luke 14 where Jesus tells a parable about a banquet to explain what the kingdom of God is like. Tonight we want to act out the parable and give a demonstration of the kingdom of God in Dublin .

So why is the kingdom of God like a banquet? Here are 5 reasons from Luke 14.15-24.

(1) Everyone is invited.

banquet 1Jesus tells the parable in the home of a prominent religious leader where he is being carefully watched (vs1). So far he has been challenging their scrupulous adherance to laws at the expense of showing mercy (vs2-6), their desire to promote themselves (vs7-11) and the rich/privileged circles they hang out in. He then explains that the kingdom of God is like a a great banquet. The invites are sent out but when the first round of guests are invited they all decline. Then he tells the servants to invite the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame. Then when there is still space he says go out into the roads and country lanes to ensure the house is full.

The first lesson we learn is that everyone is invited, no-one is excluded from the guest list into the kingdom of God – the rich and the poor, the good and the bad, the Jews and the Gentiles, the near and the far…everyone is invited.

(2) People make the worst excuses not to accept Jesus’ invite.

Banquet 2The first round of guests give very weak and revealing excuses as to why they can’t come. The first says he has bought a field and must go and see it (his wealth comes before God), the second says he has just bought 5 yoke of oxen and must test them out (his work comes before God) and the third says he has just got married and must be with his wife (his marriage comes before God). However if you read the passage closely you’ll see that each of the excuses are transparently false. The field would be their tomorrow, the oxen would already have been tested before purchase and the wife could have joined in banquet.

The second lesson we learn is that although everyone is invited, people make terrible and empty excuses to exclude themselves. Underlying every excuse is something in our lives that has become more important than God, in fact something else (wealth, work or marriage) has become our god.

(3) The Religious Leaders don’t typically like it.

As explained above Jesus tells the parable at a dinner party of a religious leader with lots of other religious leaders watching. He wants to challenge them on their use of their money, their law-abidance and their self-exaltation. The excuses given are symptomatic of the excuses that wealthy, secure and privileged religious leaders would give. These people had made the kingdom of God about obeying laws and keeping the right company, so when Jesus says EVERYONE is invited, including and especially the dregs of society who have probably lived rather immoral lives, it riles them. In fact, this is one of the over-arching messages of Luke’s gospel, the poor get in but the rich are excluded, the sinner is welcomed whilst the religious person is shunned, the pharisee is offended whilst the prostitute is exalted…and so on and so forth.

So the third lesson we learn about the kingdom of God is that it is typically the religious elite who don’t like it.

(4) The Poor love it

banquet 3As has already been hinted, just as much the religous elite don’t like the kingdom of God, the poor love it. For once in their lives they find a place of acceptance and value. They are treated as real people, important people, with real names and identities. They find themselves at the heart of God’s kingdom. This parable seems to suggest that God’s final kingdom in heaven will be full of the poor of the earth…what a thought!

The fourth lesson is that this is an upside-down and inside up kingdom where the last are first and the poor are made rich.

(5) The Church is called to “go out”

The man in the parable (aka God) has servants (aka the church) who go out and invite people to the banquet (aka the kingdom of God). And when the servants are rejected they are to go back out and find others. And when they come back and find that there are still some spare seats, they are to go out a third time. Jesus is contrasting the religious elite (who enjoyed their stationary, self-centred lifestyle where people came to them) to the true church (where God’s servants are to go out and invite in the poor, the crippled and the lame). The Church was never meant to become a static. As The Catholic Priest, theologian and author Hans Küng put it brilliantly when he said:

“A church which pitches its tents without constantly looking out for new horizons, which does not continually strike camp, is being untrue to its calling… [we must] play down our longing for certainty, accept that which is risky, and live by improvisation and experimentation”.

So there you have it. 5 lessons as to why the kingdom of God is like a banquet.

Do join us tonight, 6-8pm, at 5-6 Chancery Place for what should be a fun evening.





Life After Death – What Are The Options?

9 April 2014

Life After DeathThis Sunday we are holding an Easter Special of the Intro Course called “Life After Death?” so I thought I would jot down what I think are the 4 main different options/ideas out there at the moment for what people think happens when you die. I am sure there are more and even the ones I give have further nuances and differences within them but hopefully this will put our discussion on Sunday night in context.

An Encouragement to Doubt

My hope with this blog, and in my talk on the evening, is to provoke discussion, get us thinking and to provide a moment for us to question (even doubt!) what we believe about life after death. What do we believe? Why do we believe it? How certain are we of what we believe? What are the implications in this life of what I believe happens after this life? And as this Sunday will be the beginning of Holy Week, I want to look at whether the death and resurrection of Jesus give us any greater certainty of what happens after death.

To push the point a bit further, Tim Keller, in his New York Times Bestseller: ‘The Reason For God‘, starts the book by calling us all to doubt. He says, regarding those that doubt the existence of God,

All doubts, however sceptical and cynical they may seem, are really a set of alternate beliefs…my thesis is that if you come to recognise the beliefs on which your doubts about Christianity are based, and if you seek as much proof for those beliefs as you seek from Christians for theirs – you will discover that your doubts are not as solid as they first appeared.

My encouragement is for us to start by doubting what we believe about life after death in order for us to examine whether what we believe has any substance or is just a nice idea that we would like to be true. The idea of the  The Intro Course is to provide a relaxed environment where people can ask and discuss the big questions of life. All views, backgrounds and opinions are welcome – no question is too feisty and no question is too simple and there is no pressure for you to come away from the evening subscribing to any set of beliefs. Our aim is to give people an opportunity to discuss questions that are often neglected even though they are the biggest questions of life. And that is certainly the case with the question: “What happens when I die?”

Life After DeathOn Sunday we’ll be looking at four different views: that of the Atheist, the Eastern religions, the ‘Modern Person’ and the Christian. For each view we are going to look at the implications of the view with regards to meaning, suffering and justice. For now I simply want to list the options that I hear in every day conversation and read in the textbooks and raise a few questions about them…to start to help us doubt.

4 opinions of what happens when you die 

(1) Nothing

This is the atheist’s view and it is very simple. This life is all there is; when you die you rot, end of story! We are all here by chance and human life has simply evolved as a random collision of atoms without any guidance or help from a greater being. Nothing happens when you die.

The challenge/question I have for this view is that I have never met anyone who fully believes it or lives by it. To fully believe this is to believe that there is no greater purpose in life or death and that ideas such as love, beauty, truth and justice are all human inventions to help society progress. In and of themselves, they don’t have any objective or inherent meaning. As Keller says in chapter 8 of his book:

“Beauty and love are nothing but a neurological hardwired response to particular data…simply a biochemical response, inherited from ancestors who survived because this trait helped them survive.”

I am not sure any of us really believe that do we? And if we do believe that nothing happens when we die and that death is a natural and normal part of natural selection, why then is death so painful and why does it seem like an unwanted intruder into our world?

(2) Universalism

If people don’t believe in God they normally go for number 1, nothing happens after we die. If people do believe in God they normally go for number 2, the doctrine of universalism, which states that everyone in the end will be saved. This was first put forward by the early church father Origen in the 3rd Century and more recently Rob Bell in Love Wins in the 21st Century. There are numerous versions of this and we’ll touch on a few related ideas below. The simplest version states that no matter who you are and what you have done, God is so forgiving and loving that he will forgive you anyway. Many have a version of purgatory or ‘hell’s back door’ which means that after you die there is a certain time where you are punished for your sins but then eventually you see the light, have paid the penalty you sins deserve, are fully repentant, so God lets you into heaven. The two main versions of heaven will be spelled out later.

The challenge/question I have for this view is twofold. Firstly, as C.S Lewis so brilliantly argued in his essay The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment, if we do away with punitive justice then we are saying to people “your decisions don’t matter”. But the moment we do this we are saying “you don’t matter”. To not take someone’s actions and decisions seriously is to not take them seriously and treat them as less than human. Lewis goes on to argue that hell is God’s greatest way of saying to humanity “you matter and I take you seriously”. If everyone in the end is saved then it actually means we are treating ourselves as far less significant creatures than we really are. Secondly, and relating to this issue, what does this do for our sense of justice? If God lets everyone in in the end, then there is no justice for those like Idi Amin who, in this life, got away with their evil atrocities and were never brought to justice.

(3) Reincarnation

This view comes from both Hindu and Buddhist traditions and within each there are variations and subtleties. However, broadly speaking, living beings are seen as having an endless series of lives achieved through a continual process of reincarnation into which all are locked until they can be freed through enlightenment. Only then can one be unfettered from the cycle of life and death, and ascend into higher planes of existence outside the reach of space and time.

So how does the eternal and endless cycle of birth and rebirth of the soul happen? Through the idea of karma. Karma is the law which determines the form in which one is born in the next existence. If one has lived a good life, one builds up good karma and will be born in a higher station, or to a happier life. Good and bad are built up over the reincarnations, the balance being passed on to future lives. And this applies to all living things; humans, trees and animals are all essentially equal.

So the view is straight forward to understand and though it typically clashes with traditional western world views, it is gaining more traction in the west. So what questions/challenges are there? I think there are three big ones. Firstly, what evidence is there of such reincarnations and cycles? Secondly, what is the value of one’s life? One writer, David Burnett, said:

Everybody is believed to be reborn thousands of times through a multitude of levels and castes. In practice the value of an individual life becomes of little value. A Hindu mother consoles herself over the death of her baby saying “Never mind there are more babies”. What does it matter if a beggar dies on the street – he may be reincarnated into a better form…one reaps what one sows.

Thirdly, is such a worldview liveable in the face of suffering? Are we really to deny our senses (whether pleasure or pain) in order to find Nirvana? How does the mother whose child has just died deal with her pain?

(4) Eternal Life and Eternal Judgement

This has been the traditional historical Christian position, though again there are still some variations, so let me break both of these ideas into a number of further ideas. In each case I am going to present the most extreme caricature without apology.

Eternal Life is for those that put their trust in Jesus and follow him.

  1. Eternal life as eternal spiritual bliss – The picture here is of spiritual beings and spiritual souls sitting on white fluffy clouds wearing white nighties playing golden harps…and Jesus is somewhere in all this. I think this comes from a greek platonic worldview which sees the physical as bad and the spiritual as good
  2. Eternal life as a new heavens and new earth – The picture here is of a renewed physical cosmos which has been joined again with heaven where we will have new physical bodies and enjoy doing many physical things. We will indeed sing but we will also work and play and eat and dance. This comes directly from a biblical hebrew worldview and is seen in the final chapters of the four Gospels in the Bible when Jesus is raised from death into a physical human body and appears to numerous people where he talks and eats and clarifies that he is not a ghost.  It is further clarified by Paul in Romans 8 and 1 Corinthians 15 and John in his final vision of eternity in Revelation 21.

Eternal judgement is for those who chose not to trust in Jesus and follow him.

The picture here is of us all appearing before the judgement seat of Christ where we are judged for what we have done in this life. Those who trusted in Jesus’ performance will be given eternal life as the judgement for their misdeeds was paid for by Jesus himself on the cross. Those who chose to reject God and remain unrepentant will face the judgement they deserve. How will this judgement work? There are 3 main views:

  1. Judgement as annihilation – God punishes us for our disobedience by destroying us in the fire of his judgement. This comes from the idea of conditional immortality which many theologians throughout church history have ascribed to. It states that human beings contain the potential to live forever (if they know Christ) but they are not born with inherent immortality and therefore they simply ‘cease to be’ or ‘pass out of existence’ at death.
  2. Judgement as ever increasing dehumanisation – This idea was put forward by C.S Lewis in his masterpiece The Great Divorce. The Bible talks about God’s judgement as him giving us over to our desires (Romans 1:24, 26 & 28); God’s judgement is to give us what we want. However, our desires end up enslaving and destroying us. We see a small picture of this on earth now with an untold number of psychological, sociological and ecological problems. When we get what we want, the thing we wanted often ends up destroying us and that is why burnout, stress, depression, suicide, wars, abuse of the planet, family breakdown, eating disorders, visiting of counsellors and much more is so common. We were made to worship God and reflect him (therefore being truly human) but when we worship other things we reflect them, and therefore become less and less human. We see “hell” writ small now. In this view we are not annihilated but we become less and less human by our own choice. We continually reject God, we continually choose the selfish path and that means we eventually become subhuman. We exist forever but in a God-hating subhuman form (this which explains why the judgement is continual and eternal, because our rebellion is continual and eternal). Lewis asks us to imagine the results of an increasingly self-centred and self-promoting universe that continues forever. He famously says this:

“Hell begins with a grumbling mood, always complaining, always blaming others… but you are still distinct from it. You may even criticize it in yourself and wish you could stop it. But there may come a day when you can no longer. Then there will be no you left to criticize the mood or even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself, going on forever like a machine. It is not a question of God ‘sending us’ to hell. In each of us there is something growing, which will BE hell unless it is nipped in the bud. ”

  1. Judgement as eternal conscious torment – This idea comes from the lips of Jesus himself and the book of Revelation. Jesus in Mark 9, referring back to Isaiah 65-66 talks about hell as a place where the fire is not quenched and the worm does not die. In Luke 16 Jesus also tells a Pharisee a story about a rich man being in eternal torment and separated from God by a great chasm because of how he lived his earthly life. The book of Revelation has numerous pictures of eternal life and darkness. Even though these pictures are probably not meant to be taken literally, they point to a reality that is literal.

The biggest challenges/questions to do with the Christian view nearly all focus on the judgement side of things. None of us (in the west at least) recoil at the idea of people being given a second chance and eternal life. However, many find they have intellectual and emotional doubts regarding the goodness of God and the fairness of his justice when we consider the idea of hell, particularly as eternal conscious torment. Our minds wander to questions such as: what about those who have already died? What about those who have never heard of Jesus? What about children? How can the punishment for a finite life be eternal? And many more…

Cross & Resurrection

And Easter?

How do the death and resurrection of Jesus play into all this? Well, here are three things I want to explore on the night about Easter regarding this question:

  1. They give us a basis for our beliefs about life after death which is not determined by what we would like to be true, or what we think might be true, but based on what has happened in history as an example and proof of what is true. I appreciate many people doubt the physical resurrection of Jesus actually happened and we’ll touch on this briefly too.
  2. They give us a worldview that we can live by in the present. The resurrection of Jesus assures me that the physical does matter, that ideas of truth and beauty and love and justice are objective realities given to us by God and demonstrated most perfectly in the death and resurrection of his Son.
  3. They help us with our doubts about the goodness of God and the fairness of his justice because he has demonstrated, at the cost of his own Son, how just he is (he had to punish sin) and just how loving and good he is (he sent his Son to die in our place). We may not be able to tie up all the loose ends but if we, in our limited understanding of justice, love and goodness, find our hearts recoil at the idea of judgement, we can trust the one who demonstrated these three things at infinite cost to himself.

So hopefully I have painted a clear picture of the options and have stimulated much thought. I hope I may have even made you begin to doubt your existing position so that you might be open to how Easter could give us a fuller answer than we already have.

I hope to see you on Sunday.

5 Reasons Why Brian O’Driscoll (BOD) is so magnificent

8 March 2014

Brian O'DriscollSo I realise I am walking a fine line as an Englishman by paying tribute to one of Ireland’s greats, but hopefully that highlights his brilliance (I should also add that conflict is developing within the Vaughan family as Jacob is very firmly a ‘greens’ and not a ‘whites’ fan!!). After watching his last home game at the Aviva stadium yesterday here is why I think BOD so magnificent.

(1) His Ability
There can be no question that he is one of the greatest players of the last 2 decades, some are saying of all time and maybe they are right. His speed, his offloads (the first 3 tries yesterday wouldn’t have happened without his superb offloads), his ability to run the right line, his hiding behind the ruck and squeezing over the line (a number 7 in a 13 jersey!), his link-up play and so on and so forth are second to none. When he is on form he is just fantastic to watch. I listened to a program this week by Shane Hogan who had heard Brian’s Dad Frank say that from a young age he had incredible balance (riding a bike without stabilisers at 3 years old). Shane then remembered a story when they were on tour and it was a rest day so they had gone water skiing. BOD had never water skied before yet he was straight up. However one of his skis then fell off but it didn’t affect him one bit and he finished his go with one ski and one bare foot. Incredible natural balance.

(2) His Courage
O’Driscoll arrived on the international scene when he scored three great tries against France in 2000. This was the beginning of the golden age and brought belief to Irish rugby. However BOD is not just great offensively but, like all the greats, he is a fierce tackler, with great technique and strength. But particularly over the last few years as his body has got that bit slower we have seen his courage, putting his body on the line for the sake of the team. Regularly going off injured to get himself bandaged up and then coming back on to finish the match. He has warrior-like courage on the pitch with last ditch tackles in the dying moments of a game.

(3) His Longevity

What makes BOD one of the greats is that he has more international caps than anyone else in the history of the game, overtaking the Australian scrum half George Gregon yesterday, with his 140th cap. What an achievement!


He has had his injuries but has managed to bounce back, and although not the biggest player on the field and unlike many modern day centres, he has managed to keep his body fit, strong and healthy for a long time! His records speak for themselves, not only is the most capped player in rugby union history he is the highest try scorer of all time in Irish rugby, the 8th of in rugby union history and the highest scoring centre of all time. He has the record for the most tries in the Six Nations and the most tries scored by an Irishman in the Heineken Cup. Wonder the Leinster and Irish faithful say “In BOD we trust.”

(4) His team focus
It is very hard to be the best and also be a team player. Often the best players’ egos get the better of them and they are more concerned about their performance than the team performance, more concerned about their accolades rather than the result. BOD is an example of a team player; that is why he puts his body on the line, comes back from injury and comes back on the pitch with a bloody bandage around his head. He loves to wear the green jersey and represent his country. A great example for any young rugby player.

(5) He’s one of us
Linked with his team focus is his down-to-earth nature. He hasn’t let his fame and success get to his head. Everyone I have spoken to who has met him says he is a genuine guy and that is how he comes across in interviews and talk shows. He seems like a humble family man who loves his rugby but doesn’t think he is better than anyone else. You could see that he enjoyed (and was overwhelmed by) the praise he received yesterday but he managed to accept it without brushing it off with false humility (which fails the fans) nor glorying in it unduely at the expense of the game at hand (which fails the team).

It was amazing to read on Facebook and hear on Radio/TV today comments like

“he has helped our country through these tough times”

“he has bought smiles to our faces when little else has.”

He is a great role model and inspiration for many. People can relate to him and find him a great source of strength themselves. He has not taken his position in the limelight trivially but has played, lived and led in such a way as to give hope to a nation.

These are my 5 reasons why I think Brian O’Driscoll is magnificent. Do you have any others?

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