Here it is friends. I tried to create some buzz last weekend when I posted some of the conclusions I draw in this message. Remember, this is NOT a systematic theology of eternal matters. This is simply an attempt (feeble at times) to ask the question, "on what do we base our lives and our mission?" Fear or love? Why is it important to believe in hell? As I say in the text, I think there is a hell and no one should diminish the fact that the bible talks about judgment (and no sane person who takes these things seriously should minimize the reality of separation from God). But I see NO reason to dwell on hell. In the same manner, I don't dwell much on the reality of evil. I experience it too much in daily life to spend any of my time reflecting on it or staking my life on it. Jesus never dwelt on evil, He confronted and overcame it! That's why I want to stake my life on and rely on God's Kingdom…period. I want to see and look for Jesus moving in my life and in other people's lives. I want to lead with love and let God take care of the details of the rest. So, here's the text. You can decide on your own:
MESSAGE – MARCH 2014
“I don’t believe in Hell…I DO believe in heaven”
Little did anybody know that a man in Florence, Italy in the 13th century would still be having such a profound impact on the way we see life and especially death in our contemporary world
When Dante (Durante degli Allighieri) was around 35 years old, he composed an extended poem – “La Divina Commedia” (The Divine Comedy) which was published in 1317
He was in exile for his political instigations
The Divine Comedy set in stone human imagination as well as imagery that continues to shape our interpretation of the bible
Dante inspired Michelangelo – the Sistine Chapel has a stark dichotomy/polarization of images inspired by poetry regarding “Paradise” and what Dante labeled, “The Inferno”
The Divine Comedy – describes the poets journey through Hell (the Inferno – 9 circles of hell), Purgatory, and Paradise
I didn’t know why he called it the “Divine Comedy” because talking about these types of things is no laughing matter…until I realized that there was more of a classic definition of the word that came out of the Middle Ages
A “comedy” means to believe in an ordered universe in which events tended toward not a happy or amusing ending but also are influenced by Providential will that moves everything toward a common and ultimate God…in other words, God makes all things good in His time (in other words, the “comedy” of life is that when it appears the bleakest, God has good in mind) – hey, it’s the middle ages!
My focus is not going to be heaven or purgatory today – those are subjects for another day
I want to spend my time talking about the Inferno – in other words, hell
• The Inferno – included 9 circles of suffering…all increasing the further one went – all coming from or as a result of a person rejecting absolution/forgiveness of sin
• In fact, at the “door” above the 9th circle, Dante said were the words, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here”
• Dante – starts his picture of the Inferno with what he calls, “Limbo” which is a place for the unbaptized (a deficient form of heaven)
• After that, a serpent named, Milos, judges a person to one of eight lower realms of hell – lust, gluttony, greed, anger, heresy, violence, fraud/treachery – all bathed in horrifying images and imagery over the centuries
• Here’s the point of our trek through history – Make no mistake about it friends, most of the imagination that you/me carry around with us about the afterlife shaped more by Dante than the Bible itself – in fact, all of our views on what happens at death, most of them, shaped not by the bible but by a weird coming together or blending of philosophies, some pagan and some otherwise
Why I’m tell you all this – Jesus in the text today (Matthew 24:42ff) – talks about judgment – that is a hard read for many people – that phrase alone brings up pictures for people or surface fears or questions about what happens beyond the grave
So I thought I would roll up my sleeves this week and dive head on into that pool I think you will find this journey helpful and hopeful
Here’s how we are going to break this down today:
- Part 1 – Popular views of what happened after death in antiquity in and around the time of Jesus
- Part 2 – The Jewish view that Jesus would have inherited
- Part 3 – lastly, some conclusions we can make based upon what we can see from what the bible does say…OK?
Part One – Popular views of what happened after death in antiquity
Generally speaking, outside of the Jewish faith – no one believed in a resurrection
Death – Dreamless sleep in Greek Mythology
1. Apollo tries to bring a child back from the dead and Zeus punishes both with a thunderbolt
• There is SOME underworld that is not necessarily clear in these myths but the main emphasis of this materials is that the “sons of the gods” are lifted up to the heavens…who knows what happens to the rest of humanity
• Homer – said that the dead became “witless shadows in a murky world” – this is prior to Plato • Homer said that the dead are ghosts or phantoms living in Hades under the rule of the underworld’s god and his dreadful wife
• Hades was a place of gloom, dreariness, and terror – there was no hope for anyone unless you were a demi-god (birthed from a strange relationship between the gods and humans – Genesis has a story about that too prior to the Noah in chapter 6)
2. Another view in antiquity was the idea that the dead were disembodied but otherwise fairly normal in a world similar to ours
• This came from the Egyptian culture – they would bury a loved one with all the stuff they would need in the world to come (household goods, charms, jewelry). The wealthy would have slaves, animals and even wives in the tomb with them
• They believed that there were no boundaries between this world and the next – in fact, the dead would be re-embodied in a different place that was much like this world
• Now some have said that the Egyptians believed in some sort of resurrection but it was rather, “going out into the day – a new day” to hang out with Osiris (the god of the dead and the husband/brother of the goddess Isis)
3. Plato believed that the dead were souls finally released from prison
• Plato believed the that “true self” is the soul – a non-material aspect of being, in fact, Plato believed that the soul was the only part of a human being that really mattered
• In fact, all true reality, in Platonic philosophy, is “soulish” – the soul existed before the body and will exist after the body is gone
• Platonists believed that the soul is happy to shed its skin, so to speak
• After death the soul goes to Hades – but in this case, Hades is not a place of gloom but delight, a place of great knowledge and pleasing activities
• In Hades, a soul was to face one of three judges (one from Europe, one from Asia, and one Appeals judge) – that panel would divvy out justice for eternity
• The virtuous would head to the “Island of the Blessed” – Roman caveat added that the virtuous went on to become a star or a god
• Vespasian on his death bed, “oh dear, I think I’m becoming a god”
• The wicked went to a place known as “Tartarus” – dungeon of the wicked – torment and suffering (Titans were housed there as well)
• Now, as you might guess, the idea of Tartarus doesn’t appear in the bible but interestingly enough the word, “tartarou” does in 2 Peter 2:4 (it is translated “hell” by most translators but it doesn’t mean hell, it means Tartarus – that’s interesting)
• One parenthetical statement here – the Romans fine tuned this soul released from prison view by putting a divine spin on it
• They said all souls are eternal – some creator pours a soul into either a “superior male” or “inferior female” (not my words but theirs) – if the soul lived virtuously, the soul would become a god – if not, the soul would come back into a human body in the form of an evil person that matched their evil soul
• Now, again let’s stop at this point and underscore, none of these beliefs and philosophies mention something we call “resurrection”…a great many things happened to the dead but resurrection wasn’t one of them
Part Two – Jewish thinking about death that Jesus would have inherited
The Jews had diverse ideas about death and what happens when a person dies and we must know, that all the biblical images (even NT ones) of the final judgment and death are richly metaphorical and specifically using “picture” language
In other words, if you are looking for consistent CONCEPTS about what happens after you die, you won’t find consistency in scripture
That shouldn’t come as a surprise to you because the ONLY person who knows about death and what happens when you die is Jesus and He came back to life and CHOSE not to talk about it – look it up – all we know is what Jesus did and said post- resurrection is in all four gospels and they don’t mention a THING about what Jesus said about his death experience – He could have but He didn't
Jews had divergent views:
1. The dominant word for what happened after a person died was that the person went to “Sheol” (60x mentioned in OT)
• After death – a person when into nothingness – the bible uses words like “going into silence,” “you are but dust and to dust you shall return”…actually the OT talks about the fact that after death, the breath of God that brought a person to life returns to God
2. The Jews also had places that they talked about when it came to death – these regions where darkness filled with gloom, despair and that which was devoid of God’s presence – all of which represent the dead as experiencing shades of shadowed reality or sleep
• Sheol, the grave – all places of sleep – we can see that in phrases in the OT like, “he slept with his people,” or “he slept with his ancestors”
• When a Jew died – body placed within a tomb – once decay happened the family would collect the bones and place them in an ossuary
Bottom line – Jews didn’t see death as a happy release from life – they didn’t see it as an escape from the body’s prison Basically – death was the opposite of the gift of life – opposite from the goodness of life – in fact, death is the ultimate expulsion from the Garden of Eden
3. Now, there was HOPE – hope because of the covenant with God, hope because the people had experienced an Exodus at one time in history and they anticipated a future Exodus led by a Messiah but this hope
• Hope of the Jews @ the time of Jesus was NOT found in an individualistic type of manner but was focused on the community of God’s people as a whole – hope was a promised land for the promised people
• In other words, the current world more important than the world to come in most of Jewish thinking which runs contrary to the myth that we hear all the time in our times when we exclaim after a person dies that, “they are in a better place”…no good Jew at the time of Jesus would have said that
• Yes, there was hope that the Lord’s love would be known…that they would be delivered and have an Exodus from sleep – they would be awakened and their dry bones would be brought back to life – there would be a time when all sleepers would no longer be asleep – but that’s about as specific as we can be
• In Jesus’ time – Pharisees believed in life beyond the grave but they too started to become influenced by Platonic philosophy where the dead would become disembodied souls that were resurrected in some way and rewarded for Torah observance
Part Three – What can we say?
First of all, let’s start out with a word that you may not have heard before but is important in this talk about what happens after we die – “TRANSPHYSICAL”
Just like Transrational is one way of talking about spiritual mysteries that are beyond our knowing (reality of the Trinity as well as others) the word Transphysical helps us to know with one word that life beyond the grave is beyond our current physical existence – it is something physical because we can see what the risen Jesus did (he ate, talked, touches, etc.) but it was also something MORE (being in rooms without walking through doors, suddenly appearing, etc.)…that's why these things are STILL a mystery,
We don’t like mysteries but it is just the way it is…if we are looking for certainty in terms of guarantees, there are none – we all rely on the grace, mercy, love and promises of God that have NEVER been systematically laid out for us in a manner that we would like…that's why we need to be people of trust and dependence upon God (even in Hebrews 11:1 where the NOUN of faith is used it is used with the words, Hope and unseen). Isn't faith, as a act in and of itself, NOT about certaintude but trust and dependance?
So, where does the NT come down on what happens after we die and what are we supposed to believe?
Let me repeat something I said earlier, the final judgment, final days, death, etc. are talked about in richly metaphorical language (trumpet sounds, meet in the clouds, marriage feast of the Lamb, sea of glass, book of life – those types of things)
So, we need to be careful about drawing HUGE conclusions – let me say this:
• Death and what happens after is something that we can’t control anyway
• We have faith…that is a gift…we believe in, entrust ourselves to the hope of life eternal
• The Kingdom of God (KOG) starts here in a life in Jesus…it starts here and now as Jesus said it would…and death becomes a door to more of what we experience in Christ on this side of death
One more thing – the idea of judgment, that Jesus talks about, assumes that evil will finally meets its end and that the good purposes of God will finally be accomplished
But again, here’s the clincher – we have to admit that our ideas of hell, well, it is more of a western thing – these “equal and opposite destinations” are shaped more by Dante than be scripture and often, with that imagination, we read back INTO the text to affirm what we already believe (looking to affirm OUR theology not the bible’s – that’s the difference between inductive and deductive reasoning and bible study)
1. The most common word in the NT that is translated, “hell” is the word Ghenna
Ghenna was a place not just an idea – it was a rubbish heap outside of the S/W corner of Jerusalem – where things and people were “cast away” (“cast away” is a phrase often used in the NT for judgment)
2. Understand this – there are three views of hell that have permeated Christian history (see attachment below for more information on these views) – each view has sufficient scriptural backing and sufficient footing throughout the centuries:
- Christian Universalism – supports the view that one day God will reconcile all people to himself
- Eternal torment – supports the view that the lost suffer eternal suffering
- Annihilationist – is the view that those who choose self, God will show ultimate mercy and not condemn people to eternal torment (this could be the “second death” mentioned in the book of Revelation)
3. Here’s where we can stand on this issue:
• The bible says one day there will be a great sweeping of God’s mercy and grace throughout the cosmos – a "healing" of the nations
• Astonishing vision of a renewed heaven and earth – KOG will be and is the rule of God that (Ephesians 1:9ff) ) talks about us being in unity with God and each other
• There will still be some “outside” of that renewal…a group that is said to be “thrown into the lake of fire” but the PREVALING IMAGE IN THE NEW TESTAMENT is one of life, peace and healing
• And all these are STILL mysteries in the bible – we can’t make them into simplistic formulas – we can’t declare who will be sitting by the “river of life” and those who are “bathing in the lake of fire”…and if we think we CAN MAKE THAT CALL, it is the most arrogant thing a follower of Jesus can do – in that instance, we are judging by the criteria of "works" (what we can see or hear about another's life, viz that negative aspect of Phariseism that Jesus constantly challenged). I believe we have to trust God fully in terms of justice.
4. The New Testament’s big idea is this – God is going to set things right, sooner or later
• Whether we are instantly with God after death (Jesus alludes to that with the thief on the cross) OR whether we sleep and at the next moment of our consciousness we are sitting by the river of life (which the bible, especially Paul alludes to)…WHO KNOWS!
• I believe in Jesus – my life is with and in Jesus
Look at these pictures
Make no mistake about it – every person has choices (rights, if you will) to choose whether to worship the creature/creation or the Creator
• If we worship the creature and creation that’s a life where WE do what we want and that ends in death – and that’s a dead end
• The God who loves and created us in His image gives us that choice and freedom
• The bible says SOMETHING awaits those who choose the path of self rather than the path of worship
• Remember, if you want HOPE beyond the grave you need to understand that Jesus alone is our LIVING HOPE
- God is utterly committed to set the world right – but I find it quite possible, biblically, for there to be ultimate condemnation, ultimate loss to human beings to whom, as CS Lewis put it, God will eventually say, “thy will be done”
Here’s something I have to say – I tried to grab some Twitter and Facebook buzz this weekend by posting this and it caused some confusion, so let me clear it up)
• I don’t need there to be a hell – that’s God’s business!
• I do believe in God’s Kingdom – THAT shapes my being, my identity, and my living – that’s my faith in action, so to speak
• The fact is I don’t BELIEVE in hell (see below on thinking vs. believeing) – but most importantly, I DO believe in heaven – and that is where God is…Jesus is the one that brought heaven and earth together…that’s the place (or better yet, the "Personhood of God") where the KOG is present – Jesus said that heaven, in many respects, starts now – that is what is really important to me and for me to believe in NOW, there’s a reason I say that – take a step back for a moment and let me explain:
• There is a difference between believing and belief – one is a NOUN and one is a VERB
• “pistis” the Greek word used for FAITH as a NOUN is best translated a “proper, persuaded, confidence, trust as in authoritative trust” – it is used 243 times in the NT and is usually used with a pronoun (his faith, her faith, our faith) this is a faith that is grounded in intellectual fortitude – objectivity
• “pisteuo” is the Greek word used for FAITH as a VERB and is best translated as “entrust, live out, reliance on someone or something, support, hang on, fasten self” – think about a Barnacle or jumping into a wheel barrel and having someone push you around as you trust them to do it right without hurting you – it is used 244 times in the NT and is usually used in the context of relationship – it too is grounded in objectivity but, in this case, it is LIVED OUT boldly (faith in action, or some would say, "faith-ing")
These are vastly different ideas of faith – that’s why when I say, “I don’t believe in hell,” I’m really saying I don’t want to or will I ever stake my life or rely on hell – I never want to put "hell" into action – Why? Because that’s not my gig…that's not who Jesus has made me to be
• Do I THINK there is a hell? Yes I do, but ultimately what God does with that is His business
• Do I KNOW WITH CERTAINTY that there is a hell? No I don’t – I've never been there…I see it around all the time, so I see what evil does…but will evil and hell be eternal? Again, that’s God’s business…what God chooses to do or how God's justice deals with evil is His business
There is a BIG DIFFERNCE between “I think” and “I know” and to BELIEVE in something is a significant, personal statement – to think about something is different – why? I think about things all the time – so do you – some crazy things and some not so crazy – but to rely on something? That's another story…so let’s get that clear!
- Why would we want to put our trust or embrace or rely on hell (that’s what the word, the verb, believe means)? The only reason to do that is to be motivated by a desire to be the ultimate judge and jury in someone else’s life – to desire revenge or to play God and make no mistake, that’s not our role
- I want to embrace heaven – and you know what? I want you to do that same…I want to live for heaven NOT for hell
- If there’s a place for people who don’t trust God in their lives because they purposely exercised their free will – that’s fine, I guess – any compassionate person filled with the love of God would have mixed feelings about that reality
- But, on a day to day basis, that shouldn’t be my focus and it shouldn’t be yours!
I have a hard enough time trusting heaven in the real moments of my life – I have a hard enough time embracing and living in the reign of or rule of or presence of God in my life – why waste my time with hell?
Let me show you some pictures
I could show you these things all day:
• Pictures like this are meant to frighten, to scare people into accepting God – a lot of people have used these, in fact, I used them too years ago…but does that really communicate to a world already hurting and confused about God what we want then to KNOW ABOUT GOD?
Or are these pictures better?
You know, I’ll take the arms of Jesus any day…I “believe” and stake my life on those types of images for my life here and for eternity.
I KNOW I SAID A FEW MORE WORDS ABOUT THE LOVE OF JESUS. AND THAT’S WHERE I ENDED THE MESSAGE PURPOSELY – I WANT YOU TO CONSIDER THIS – ORTHODOXY ISN’T ABOUT BELIEVING IN HELL – JESUS’ GREAT COMMISSION AND GREAT COMMANDMENT DO NOT INCLUDE WORDS OF HELL – GOD IS ABOUT LOVE – OUR MISSION AS IS GOD’S IS ABOUT GRACE – EVEN THE CLASSIC CREEDS OF THE “CHURCH” DON’T INSIST ON A SPECIFIC BELIEVE ABOUT HELL. CHRISTIANITY HAS ALWAYS BEEN ABOUT JESUS. THE GOSPEL IS JESUS NOT WHAT HE WILL DO TO THOSE WHO DON’T FOLLOW HIM. TO BE FOCUSED ON THE “RIGHT” IDEA OF HELL IS, AT LEAST IN MY HUMBLE OPINION, NOT NECESSARILY HELPFUL IN BEING A FOLLOWER OF JESUS IN TODAY’S WORLD. ASK YOURSELF THIS, “HAVE I EVER LED SOMEONE TO JESUS BY LEADING THE CONVERSATION WITH HELL?” YOU KNOW, I HAVEN’T. PEOPLE AREN’T MOVED BY CONDEMNATION BUT THEY ARE BY LOVE. SO ALTHOUGH HELL NEEDS TO BE IN THE CONVERSATION ABOUT A PERSON’S DESTINY, OUR DESTINY IS BEING SET HERE AS WE EITHER FOLLOW GOD OR SELF. LIKE I SAID, I'LL LEAVE THE ETERNAL DETAILS TO GOD AND USE MY TIME TO SHARE HIS LOVE AND PRESENCE AND LOOK TO JOIN HIM IN HIS REDEMPTIVE WORK IN THE WORLD.
NEXT WEEK, I’LL POST MORE ON THIS AS I SHARE WITH YOU ABOUT THE “NOAH” MOVIE. WE’LL TALK MORE THEN ABOUT GOD’S JUSTICE!
Feel free to email me firstname.lastname@example.org about your thoughts!