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Hell Theorem

May 18, 2010 Leave a comment

An old series of questions resurfaced for me about Christianity that revolved around the difference between the old covenant and the new covenant. The first question arose when I came across this article http://www.slate.com/id/2249657 , Johann Hari’s review of a book discussing people’s beliefs on the afterlife. In his article, Hari introduced something to me that I’d never recognized before.

Hari writes:
“We know precisely when this story of projecting our lack into the sky began: 165 B.C., patented by the ancient Jews. Until then, heaven—shamayim—was the home of God and his angels. Occasionally God descended from it to give orders and indulge in a little light smiting, but there was a strict no-dead-people door policy. Humans didn’t get in, and they didn’t expect to. The best you could hope for after death was for your bones to be buried with your people in a shared tomb and for your story to carry on through your descendants.”

Rephrased from a Christian perspective, he asserts that God’s chosen people, under the old covenant, generally had no expectation of a life in heaven after death. I haven’t comprehensively studied this on my own, but, from what study that I’ve done up to now, it rings true. There are some cryptic prophecies in Daniel about the end times, and in chapter 12, it specifically mentions resurrection from the dead.

Daniel 12:2 from bible.oremus.org

” Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.”

Bible scholars acknowledge that interpreting end times prophecies are a more than a bit tricky especially with such a small excerpt, but the word “many” stands out as important to me especially considering people who want to try to take these verses as literally as possible. The verse says many, not all, and mentions no criteria. Furthermore, all of this appears to occur on earth where, if it’s to be taken literally, a conqueror has gone through and altered the geopolitical landscape by uniting several lands under his leadership and devastating those that refuse it. This king mysteriously dies, and a new chief prince, Michael, takes the stage and restores God’s people, but the messenger relaying this information to Daniel makes no comment on the fate of those still on earth formerly under the old leadership. After this, more general prophecies are given with the angel promising Daniel resurrection, but this messenger offers no more specific details about the fate of those living who are not in covenant with God. While the angel specifies who God will deliver using Michael as protector, he never specifically explains the criteria for resurrection.

So if we resist a desire to use enigmatic biblical prophecy to prove a belief in the afterlife, then we’re left with the realization that the old covenant’s blessings and curses only applied on earth, to God’s chosen people who decided to enter into contract with him, and the people that entered directly into conflict with them. From what I could gather, death awaited the members of God’s chosen people that chose to obey him, those who chose to disobey him, and those who did not enter into a covenant relationship with him. God continuing to dole out earthly punishment on the offspring of a disobedient person stands out as the only clear consequence that could follow death.

After gaining somewhat of an understanding of the terms of the old covenant, I turned my attention to the new covenant and understanding the differences and why the differences existed. The same article by Johann Hari presented a “practical” reason for why the Judaism developed a belief in the afterlife that, according to wikipedia, exists as a canonical part of Jewish rabbinic literature, the Talmud, today.

Hari writes:
“In the run up to heaven’s invention, the Jews were engaged in a long civil war over whether to open up to the Greeks and their commerce or to remain sealed away, insular and pure. With no winner in sight, King Antiochus got fed up. He invaded and tried to wipe out the Jewish religion entirely, replacing it with worship of Zeus. The Jews saw all that was most sacred to them shattered: They were ordered to sacrifice swine before a statue of Zeus that now dominated their Holy Temple. The Jews who refused were hacked down in the streets.

Many young men fled into the hills of Palestine to stage a guerrilla assault—now remembered as the Hanukkah story. The old Jewish tale about how you continue after you die was itself dying: Your bones couldn’t be gathered by your ancestors anymore with so many Jews scattered and on the run. So suddenly death took on a new terror. Was this it? Were all these lives ending forever, for nothing? One of the young fighters—known to history only as Daniel—announced that the martyred Jews would receive a great reward. “Many of those who sleep in the dust shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt,” he wrote and launched us on the road to the best-selling 1990s trash 90 Minutes in Heaven. Daniel’s idea was wildly successful. Within a century, most Jews believed in heaven, and the idea has never died.”

I take two important nuggets from this. I’m pretty sure Daniel wasn’t the same Daniel found in the book of Daniel. Also Daniel quotes from Daniel, but he gives it an interpretation that up to that point of intense persecution and martyrdom wasn’t the popular one. I know some of you more spirit minded people might have trouble with the idea that heaven for men was the invention of man, but I don’t want to argue that. In fact, I enjoy thinking of it as an invention of God way more. Hebrews 4:15 identifies Jesus as “a high priest who is [able] to sympathize with our weaknesses” and “who [has] in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin”.

I like to think that God did come down as Jesus and literally had this approximately 33 year long experience where he completely understood how difficult it was to be a man and sought to ease our burden and give us all something extra to hope for. Jesus being God and God, in my belief, being an entity unbound by time or space could have pulled that experience from that moment in time and done whatever he wanted and made it apply in whatever way he deemed just. I don’t know why, if God technically knew this all along, he didn’t reveal it earlier himself, but I’m sure he had a good reason, and the chosen people, who were able to formally be a part of that old covenant and obeyed God, seemed to find serving him satisfactory up until the old covenant was abolished. If anyone would have a quarrel with God about the old covenant, it would be them and not us, but I found that the one of the things that links our two covenants is that God required very similar things from the people of each covenant.

When God grew frustrated with his people, he sent prophets to tell them that their failure to follow what Jesus later identifies as the two greatest commandments upset him most. They sought other gods or didn’t devote themselves fully to him, and they demonstrated a clear lack of effort to love their neighbor. When Jesus comes, much of his teaching revolves around expanding upon how a person’s behavior can reflect or fail to reflect their commitment to following those two great commandments. In John 10:30, he declares that he and “the Father are one”. If a person is able to accept that, then one should easily acquiesce to Jesus’ insistence that we “believe in him” by viewing it as a simple expansion of the 1st Great commandment. After acknowledging the similarities between the two, I moved on to what I perceived as the differences between the two.

As I mentioned earlier, from what my study has revealed to me, under the old covenant, simple cold, dead, lifeless in the ground death awaited everybody regardless of your status with God. In comparison with my understanding of the new covenant, I found the old covenant the more kind and merciful of the two in this regard because my understanding of the new covenant led me to believe that eternal life awaited believers, and unbelievers could only look forward to some sort of mysterious eternal torment. The quantifiable benefits seem gracious but not much more gracious when considering that the benefits of being in the old covenant with God included receiving your reward in a clearly tangible, earthly way that could also apply to your posterity, but, with the new covenant, although you had a relatively lighter burden, you couldn’t expect a significantly easier life. A person under the new covenant also hopes for eternal life – something that we lack the ability to perceive because of the huge step, death, it takes to get there. Although when comparing the punishments of the old covenant to the new covenant, the new covenant seemed excessively punitive. It seemed like a person received punishment for their failure to take advantage of a good thing when previously God seemed content to just let you die.

A lot of Christians seem to justify this by saying how intolerant of sin God is, in spite of his love of the person or people, and go further by saying that by not entering into the new covenant God considers you bound by the law of the old covenant although the consequence of not entering into or following the old covenant was simply death, never hell. Christians use Paul’s writings as a justification particularly where Paul talks about how the abundant evidence of God in all of creation gives people no excuse and their sinful nature condemns them. My problem with that and with how the New Testament epistles present the covenant first arose when considering how closely their descriptions of the new covenant matched Jeremiah’s description of it in Jeremiah 31:31-34.

“31 The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband,* says the Lord. 33But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord’, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”

People tend to make the assertion that all are and have been bound by the law of the old covenant and not entering the new covenant condemns you to hell, but, in spite of the fact that it never used to do that, Jeremiah refers to that covenant as a broken. Jeremiah also implies that God actually places it in people’s hearts rather than already placing it in there or even expecting it to be apparent to them.

My other source of irritation about this arises from my understanding that a person or, in the case of Israel, a group of people has to consciously enter a covenant. God doesn’t just force covenants on people as soon as they have a psychological, physiological understanding of “self” in the context of the world around them. I take issue with the sinful nature argument also. God’s desire to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah and “the world” in Noah’s time does demonstrate that humans have the ability to fully adopt and live according to a sinful culture where depravity becomes the norm, but Abraham in his time does encounter some upright people, particularly the Pharaoh and King Abimelech who both have misunderstandings with Abraham but are ultimately left to live in peace for a considerable amount of time when Abraham’s deceit is made apparent to them by God.

God knows what he had when he got us, and I’m sure he knew Adam and Eve would disobey him in the garden even though it displeased him. In my mind, they had to break the one rule they had to live by in order to demonstrate that they had the gift of choice. If Adam and Eve just continued to always do good, then he would just have intelligent creatures that always did the right thing, but he valued the ability to choose and he gave it to us. A choice isn’t a real choice unless both options have their appeal and both options have their drawbacks. A properly functioning person with all of their faculties doesn’t struggle with the choice of whether or not to jam a knife in their eye, but a properly functioning person does at one point struggle with the choice between sharing what they have, withholding it, or taking something that belongs to someone else. I don’t think that the fact that we sometimes find sin appealing makes us sinful anymore than the fact that we sometimes enjoy doing virtuous things makes us virtuous. The struggle to choose doesn’t make us sinful; it makes us human (rather than sociopathic or incapable of doing anything but the kindest thing we can imagine in any particular situation).

If people were so inherently sinful since creation, then why was Enoch capable of walking so closely with God, before the old covenant was introduced and before God declared that he would start placing it on people’s hearts, that God took him and why was Noah (who got so drunk after he got on dry land lol) chosen to repopulate the earth after the flood and why is the Old Testament littered with so many demonstrations of uncanny virtue. Either God particularly strengthened them or they did it mostly on their own, but, either way, it doesn’t imply that everyone automatically starts out in a state that God finds repulsive. I can think of many times where God showed grace to people in covenant with him like when he allowed Gideon to test him, or when he gave Samson the strength to do what he was born for after he squandered his strength, or giving Moses the opportunity to lead his people, or whenever he communicated to people in general. I reiterate, God knew exactly what he had when he made us freely choosing human beings who could feel the tug of both impulses. He just values it that much when we decided to do what he asks of us freely.

I also like to think that the conscious choice of God to go relatively “quiet” between the old and the new testament lends credence to the argument that God understands, values, and respects humans ability to choose. I think, logically, that if he kept acknowledging the old covenant as he always had that people would not have anticipated a new covenant and would have engaged in with less fervor. I believe he wanted humanity and some of the tribe of Israel in a state that best allowed them to accept and proliferate the knowledge and the existence of the new covenant.

No one but your family can bind you into a covenant that you’re unaware of, and you don’t enter into his family until you enter the covenant. Part of this logic leads me to believe that death and a life without God’s blessings are the just consequences and the only consequences for not entering the covenant. I also believe analyzing Jesus own words in context will lead to the same conclusion, and it has done so already in my small amount of study.

John 3:16-17
‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17 ‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.’*

Here Jesus promises eternal life but he doesn’t promise eternal punishment to unbelievers. He reinforces the idea that he came to bring salvation not condemnation, and goes on to say that those who do not believe are condemned already. Jesus goes on to say that people preferred darkness over life because their deeds were evil. It’s a chicken-or-the-egg clarifier for me. People prefered darkness not because they were inherently evil, but because their deeds were evil. Here Jesus repeatedly talks about the actions of people leading them to adopt a preference (as in how people are capable of choosing to adopt a depraved lifestyle but it’s not an automatic thing) not the preference of people manifesting in their actions.

Jesus labels unbelievers “condemned already” because “they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God”. I feel like the “condemned already” squares with my perspective. They are condemned already on earth because of their unbelief, he doesn’t promise everlasting condemnation to them. To me, Jesus asserts unbelievers already miss out on the benefits of embracing the new covenant rather than warning of forthcoming punishment.

My next example involves how Christians commonly associate the phrase “weeping and gnashing of teeth” with hell, but ignore the phrase’s actual meaning in the context of the world of the Bible. Today we associate teeth gnashing with large amounts of physical pain or uneasiness, but throughout the Bible, the phrase “expresses viciousness, anger, rage, or hateful words with the intent to slander, insult, blaspheme, or destroy (citation at end of paragraph(s)).” In the different places where he uses it, Jesus specifically addresses people who want the old covenant to still work and uses this phrase to describe the amount of frustration they will feel when cast into the “outer darkness”. Christians commonly see outer darkness as some sort of metaphor for hell, but “allowing the Bible to define itself” (a paraphrase of my source) you can find that outer darkness simply refers to death, “the utter cessation of thought, consciousness, and being”. Different translations and interpretations of the Bible have possibly served to pervert our understanding of this commonly quoted text rather than further our understand of the intent behind Jesus’ words. I got all my info from just one page, which is bad, but I’m hell bent on proving my point http://www.scribd.com/doc/23398502/Weeping-and-Gnashing-of-Teeth.

A misinterpretation of parables might serve to give us the wrong idea of the afterlife. I don’t have anyone to cite on this one. I don’t think that I arrived to this conclusion completely on my own but the logic is strong, and I think if you google it then you’ll probably find a scholarly article that says what I say better.

Lazarus and the Rich man is in Luke 16:19-31, and the first thing that I think we have to keep in mind is that it’s a parable, a story with a point, not an attempt by Jesus to be factually correct about the states of being in the afterlife. The first theme that pops out to me is the reversal of roles in the kingdom of God. The rich man is not simply a rich man; he dressed “in purple and fine linen” and “feasted sumptuously every day”. This poor man is not simply a poor man, but a man “covered with sores” so desperate to satiate his hunger that he ate what scraps fell from the rich man’s table still unable to prevent himself from dying of starvation.

The story gives readers a highly implausible scenario where Lazarus, a poor man with a severe skin condition in old Israel, is capable of getting close enough to a rich man to get scraps from the Rich man’s table and die at his gate. The nearness of Lazarus to the rich man doesn’t reflect reality; it highlights the callousness of the rich man. The dogs who mercifully lick Lazarus’ sores also demonstrate that even domesticated beasts have a greater ability to show compassion than this personification of high society.

Upon entering an afterlife where people in heaven can literally shout over to people in hell and knowingly tantalize them with the sight of nourishment, we see the two again in a dramatic reversal of roles. Like Lazarus on “earth”, the rich man can see Lazarus living it up, but is incapable of getting any relief. To make matters worse, not only does the rich man find himself unable to get table scraps, but the set up makes them unable to provide him even a drop of moisture from the their fingertips. Lazarus’ status is elevated beyond the rich man’s former status on earth. On top of having access to ridiculous amounts of food and wine, Lazarus gets to spend his time with the famously faithful, sagacious, legendary father of God’s chosen people, Abraham. This type of drastic role reversal is a common theme in Jesus’ teaching – strong/weak, rich/poor, meek/conqueror. The parable’s ending also serves to highlight another fundamental teaching of Jesus.

The rich man asks if he can be Marley to his Scrooge brothers and deliver a warning to them to change their behavior. (If you haven’t watched a Christmas Carol, a dead colleague of the notoriously penny-pinching Scrooge named Marley warns Scrooge to change his ways for fear that Scrooge will suffer the same dreadful fate as Marley in the afterlife.) Let’s be serious. If an apparition, in the form of one of your dead friends, appeared to you and told you to change your ways in order to avoid a grisly afterlife, it would most likely convince you to evaluate your life and make changes to avoid that fate or evaluate your life and make changes that would prevent you from hallucinating. Since in Jesus’ time they probably didn’t provide powerful sedatives and grand theories based on recovered childhood memories for people who claimed to see ghosts, a reasonable person would go with the former approach.

Abraham definitively says it won’t work, but in Jesus’ story, Abraham is not a standard voice of reason. Abraham highlights the value of the two greatest commandments by saying if the rich man’s brothers, like him, refused to heed the consistent cry of the God’s prophets to love their neighbors, including those that a godless society would typically marginalize, then Abraham could not expect them to pay attention to the warnings of their dead brother, a man made of the same stock as them.

Another one is Matthew 13:40-42.  It has the weeping and gnashing of teeth thing that I previously explained, but here Jesus uses a fire and weeds metaphor.  You might already be able to predict where I’ll go from here, but he doesn’t imply that the weeds burn eternally in the fire and neither does the parable or his explanation.  He does with the weeds what anyone does with something that they can’t use. He discards them.  I think even in the case it speaks of death and not of some eternal relentless punishment.

More from the head:
I don’t feel as strongly about this as my writing may indicate, and although I know some biblical scholars have come to the same conclusion, for me, it’s still a hypothesis that I’m testing. I’m open to additional help in testing it.

Many of you know my general stance with the Bible, but I’ll repeat it. I think it’s a valuable teaching tool with lessons for us to learn. Some of the narratives are intended to give a factual account of historical events and some are stories with a purpose behind them, but ultimately it was written and assembled by various men throughout time trying their best to put into words how they saw God moving, what they thought God was saying, and what God actually said.

I think it’s far from perfect, as far as from perfect as (bear with me on this wording) most of the other really good things in this world. While the holy spirit gives us understanding, I personally don’t believe that gift requires us to abandon our critical thinking skills.

*I still think there is hell as told by Revelations, but I think Revelations, although murky, is very specific about who goes there and the list isn’t nearly as all-encompassing as it seems to be in mainstream Christianity.

*I think part of our problem with there having to be something beyond death for everyone is the originally Greek invention of the immortal soul.  I think it’s just part of mainstream western thought to think of the soul as inherently immortal, but I don’t think the Bible suggests that the human consciousness is inherently immortal.  I think the it suggests that Christ can give us that gift, but not that we always had it.

For most of my Christian life, I have believed that it’s dangerous to pick and choose what you believe from the Bible in order to make things easier on you, and I believe it still is. I also think almost everyone does it (including non-believers) and should be aware of it, but if they didn’t do it, it would probably overwhelm them. This thing  benefits me by reassuring me that God is just and rational by my standards; it makes him easier to love.   It’s not an argument for the sake of argument or a possibility that I just want to entertain. It’s something that I think might be the truth, in spite of  knowing that how easy one can accept as truth a comfortable lie.  At the same time, just because you want to believe something doesn’t mean it isn’t true, and  I’ve got loads more borderline heretical stuff to share with you.

Some Long Titles that serve as cryptic summaries:
Vengeance is the Lord’s and he may not take it
The Trinity and the transitive property of mathematics
God doesn’t love you that much and the limitations of language
Faith is more effective than reality and other lessons from South Park
Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban

P.S.
Also unrelated, I wonder if how people take in information has changed radically. I know it seems like a no-brainer, but it has to do with something that I relearned recently. The 10 commandments are mostly phrased “negatively” in terms of “do not” or “you shall not”, but recently I relearned that the consensus opinion is that people respond better to positively phrased commands in terms of “do this” and “you should do that”. I would think that God would want to communicate his law to humans in a way that makes it easiest to absorb and follow.

From the entirety of the Bible, I can tell that wordiness is not a problem with God. Also the idea that more words would have made it heavier to carry is also ridiculous to me. The two greatest commands are worded positively. So maybe the juxtaposition makes them stand out more for us or maybe it’s a chicken or the egg thing.

Email me about grammatical stuff, and I’ll thank you for bringing it to my attention. I’d like it if comments were more opinion and less editorial although I know my writing skill could use plenty of improvement.

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