Monday, May 03, 2010

The Evolution of Heaven and Hell (4): The Bible

A few years ago, I taught a series of three courses on Biblical politics, with separate courses on the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the Koran.

My undergraduate students were often surprised by what they read. Many were religious believers in the Abrahamic tradition--Jews, Christians, or Muslims. But most of them had never read the Bible carefully. They were surprised to see that the Hebrew Bible says almost nothing about Heaven and Hell, and while the New Testament says more about this, what is said is vague and confusing. The Koran is more explicit and descriptive in its few accounts of Heaven and Hell, but it's still unclear.

Many of my students were perplexed by this. If the whole point of being a Biblical believer is to enter Heaven and escape Hell, why do the texts of the Bible and the Koran provide so little explanation of Heaven and Hell?

This question is most acute in the case of the Old Testament. Through most of the text, there is no clear reference to the afterlife except for a few references to Sheol or "the pit," a dark underworld where the dead go. Job foresees that when he dies, he will go "to the place of no return, to the land of darkness and shadow dark as death, where dimness and disorder hold sway, and light itself is like dead of night" (10:21-22). It's nothing to write home about.

When Moses gives God's Law to the Israelites, his argument for obeying it is that it provides the conditions for living on earth and securing a life for one's progeny (Deuteronomy 4:29-40, 32:22). What matters is protecting the nation of Israel in competition with their enemies. There's no interest in individual immortality in an afterlife. There are a few passages about resurrecting faithful Israelites, but only for the sake of establishing an earthly kingdom of the Jews ruled by David eternally (Ezekiel 37).

The only place in the Hebrew Bible indicating a general resurrection and a final judgment with eternal rewards and punishments is two verses in the book of Daniel, which was probably written late in the history of ancient Israel (perhaps 167-164 B.C.): "Of those who are sleeping in the Land of Dust, many will awaken, some to everlasting life, some to shame and everlasting disgrace. Those who are wise will shine as brightly as the expanse of the heavens, and those who have instructed many in uprightness, as bright as stars for all eternity" (12:2-3).

This idea of resurrection and final judgment could have come to the Jews from contact with the Persian religion founded by Zarathustra (or Zoroaster), who had taught that there would be a general resurrection at the end of time with a final judgment of the good and the evil. As a result of military defeat, many Jews had been deported to Babylon, beginning in 597 B.C. In 539 B.C., the Persian king Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon, and later allowed the Jews in Babylon to return to Jerusalem. For this reason, Isaiah identified Cyrus as the Messiah or the "anointed one" of God (Isaiah 44-45). This possible contact of the Jews with the Persian religion of Zarathustra is part of the reason why Nietzsche thought Zarathustra was the original source for the otherworldliness of Biblical religion, and why he adopted Zarathustra as the name for his prophet in Thus Spake Zarathustra

Certainly, by the time of Jesus, belief in the resurrection of the dead was debated among the Jews--the Pharisees affirming it, and the Sadducees denying it. Saint Paul was a Pharisee (Acts 23:6-10).

Sometimes Jesus clearly teaches that in the afterlife, the saved will enjoy eternal bliss in Heaven, while the damned will suffer eternal punishment in Hell, as if Heaven and Hell were literally located somewhere in another world beyond the world we know now (Matthew 25:31-46; Mark 9:43-48).

But in other cases, Jesus speaks as if Heaven and Hell could be states of mind in our present life. "The kingdom of God is within you" (Luke 17:21). Many of his parables suggest that the kingdom of Heaven corresponds to some inward state of character that is fruitful and receptive (Matthew 13:1-52).

Jesus implies that the saved will have the same rewards and the damned the same punishments, so there's nothing like Dante's Divine Comedy, where there are different kinds of punishments and rewards appropriate to each category of the damned and the saved.

By comparison with Jesus, Paul's references to the afterlife are even more vague. He offers no clear conception of hell, and he doesn't teach eternal damnation. He does provide an influential statement on the resurrection of the body as a transformation of a "psychic body" (soma psychikon) into a "spiritual body" (soma pneumatikon (First Corinthians 15).

The Bible concludes with the prophecies of John's Revelation, depicting the final apocalyptic battle against the forces of Satan, the reign of Christ on earth for a thousand years, and then the Last Judgment, where the dead are judged by the record of their deeds, and those whose names are written in the book of life enter "a new heaven and a new earth." The "new Jerusalem" comes down from Heaven. This new holy city is described in exquisite detail as built of gold, pearls, and precious stones (Revelation 19-22).

The Bible left the early Christians with unresolved issues about the character of Heaven and Hell that provoked debates that continue to the present.

Some Christians interpreted Paul as teaching a doctrine of original sin--that as a result of Adam's sin, all human beings are born so totally depraved that there's nothing they can do to save themselves, and that salvation comes unearned only by the grace of God through the atonement of Christ's crucifixion. This leads to the doctrine of predestination--that from the beginning, God has freely chosen who is to be saved and who is to be damned.

The doctrine of original sin was rejected by Pelagius, a British monk who taught at Rome in the late fourth and early fifth centuries. He argued that since Jesus asked for repentance, he surely thought that human beings had the freedom to choose between salvation and damnation. To teach that human beings are born so totally depraved that they cannot avoid sinning seemed to Pelagius to deny that human beings can be held responsible for their lives, and thus God would be unjust in condemning them. If God is just in his rewards and punishments, then surely human beings must have the freedom to choose salvation.

The Pelagians were condemned by the early church authorities as heretics. But today most Christians are Pelagians, because they assume that God rewards people for their good deeds and their repentance of sin. When evangelical Christians insist that God will certainly save all those who sincerely repent of their sins and ask for forgiveness, they show their adherence to the Pelagian heresy.

Should God's punishment of the damned be eternal? Jesus suggests that. But Paul suggests that Christ's atonement might save everyone. "For as in Adam all die, even in Christ shall all be made alive" (First Corinthians 15:22). Origin, a Coptic Christian born late in the first century, became a theologian who taught that the fires of hell should be interpreted as symbolic of a burning conscience, so that those in Hell would eventually be purged of their sins, and all would be saved. That God would condemn sinners to an eternal Hell with no chance to repent seemed unjust to Origen. But Origen's teaching was declared a heresy by the early Church. When Darwin condemned the doctrine of eternal punishment in Hell as a "damnable doctrine," he was in the tradition of Origen's heresy.

Originally, the idea of an afterlife with a final judgment, as developed by the ancient Egyptians and Plato, seemed to be a way to enforce good conduct in life by providing eternal rewards for the good and eternal punishments for the bad. But the Christian doctrines of original sin and predestination would seem to deny this by denying that one's choices in life have any influence over one's eternal destiny.

For some related posts on Darwinian readings of the Bible, go here, here, here, here, here, and here.

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