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Wednesday, May 31, 2006

the ebay atheist

In February of this year, self-professed atheist Hemant Mehta put himself up for auction on eBay. For every $10 in the winning bid, he would spend an hour in church and keep a journal of his experiences. (He didn't do it for the money: He donated the entire winning bid to the Secular Student Alliance.)

The winning bid, submitted by Jim Henderson of Off the Map ministries, was $504. Off the Map seeks to redefine evangelism in terms of being authentic, making genuine connections with people, and valuing them as real human beings. Henderson chose Mehta because he believes it is important for Christians to know how their words and actions are perceived by nonbelievers.

By all accounts, this partnership has been a positive experience for both. Mehta has challenged many Christians' stereotypes of atheists, while learning to appreciate some things about church. The story of Mehta's experiences can be found at Off the Map and at Mehta's own blog, Friendly Atheist.


Tuesday, May 30, 2006

creationism is a type of paganism

So says Vatican astronomer Guy Consolmagno.

Religion needs science to keep it away from superstition and keep it close to reality, to protect it from creationism, which at the end of the day is a kind of paganism - it's turning God into a nature god. And science needs religion in order to have a conscience, to know that, just because something is possible, it may not be a good thing to do.

Further details are available in this article. Hat tip to Elizabeth D at Street Prophets.


Sunday, May 28, 2006

a hell of a subject - 4. fire

This is the fourth of a series of posts exploring what the New Testament says about hell. See my introduction for a brief overview of my plans for this series.
Note: I am not a scholar. The following represents my current understanding, based on my own studies which are not comprehensive. I welcome further insights and corrections.

So far in this series I have looked at the New Testament's use of the words gehenna, Hades, and perishing. Now I'm going to examine the NT's use of the word fire. I won't repeat the references that appeared in my gehenna post, and I won't include references to physical, earthly fire.

The first reference comes from John the Baptist:

Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

- Matthew 3:10-12

Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”

As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

- Luke 3:9-17

Luke expands this passage to turn it into a dialogue, but the same basic teachings about fire appear in both gospels. The word fire is used three times. In the first and third, the fire represents judgment or destruction, but in the second it appears to represent purification. When the Holy Spirit first appears in Acts, the Spirit is represented by tongues of flame.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus quotes part of John the Baptist's words:

You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits.

- Matthew 7:16-20

Later in Matthew, Jesus speaks of fire in his explanation of a parable:

The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!

- Matthew 13:37-43

As we've seen before, in Matthew judgment is based on actions, not beliefs. In this parable, those who do evil will be thrown into the fire, like "weeds [that] are collected and burned up."

And speaking of judgment based on actions, Jesus's most vivid teaching about judgment day is also found in Matthew. I'll quote the second half, since it deals with the evildoers:

Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.

- Matthew 25:41-46

Unless I've missed it somewhere, this is the only place in the Bible where the phrase "eternal punishment" appears, and it is applied exclusively to those who don't take care of the needy.

Moving on to Luke:

I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!

- Luke 12:49-50

This may be an echo of John the Baptist's teaching, that Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Even though Jesus speaks of division in the verses following these two, fire is apparently being used in a positive sense here.

John's gospel has one brief mention of fire in relation to judgment:

I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.

- John 15:5-6

John's theology focuses less on action than the other gospels. Though he uses the same metaphor of branches burned in the fire that John the Baptist used, this John puts it in a different context.

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

- Acts 2:1-4

This could be seen as the fulfillment of John the Baptist's teaching about the baptism of "the Holy Spirit and fire". This is another example of the positive use of the word fire in the New Testament.

Paul mentions fire a couple times in his letters:

Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done. If what has been built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward. If the work is burned up, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire.

- 1 Corinthians 3:12-15

Here is the clearest reference in the New Testament to fire as a purifier. If I'm not mistaken, the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory is largely based on this verse.

For it is indeed just of God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to give relief to the afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. These will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, separated from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes to be glorified by his saints and to be marveled at on that day among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed.

- 2 Thessalonians 1:6-10

This passage shows Paul's theology that connects judgment with belief rather than actions, and describes the punishment as "eternal destruction." There's a touch of arrogance in this passage, an attitude of, "God will smite my enemies," that I personally find a little off-putting.

But to the point of today's post: Fire here is associated with Jesus and the angels, not with judgment or purification, but heavenly majesty.

The same theme can be found in Hebrews:

Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe; for indeed our God is a consuming fire.

- Hebrews 12:28-29

Here God does use the fire for judgment or for purification; here God is the fire.

Another use of the fire can be found in 1 Peter:

In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith — being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire — may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.

- 1 Peter 1:6-7

Faith is compared with gold refined in the fire. This is similar to the usage in the 1 Corinthains passage.

In 2 Peter, fire as judgment is given a new twist. A future judgment by fire is seen as a parallel to the judgment by water in the days of Noah.

They deliberately ignore this fact, that by the word of God heavens existed long ago and an earth was formed out of water and by means of water, through which the world of that time was deluged with water and perished. But by the same word the present heavens and earth have been reserved for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the godless.

- 2 Peter 3:5-7

Jude mentions fire twice within its 25 verses. In verse 7, "eternal fire" refers to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah:

Likewise, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which, in the same manner as they, indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural lust, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire.

In verse 23, fire refers to impending judgment:

And have mercy on some who are wavering; save others by snatching them out of the fire; and have mercy on still others with fear, hating even the tunic defiled by their bodies.

The book of Revelation contains 25 references to fire, one third of all the references in the New Testament. I'll summarize most of them and look specifically at a couple that are relevant to the topic at hand.

  • Seven times in Revelation, fire represents judgment: 8:7, 8:8, 9:17, 14:10, 17:16, 18:8, and 20:9.

  • Twice, Revelation describes fires that will ravage the earth: 9:18 and 16:8.

  • Three times, Jesus's eyes are said to be "like a flame of fire": 1:14, 2:18, and 19:12.

  • Five times, Revelation mentions fires in heaven: 4:5, 8:5, 11:5, 13:13, and 14:18.

  • In 3:18, Jesus tells the church at Laodicea to buy from him, "gold refined by fire."

  • In 10:1, an angel's legs are said to be "like pillars of fire."

  • 15:2 mentions a "sea of glass mixed with fire."

The remaining five verses are the ones that are relevant to the topic at hand. Revelation 19:20, 20:10, 20:14, 20:15, and 21:8 mention a "lake of fire."

Chapter 19 describes a final battle of the beast and its army against Christ and his army. The result:
And the beast was seized, and with him the false prophet who performed the signs in his presence, by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and those who worshiped his image; these two were thrown alive into the lake of fire which burns with brimstone.

- Revelation 19:20

In chapter 20, Satan himself musters an army against Christ, with the same end result:
And the devil who deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are also; and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.

- Revelation 20:10

It is notable that Revelation 20:10 is the only verse in the entire Bible that even mentions eternal torment, and it is reserved for "the devil... the beast and the false prophet."

A different fate awaits others who are thrown into this lake of fire:

And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Also another book was opened, the book of life. And the dead were judged according to their works, as recorded in the books. And the sea gave up the dead that were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and all were judged according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire; and anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.

- Revelation 20:12-15

But for the cowardly and unbelieving and abominable and murderers and immoral persons and sorcerers and idolaters and all liars, their part will be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.

- Revelation 21:8

For the unholy trinity of the devil, the beast, and the false prophet, the lake of fire is a place to be tormented forever, but for others it is "the second death." Here, like in the rest of Revelation, James, and the Synoptic Gospels, judgment is based on actions, not beliefs.

And that's what the New Testament has to say about fire. If the picture was muddled before, this has not helped to clarify it.

What is clear, I think, is that the standard fundamentalist/evangelical line that "everyone who does not accept Jesus as personal savior will be punished forever in hell," has absolutely no biblical support. The two main ideas about judgment that run throughout the New Testament are 1) punishment for wicked actions, and 2) death for lack of faith. Paul and John hold the latter view, and the rest of the NT writers (including the John of Revelation) tend toward the former (though elements of the latter can be found in them as well).

I don't see any way to bring this to a tidy conclusion, so I won't try. I had originally planned to end this last post with my own opinion, but I find that my opinion has been shaken by this study. I'm not sure I can say anything with confidence, beyond the bare facts I've just outlined.

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Thursday, May 18, 2006

catch older lemon knower

A famous museum... a shocking murder... a distinguished symbologist... an alluring cryptologist... secrets written in code.

No, it's not that "other" story.

Follow the adventures of Langford Fife as he uncovers the secrets of The Norman Rockwell Code. It's coming soon to a website near you, but you can see the trailer today.

Hat tip to Monk-in-Training.


Wednesday, May 17, 2006

a hell of a subject - 3. life and death

This is the third of a series of posts exploring what the New Testament says about hell. See my introduction for a brief overview of my plans for this series.
Note: I am not a scholar. The following represents my current understanding, based on my own studies which are not comprehensive. I welcome further insights and corrections.

In the previous two posts in this series, I discussed the New Testament's use of the words gehenna and Hades. Between the two, these words appear in thirteen passages in the Synoptic Gospels and Revelation, plus one each in Acts and James.

What does the rest of the New Testament say about the afterlife?

The Gospel of John handles several things differently from the other gospels, and one thing is the afterlife. For John, it's not a question of heaven or hell, it is instead a matter of life and death.

This can be seen in what is perhaps the most famous Bible verse of all:

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.

- John 3:16

The life vs. death theme is spelled out more clearly in a few other passages:

Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever disobeys the Son will not see life, but must endure God’s wrath.

- John 3:36

Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgement, but has passed from death to life.

- John 5:24

After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said, "Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent."

- John 17:1-3

In that last passage, eternal life is defined as a gift that entails an intimate knowledge of God. This is closer to the Jewish idea of general resurrection than to the Greek idea that everyone has an eternal soul.

The same theme can be found in 1 John:

We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another. Whoever does not love abides in death. All who hate a brother or sister are murderers, and you know that murderers do not have eternal life abiding in them.

- 1 John 3:14-15

And this is the testimony: God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.

- 1 John 5:11-12

And John isn't the only one with this idea. Paul also contrasts life and death in his letters, though he doesn't always use those exact words.

All who have sinned apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law.

- Romans 2:12

So what advantage did you then get from the things of which you now are ashamed? The end of those things is death. But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

- Romans 6:21-23

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

- 1 Corinthians 1:18

If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished.

- 1 Corinthians 15:17-18

For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing; to the one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life.

- 2 Corinthians 2:15-16

Perhaps the most striking thing about John's and Paul's words about the afterlife is that they never get any more explicit about it. Also notable is that, especially for John, it is belief that determines life or death, not behavior as in the synoptics and Revelation.

So the picture becomes even more muddled. The New Testament writers are not in agreement about who spends eternity with God, or what is the punishment for those who don't. The one thing that does seem to be clear is that there is not a single "biblical" view about hell.

To bring this discussion full circle, in my next post I'm going to examine what the New Testament writers had to say about fire.

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Saturday, May 13, 2006

kids' letters to god

To lighten things up in the middle of this series about hell, I thought I'd share these. I received them in an email titled "Kids' letters to God."

Dear God,
In Sunday School they told us what You do. Who does it when You are on vacation? - Jane

Dear God,
I think about You sometimes even when I'm not praying. - Elliot

Dear God,
Did You really mean "do unto others as they do unto you?" Because if you did, then I'm going to fix my brother. - Darla

Dear God,
I didn't think orange went with purple until I saw the sunset You made on Tuesday. - Margret

Dear God,
I read the Bible. What does "begat" mean? Nobody will tell me. - Love, Allison

Dear God,
Are you really invisible or is that a trick? - Lucy

Dear God,
Is it true my father won't get in Heaven if he uses his bowling words in the house? - Anita

Dear God,
Did you mean for the giraffe to look like that or was it an accident? - Norma

Dear God,
Instead of letting people die and having to make new ones, why don't You just keep the ones You have now? - Jane

Dear God,
Who draws the lines around countries? - Nan

Dear God,
The bad people laughed at Noah - "You made an ark on dry land you fool". But he was smart, he stuck with You. That's what I would do. - Eddie

Dear God,
I went to this wedding and they kissed right in church. Is that okay? - Neil

Dear God,
What does it mean You are a Jealous God? I thought You had everything. - Jane

Dear God,
Thank You for the baby brother, but what I prayed for was a puppy. - Joyce

Dear God,
Why is Sunday School on Sunday? I thought it was supposed to be our day of rest. - Tom L.

Dear God,
Please send me a pony. I never asked for anything before, You can look it up. - Bruce

Dear God,
If we come back as something - please don't let me be Jennifer Horton because I hate her. - Denise

Dear God,
My brother is a rat. You should give him a tail. Ha ha. - Danny

Dear God,
Maybe Cain and Abel would not kill each other so much if they had their own rooms. It works with my brother. - Larry

Dear God,
I want to be just like my Daddy when I get big but not with so much hair all over. - Sam

Dear God,
You don't have to worry about me. I always look both ways. - Dean

Dear God,
I bet it is very hard for You to love all of everybody in the whole world. There are only 4 people in our family and I can never do it. - Nan

Dear God,
Of all the people who work for You, I like Noah and David the best. - Rob

Dear God,
My brother told me about being born but it doesn't sound right. They're just kidding, aren't they? - Marsha

Dear God,
If You watch me in Church Sunday. I'll show You my new shoes. - Mickey

Dear God,
I would like to live 900 years like the guy in the Bible. - Love, Chris

Dear God,
We read Thomas Edison made light. But in school they said You did it. So, I bet he stoled Your idea. Sincerely, Donna

Dear God,
I do not think anybody could be a better God. Well, I just want You to know but I am not just saying that because You are God already. - Charles


Tuesday, May 09, 2006

a hell of a subject - 2. hades

This is the second of a series of posts exploring what the New Testament says about hell. See my introduction for a brief overview of my plans for this series.
Note: I am not a scholar. The following represents my current understanding, based on my own studies which are not comprehensive. I welcome further insights and corrections.

Hades is the name of the Greek god of the underworld. His domain was originally known as haidou but eventually became called Hades as well. Hades corresponds roughly to the Hebrew word Sheol, the place of the dead. When the Hebrew Bible was first translated into Greek, the word Sheol was translated as Hades.

In the New Testament, the word Hades appears in eight passages. In some English versions, Hades is translated as hell, but it's really not the same.

To illustrate the difference between hell and Hades, I'll start at the end of the Bible.

And the sea gave up the dead that were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and all were judged according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire.

- Revelation 20:13-14

This is in the middle of a passage describing the final judgment. I'll come back to this later in the series, to look at the larger context. What's important in regards to Hades is that, in the end, Hades gives up all the dead who are there, and is itself thrown into the lake of fire to be destroyed. This accords with the Jewish understanding of Sheol as a temporary holding place where the dead wait until the day of resurrection. After judgment day, when the righteous are given eternal life and the wicked are thrown into the fire, there is no more need for Hades.

Revelation mentions Hades two previous times, and in both Hades is a companion of Death. In the second, Hades and Death are anthropomorphized.

I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades.

- Revelation 1:18

I looked and there was a pale green horse! Its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed with him; they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword, famine, and pestilence, and by the wild animals of the earth.

- Revelation 6:8

What does the rest of the New Testament say about this holding place?

For David says concerning him, ‘I saw the Lord always before me, for he is at my right hand so that I will not be shaken; therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced; moreover my flesh will live in hope. For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One experience corruption. You have made known to me the ways of life; you will make me full of gladness with your presence.’
Fellow Israelites, I may say to you confidently of our ancestor David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Since he was a prophet, he knew that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would put one of his descendants on his throne. Foreseeing this, David spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, saying, ‘He was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh experience corruption.’

- Acts 2:25-31

This passage from Acts uses the word twice, indicating the early church's belief that Jesus was in Hades between his death and resurrection. Again this accords with the Jewish understanding of Sheol, with the exception that Jesus did not wait until the general resurrection at judgment day.

In the gospels, Hades is mentioned four times, twice in Matthew and twice in Luke.

He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.

- Matthew 16:15-18

In an ancient walled city, the gates were the weakest point of defense. Here Hades is portrayed as an enemy that will not be able to withstand the assault of the church. Just as in Revelation, Hades is destined for destruction.

I'll take these next two as a pair, because they are parallel passages.

And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? No, you will be brought down to Hades. For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I tell you that on the day of judgment it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom than for you.

- Matthew 11:23-24

And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? No, you will be brought down to Hades.

- Luke 10:15

This is one from a list of judgments passed by Jesus against unrepentant cities. Today we usually think of sins as something committed by individuals, but in ancient times it was not unusual to speak of sin as a community problem. As far as Hades itself is concerned, these passages don't give us any new information.

Finally, one of Jesus's parables has something to say about Hades.

There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’

- Luke 16:19-26

This parable is notable for a few reasons. First, it's the only one of Jesus's parables in which a character is given a name. Second, it gives the New Testament's clearest picture of a soul being tormented after death. Third, the only reason given for the man being punished is the fact that he was rich.

But to the point of this post: What does this tell us about Hades? To answer that, it's necessary to understand Jewish apocalyptic writings, specifically the Book of Enoch. This book was written by an anonymous author, who used the name of Enoch (from Genesis 5:18-24) to lend an air of authority. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church considers this book to be part of scripture, and the only surviving complete copies are in the Ethiopian language.

Chapters 21 and 22 describe a visit by "Enoch" to the regions of the underworld. Chapter 21 corresponds to Tartaros, "the prison of the angels," mentioned in 2 Peter and Jude. Chapter 22 corresponds to Hades. It is a place where "souls are separated". It has both "delighful places" and places of "abundant suffering." There are three separators in this place: a chasm, water, and "light above it".

This is the place where both the rich man and Lazarus go after death. The chasm from Luke 16 is the chasm from Enoch 22. Lazarus and the rich man await judgment on opposite sides of the chasm. On the rich man's side, people are punished for their sins. On Abraham's side, the righteous are comforted. The more they suffered in life, the more they are comforted in death, according to Enoch.

On judgment day there will be further separation, according to Enoch. The righteous will be taken up to eternal life, but the wicked will be split between those who will "perish from the seed of the human race" and those who will be "punished and bound there for ever." This is not entirely clear from the English translation. It's hard to find good online references, but the Encyclopedia Mythica at least devotes a paragraph to explaining this passage, while acknowledging that there is no consensus on this interpretation.

Though the Book of Enoch fills in the details for this parable in Luke, it is hard to reconcile this picture of Hades with the rest of the New Testament's references to Hades as a temporary holding place that cannot withstand the church, and will ultimately be destroyed on judgment day after giving up all its inhabitants.

That's where things stand regarding Hades. The picture is not entirely clear. There seem to be two competing ideas here, with neither being fleshed out in the New Testament itself. The single clearest picture of Hades is from an apocalyptic text that, for most Christians, is not considered scripture.

So far we've looked at both gehenna and Hades. Between the two, they appear in 15 passages in the New Testament. All of these passages are in the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) or in Acts, James, or Revelation.

The rest of the New Testament is not silent about death and the afterlife. The writers simply use different language. I'll examine the language of Paul and John in my next post in this series.

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Friday, May 05, 2006

a hell of a subject - 1. gehenna

This is the first of a series of posts exploring what the New Testament says about hell. See my introduction for a brief overview of my plans for this series.
Note: I am not a scholar. The following represents my current understanding, based on my own studies which are not comprehensive. I welcome further insights and corrections.

Gehenna is the Greek word that is most consistently translated as "hell" in the New Testament. The word is derived from the Hebrew Ge-Hinnom, which is a shortened form of Gai-Ben-Hinnom, "Valley of the Sons of Hinnom." This valley was located to the southwest of Jerusalem, and in Jesus's day was the site of a landfill. Heaps of garbage were burned to control the stench. According to one of my sources, there was almost always a fire burning somewhere within the landfill. At some point in rabbinic teaching, the valley was used as a metaphor for punishment of the wicked. When Jesus spoke of the "fires of hell," his listeners would have mentally pictured this garbage dump.

The word gehenna appears in seven passages in the New Testament. Because some of them are parallel passages, I'm going to look at them in four groups.

First is a group of three passages, two of which are in Matthew.

"But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire... You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell."

- Matthew 5:22, 29-30

“If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life maimed or lame than to have two hands or two feet and to be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into the hell of fire."

- Matthew 18:8-9

"If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched."

- Mark 9:43-48

The first set of passages speak of hell as a consequence of sin. It's worse than having one's eyes gouged out or one's limbs torn off. And it's permanent. That's pretty serious stuff. Whatever hell is, it won't be pleasant.

There are several indications, too, that this is an important teaching. First, it's the words of Jesus, not of Paul or James or anyone else. Second, it's repeated, not only within each passage, but the teaching itself appears twice in Matthew's gospel, just in case anyone missed it the first time.

The first passage from Matthew lists specific sins, but the other two passages speak in generalities. Whatever it means for a hand, foot, or eye to cause one to stumble, is left for the reader to discern.

That bit about worms and unquenchable fire sounds pretty gruesome. In fact, this is a passage that is often quoted in support of the "eternal torment" view of hell. But is that what it really means? For the answer, we'll need to look at the end of the book of Isaiah.

For as the new heavens and the new earth, which I will make, shall remain before me, says the Lord; so shall your descendants and your name remain. From new moon to new moon, and from sabbath to sabbath, all flesh shall come to worship before me, says the Lord. And they shall go out and look at the dead bodies of the people who have rebelled against me; for their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.

- Isaiah 66:22-24

The image in the Mark passage, then, is of dead, rotting corpses, not conscious beings who feel the effects of the fire and the worms. I'll go a step further and suggest that since Isaiah says "all flesh" will worship God, the corpses should be considered no longer even human. They are no better than garbage.

If I've read it correctly, then this first set of passages suggests something that is possibly even worse than eternal torment -- utter dehumanization. That's not something I'd wish upon my worst enemy.

Well, to be honest, if I was in a bad mood I might wish it on my worst enemy.

The next passage appears in Matthew and Luke.

Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.

- Matthew 10:28

But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him!

- Luke 12:5

Here Jesus says hell is frightful. No wonder, after what we saw in the previous passages. There is a bit of tension between Matthew and Luke here. In Luke, people are "cast into" hell, while in Matthew, they are "destroyed." This is a tension that runs throughout the New Testament, as we will see.

Next are a couple of woes that Jesus aimed at the scribes and Pharisees, compliments of Matthew.

"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves... You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to hell?"

- Matthew 23:15, 33

In light of the above statements about hell, it is clear that Jesus is delivering a severe warning. If this "brood of vipers" knew what was good for them, they would change their ways; nobody would ever want to be sentenced to hell. For the purpose of this blog series, though, this passage doesn't really tell us anything about hell.

Outside the gospels, the one place the word gehenna appears in the New Testament is in the book of James.

"And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell."

- James 3:6

Here gehenna is used metaphorically. Hell is the spark that sets the tongue ablaze with iniquity. Again, for the purpose of this blog series, this passage does not give any information about hell.

In summary, the word gehenna, as used in the New Testament, refers to a terrible, frightful consequence of sinful behavior. This consequence is worse than being maimed or crippled. It's possibly equivalent to having one's corpse thrown into a landfill and burned.

That's it for the word gehenna. Next up is hades.

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Thursday, May 04, 2006

a hell of a subject - introduction

If you've never participated in HeyJules' Monday Night Thoughtball, you really should. It's a great way to discuss important topics with a wide variety of informed people.

This week's question was: Will different people experience hell differently?

I left a comment there, stating my belief that hell is essentially separation from God, and therefore is something that many people already experience here on earth. We do not have to wait until death to experience heaven and hell.

A number of other commenters remarked that hell is "a real place" of "weeping and gnashing of teeth" where people "will live in misery, hopelessness, and apparent isolation." This goes on "FOREVER." What's more, "everyone deserves hell." They believe this "because it is BIBLICAL."

Well, I've read the Bible, and I respectfully disagree.

What I'm planning to do is to write a series of posts examining what the Bible says about hell.

By way of introduction, let me point out first that there are three Greek words that can be translated as "hell". The word tartaros appears in 2 Peter 2:4, describing a place where demons are kept in chains. The same concept appears in Jude 6 without using the word. Nowhere does it suggest that tartaros has anything to do with human beings, so I won't mention this one again.

The word gehenna appears in exactly seven passages, six of which are in the gospels -- four in Matthew's gospel alone. Some of these are parallel passages -- different versions of the same story. I'm going to look at each of these passages to see what they say about hell.

The word hades is the place where all dead people go, according to Greek mythology. This word is used in several places in the New Testament. Some English versions translate this word as "hell", while others translate it as "depths" or "grave," or leave it untranslated. I'll examine whether these passages can add anything to our knowledge about hell.

Additionally, the words "fire" or "flames" are used in several places in the New Testament, as are the words "death," "destruction," and "perishing". I'll look at these also.

I don't yet know how many posts will be in this series, but I'll begin (tomorrow, I hope) by looking at gehenna.

Incidentally, Rich at God's Upside Down Kingdom has some thoughts and a link to another thoughtful post about universalism, and Scot McKnight's Jesus Creed has a poll about hell that has attracted several commenters from all different points of view. This must be the week to blog about hell.

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christian carnival

My recent post God and the Astronomers has been included in the Christian Carnival, hosted this week by Daddypundit. Click on the link above to check out the rest of the carnival.


Tuesday, May 02, 2006

cover the uninsured

May 1-7 is Cover the Uninsured Week.

The past 100 years have given us medical advances that have doubled the average human life span. Unfortunately, medical advances are not free. Indeed, health care costs have increased, over the past several years, faster than any other segment of the economy. In order to control costs, every industrial nation except the United States has built a system to ensure universal healthcare coverage. Some, like Canada, have single-payer systems, in which the government acts as the sole insurance provider. Others, like Germany, have multi-payer systems, in which the government and private payers both provide insurance, and everyone is guaranteed some form of coverage.

In the United States, private insurance companies write healthcare coverage plans for employers, who choose a plan for their employees. The employees then have the option of buying the plan or not. Some employers choose not to offer health insurance to their employees. Many people cannot afford to buy the health insurance their employers provide. As a result, more than 42 million people in the U.S. have no health insurace at all. That's about one out of every seven U.S. citizens.

In theory, the competition among insurers drives the cost down. In reality, Americans pay about twice as much per person as the rest of the industrial world. In part, the higher costs are a result of the high number of uninsured. If medical providers are forced to write off one out of every seven charges, they need to recoup the money from somewhere.

Physicians aren't the only ones who stand to gain by making health insurance universal. Employers would benefit as they would shoulder a smaller burden of rising health care costs. And, of course, the 42 million people who currently do not have insurance would benefit.

So what is the answer? Although some, even in the medical community, are advocating for a single payer system, it is simply not going to happen in the current political climate. A multi-payer system would be easier to implement -- in fact, our current system is essentially a screwed up multi-payer system. The problem is, we need to find a way to provide health insurance for the 14% of our population who now lack it.

But who has the money and the will to get there? Private insurance companies are not going to add beneficiaries as charity cases.

The federal government has run up too much debt in the last five years to take on any additional financial responsibilities. State governments are being squeezed already as the federal government cuts its subsidies to the states.

Employers are not going to lead the way in reform. The ones who currently don't provide insurance don't have the resources to do so. Any additional expense might drive them out of business.

The uninsured themselves aren't going to solve the problem. If they could afford health insurance, they'd have it.

So is there an answer at all?

Ultimately, I don't think we can get there from here in our lifetime. The United States health care system is the largest industry on the planet, and it's not going to change overnight. Indeed, if the 1996 HIPAA law is any indication, it will take more than a decade to bring about even modest reforms to the system.

But what sort of reforms could we put into place before this generation is beyond the need of health care? Here are a few ideas:

  • Several states have already established health insurance pools that allow high-risk patients to buy medical insurance when they are unable to afford it elsewhere, or have previously been turned down by a private insurer. This concept could be extended to offer affordable group insurance for the self-employed and for small business owners who cannot afford to buy insurance for a handful of people.

  • Some churches offer health insurance plans for their members. This idea, too, could be extended. Maybe some churches could provide health insurance as a ministry. Civic groups, possibly, could establish health insurance pools. Genuine competition in health insurance plans should benefit everyone.

  • Although most Americans are wary of "government health care," Congress's health insurance plan is one of the best and most affordable in the country. One intriguing idea, proposed by John Kerry in his 2004 presidential bid, is to open up this insurance plan to allow others to buy into it.

  • The COBRA law of 1986 allows an individual to keep the same insurance from a previous employer until the insurance plan kicks in at the new employer. The individual must pay the entire cost of the plan. Most people in job transitions need help paying for this temporary coverage. It's just a matter of finding a source for the money.

At best, these are all stopgap measures. None of them will get us to universal coverage. But as thoroughly inefficient as our health care system is today, and as cold as the political will is, we can't hope for much.

In fact, there's only one reason that we don't have universal coverage already: apathy. Americans have let ourselves accept a second rate health care system even while our medical facilities are the best in the world. In no other industrial nation would such a state of affairs be tolerated. Other health care systems have their problems, but nowhere else can 42 million people fall through the cracks at the same time.

So that's what Cover the Uninsured Week is about. It's time to acknowledge that the United States is shooting itself in the foot with its current health care system. It's time to acknowledge that we could do much better, and save money at the same time. It's time to raise the awareness that we don't have to settle for second rate health care. It's time to let our elected officials know that we want -- and deserve -- something better.

It's time for the United States to make health care for all its citizens a priority.

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