Tuesday, March 27, 2012

1st Century Jewish perspectives of Heaven and Hell.

Recently I listened to a challenging 4 part series entitled “What about Heaven and Hell?” by D. Thomas Lancaster (ffoz.com). For many years I have known that Greek influence has shaped Christianity’s concept of Heaven and Hell, but I never knew how much or to what extent. Lancaster presents a very clear 1st century Jewish understanding of Heaven and Hell that adds a wonderfully rich and important context to our faith. If you are at all interested in the study it is available through First Fruits of Zion and is well worth the mere $25. If you plan to listen to the CDs be aware that the rest of this blog might be a spoiler. Some of the below has my own added thoughts, but the majority of it are concepts borrowed from Lancaster’s presentation.

Lancaster clarifies there are several Jewish terms and concepts that have been translated into modern translations as “Hell.” Sheol is one of them, and any Bible scholar will tell you it is better translated as a synonym for “grave” not as Hell. Sometimes our translations confuse the terms and label them all as “Hell.” Currently, modern translations have corrected some of the confusing portions by using more distinct terms (Sheol=Hades, Gehenna = Hell). An example of how we have misunderstood Sheol can be seen where Jesus says the gates of Hell shall not prevail against the church (Mt.16:18). Modern translations have corrected to Hell to Hades. Gates are not offensive, they are defensive, they bind. For a very long time we have assumed Jesus was talking about the power of Hell, Satan or his demons, but it is not. As Sheol it is telling us that “death” shall not prevail against the church. It foreshadows our future resurrection as Believers! Death has no power over us! Understanding the text as “Evil shall not prevail” although doctrinally correct, in actuality not what Christ meant. Suddenly that particular scripture makes a lot more sense! This same issue presents itself in the Apostles’ Creed where it says Jesus descended into Hell (after his death). Jesus descended not into Hell, but Hades/Sheol/the grave, but it is was interpreted poorly as Hell which is quite a different meaning.

Lancaster also points out that there is a lot of confusion in Christian circles whether Christians actually go directly to heaven when thy die, or if they wait to be raised from the dead. Paul says that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord, and Jesus says to the thief on the cross “Today you will be with me in paradise.” Jesus also gives us the parable of the rich man and Lazarus and refers to Abraham’s Bosom or Lap as the “place of reward” Lazarus goes to prior to resurrection. It is however not heaven as we think of it. The rich man is in Hades, but in a portion of Hades that is under suffering and punishment. It seems clear from this description that this “place of punishment” in Hades is quite similar to Gehenna/Hell, but it is not. It is still part of Hades. It is interesting to note at this point that both the major schools of thought in traditional 1st century Judaism were that of Hillel and Shammai, and they both believed that Punishment in the afterlife was only temporary, similar to Purgatory. Jesus never corrects those traditional views and embraces other parts of those traditions openly. This suggests Christ may have believed the same, or at least that he didn’t have a problem with his followers believing in a temporary “place of punishment.” Both this “place of reward/paradise” and “place of punishment” are located in Sheol or Hades. They are a holding place until the resurrection of the dead.

The 1,000 year reign or Millennial kingdom is spoken about in the most detail in Revelation. After Armageddon and the 2nd coming, the 1st resurrection (of both living and the dead) occurs. Those who take part in the 1st resurrection are brought in to rule with Christ over the Earth for 1,000 years in their new and sinless bodies. We are told the rest of the dead (the unrighteous) are not raised to life until later. The biblical phrase “Kingdom of God” always refers to the Messianic Kingdom to come, not heaven as is popularly assumed.

The 2nd resurrection takes place after the Messianic Kingdom and involves all those who died during prior the Millennium and did not take part in the 1st Resurrection. All will be given new bodies. Lancaster points out that those who take part in the 2nd resurrection will be judged not upon belief in Christ, but on “what they had done” (Rev 20:12). Scripture tells us after that resurrection and judgment that death and Hades will be thrown into the “Lake of Fire” (which seems synonymous with term Gehenna/Hell). Lancaster suggests that some that had lived in the “place of punishment” might escape the “Lake of Fire,” otherwise it seems redundant to give the dead new bodies, judge them and put them back in a new “place of punishment,” Gehenna. He also references those 1st century Jewish traditions of a temporary “place of punishment.” Lancaster’s points are interesting; I cannot say I am convinced.

I believe I have an alternately plausible explanation. We know that death (Sheol) and Hades are thrown into the “Lake of Fire” after the 2nd resurrection and judgment, so I think it is safe to assume that the non-resurrected peoples who live during the Millennial Kingdom will still have to deal with physical death. When Christ comes to rule as Messiah, belief in “who Christ is” will no longer be debatable. It will be plain for all to see. We also know Satan will cause a rebellion at the end. People will still choose not to follow Christ and rebel even though they know full well who Christ is. Certainly these people must be judged according to their deeds because their situation is far different then those before the Millennial reign and as I mentioned before (belief in Christ’s identity is no longer debatable). That still does not rule out possible redemption for those who died before the Millennium and suffered in “the place of punishment,” but it does explain why those in the “Great White Throne Judgment” were judged according to “what they had done.”

According to Revelation after the Millennial Reign, the next destination is the New Heaven and the New Earth, which is what we more traditionally think of as Heaven. Lancaster makes some great points throughout the series on how Christian views of Heaven seem to fall short and disappoint many of us. I can recommend a book entitled “Heaven,” by Randy Alcorn if you are looking for reasons to actually be excited about going to Heaven. Alcorn is far more Traditional Christian in his outlook, but he gets most of the major concepts and creates a far more interesting picture of heaven then I have heard before. However, the book is, in my opinion, unnecessarily lengthy.

Lancaster briefly suggests the scriptures might be talking about The Lake of Fire as Annihilation for those left in “the place of punishment” after the Great White Throne Judgment, but he doesn’t go much further. I have expanded my own ideas on the matter. When Death and Hades are thrown into the “Lake of Fire” it seems to suggest that the Lake of Fire is something different then just a “place of punishment”. Why would God throw “a place of punishment” right back into a place that is just like “the place of punishment?” That indicates the “Lake of Fire” could be Annihilation. Mainstream Christianity may argue that this is not what the scriptures say, but I urge you to take a second look. I found these after some of my own devotions.

Malachi 4:1-3 God will "burn up" the wicked at the judgment, and they will be ashes under the sole of the feet of the righteous. "For, behold, the day cometh, it burneth as a furnace; and all the proud, and all that work wickedness, shall be stubble; and the day that cometh shall burn them up, saith Jehovah of hosts, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch...they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet in the day that I make, saith Jehovah of hosts"

Matthew 10:28 Both body and soul are destroyed in hell. "And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell."

John 3:16 Those who don't believe in Jesus shall perish and not receive eternal life.
(according to Traditional Christian beliefs the non believers also have eternal life, it is just eternal life in Hell. That is inconsistent with this verse)

1 Corinthians 15:12-49 Only those who belong to Christ will be raised with imperishable, immortal bodies, all others perish as a man of dust.

Annihilationists argue that the word translated “everlasting” in many verses about hell could be translated “unquenchable.” In the New Heaven and the New Earth we are told that God will wipe away every tear from our eyes and there will be no more sorrow and no more death. It is hard to imagine how those that are in heaven could be comforted knowing that relatives, and other loved ones would be suffering in Hell. If, however, they cease to exist and are annihilated, it makes it far easier to accept because there is an end to their suffering. It also speaks of the mercy of God. Annihilationism is not as obscure an interpretation as some might believe. Two very well known modern Biblical Scholars, John Stott and Ben Witherington III are proponents of this theory. Supposedly some of the early church fathers such as Irenaeus, Justin Martyr and Ignatius may have suggested the concept as well.

Interesting huh?!