Heaven & Earth (& Hell) 7 – Gehenna

Posted: June 30th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Hell | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

The third and last word translated “hell” in the NT is Gehenna. It’s also the trickiest one to interpret. We see it used most often in prophetic (and often apocalyptic) pronouncements by Jesus. (I think we can also assume the “lake of fire” in St. John’s Apocalypse is intended to be understood in similar ways.) I personally find Jewish Apocalyptic a very dense and difficult form to wrap my head around. So I don’t promise any significant insight in this post. But I do want to outline the few things I believe I do understand about it.

First, I think it’s important to note that Gehenna describes an actual place – the place outside Jerusalem that was used essentially as the dump. Imagine a constantly smoldering and burning place where refuse is flung. Obviously, when Jesus uses Gehenna in his prophetic imagery, he’s not talking about that actual place, but drawing on its awfulness.

When you study the way Jesus uses Gehenna in his prophetic statements, it seems clear that at least in some sense many of them were fulfilled when Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans. However, Jewish prophecies in our Holy Scriptures often have meanings and applications that go well beyond their immediate fulfillment. We see a lot of that in the way Old Testament prophecies were interpreted in the Apostolic teaching as speaking about Jesus. So this fact does nothing to eliminate the eschatological sense of Gehenna.

Both of those images, though, reinforce the idea of Gehenna as deeply unpleasant. When we speak of a future hell, then, we’re speaking of Gehenna, not Hades. We’re talking about something other than death.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 11

Posted: June 29th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

31.  The passions lying hidden in the soul provide the demons with the means of arousing impassioned droughts in us. Then, fighting the intellect through these thoughts, they force it to give its assent to sin. When it has been overcome, they lead it to sin in the mind; and when this has been done they induce it, captive as it is, to commit the sin in action. Having thus desolated the soul by means of these thoughts, the demons then retreat, taking the thoughts with them, and only the specter or idol of sin remains in the intellect. Referring to this our Lord says, ‘When you see the abominable idol of desolation standing in the holy place (let him who reads understand) . . .’ (Matt. 24:15). For man’s intellect is a holy place and a temple of God in which the demons, having desolated the soul by means of impassioned thoughts, set up the idol of sin. That these things have already taken place in history no one, I think who has read Josephus will doubt; though some say that they will also come to pass in the time of the Antichrist.

The first part of this text illustrates the way the demons can use our own passions against us. When we are ruled by our passions, we are enslaved and in bondage, not free. Christ brings freedom, but true freedom requires that we be healed and our passions mastered. And that’s a process that requires time and our active participation.

Then St. Maximos does something that I often find the Fathers doing. He applies and interprets a quote from the Holy Scriptures in a way I had never considered, but which makes perfect sense when I read it. (Or at least which makes sense after I read it five or six times and reflect on it.) And then, in the same train of thought, he makes a historical reference I do understand, but would never have connected to his previous thought.

I find I enjoy the extra work reading texts like these requires on my part. And even when I don’t fully understand (which is more often true than not), I find meditating on the words of the Fathers of the Church leaves me with a deepened and richer faith.


Heaven & Earth (& Hell) 6 – Resurrection

Posted: June 28th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Hell | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Now that I’ve discussed death and the abode of the death, it seems appropriate to interject the Christian belief in resurrection, certainly one of the most central tenets of our faith. (If you missed my post on Rob Bell’s Resurrection video, now’s a good time to pause and check it out.) Resurrection means and has always meant a physical, earthly life with a body that is in some sense continuous with our present body. There seems to be a lot of confusion on that point today. As far as I can tell, prior to Christ’s resurrection, the idea of any sort of resurrection was unique to the Jewish people. And their belief was far from universal even among themselves and markedly different in a number of key ways from what became the Christian confession in light of Jesus’ resurrection.

I’ve practiced a number of non-Christian religions and explored many more than I’ve actually practiced. I’ve also studied a bit of ancient history. I’m not aware of any religion outside Judaism and Christianity whose beliefs include resurrection. Resurrection is certainly a central part of the view of reality that drew me deeper into Christian faith and which keeps me in it. There are a few facets of the Christian confession which I know with certainty if I ceased to believe they were true, I would abandon this faith and move on to something else instead. Resurrection is one of those key facets. I’m frankly shocked that Resurrection seems more like an afterthought or something peripheral to many Christians today. It’s not. It’s right at the very center of our faith. Without resurrection nothing about Christianity is appealing or even makes sense.

In Christ’s Resurrection, which is the first fruit of our own future resurrection, death was destroyed. Humanity was in bondage to death and God had to rescue us from the vice of its relentless grip. Moreover, death was the ultimate tool that Satan and the Powers used to enslave us. And in and through that dark power, sin swirled around and within us. One of the many images used by the Christian Fathers was the image of a baited trap. Death thought it had swallowed a man in Jesus of  Nazareth and discovered too late that it had swallowed God. Sheol/Hades was burst open from the inside and death was destroyed. The icon of the harrowing of Hades speaks louder than words. The abode of the dead now stands empty with its gates burst asunder.

It was only a part of the story and purpose of the Incarnation, but in his death and resurrection Jesus of Nazareth, Son of God, healed the wound of death in the nature of mankind. It is no longer our nature to die! We see that in the language of the Church. In the NT, those who have died are said to have fallen asleep in the Lord. God has accomplished all that he needed to accomplish in order to rescue us. Jesus has joined our nature with God’s and flowing from him are rivers of healing water. We are no longer subject to death and we live within the reality of the forgiveness of sins.

But God will not force himself on us. Jesus has truly done it all and offers us the power of grace, which is to say himself, in and through the Spirit for our healing. It’s in and through the mystery of the Incarnation that God can join himself with each of us. But in order to be healed, we must cooperate and participate with the Great Physician. We have to want God. Or at the least, we have to want to want God. (Sometimes that’s the best we are able to do. Not to worry, God came to us in the Incarnation and he will keep coming to us wherever we stand.) And thus we live in this interim period where the fullness of the work of Christ remains veiled.

Christianity has relatively little to say about what happens to us when we die or our “life after death.” Off-hand, I can think of only three places where it’s mentioned in the NT with virtually no detail offered. Our faith, however, has a great deal to say about resurrection, new creation, and re-creation. I like Bishop N.T. Wright’s phrase “life after life after death.” The Christian story is that we do not die. God sustains us somehow until that time when all humanity is resurrected as Christ is resurrected.

In light of that reality, perhaps it’s clear why I chose to place the post on Resurrection at this spot in the series. Sheol/Hades are no more. So where “hell” in Scripture is used to translate either of those words, it must in some sense be understood as referring to an aspect of reality that ended with the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. The enormity of just that one piece of Christ’s work is overwhelming to me.

Truly we can now shout, “Death, where is thy sting?


Heaven & Earth (& Hell) 5 – Hades

Posted: June 25th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Hell | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Anyone familiar with Greek Mythology will instantly recognize Hades as both the name of the Greek god of the underworld or the depths and the name of the abode of the dead over which he ruled. As such, it was the natural word for the Septuagint translators to choose for Sheol when the Jewish Scriptures were translated into Greek a couple of centuries before the birth of Christ. Moreover, it’s one of the words used in the Christian Holy Scriptures of the New Testament that is translated Hell.

In both instances, Hades should also be understood as referencing the abode of the dead or even death itself. That’s an important distinction. I would also suggest that “hell” is the appropriate english word for translating both Sheol and Hades. Hell (in various spellings) entered Old English through its Germanic influences. The words from which it came described various pagan concepts of an underworld or abode of the dead. The pre-Germanic languages may have also been influenced by Old Norse, in which Hel was both the goddess of the abode of the dead and sometimes one of the names for the abode itself (though “misty places” was its more common name).

Death holds a prominent place in the Christian understanding of reality, as I’ll explore later in this series. As such, it’s important to understand that Sheol (or Hades in Greek translation) was understood almost as a synonym for death itself. Hold that thought for the next post.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 10

Posted: June 24th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

30.  For him who is perfect in love and has reached the summit of dispassion there is no difference between his own or another’s, or between Christians and unbelievers, or between slave and free, or even between male and female. But because he has risen above the tyranny of the passions and has fixed his attention on the single nature of man, he looks on all in the same way and shows the same disposition to all. For in him there is neither Greek nor Jew, male nor female, bond nor free, but Christ who ‘is all, and in all’ (Col. 3:11; cf. Gal. 3:28).

We are all human, sharing in one nature, all created in the image of God. Sadly, so few of us have ever truly been able to love the way we are intended and commanded to love. And sometimes we collectively as Christians in significant ways. We all know the historical examples, so I won’t point them out here. But consider America today. The majority of us claim the name of Christ, but our public discourse is often hate-filled, self-interested, and actively involved in turning other groups into the “other.” Even more sadly, it seems that those Americans who are most “serious” about their faith by typical survey measures are the worst offenders.

And we do that to each other as we treat much of the rest of the world as enemies, as less than human, or as not even worthy of our attention and care. While I at least try not to partake of the venom in our dialogue with each other in this country, I am as guilty as anyone of doing less than I should for those in desperate need around our globe.

Love is hard. We tend to do it poorly.

Lord Jesus Christ have mercy.


Heaven & Earth (& Hell) 4 – Sheol

Posted: June 23rd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Hell | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Heaven & Earth (& Hell) 4 – Sheol

Hell, of course, is an English word. While I’ve heard some say that it’s not necessarily helpful to examine the different words that are sometimes translated “Hell”, I’ve personally found it beneficial. So I’m going to spend several posts looking at each of those words. I’m going to start with the oldest, the Hebrew Sheol.

Sheol is the ancient Israelite name for the abode of the dead. At first it seems to have been an undifferentiated name for the abode of all the dead, but by the time of Jesus, Sheol had been divided into two parts. The “bosom of Abraham” or “paradise” described the part of Sheol that was the abode of the righteous dead. The part of Sheol set aside for the unrighteous dead was described in a variety of ways, but one such description was “the outer darkness where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth.” (That phrase might ring a bell for some.)

It’s important to stress that Sheol did not in and of itself carry any connotation of a place of punishment. It was the abode of the dead and all the dead, righteous and unrighteous were in Sheol. It’s a different way of thinking and is largely lost in many modern ideas of “hell.” That’s one of the reasons I think it’s important to understand some of the concepts behind the words that were actually in use before and during the time of Jesus.

I believe a better understanding of the ancient context casts at least some of Scripture in a different light than that of many of the current, popular interpretations.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 9

Posted: June 22nd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 9

29. When our Lord says, ‘I and My Father are one’ (John 10:30), He indicates their identity of essence. Again, when He says, ‘I am in the Father, and the Father in Me’ (John 14:11), He shows that the Persons cannot be divided. The tritheists, therefore, who divide the Son from the Father, find themselves in a dilemma. Either they say that the Son is coeternal with the Father, but nevertheless divide Him from the Father, and so they are forced to say that He is not begotten from the Father; thus they fell into the error of claiming that there are three Gods and three first principles. Or else they say that the Son is begotten from the Father but nevertheless divide Him from the Father, and so they are forced to say that He is not coetemal with the Father; thus they make the Lord of time subject to time. For, as St Gregory of Nazianzos says, it is necessary both to maintain the one God and to confess the three Persons, each in His own individuality. According to St Gregory, the Divinity is divided but without division and is united but with distinctions. Because of this both the division and the union are paradoxical. For what paradox would there be if the Son were united to the Father and divided from Him only in the same manner as one human being is united to and divided from another, and nothing more?

I don’t actually have much that I think I can add to this text. But I wanted to include it because I think it’s an important reflection on the three Persons of the Trinity. “Divided without division” and “united but with distinctions” are phrases to ponder. The key thing to me seems to be that the division and unity of God transcends the sort of unity and division we as human beings know and experience with each other. We are theomorphic (made in God’s image) and it is toward something more like that union that we are moving in and through the work of Christ. But it is beyond our ken and without the work of God would have always been beyond our grasp.


Heaven & Earth (& Hell) 3 – Unraveling the Caricature

Posted: June 21st, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Hell | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Heaven & Earth (& Hell) 3 – Unraveling the Caricature

There are many threads one can use to begin unraveling the somewhat common modern caricature of the Christian perspective on reality I described in the last post. I want to start with the affirmation of the very basic Christian belief that God is not somewhere else. The Christian God is everywhere present and filling all things. As Paul said to the Areopagus of Athens, “in him we live and move and have our being.” Again, as the Seraphim sing in Isaiah 6, “The whole earth is full of his glory.” And as Paul writes about Jesus in Colossians, “He is before all things, and in him all things consist.”

God is not off in some “place” called heaven that is separate or distinct from the earth. I often hear people assert that heaven is an actual place and heaven is thus “real”. It may be that they are trying to push back against the various forms of materialism with that statement. It’s actually unclear to me what their purpose or goal is, but the assertion does seem to be a response “against” something. However, by making heaven into a place that is separate from earth, they actually enable and express a secular perspective of reality.

Heaven and earth are instead overlapping and interlocking dimensions of our one, unified reality. They are not separate “places” in any sense that we understand “place”. Heaven and God are not any distance at all from us. Heaven is never more than a step away. God is the air we breathe. There is presently a veil between heaven and earth, a veil that appears to be part of the grace of God for our healing and salvation. But even before I was Christian, I recall having a sense of what I’ve since learned the Celtic Christians called “thin places.” In certain places and at certain times, that veil can be thin indeed.

The proper Christian division of reality, then, is not between the earthly and the heavenly, the material and the spiritual, the natural and the supernatural, but between the created and the uncreated. That’s not to say that other categories do not ever have value. They may certainly have situational or contingent value. But the fundamental divide is between the uncreated, which in the Christian view is God in three persons alone, and the created, which is everything else that exists.

When we begin to grasp that perspective, we can properly see heaven and earth as united aspects of God’s one creation. It’s from this perspective we draw the traditional eschatological vision of a time when the present veil between the two will be no more. Heaven and earth together and everything in them (except God, of course) are creation.

What then of hell? While much of this series will actually be spent exploring that question, as it seems to be the focal point of much confusion within modern Christianity, there is one point I believe needs to be made clearly from the outset. Hell is not “real” in the same sense that heaven and earth are real. Whatever reality it has flows from a distortion of God’s good creation. Hell has substantially less innate and substantial reality than heaven and earth. I think C.S. Lewis illustrated that point well in the imagery he uses in The Great Divorce. Those visiting heaven from hell find that heaven has so much more tangible reality that even the blades of grass are like knives to them.

Christianity is not dualistic in the sense that good and evil are equal and opposing forces. Evil is the shadow of darkness that is dispelled simply by the presence of light. Evil is real, certainly. Those of us who have experienced it would never confess otherwise. The Christian perception is quite different from, for example, the Hindu concept of maya. But as “hell” does not and cannot have the same sort of reality that God’s creation — heaven and earth — has, so evil does not and cannot have the same sort of reality as good. We do not live in the universe of the yin and the yang. In Christian parlance, God and Satan are in no sense equal. In the end, the tempter and accuser is simply another creature, even if he is a powerful creature by our standards. He is still nothing next to God.

The meaning behind the way I structured the title of this series should be clear now.


Heaven & Earth (& Hell) 2 – The Caricature

Posted: June 18th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Hell | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Heaven & Earth (& Hell) 2 – The Caricature

I believe it’s important to describe the perspective on reality I intend to deconstruct in this series. While this perspective is expressed and nuanced in many different ways, all modern expressions of this perspective share certain certain features. Fr. Stephen, in his excellent series, uses the metaphor of a two-story house with a basement to describe the universe portrayed by this particular framework. I think it’s one of the better metaphors I’ve encountered. In his metaphor, the first floor is the earth where we live and the second floor is a separate place called “heaven” where God lives. We watch and listen for signs that the second floor really exists and that God inhabits it, but none of that has much to do with our first floor of ordinary life. We live our lives hoping to make it to the second floor and trying to stay out of the basement.

Far too many people today, Christians and non-Christians alike, believe that some variation of the above framework accurately describes what Christianity says about the nature of reality. As a result, sadly, we find that many who call themselves Christian now believe in some form of reincarnation. Others outright reject this gross caricature of Christian faith. I don’t blame them at all. It’s an awful way to understand reality. I’ve believed many things about reality in the past, and I would consider any of them far superior to that view. Even more sadly, many remain and struggle within expressions of this framework, trying to believe that the second floor exists and is inhabited and in fear of torture chambers hidden in the basement. In my own tradition, you find it expressed both in exhortations to “be certain” that you have “really” accepted Christ and by those who commit themselves again and again because it’s virtually impossible to ever “be certain” of anything regarding the second floor.

In truth, it is this perspective that actually enables a secular perspective of reality. Contrary to what some seem to believe, a secular view does not require or imply a rejection of God in at least some form. It is not, strictly speaking, atheistic at all. It simply requires that the religious and “ordinary” spheres be separated. A God who lives on the second floor and who, in practice if not in confession, doesn’t really have a great deal to do with the day to day life of the first floor works just fine from a secular point of view.

Most of us are more secular in our understanding of reality than we recognize. That’s one of the things I hope I manage to address in this series.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 8

Posted: June 17th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 8

26. When the intellect practices the virtues correctly, it advances in moral understanding. When it practices contemplation, it advances in spiritual knowledge. The first leads the spiritual contestant to discriminate between virtue and vice; the second leads the participant to the inner qualities of incorporeal and corporeal things. Finally, the intellect is granted the grace of theology when, carried on wings of love beyond these two former stages, it is taken up into God and with the help of the Holy Spirit discerns – as far as this is possible for the human intellect – the qualities of God.

The Christian life, as described here, is two-pronged. We practice the virtues and contemplation. Practicing the virtues leads us to be able to discriminate or distinguish between virtue and vice. Without that practice, we cannot tell the difference. I think this is something that many today miss. I don’t think I’m particularly good at this discrimination, but my experience and formation has been such that I live at something of a tangent with those who were shaped more within the American Christian context. As such, even though I still feel largely blind in my ability to distinguish virtue and vice in my own life, I see some of the ways that many call virtue vice and vice virtue in that particular context.

I had not considered theology a grace, but that phrasing rings true to me. It’s a grace I seek. Perhaps one day I will move far enough forward to experience it.