Who Am I?

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.


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.


Heaven & Earth (& Hell) 1 – Introduction

Posted: June 16th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Hell | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Heaven & Earth (& Hell) 1 – Introduction

I participate in (or sometimes just read) a number of different blogs as well as being active on twitter. It seems to me that there is a great deal of confusion surrounding the Christian perspective on reality. I’ve decided to go ahead and record my present thoughts in a series. I doubt I will say anything better than others have already said elsewhere, but I will probably express it a little differently. Or perhaps somebody will read what I write who wouldn’t otherwise read or hear anything that has shaped my understanding of what Christianity teaches.

I don’t intend to include anything that is a novel idea in this series. If anything I write appears to be a new idea to anyone reading, there will thus be two general possibilities. It may be that I have misunderstood or failed to properly express something in my particular synthesis of traditional Christian interpretation. Or it may be that what I write expresses a traditional Christian perspective that some of those raised within modern Christianity have never heard before. Or it could be some combination of both.

I could claim that I am writing to express the “scriptural” perspective, but that would be disingenuous of me. It’s a given that anyone who calls themselves a Christian believes and expresses an interpretation that they believe to be consistent with the Scriptures of Christian faith. So I am writing in order to try to express the traditional interpretation of the Scriptures on matters of ultimate reality. The sources that feed my understanding are many and varied, ranging from ancient Christians like St. Athanasius the Great, St Gregory of Nyssa, and St Isaac the Syrian to modern voices such as C.S. Lewis, Bishop N.T. Wright, Fr. Thomas Hopko, Dallas Willard, and Fr. Stephen Freeman. It’s not that they all say exactly the same thing. They don’t. But on key elements all those voices and many more through the ages are more similar to each other than not. And those elements are often different than those found in many popular modern interpretations of Scripture.

I originally thought I would simply do a series on “Hell,” but as I considered it, I realized I couldn’t do that without writing about “Heaven”. And then I realized I couldn’t possibly speak about Heaven and Hell without discussing “Earth”. The specific format I chose for the series title has a meaning that should become apparent as we progress through the series.

Obviously, it’s not possible for me to cover every facet of this topic. As such, I will have to pick and choose the topics I cover and what I choose to write about each one. If you’re reading this series and have a particular question or issue I don’t address, or a particular text from scripture that troubles you, let me know and I’ll address it to the best of my poor ability.