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Heaven and Hell

Newsweek‘s On Faith blog has four eighteen perspectives on heaven and hell today: N.T. Wright, Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, Susan Jacoby and Cal Thomas. No idea why they bothered to waste space with Cal Thomas – as usual, he had nothing of substance to add, though perhaps he stands as a good example of uninformed fundamentalist thought on the issue – no scholarly context, no evidence of depth of what the bible says, just a few “proof texts” thrown up there to support prior assumptions, coupled with an attack on ‘secular society’.

Susan Jacoby’s perspective was valuable, but a bit boring. She say:

Oh, for heaven’s sake. This question irritates the…inferno out of me. Of all the pointless, utterly childish notions associated with traditional religion, belief in eternal bliss in heaven or eternal damnation in hell surely tops the list.

True. But hearing the same arguments yet again are also a little bit irritating. I realise that most of the world hasn’t heard them, but I bought into them years ago. Religion is the root of an awful lot of evil. And

I know that indignant readers will claim that none of these crimes have anything to do with the “real” Christianity or the “real” Islam. They don’t have anything to do with modern, moderate forms of Christianity or Islam, but they have everything to do with retrograde expressions of religions that preach, among other things, the doctrine of eternal damnation for unbelievers and infidels. And these retrograde religious forms are on the rise in the world. They are every bit as “real” as religion based on earthly, loving kindness–something that promoters of religion as an unqualified good never want to admit.

There’s middle ground between “religion is the root of all evil” and “real religion preches love”. Despite the obviousness of what she had to say, it’s nice to see it said for a change: common sense, as they say, isn’t all that common.

I know almost nothing about Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite. Being president of a UCC seminary is a mark in her favour, of course. In my book, they are “the good guys” in the world of religion. Her piece is uplifting, but not terribly informative. Again, the idea that heaven and hell are here on earth is an old one. Granted, when I first heard that notion I dismissed it as nonsense – I was a committed atheist at the time, but I wanted the religion I didn’t believe in to be less theologically fluffy. Since then I have come to understand the perspective. And while quoting Toni Morrison gets your points in my book, I still come away with “if I am going to read your words I should come away with some additional knowledge.

Then I got to N.T. Wright. While I doubt I agree with him theologically, his piece was written with the heart of a scholar. While he wasn’t saying anything new, there was enough there that was new to me.

Heaven and hell are not the ends in the biblical narrative. Mainstream conceptions of them, like the one Thomas extolled, were picked up along the way.

The way the phrase ‘heaven and hell’ are used today implies you go straight to one or the other, ignoring the solid biblical testimony to an ultimate new creation in which heaven and earth are brought together in a great act of renewal…. When Paul says ‘my desire is to depart and be with Christ which is far better’, and when Jesus says ‘today you will be with me in Paradise’, the wider context of both indicates that this will be a TEMPORARY state prior to the eventual resurrection into the new creation. This means (by the way) that the ‘second coming’ is NOT Jesus ‘coming back to take us home’, but Jesus coming…to heal, judge and rescue this present creation and us with it.

Even though I don’t buy the whole idea of an afterlife, what Wright has to say is in keeping with what the bible actually says. It annoys me when the literalists/fundamentalists spout ideas that are unrelated to the bible. But I find his final paragraph most interesting

The great breakthrough in Paul’s thinking is that no, the one God of Abraham wants to reach out and welcome ALL people on the basis of faith alone. Similarly today many Christians think God is only interested in rescuing them, as saved humans, FROM the world, whereas the Bible is full of hints that those who know God and receive his salvation here and now are to be his agents in bringing that salvation to the wider world. Note how, even when Revelation 21 and 22 speaks of those who are in the holy city, the new Jerusalem, and those who are excluded from it, it also speaks of the river of the water of life flowing out to the world around, and of the tree of life growing on the banks of the river, with ‘the leaves of the tree being for the healing of the nations’. What does that mean?

Update: I missed the other fourteen perspectives: only these four had popped up on my RSS reader when I started writing this.

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