Musings, Nits, and Praises: Ambivalence about an Afterlife Redux

Musings, Nits, and Praises

A farrago of all things deemed blog-worthy by a music-loving, poetry-writing, humor-seeking English teacher


Ambivalence about an Afterlife Redux

At the close of my last "theological musing," I wrote:"Still, I hope. I hope for a heaven not only that I might reunite with departed loved ones (if there is indeed truth in that popular belief) or that I may see God or that all I am will not simply dissolve into oblivion but also because if God is just and merciful as I believe Him to be as seen in Christ, then only in heaven could justice and mercy prevail entirely and God make all things new."

As I've pondered the topic some more, I've wondered if this notion--that God's justice and mercy necessitate a heaven--is in part what led to a development throughout scripture of a belief in an afterlife. For example, in Isaiah's prophecy of the Messiah, God restores Israel and renews all things through the Messiah as peace covers creation. But what about the Jewish people who anguished in captivity and would not live to see the Messiah? Where's the justice in that? Ah, but what if the dead are resurrected to join with the living in that time?

Now, I'm not suggesting rabbis and biblical writers simply worked through philosophical exercises and eventually wound up at a belief in immortality. However, clearly the belief in an afterlife developed over the course of scripture, moving from the murkiness of Sheol in the early OT to the more fully formed--albeit varied--ideas presented in the NT--and I think a belief in the ultimate justice of God had something to do with that.

Lastly, without any sort of smooth segue, does John 17:3 possibly challenge our typical notions of an afterlife? In Christ's prayer, he declares "Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent."

12 Responses to “Ambivalence about an Afterlife Redux”

  1. # Blogger Steve

    Human societies continue to change. The idea of heaven is not well formed in the Old Testament. There are only the barest hints of it. The same for hell. The development of ideas of the afterlife pick up steam when the Persians break onto the scene in the 6th century BC. You may recall that exiled Jews, as reflected by 2nd Isaiah, held at least some of them in high esteem. One King noted as God's servant. It is from the the Persian Zoroastrians that we get the first graphic descriptions of Hell. See my blog post:

    http://outofthedepths.blogspot.com/2007/08/zoroastrian-hell.html

    The Jews that returned to Jerusalem following the exile brought back new ideas and they continued to modify and assimilate them as time went by. The idea of Satan as an evil counterpart to God certainly bears resemblance to the Zoroastrian dualism. The idea of Heaven burgeoned in the Maccabean times roughly 150 years before Christ when so many gave their lives in rebellion to Antiochus Epiphanes and for Judaism. I believe there are references for the resurrection in the Apocrypha but I don't remember them. The Gospel of John certainly adds to the concept where "Eternal Life" seems to be something that we can have in the present as well as the future. John uses the word "Zoe" for life rather than "bios". Zoe means passionate life rather than just existing. Thankfully, we humans continue to learn things and progress, even with some zig zagging or a few steps forward and then backward. Who knows what other wonderful knowledge we'll learn as time goes by and fantastic things are revealed to us. I've been meaning to read some Teilhard du Chardin. Part of my philosophy of religion class read him 40 years ago at Harding. I thought he was crazy then. But now, with the coming of the internet, the global society and all, he's looking more like he was right.  

  2. # Anonymous Kirk

    I don't know what to make of your theory about the "development" of the concept of heaven. I can certainly see that people's concept of heaven has changed over time; however, it seems much too strong to say, "rabbis and biblical writers simply worked through philosophical exercises and eventually wound up at a belief in immortality." You claim that you are not suggesting such, but you just did suggest it.

    In Jesus' day there was a big controversy between the Pharisees and the Saducees as to the resurrection and afterlife. The Saducees were wrong, according to Christ Himself.

    Certainly the popular idea that the people in heaven become angels, float on clouds, and play harps is all a myth. As is the idea of a line outside the pearly gates where Peter decides who gets in.

    A truth may be found in Revelation chapters 4, 5, 21, and 22. Or so some would say.  

  3. # Blogger Brandon Dahlberg

    I see in the bible a changing/developing view of God/what he is and wants-not just an afterlife. Those same developing concepts are still changing today aren't they? Would it be fair to say that the idea of God we have today (worship today) is very different from the God of Abraham-Elijah-Peter-Martin Luther-Us. God has changed and evolved just as much as heaven has. I'd write more if I weren't on the iPod touch, this ittybitty keyboard it killing me.  

  4. # Blogger Brandon Dahlberg

    in response to Kirk, I think it's completely fair to argue biblical writers were philosophizing and such, again, would write more if I had a real keyboard.  

  5. # Blogger Jason

    Kirk, perhaps I should rephrase. I don't think philosophical arguments and eschatological longings for Israel by any means account solely for the ideas of heaven expressed in the Bible, but I do think they have an impact.

    Brandon, I'd agree with you that throughout the Bible there's certainly an evolution in the way that the writers think of Him, what He wants, etc. I think that's attributal to the aforementioned philosophizing, but more so to experience and a revelation of God in Christ. I agree as well that people's views of God continue to evolve now. I know mine do. I think that's healthy. I'm wary whenever someone thinks they have God all figured out. I'm quite alright saying, "I don't know" to quite a few theological questions.  

  6. # Blogger Brandon Dahlberg

    That's why I kinda have a hard time accepting the justification of "its God's will." I guess I just feel to strongly that most of what an individual sees of God is what that individual wants to see...or maybe not. That's my question, how much of what is portrayed as the absolute and infallible God the viewpoint, or even wishful thinking, of men. Heaven, Hell, God, Christ--how much of what we "know" can we trust to be "Truth" and not truth as man wishes it were. Though I suppose "knowing" carries different meaning for each person; what one would require for absolute knowledge is different from another. So I ask myself this question: at what point will I allow myself to say "I know that this is true," or will I ever reach that point? I feel that the faith argument is valid here, though I think faith is easy. I think it doesn't take much effort to opt out of questioning, for isn't that what faith is? Isn't faith reaching a point where we say "we cannot know for certain what is beyond this point, we must have faith that its true." To me, faith is giving up-- being lazy. I know it shouldn't be like that, but I've asked too many hard questions and gotten too many "well, sometimes you gotta have faith" responses. I wish "faith" weren't the standard answer for tough questions people cant answer in a few sentences/paragraphs/books etc. Do I have faith? I have faith that there is a God, yes. Beyond that, I wont settle until I've exhausted all my options in a search for answers. And yes, I'm certainly open to arriving that the only answer to my questions is faith, though I imagine I will be quite dissatisfied with that conclusion.  

  7. # Blogger Jason

    Brandon, I'd suggest that faith is easy only if what one defines as faith is credulousness. I trust that you're probably familiar with Kierkegaard's "leap of faith" concept. If not, a woefully generalized explanation of his argument is that one cannot arrive at a faith (committment) in God based on empirical evidence alone. Rationalism and empiricism can never offer enough proof to compel someone to be a Christ-follower; one must take a leap of faith, and a genuine faith--one in which someone has committed himself yet continues to ask questions, to seek--will entail a degree of doubt.

    As far as what defines "knowing," I like a lot of what N.T. Wright says on the topic. I'll spare you another inadequate summary of a writer's ideas and let you read what he has to say. I know he addresses it in the early chapters of Simply Christian, and I imagine he expounds on the idea in other books as well.  

  8. # Blogger Brandon Dahlberg

    I do agree with the Kierkegaardian approach to faith (I agree with a lot of Kierkegaardian approaches). But I don't think Søren meant for faith to be the answer anytime a difficult question was asked. I far prefer your approach with the "I don't know."

    While on the subject of Kierkegaard, I think that he makes an interesting point relevant to "interpreting God," in Repetition. Towards the end of the young man's letters, he laments that he is thrown into life without any say in the matter, and that while he wishes to communicate his feelings with his Creator, that Creator isn't there. Viewed through that lens, it seems to me Kierkegaard viewed faith as a last resort--rationalism was used up and God has yet to provide adequate answers, the only thing left to do is give up to faith. But perhaps I'm reading too much into Kierk's writing.  

  9. # Blogger Jason

    I think Kierkegaard's definition of faith is important to consider. For him faith was not assenting to a set of beliefs or developing a rational case for Christianity. In fact, he felt the latter was impossible given God's transcendence. Faith, then, is not intellectual certainty but a commitment to imitating Christ. It's action, a way of life.

    I think in contemporary Christian circles, we unfortunately tend to measure our faith based on how certain we feel about a particular set of beliefs.

    For a very thoughtful take on certainty v. faith, take a look at Richard Beck's latest blog: http://experimentaltheology.blogspot.com/2009/01/certainty-and-dogmatism-feeling-of.html  

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