Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Read the Fine Print

Here's an interesting tidbit from John Jay Ray on one of his many blogs, A Scripture Blog:

IS THERE A HELL?

I think I will soon put this blog on hold. I originally started it with the aim of showing that you can be a good follower of Christ without having to accept all that mumbo jumbo about the Trinity and I think I have now shown that.

For the moment, however, I will carry on with a few iconoclastic comments about the afterlife. The orthodox view of what the Bible teaches is that we all have souls within us and that these souls whizz off to Heaven or Hell upon our death. Catholics get extra options. If you are a Catholic your soul can also whizz off to Purgatory or Limbo. Limbo is where dead babies go, apparently.

Just to set the teeth on edge a bit, read this bit of general advice for mankind:

"For the living know that they will die but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward; but the memory of them is lost. Their love and their hatred and their envy have already perished, and they have no more forever any share in all that is done under the sun.... Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might; for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going"

So who wrote that? Some pagan? Some Greenie Church of England bishop? No. It's from Ecclesiastes in the Bible -- chapter 9: 5-10 (RSV).

Can anybody square that with a soul that goes to heaven or hell upon death? Hard to see how: The dead know nothing. They do not even have love. No thought or knowledge where you are going. I would like to hear what my Christian readers think of it. I think it will be quite a wriggle to get out of what it says. They will try to claim that it is the body being discussed rather than the soul but that is not remotely what the text says.

Just one point of interest at this stage. Note that the RSV very wisely does not translate the Hebrew word "Sheol" referred to here as the common destination of mankind. KJ translates it as "grave" and it is in other places translated as "Hell". But it is a pretty funny sort of Hell if nothing happens there! And "sheol" is the ONLY OT word translated as Hell. And the Ecclesiastes text quoted above defines it about as clearly as it could -- as a place of everlasting nothingness rather than as a place of everlasting torment or bliss. That's where we're all going, folks, to everlasting nothingness. As an atheist, I agree.

I don't suppose I need to mention that a fiery hell of everlasting torment was a common pagan belief in the ancient world -- Babylon and such places. Just like the trinity, in fact.

I understand that Orthodox Jews don't believe in a soul that whizzes off to Heaven or Hell upon death.



First off, I hope that you don't put this blog on hold for too long John. Keep up the excellent work!

Secondly, you have to wonder how generations of theologians have been able to square this passage with the Nicene Creed:

...And we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.


Is this an instance of Truth evolving?

7 Comments:

Blogger Brit said...

Of course, it dawned on me long ago that you can use some passage in the Bible somewhere to support pretty much anything you like, and that no non-schizphrenic can coherently be a 'Bible-literalist'.

But I'd never come across that from Ecclesiastes before. Extraordinary.

What's the standard explanation? I guess it's just outweighed by the quantity of Heaven and Hell stuff.

February 10, 2005 2:32 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Duck:

That is one heck of an interesting blog you stumbled upon.

In rougher terms than Andrew used, to me this demonstrates that religionists, far from possessing some explicit divine revelation, are neck-deep in make-it-up-as-you-go quicksand.

February 10, 2005 8:25 AM  
Anonymous pj said...

The quote from Ecclesiastes is not as inconsistent with orthodox Christianity as you (and Dr. Ray) seem to think.

First, the Bible repeatedly describes Hell not as a place of torment, but as a place of death. For instance, God in Deuteronomy describes the alternatives as "life or death, blessing or curse". The only place describing a place of fire is Jesus's story, and it was a tradition in Jewish stories of the time to make extravagant metaphors.

Second, orthodox Christianity says nothing about what souls do immediately after death; it claims that there will be a Resurrection (of body and soul together - if indeed the two are distinct) at the end of time, after which the Resurrected will be separated into those who will disappear forever (i.e., in hell, the place of death) and those who will live eternally in love. So if one interprets Ecclesiastes as referring to the period between death and Judgement Day, or else to hell after Judgement Day, then there is no contradiction.

February 11, 2005 2:22 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

PJ

How do you explain this?

Matthhew 13:
37He answered and said unto them, He that soweth the good seed is the Son of man;

38The field is the world; the good seed are the children of the kingdom; but the tares are the children of the wicked one;

39The enemy that sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the world; and the reapers are the angels.

40As therefore the tares are gathered and burned in the fire; so shall it be in the end of this world.

41The Son of man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity;

42And shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.

43Then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Who hath ears to hear, let him hear.

February 11, 2005 11:44 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

PJ

How do you explain this?

Matthhew 13:
37He answered and said unto them, He that soweth the good seed is the Son of man;

38The field is the world; the good seed are the children of the kingdom; but the tares are the children of the wicked one;

39The enemy that sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the world; and the reapers are the angels.

40As therefore the tares are gathered and burned in the fire; so shall it be in the end of this world.

41The Son of man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity;

42And shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.

43Then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Who hath ears to hear, let him hear.

February 11, 2005 11:45 PM  
Anonymous pj said...

duck - The image of God refining men, as gold is refined from ore in a furnace, is common in the Bible (e.g. Psalms 66:10; Proverbs 17:3; Zechariah 13:9; Daniel 11:35 & 12:10; Malachi 3:2-3, just for starters). And this is what is supposed to happen on the Judgment Day - what is good is retained and what is bad is burned away, leaving a world in which only goodness exists, and there is no sin to mar the love shared by the blessed.

The burning is a metaphor for the process of purification, which leads to the destruction of all wickedness (and perhaps the death of the irredeemably wicked). Whether or not the wicked persist in some fashion after this purification process is, on the word of the Bible, an open question. Nothing in the passage you cite implies that the wicked retain a human existence and suffer continuing torment.

February 14, 2005 5:35 PM  
Anonymous pj said...

I might also add that the image of an unquenchable fire is often used in the Bible for both God and love, as in the verse from the Song of Songs that is standard for Catholic weddings:

For love is strong as Death, passion fierce as the grave.
Its flash is a flash of fire, a flame of the Lord himself.
Many waters cannot quench love,
Neither can floods drown it.

So "unquenchable fire" does not imply that the chaff experiences the fire (of God's refining love) eternally, but only that God himself (i.e., the fire) is eternal.

February 14, 2005 5:43 PM  

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