Afterlife in Christian context

Posted April 30, 2010, at 7:10 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:39 a.m.

In my last column, I attempted to place the Christian hell into the context of the ancient mythologies that preceded it. In so doing, I concluded that hell has become something other than what the progression of the older myths suggest it was originally intended to be.

The survey was admittedly very broad. So this time, I’d like to focus on the more specific context from which Christianity arose, that of Second Temple Judaism, which for our purposes includes the few hundred years leading up to the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70.

In “The Resurrection of the Son of God,” from which most of the history in this column is taken, N.T. Wright explains that for much of the Old Testament, the afterlife was more or less the same as the other Mesopotamian afterlifes. When you died, whether good or bad, you went down to Sheol, where you continued to exist as a shade of your former self. Death was very much a bad thing, but Sheol was not the torture chamber so familiar to modern Christians. Rather, it was like falling asleep into a gloomy, barely conscious (if that) existence from which no real pleasure or pain could be derived. It also was an obvious metaphor for being buried in the ground.

This is not to say that there was no hope. Though you yourself would be gone, your family and nation would live on. A couple of psalms hint at something more, some sort of continued spiritual existence with God apart from Sheol, but these are vague and far between.

But then something happened.

It’s not entirely clear why, but all of sudden a belief in resurrection began to surface. It is extant — only briefly in each case, and with varying degrees of seriousness — in Hosea, Isaiah, Ezekiel and, most explicitly, Daniel. But out of these meager scriptural sources, it grew to become the central eschatological belief of Second Temple Judaism, and, following that, Christianity.

Belief in resurrection did not negate belief in Sheol; rather, it was Sheol from which the dead would rise. Sheol was the in-between state of the afterlife. As Ecclesiastes attests, that the good should face the same fate in Sheol as the wicked had long been a source of tension, and Hellenism introduced concepts that some used to try to remedy that situation. The apocryphal Book of Enoch, for example, contains an account of a Sheol separated into sections for the good and the wicked. Other such accounts almost certainly were in circulation. Eventually, toward the end of the first century and in the rabbinic literature, Gehenna would become associated with the bad section of Sheol.

But neither of these versions of Sheol have anything whatsoever to do with the “Hell” in the gospels. Every time you see “Hell” in the New Testament, it is a translation for “Gehenna,” which is itself a translation for “The Valley of the Son of Hinnom.” As I explained in my last column, Gehenna was a physical place, a garbage dump, just outside Jerusalem. The context in which Jesus used the term makes clear that he was speaking from the Jewish prophetic tradition, following in the footsteps of Jeremiah and Isaiah (that also is to say, not in the footsteps of the Book of Enoch), who used Gehenna in the same fashion. The “eternal fire” Jesus spoke of throughout the gospels was metaphorically representative of God’s imminent and earthly wrath. This would have been blindingly obvious to anyone alive at the time, because, “Look, there’s Gehenna right over there! And it’s not actually on fire!”

So what sort of wrath was Jesus talking about? The historical context should make it obvious. He was warning the people of Israel that if they continued down the path they were taking, the Romans would reduce all of Jerusalem to the state of the garbage dump outside the city. The temple would be destroyed. And they did, and it was.

As Nik Ansell writes in “Hell: The Nemesis of Hope?” in The Other Journal: “It is a grim fact of history that when the Romans laid siege to Jerusalem and the temple, culminating in its destruction, one generation later, the dead who were thrown from the city walls literally piled up in the Valley of Hinnom, Gehenna, Hell.”

But, as a couple of readers pointed out last time, what of Luke 16 and the story of the rich man and Lazarus? We’re all familiar with the parable: Lazarus is poor. The rich man is rich. Lazarus is in need of help. The rich man doesn’t help. They both die. Lazarus goes to “be with Abaraham.” The rich man goes to Hades and is tortured forever.

Unlike Jesus’ references to Gehenna, this parable clearly comes from the newish Jewish folklore telling of a partitioned Sheol. But it needs qualification. First, it is an outlier. Your translation should read “Hades” here, not “Hell.” That’s because the original words are different. The only other times Jesus speaks of Sheol is in reference to “The gates of Hades” in Matthew 16:18 and when he more or less tells the city of Capernaum to go to Hell in Matthew 11:23. He never mentions anything even remotely similar to this again.

Second, it’s a parable. Obviously, this means that it’s specifically meant to be read allegorically. A lot of people take it to mean that this is what Heaven and Hell are like. But that’s just clearly not the meaning. The afterlife in this story is just a stock setting. If it were important, one would think Jesus would have spent more than 30 seconds of his life describing it. He just wanted it to be easily recognizable so that he could get his real point across: You have a responsibility to take care of others. In other words, the story is not about the afterlife at all. It’s about this life.

Despite this, the stock setting resonates with us. This is because most people today, Christians included, are Platonists without even realizing it. This means that we tend to view the soul as something different and superior to the body. It is the immortal soul, after all, that everybody’s always trying to save. As a result, we generally think of the afterlife in noncorporeal terms. Something that happens immediately and lasts for all eternity. Just like this story! But Sheol never really was meant to be the place of judgment. It’s just the sleepy place you go when you die.

Resurrection, on the other hand, is all about judgment — though that judgment probably doesn’t take the form you might expect. Unfortunately, discussion thereof will have to wait until next time.

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