Thursday, January 15, 2009

Life After Death: Part 1 (Beware-its long.)

I think you can only have this discussion in three parts: 1, from Creation up to the death of Jesus on the cross; 2, from the death of Jesus on the cross until he resurrected from the grave; 3, from the resurrection of Jesus from the grave until current times. (The future state of humanity, the End, the final resurrection, and the final judgment could be discussed as an extension of part 3.)

First, my prejudices: I believe in a line of accountability after death. I don’t know exactly what that means, but I do think God will separate people in the afterlife. I can’t read chapters in the New Testament such as Matthew 25 and come away with anything else. So while I believe in a post mortem judgment, I won’t define what that means and I’ll leave the judging and deciding part to God. (I think universalism has its merits. I think inclusivism has its merits. I think exclusivism has its merits. But I really don’t fit in any category—perhaps I would say that right now I’m an exclusivist with inclusivist leanings. Does that make me an inclusivist? Anyway…)

I think humans were created with free will; that free will also plays into the length of our existence. I don’t think we were created immortal—I think were created with the ability to be immortal. The tree of eternal life was in the Garden, after all (that’s why we were kicked out post-Fall—we could have eaten of the tree in our fallen state and been stuck that way). Therefore, I think the way to immortality was closed by Adam. (Adam chose his own path—he thought he knew better than God. He could have chosen to listen, but instead, he chose a way outside of God’s design.) Jesus reopened this door. (I’ll discuss this further at some later point.) So what happened in between?

Part One:

Gen 25-Abraham died and was gathered to his people
Gen 35-Isaac died and was gathered to his people
Gen 49-Jacob died and was gathered to his people

These verses seem to lead you toward the thought... that... they... were being gathered together... duh. No mention of heaven, hell or anything of the like. Just a gathering. Then too, Jewish teaching says that this correlates to the fact that they gathered the bones of the dead once their body had decayed and nothing but the bones was left—it wasn’t a spiritual term, simply their physical end in a family tomb. Nonetheless, the writer of the text is clear: people died and they were “gathered to their people.”

Leviticus 16-the Day of Atonement

In chapter 16 of Leviticus, Moses goes into great detail when discussing what the high priest should do to atone for the sins of Israel. Aaron (or the high priest) kills a bull to pay for the sins of himself and his family so he can perform the ritual. They then choose between two, spotless goats. One gets killed and its blood is used to cleanse the Tabernacle from the sins of Israel. The second goat ceremonially has the sins of Israel placed on it, then its sent into the desert to carry their sins away. The sins of the people escape in the flesh of the goat—hence the term “scapegoat.” Some dude had to walk the goat out of the city and leave it in the desert—and the poor guy had to wait a while before he was “clean” and could re-enter town. This day and its ceremonies were a big deal to the Jews. It’s a picture demonstrating that sin was simply put away or out of sight, but not dealt with. It just rolled it over for another year.

So with the sin debt not being paid, I don’t see how access to a holy God would be possible. The Jews didn’t seem too concerned about it. Some said that if God made our bodies, he could put us back together at the final resurrection—they were called Pharisees. Some said that we go to Sheol (the grave) to wait until the End. It wasn’t very clear. I read a rabbi’s comments talking about the subject of life after death. He said something to the effect of: if you want a bunch of spiritual hocus pocus, go look into Christian ideas on life after death—Jews die and that’s it.

The only description we have of the afterlife before Jesus’ death on the cross is in Luke 16. In it, Jesus talks about the rich man and Lazarus. The rich man dies and, in the grave, is in torment. Lazarus is taken to Abraham’s side, where he is comforted. While one seems to be in torment, the other seems to be at peace—and at “great chasm has been fixed” in between the two areas. This is the only New Testament depiction we have of Sheol—the grave. It should also be noted that in John 3:13, Jesus states that no person has ever been to “heaven” except himself. So, up until the death of Jesus, it seems that there was an intermediary location or state for human souls that the Jews called Sheol.

We can also deduce several things from the parable about our anthropological condition post-mortem: we have consciousness, memory and rationality. Murray J Harris says that we not only “retain our capacity to reason, but also gain an acuteness of perception.” (In Rev 6:9-10, the martyrs under the altar of God have the same characteristics.) Harris says that Paul wouldn’t have expressed a preference between living and dying unless his “post mortem state involved fellowship with Christ that was even more profound than his experience of Christ on earth.” So there seems to be a good place of waiting and a not-so-good place of waiting before Jesus’ death and resurrection.

(As a side note, the Book of Enoch (ca. 160 BC), describes Sheol as having four divisions: 1, where the faithful saints blissfully await Judgment Day; 2, where the moderately good await reward; 3, where the wicked are punished and await their judgment at the resurrection; 4, where the wicked who don’t warrant resurrection are tormented. Take that for what you will.)

Jesus confirms the existence of a waiting place in John 14. He tells the disciples that he is “going to prepare a place for” them. There isn’t a place ready. He is going to prepare it. While I certainly believe God could do whatever he wanted in the shortest of moments (after all, he created a universe by speaking), he also seems to go about doing things very orderly. Once again, as he was creating a universe, he did it over the span of several days. There is a method and process to the things of God.

This whole “I go to prepare a place for you”-thing is a Jewish wedding metaphor. Jesus did that a lot—perhaps because he was a Jew, he was speaking to Jews, and they would understand Jewish traditions and such. (See: Communion and the Last Supper with Jesus) In a Jewish marriage, once the engagement deal was settled on by the parents, the groom would tell the bride that he was going to prepare a place for her—when things were ready, he would come back to take her with him (familiar, eh?). He would then go back to his dad’s house and build an addition on to it for his new family. It took some time—things weren’t ready immediately. So the bride would keep watch, because she never knew exactly when the groom was coming back. But whenever he did come, he would take her back to their new home together. I think its obvious Jesus was telling them he was going away, was going to get things ready, and then was going to return to be united to his bride.

Please don’t ask about a “rapture.” We’ll take about that fallacy later.

So what about after Jesus’ death and resurrection? I don’t think we can jump to that quite yet. Let’s just handle the “death” part next. After some discussion and digestion of all of this, I'll post Part 2.