Friday, June 26, 2009

What lies beyond the Veil?

Where do we go when we die?

Two things spurred me to write this blog today.

First was the passing of three American Icons, Ed McMahon, Farrah Fawcett, and Michael Jackson.

When legends die most people begin to wonder about their own mortality as well.

Secondly an acerbic comment left by ‘John’, an obviously confused person who by the prejudgment of his Fundamentalist ideology accused me of twisting Scripture to my own ends and urged me in no certain terms to ‘repent’. The topic in question for which ‘John’ had issues with was that of the Scriptural view of ‘Ghosts’ I examined in my article The Bible and the Paranormal Part 1:Ghosts.

When people of deep faith or conviction are presented with the idea that the ideology that they hold so dear might not be based on fact but conjecture, they either get go into a classic stress reaction which leads to fight or flight.

Judging by the comments of some, ‘John’ notwithstanding, that has been the overall reaction by Christians of a particular mindset to this topic.

Beware Christian Dogma Ahead!

While many of you might not hold to Christian belief, the Christian traditions have merged with Western Culture to such an extent that common beliefs in Christian circles are those in common culture as well.

The dominant Christian/Western view is that as Christians when we die, we go to heaven or hell depending upon what you either a) did with your life, and/or b)your relationship with Jesus Christ.

But does the Bible really say that?

Again as in my previous articles I must say we must look at the Bible as a whole and in context.

Most Christians get the belief that they are going straight off to heaven when they die because of some key passages from Paul the Apostle:

2 Corinthians 5:1-8 (NKJV)

1 For we know that if our earthly house, this tent, is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. 2 For in this we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed with our habitation which is from heaven, 3 if indeed, having been clothed, we shall not be found naked. 4 For we who are in this tent groan, being burdened, not because we want to be unclothed, but further clothed, that mortality may be swallowed up by life. 5 Now He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who also has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.
6 So we are always confident, knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord. 7 For we walk by faith, not by sight. 8 We are confident, yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord.

Philippians 1:21-23 (NKJV)

21 For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain. 22 But if I live on in the flesh, this will mean fruit from my labor; yet what I shall choose I cannot tell. 23 For I am hard-pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better.

So it would seem from a quick glance at these Scriptures that the Apostle Paul in these two letters is telling us that when you die you go right to Jesus in heaven. Many Christians comfort themselves with this thought, and to challenge it is considered heresy.

But when looking at Scripture as a whole it is not so clear cut.

Paul in his first letter to the Thessalonians tells us something a little different about those who are dead:

13 But I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope. 14 For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus.

(1 Thessalonians 4:13-14 NKJV)

So here Paul says those who die are asleep. They are not alive and consciously living with Jesus in heaven. He also uses this terminology in the first letter to the church of Corinth, 1 Corinthians:

17 And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins! 18 Then also those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. 19 If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable. 20 But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21 For since by man came death, by Man also came the resurrection of the dead.

There is a belief among some Christian traditions of ‘Soul Sleep’. Once the body is dead, the soul is not conscious. The soul and spirit sleep until they can be united with a new body.

So are we ‘asleep’ in souls sleep, or are we in heaven, or something else?

To define this let’s look at the verses that follow 2 Corinthians 5:1-8, Vv.9-10

9 Therefore we make it our aim, whether present or absent, to be well pleasing to Him. 10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.

Paul is talking about being with Christ in the context of the judgement of believers. If you also follow the context of the other Scriptures here as well, you will see that Paul is putting all this terminology and referencing into the context of the resurrection.

The Judeo-Christian tradition holds that there will be a bodily resurrection of the just at the end days. That is the great hope. We will not dwell in heaven for eternity, though by the language the scripture uses we could, but our bodies will be transformed and be like Christ at His resurrection. It will be a supernatural and multidimensional body that can traverse heaven and Earth. Not only that, but the whole cosmos shall be re-made so there is no more sin, war or death. That is the great hope.

What Paul references here then is what Christian Theologians call ‘The Intermediate State’ or ‘Disembodied Existence’. While the body dies, the soul lives on. It is the state of the body between death and resurrection.

Dr. D.E. Nilsson in his Biblical Doctrine Study concerning the Intermediate State acknowledges that : “The state of the human being after death is left largely in the shadows by Scripture”. Millard Erickson also agrees stating that “The doctrine of the intermediate state is an issue which is both very significant and problematic.” (Christian Theology, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1990 p1174)

Early church fathers believed that all who die, righteous and unrighteous alike descend into Sheol or Hades, a gloomy dream state where they await the second coming of Christ.

(Joachim Jeremias, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedich, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, 10 vols. Grand Rapids:Eerdmans, 1964-1976, Vol 1, pp.657-58)

Sheol and Hades are terminology associated with the grave, but in early apostolic thought it was almost a purgatory like waiting place where the souls of the dead waited until their final judgment. The just had joy and the unjust experienced torture. So the righteous in Christ experienced bliss, and although they were not in heaven itself (they had to be in the resurrected form to be granted that privilege after the judgment) they did experience comfort.

Many ancient writers who’s belief system that were akin to the ancient church fathers believed there was fellowship between souls in Sheol/Hades and the individual still laid claim to their identity. The supernatural phenomenon of a haunting, if it was not classified as demonic, was often thought of as a soul escaping Sheol/Hades up until the late 19th century. (Burmester, William. New Castle News/Lawrence Country Historical Society: New Castle, Legends of Lawrence County. 1984 pp.85-86)

So where do we go when we die?

Traditionally we await the judgment of God and Christ in a disembodied existence. In that existence to have a taste of what that judgment will be. For the good, Christ comforts them and according to apostolic thought, there is a fellowship with family and friends. It is much like the phenomena related by those who have a near death experience. For the bad, it is not pleasant.

Significant in the early church thought is the concept of a souls escaping or somehow not being in Sheol/Hades.

While many will try to refute that the Bible talks about ghosts as disembodied spirits of the dead in Scripture, you cannot escape the evidence that the Scripture does reference ghost/spirits many times in a manner that does not associate them with demonic forces that need to be exorcized (1 Samuel 28:7-25; Matthew 14:22-33; Mark 6:45-52; Luke 24:33-43; John 6:14-21). Scripture tells us there was a belief in ghosts in the believing community of the Old and New Testament. Early church belief and writings demonstrate that believers untainted by millennia of political manipulation of theology believed that some spirits were indeed the disembodied dead who somehow escaped the confines of Sheol/Hades.

So we have Scripture and ancient church tradition to lean on. After we die we are in a place awaiting our final destination.

A place of peace for some, a place of torment for others.

A place that for some reason or another a spirit can escape or in some way avoid.


We do not know.

But the spirit will not be able to avoid judgment for good or ill by its Creator and Sustainer of life, even though it might traverse the land of the living for a time.

Until Next Time,

Pastor Swope


Joseph G. Mitzen said...

Oddly enough, while an agnostic now, I would like to dispute your theology on your own terms. :-)

Luke 23: 42-43 says:
42And he was saying, "Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!"
43And He said to him, "Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise."

Doesn't Jesus quite clearly refute any notions of "soul sleep" or going anywhere other than to a final judgement in this statement? My own personal take is that the Bible says a great many things, each the belief at that time of the person who wrote it, not based on personal knowledge or evidence, but I'm not sure how you would attempt to reconcile this with your positions in a theological manner.

My understanding of early Christian (Catholic) theology on this subject was that all souls went to the shaol you wrote of before Christ's sacrifice, but his sacrifice "opened the gates of heaven", he atoned for man's sins, etc., and thus souls could then attain heaven.

In the Apostle's Creed there is a line translated as "he descended into hell" or into the realm of the dead. This is supposed to be Christ going to all those souls in the Netherworld and freeing them.

1 Peter 3: 18-20 "For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, 19through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison 20who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built."

Just some thoughts from an (ex)-Catholic perspective. :-) Not intending to argue the point, as my newly-non-dogmatic inquiry into the answer to your question appears to be "nothing", from an evidentiary perspective.

By the way, while I don't profess to literally believe much of the subject of this blog, I often find its tales very scary/creepy and do enjoy reading it often. I've even used text-to-speech to be able to listen to it on my MP3 player during trips (*day* trips, not *night* trips :-) ). Keep up the good work.

Howard said...

"Place" is a property of a body, not of a spirit; to the extent that a spirit is said to "be" somewhere, that just means that the "attention" of the spirit is there. Likewise, by Heaven we mean the Beatific Vision, and by Hell the eternal impossibility of the Beatific Vision. (All of this can be found in many sources; I would recommend Theology for Beginners by F. J. Sheed for a good introduction.) So there is in principle no inherent problem with a disembodied human spirit simultaneously experiencing Heaven or Hell and interacting with us on earth. Actually, many of the more plausible accounts of ghosts appear to be souls in Purgatory. In literature, the ghost of Hamlet's father was in Purgatory. (I'll leave a discussion of the theology of Purgatory for another time.)

Pastor Swope said...

Thanks for the very insightful comments Joseph and Howard,

I based the thought on this article on a strict Protestant Systematic Theology (albeit a Calvanistic model)based on inerrancy of Scripture and not philosophical reconstruction. In this model resurrection precedes heavenly bliss.

In this model Paradise does not necessitate Heaven (Jesus often talked about heaven, but did not tell the thief on the cross next to Him that he would be with Him in Heaven on that day) And the Kingdom of Heaven in an Eschatological sense is realized after the Millennial Reign of Christ and the Great White Throne Judgment. Jesus was assuring the thief of his imminent comfort and ultimate place in the kingdom because of his faith.

Catherine said...

Joseph's comment is somewhat irrelavent here because the Catholic model is so different and distorted from early Christianity and its dogma that to use it in an argument debating "Christian" beliefs is moot. Catholocism is almost a perversion of Christianity (no offense to anyone). Not to start a debate Pastor Swope, but in regards to your comment about Jesus and the thief I believe he says "today you will be with me in Paradise." I think its obvious that he means Heaven and he means immediately following death. However, there is always Jesus' comment to Thomas after the resurection- something along the lines of "...a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see I have." Maybe Jesus is admiting to the existence of ghosts but I hate to assume anything about quotes in the Bible because, let's face it, who knows how mistranslated our modern Bible is compared to the orginal Hebrew and Greek texts. I guess none of us will really know until we die ourselves.

Axel said...

@ Catherine, well you know that we actually DO know the original texts, and CAN and DO read them. I'm actually in seminary myself, and am starting the ordination process, and we're required to learn Koine Greek to read the New Testament, and Hebrew for the Old Testament. And it's not only Protestants who learn these languages, but Catholics as well. We also get our modern translation, and modify it, whenever we find reliable early sources, of which we have many :-). So in this regard, the only question about the "original sources" would be if our language skills aren't good enough, which is to say, if it is possible to even come close to understanding them from the different cultural context in which we live right now. This viewpoint isn't entirely wrong, but it can be entirely unhelpful, because following this I find myself equally unable to understand not only the Bible, but Shakespeare, Martin Luther, C.S. Lewis, Niebuhr, Tillich, or anyone from any other time or cultural background ever. Because in this view if our backgrounds are different we cannot speak on equal terms. And if you say that Catholics have "perverted" (I'd prefer distorted due to time, and at the same time keeping in mind that in some ways "older" does not always equate with "better"), you've got to keep in mind that our Protestant: Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican, UCC, etc. churches all come out of Catholicism, and have some Catholic influence (as much as we can be loathe to admit it). We have would be considered unorthodox just as the modern Catholic Church would be considered unorthodox to the pre-schismed early Church. To see this one needs to look no further than our theologies of atonement. It's a bit of a leap between the Ransom Theology of Atonement proposed in its earliest forms by Origen and todays Protestant theologies proposed by say, Paul Tillich, who writes of atonement as a means of overcoming one's own estrangement and alienation from God.

As far as Jesus' comments that today the thief (rendered as "criminal" in the NRSV in Luke, from the original Greek "Kakourgos" which usually is translated as "evil-doer, malefactor, or criminal," whereas "thief" is rendered by another phrase, these terms have often been used to discuss high level criminals [leaders of the zealots] in other sources, if memory serves), one must also keep in mind that Jesus himself will be among the dead/in Hell until Easter, not in Heaven necessarily. Likewise Jesus will be on Earth for another 40 days if one were to follow the chronology of Acts (which you probably should if discussing Luke, as they're written by the same author). This could possibly shed some doubt on the notion of both soul sleep, and immediately going to Heaven, as well as the belief in Purgatory, because, well, the criminal isn't going to Purgatory. What it comes down to is that none of us actually, actually know what will happen, we simply have theories.

But back to ghosts/how ghosts can exist. It's clear that there is a biblical understanding that there are ghosts. What is unclear is whether or not Jesus necessarily believed in them, though he does bring them up in the narratives when saying that he is not one. This could really go either way, but in truth all it says is that Jesus understands what the disciples mean by ghost, and says that he is not one.

The way I figure/brazenly postulate is that just as one has the free will to attempt to follow Christ (though will of course come up short in doing this, to say the least, after all that is why Christ came to us and why we receive the Holy Spirit and Christ's atonement), or completely ignore Christ in life, one also after death may somehow have the same ability as is shown in the case of non-residual hauntings, that is if said non-residual hauntings truly somehow have something resembling will.

But hey, who knows.

Howard said...

Axel makes an important point in that "residual hauntings" are as totally irrelevant to theology as an echo.

There is also some very interesting and relevant conversation in the first chapter of A Mirror of Shalott by Robert Hugh Benson. Benson was the son of the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, but he converted to the Catholic Church and became a Monsignor. Although A Mirror of Shalott is fiction, the stories told by the various priests have a ring of truth to them; I suspect they are disguised versions of stories Benson had actually heard.

The introductory chapter begins with several priests at a symposium making some after-dinner small talk that strays into the matter of ghosts and the problems associated with reported sightings, including the obvious problem that many sightings do not seem to convey a message to those who see them. What, then, is the point? But do we even have the right to expect to see the point?

The premise of the book is that they all agree to share one true story of something unusual they have experienced.

Catherine said...

I said my intention was NOT to start an argument and your opinion is valid in some ways, but not in others. You can have a vast knowledge of ancient languages but that does not mean that all of the original texts are in tact or that even ancient Greeks and Romans properly translated ancient Hebrew. Look at the footnotes in your Bible and you will often see the remark "The exact meaning for this word is uncertain." Lost texts are a common theory which I fully believe in. I also completely believe in the school of belief that some texts were deliberately destroyed during the Roman occupation. My comment has nothing to do with how complete your "knowledge" of archaic texts is. I am Christian and believe in Jewish traditional legends which are not included in the Christian Bible, and which are not taught in seminary. And as far as my choice of words that Catholocism is a "perversion" of Christianity; you know what I meant if you posess the great literary skills you boast of. No need to try to start a debate since I said in my original post that I was trying to avoid that. Why do people on the internet always want to argue?

Vasily said...

Catherine, saying "no offense" doesn't undo the hurtful and confrontational nature of that statement for a Roman Catholic. It's equivalent to saying "Everyone knows [insert ethnic group] are lazy (no offense to anyone)". I'm not a Roman Catholic, I'm Eastern Orthodox so I don't have a dog in this hunt ... but I'll guess that's probably no more "Christian" to you than if I were Roman Catholic.

I'm curious ... if you haven't been to seminary, how do you know what is and isn't taught there? You say there are "Jewish traditional legends" which are not taught in seminary and which apparently are "essential" to being considered Christian in whatever denomination you belong to (I know of no denomination that uses such texts, so I'd be curious to know what that is). When I attended seminary, we discussed all kinds of peripheral material to provide context for the Biblical text so I don't think you have much basis for this claim.

Axel said...

Sorry if my post seemed harsh, Catherine, I did not intend it to, or to offend you in any way. You're right in saying that there are some words in the Bible which we do not have a full understanding of (the most outright screaming example would be the word translated as "daily bread" in the Lord's Prayer, which we assume means daily bread, but are not totally sure about). And you are certainly right that there are lost texts, the books of the Bible mention many that we do not have/have yet to discover a copy of (here's hoping it's only a matter of time!). I also never meant to "boast" or brag of my knowledge of Biblical Greek (which is, all things considered, mediocre), simply that the seminary community studies it at length so that members of the community can go back to the sources and read the texts in the words they were written in. I get really frustrated when I feel as though I have been attacked or singled for my beliefs on the internet (or anywhere for that matter), and I did not mean to make you feel like this was the case or to put you on the defensive.

I merely wanted to address your statement that we do not know what the manuscripts say. This just isn't entirely true and I wanted you to know that while we don't have, say THE original autographed Gospel of Mark, we have documents and fragments dating back from the early to mid-second century (and more in the third and fourth), as well as letters of people who are writing and quoting from these documents at the period of time which these documents were written. Also, some of our best sources that pop up are not from Rome, but in the deserts in the middle of nowhere, hidden specifically so that they would not be destroyed. In this we know how they are translated, and how they have been mistranslated or misunderstood in the past. I also wanted you to know that pastors, theologians, translators, and students DO worry and work on these issues, and we write new Bible translations every so often for this very purpose.

I also don't want to assume I know what you meant entirely in saying that Catholicism is a "perversion," because I find this to be an offensive and loaded term to associate with Catholicism as a whole. While there are many things within, and historically perpetrated by Catholicism which are problematic, I do not want to identify the entire denomination with the term "perversion," when it is the home to many wonderful theologians, pastors, and laity pre-Reformation and even post-Reformation. Certainly I would identify several individuals and groups within the Roman Catholic Church as having "perverted" the Gospel, or having created improper translations, but I do not feel comfortable with associating the entire Church with them. That was my issue there.

Also, for what it's worth, while I won't deny that you may ascribe to texts and legends that I haven't studied (because I don't know which ones you've studied), we do have the opportunity to study many Jewish legends, texts outside of the Protestant canon, pseudopigrapha, Gnostic writings, and many other forms of scripture, legend, myth and faith at the seminary I study at. So I definitely don't want you to feel alone or defensive in your interests or in the faith you've found through some of these very valuable sources.

Pastor Swope said...

Thanks for the Comment everyone,

Some points I would like to make:

First, the Old and New Testament are some of the most historically studied documents since their inception. Koine Greek is not only the language of the New Testament but Classic Greek literature as well. There has been countless scholars giving interpretation of the Greek New Testament since it was the trade language of their world. Key theological debates that formed the first creeds were based on the use of single words and their meaning to Hellenistic culture.

When it comes to The Old Testament, ancient Hebrew scribes would destroy an entire book if they misspelled a word and start over again from scratch. Schools of the Torah were present in every Jewish community in the ancient times. The finding of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the revelation that they are nearly identical to the Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus texts show that the text we have in our hands today is an accurate and authoritative rendering of the original Hebrew/Aramaic.

Reference notes are good to point the way to better syntax and dictionary meaning but do not take the place of that very same research.

Two: at least in my Seminary we not only had all pseudepigraphical and apocryphal writings of the early Church and the Rabbinic traditions we also had full Talmudic and Kabbalic sources as well. And although not offered every semester there were classes on said texts offered every year or so by tenured and adjunct scholars.

There are lost books, such as the book of the wars of the Lord (Numbers 21:14) book of Jashar (Joshua 10:13; 1 Samuel 1:18) The book of the Kings of Israel and Judah (1 Chronicles 9:1) the book of Nathan the prophet (1 Chronicles 19:29) the real book of the Acts of Solomon (1 Kings 11:41) the books of Shemaiah the prophet and Iddo the Seer (2 Chronicles 12:15; 13:22) The book of Jehu (2 Chronicles 20:34)and the Sayings of the Seers. But they are lost to history and seem to be historical works that scribes and priests had no real interest in because the further revealed accounts were already documented.

Third: Roman Catholics adopted cultures with Theology making many of our current traditions Christianize. Their Theology is at variance with Protestant and Reformed Traditions but many Protestant and Reformed Traditions are at variance with each other as well. The main points of agreement by all Christian sects is the Apostles and Nicene Creeds. I have Pastored at Churches where anti-Catholic sentiments were high. One of the reasons I left. Some of the most devout and orthodox Christians I have ever met were of the Roman Catholic faith.

Fourth: Once again Paradise does not refer Heaven specifically but a precursory glance at the text can make it seem that way. That is why we must take Scripture as a whole and not in parts, thereby avoiding heresy.

Fifth and finally I whole heatedly agree with Axel on his assessment of entities: But hey, who knows indeed.

Howard said...

When it comes to The Old Testament, ancient Hebrew scribes would destroy an entire book if they misspelled a word and start over again from scratch.

Just a minor point: To the best of my knowledge, this is based on Medieval Judaism. I'm not sure how well-attested it is from the period before Christ. Certainly, textual variants of ancient date do exist, and they could only have come about through Jewish scribes -- no one else would have been interested in Jewish Scriptures. Nevertheless, the textual variants actually go a long way toward demonstrating how accurately the Scriptures were passed down.

Besides, even in societies with only oral traditions, important stories are carefully memorized and passed down with surprisingly little error.

As for "Paradise", yes, that can mean something other than Heaven -- for instance, the Garden of Eden can be translated the Paradise of Pleasure. But remember that the Crucifixion was a new creation, with Christ as the New Adam, giving birth to His Bride, the Church, from His side, which was opened while He slept, the Cross was the new Tree of Life, etc. In fact, Golgotha, "the place of the skull", has traditionally been thought to to be the site of Adam's skull, which is portrayed in a cave underneath the Cross on some old-fashioned crucifixes. In this context, the reference to Paradise makes sense, even though it refers to something different and better than what our first parents originally experienced.

Anonymous said...

These verses have meant a lot to me during the loss of a loved one:

Eccl 12:6 Or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broken, or the pitcher be broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern.

Eccl 12:7 Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.

Umakanth Rao said...

Hello Sir,

I am a devout practicing Hindu. I have little knowledge on western religions like Islam and Christianity and absolutely no knowledge on Judaism. However, as per my earlier observations, muslims believe that when a person dies, he goes to heaven or hell based on his belief in Allah. His deeds doesn't matter. The same happens with Christians. However, I have a doubt.......could you please explain me, what lies beyound heaven or hell. Lets say, I go to hell or heaven based on my belifs, but how long am I supposed to stay there? Is it permanent or temporary?

If it is permanent, what is the purpose of creating me no earth by God and then sending me the heaven/hell?

If it is temporary, where will I go after that?

How was I created on earth. We all know that soul can neither be created not destroyed as it is the eternal energy that makes our bodies live. If that is the case, from where did I came and why should I go to heaven/hell?

In our eastern religions, we were always taught that we all (humans, animals, plants, etcetc) are parts of nature. When we die, it is only the physical body that gets decomposed but not the eternal soul. The soul gets converted into other form like maybe a new human baby or an animal or a plant. This cycle goes on and on. Even the greatest scientist Newton has mentioned that Enegy can neither be created nor be destroyed. However, it can be converted from one form to another. But the total form of energy in the universe remains constant. We believe that soul is that energy.

So, even if heaven/hell exists, we will stay there based on our good or bad deeds. Once they are completed, we may have to move from there? So, when we move from heaven, where do we go???

Do we again come back to earth? If yes, in Islam/Christianity, how is this explained? I mean, how can we escape from the cycle of birth/death? Do you have any answers for this? Please let me know.

Thanks and Regards,