Noah-The Good Stuff

Now that we’ve got the problems with Aronofsky’s film out of the way, let’s dive into the parts he and the other script writers got right.

***SPOILERS***SPOILERS***SPOILERS***

 

Let’s talk about the title and main character Noah, played by Russell Crowe.  Many people felt that Noah was too much of an environmentalist and or too blood thirsty.  And I would agree with those sentiments.  He rebukes his son for picking a flower because it looked pretty, left a girl caught in a bear trap to die, and threatened to kill his granddaughters.  This was a version of Noah I had never thought of or encountered in the Bible.  And I didn’t like him at all.  My friends who saw the movie with me thought the same thing.  Noah was a jerk and several other derogatory words.  But after thinking back on the film, I realized this portrayal wasn’t that bad.  I mentioned the environmentalist factor in my other post, Noah-The Bad Stuff, so I’m not going to discuss that at length here.  I will say the flower scene was not horrendous or preachy about conservation.  It made a good point that few of us ever think of.  The moment we pick a flower, it dies.  And unless you’re able to retrieve its seeds, it won’t be able to reproduce more beautiful flowers.   Yes, it is just a flower and there are hundreds like them in the world.  But didn’t we use to say that about the buffalo, wolves, alligators, and other animals that we’ve nearly drove to extinction because of overhunting or thought their skins looked pretty?  We get so caught up in how we feel now or what we want right now that we forget that our present actions can have negative consequences in the future.  Also taking from nature what you need is a very compelling lifestyle that many early Christian fathers took up.  So I don’t see that as a weakness for this interpretation of Noah.  I see it as a strength and compliment to the righteous man.

As for Noah’s cold-hearted behavior, let’s look at it from Noah’s point of view.  You’ve grown up in a world where death is literally everywhere.  Except for your family, everyone is utterly wicked and not above killing, cheating, stealing, and lying to each other on a daily basis.  Now God has just revealed to you how you and your family can be saved from the impending judgment that is to come.  As you’re building the ark or, as in the movie, you go looking for wives for your two youngest sons, you ask yourself, “Why will my family alone be able to escape?”  And that’s a question which is rarely asked in Sunday School.  We just assume that it is because Noah is righteous and, as the Scripture says, blameless.  But wait moment.  We’re also told no one is innocent of sin except Christ who hasn’t died yet.  In fact, as Russell Crowe points out in the movie no one in Noah’s family is perfect.  Shem is easily side tracked by physical beauty and sexual desire.  Ham is rebellious.  And Japheth is both a pleaser and desirous of pleasure.  Even Naameh, Noah’s wife, has a dark streak in her.  Knowing this as Noah, you probably would come to the conclusion that God not only wants to cleanse the world of mankind’s wickedness but wants to restart the garden of Eden without the humanity.  Also, you realize it is because of the fall of mankind that led to the destruction of Eden.  Therefore humans are the problem and your family only serves one purpose: help establish a new Eden and die without corrupting it.

This is a harsh, brutal, and mean view of life and God.  But it isn’t far-fetched.  We don’t know what was going through Noah’s mind because the Bible is silent on this subject.  However we do know that he was human complete with human emotions and finite human understanding of God’s purpose.  With that in mind, it makes those really dark scenes with Noah plausible and relatable.  Think about it.  Could you relate to an old man who could do no wrong or never became depressed with the state of world?  No, you couldn’t.  Yet many of the critics would want Noah to be exactly that: a person neither the actor nor the audience could relate to.  As dark and despicable as Noah was in the film, he is what we needed to see.  We needed to see what a devoted person, who hasn’t been told of salvation through Christ, would react when God decided to judge mankind’s sin.  And Aronofsky hits the nail on the head with this interpretation.  If the flood was to rid the world of sinful people, then why let Noah and his family escape?  It’s a question that surely haunted the man of God during those forty days and nights of rain and death.

“God will provide.”  As the animals are arriving, Ham notices that they’re coming with their mates.  He then notices that he and his little brother are lacking their own mates.  So he then asks his father about future wives for him and his brother Japheth.  Noah is reluctant to go to Tubal-Cain’s camp and get women from there to be his new daughters-in-law.  It would not only be dangerous for him, but there is no telling if the women he brought back would have the same values that his family held.  Ham pushes his father by pointing out that Noah has his wife and so does Shem.  Why then should Ham and Japheth be left out?  And Noah’s response is perhaps one of the hardest lessons believers can learn: God will provide.  God had already given them food, water, protection, and the materials needed to build the ark.  He had even brought them the animals needed to restart Eden.  Therefore, it is reasonable that God would provide for Ham’s needs as well.  The quote recalls Abraham’s answer to Isaac about the lamb for the burnt offering.  It also echoes Jesus’ command not to worry about tomorrow, the next meal, or clothes because God already has it taken care of.  Because of these implications, I believe Christians will be drawn to this scene and find many ways of sharing the gospel because of it.

The major premise of the movie is that mankind’s decision to spoil the earth is the reason that God flooded the world.  The Bible on the other hand says it is because humans were wicked and violent.  And this is one of the biggest problems critics have had with this film.  What I don’t understand is why these two views are completely exclusive.  When Noah goes to Tubal-Cain’s camp to find women to be wives for his younger sons, he finds mankind at its worst.  There are animals being torn apart alive as starving people eat the flesh raw.  Children are being sold for food and drink.  And people are killing each other for a place to stand or sleep.  While this is supposed to be a result of over industrialization, it doesn’t contradict how the Bible describes the state of humanity at the time.  In fact to help emphasis what Noah is seeing, we witness him having a vision of fire and despair consuming the people around him.  He takes it as a sign that humanity is totally depraved and not even his family will be spared from God’s wrath.  The audience I believe sees it as hell and the punishment for those who have blatantly disobeyed God.  Again, this isn’t anti-Christian or unbiblical.  While we don’t know if God every forgave anyone who died from the flood, we do know that their wickedness was deserving of divine wrath which can only be truly experienced in hell.

“Fire consumes.  Water cleanses.”  After his drugged vision of the flood (yes, I thought was stupid too), Noah reveals why God intends to bring disaster upon the world via water.  He isn’t wanting to destroy it which could be done through supernatural fire, that is God’s wrath.  Instead he wants to wash it clean and purify it.  And that is such a Christian idea that many believers have designated it as a sacrament called baptism.  When the Hebrews went through the Red Sea, the Israelites through the Jordan River, and the people participating in John the Baptist’s ministry, they were symbols of baptism.  As we enter the water we indicate that we have acknowledged our sins and taken the necessary steps towards repentance.  When we come out of the water, we are made clean symbolizing that we are now reconciled to God.  The flood was in a way a global baptism.  By God’s mercy we were not destroyed but cleansed of our unrighteousness.  Yes, God will come with fire to see if we are found worthy of salvation, but it is by water that we publicly declare our decision to obey the Lord and make our relationship right with him.

There are other parts of the movie that really stand out and maintain a biblical message in this film like the snake skin or the moment Noah realizes he can’t carry out God’s judgment on mankind.  So I would recommend Christians to go see it.  Yes, there are problems with the film and I doubt it will become a classic among Christians or win any big movie awards.  However, I don’t believe it was blasphemous, pagan, and utterly unbiblical.  It was a story created by an atheist who was inspired by it at a young age, which I think many of the negative reviewers have sadly overlooked.  Instead of taking this as an opportunity to witness, they decided to bash a film that could have helped open the floodgates of grace into the film industry.  And that is probably the biggest tragedy to come from this film.  Not the incorrect interpretations of Aronofsky.  Not the environmentalist message.  And not the cruelty of Noah.  The fact believers decided not to make this an opportunity to be a part of a national dialogue on this film and share the message of Jesus Christ is the saddest part of this film.  I can’t tell you how many of my friends or random people who said they were compelled to read the actual Genesis account because of this film.  It has literally opened the Bible for hundreds if not thousands of people.  I understand that we need to be respectful of what is in God’s word, but I think we got in our own way doing that with this movie.  Perhaps this will be a learning moment for believers everywhere.

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Noah-The Bad Stuff

One of the first Bible posts I wrote was in response to the heated debate surrounding Aronofsky’s film “Noah.”  Originally I expected secularists to be the most vocal critics of film decrying God’s violence against humanity.  There would be some Christian leaders who would take issue with the film, but believers in general would be either indifferent or supportive.  Considering the passionate responses the movie has received from people like Ken Ham at answersingenesis.org and Barb Nicolosi at patheos.com, I was clearly wrong.  So I decided to see the film and see if the criticism had any basis.

***SPOILERS***SPOILERS***(Of course, can a story have spoilers when the basic plot could be read on biblegateway.com?)SPOILERS***

 

Alright let’s get some of the problematic parts out of the way.  As the movie gets started we see a crappy looking slide show that’s supposed to briefly summarize the event leading up to Genesis 6.  It starts with the words “In the beginning there was nothing.”  And that’s a problem.  If you read Genesis 1:1 or John 1:1, you’ll find the words “In the beginning” which are then followed with God or the Word.  It is quite an iconic phrase in both the Jewish and Christian religions and is recognized for describing the moment of Creation.  It also indicates the eternal and timeless nature of God.  God was there in the beginning and before the beginning.  Even when the universe didn’t exist, God did.  But by saying there was nothing suggests even God at one point didn’t exist.  This is a problem because that isn’t what the original and current readers of Genesis believe.  One might argue this is only a minor deviation, but it has significant consequences concerning how the source material should be read.  Since God is the first character that is introduced and the primary one in the Bible, not to mention the most prolific character, wouldn’t it be wise to get that character’s nature, actions, and personality correct?

To be fair, the reasoning for this change is explained, though it comes near the end of the movie.  Instead of taking a Young Earth Creationist’s view, Aronofsky begins creation with the “Big Bang” theory which teaches that at some point the universe didn’t exist.  There was nothing.  Unfortunately this was explained very late in the film which could leave audience members, believers and non-believers alike, confused about what Christians believe.  And yes, there was a disclaimer that the film is only an interpretation of one person and not a general view upheld by the majority of Christians or influential leaders of the Church.  But if you’re going to portray a religious story that is near and dear to people’s faith, then you need to try to follow how the source material is viewed and not let personal opinion get in the way.  A lesson I think even Protestants should learn.

The second and third problems are the Watchers.  In the film they are seen as angels trapped in bodies of rock and dirt as punishment for wanting to help humanity.  Let’s deal with how they were portrayed first.  The “Watchers” is a term for angels who disobeyed God by teaching men skills and crafts like mining, metal working, sorcery, etc.  Their story is told in a pseudo-apocryphal work known as the book of Enoch.  Presumably this is where the movie’s script writers got their material.  The problem is that they portray the Watchers as benevolent creatures who try to help fallen humanity survive and prosper.  But their work ends up inciting mankind’s bloodlust and disregard for Creation (I’ll get to that later).  They are not permitted to return to heaven because they interfered in the development of men.  It very much resembles the story of Prometheus in Greek mythology.  Unfortunately, the book of Enoch depicts them as fallen angels who sire the Nephilim and teach men how to be utterly corrupt.  I understand Hollywood likes to make changes, but the changes need to be made for the story to flow better not because the director disagrees with the source material.

Which leads us to the third problem: should the Watchers be included in the story since Genesis doesn’t mention them?  Actually, it may have.  In Gen. 6:2 mentions “the sons of God” who take wives among the “daughters of men.”  The offspring are the Nephilim.  Biblical scholars are still debating whether the phrase “sons of God” are angels or descendants of Seth.  It only appears again in the book of Job where it is generally interpreted to mean angels.  If Gen. 6:2 means angels, then the Watchers do have a place in the story of Noah.  But what if it doesn’t mean that?  What if their origin is in the book of Enoch?  Shouldn’t we only stick with canonical books?  I would say we should stick with canonical books for spiritual authority and not necessarily for historical details.  But I think in this instance that is all a moot point.  The fact that it comes from a source outside of the Bible shouldn’t be upsetting to Christians because parts of our Bible rely on non-canonical literature.  For example, the armor of God in Eph. 6 has its precedent in the Wisdom of Solomon and the fourth book of Maccabees.  The former lists similar items of armor with similar functions.  The latter describes how the armor is supposed to be used to conquer our passions or internal thoughts to make them obedient to God’s will.  A recent blog post I found provides some interesting insight to these passages showing how Paul, an educated Jew, was probably inspired to create his armor metaphor based on texts he and his original readers would have been familiar with which includes the Apocrypha.  Also, Jude references non-canonical sources when he describes the fight between the angel Michael and Satan as well as the punishment for fallen angels.  Therefore I don’t think that the source material should be grounds for leaving the Watchers out of the movie.  Instead it should be decided by how well they fit in the story, which in my opinion they didn’t.  They’re confusing and really add nothing to the story except to help Noah build the ark.  Even then other humans could have done that instead.

And now let’s look at the environmental theme.  From the moment the movie was announced, the most common accusation about the film was that it was going to be environmentalist propaganda.  And to some extent, they were right.  With the help of the Watchers, mankind becomes industrial and wastes all of the earth’s resources.  Now they are starving and fighting amongst themselves for survival.  Tubal-Cain, the main antagonist, tells Noah’s son Ham that the earth and all that is in it is for the benefit of humanity.  Noah on the other hand is a vegetarian who tries to minimize his effects on Creation trying to preserve it from the evils of Cain’s descendants.  The flood is God’s response to man’s sin against nature.  Again, the problem with this view is that it completely ignores the original intent in the source material.  If you read Genesis 6, it plainly states that God’s anger was roused not by pollution or the squandering of resources but how wickedly corrupt and violent people had become.  My only guess for why the environmentalist route was taken was because the source material acknowledges sin and a holy God, which an unbeliever like Aronofsky would like to over look if possible.  Also there has been a push among Christians for “Creation-care” and that just because we are made in God’s image doesn’t mean we have a right to do whatever we want with Creation.  And to be honest, that is a debate and discussion Christians need to have.  Are we stewards or are we lords of the earth, free to do as we will?

Now I haven’t even mentioned all of the problems with movie, mostly because they mostly consist of how the movie was done than how the story was interpreted.  For example, Noah’s family make a drug that they burn to put the animals into a very deep sleep.  But for some reason it doesn’t affect the family.  Really?  Did no one stop to ask, “Why isn’t this stuff affecting the humans?”  Anyway, there are definitely problems with the film.  However, I think it would be wrong to say that it was completely bad and had no redeemable material.  Be on the lookout for my next post, “Noah-The Good Stuff.”

Does Hell Exist?-Pt2

Last week, I provided the biblical and some evidences from Tradition to show that hell is indeed a part of the Christian.  David and other Old Testament saints testify to its existence as does Christ and the New Testament Church. Even non-biblical writers such as St. Justin the Martyr affirm hell to be a Christian doctrine.  But has it been taught correctly?  Is the predominant belief that hell as the eternal place of judgment correct or have we misunderstood it?  That is the goal for today’s post.

First, let us look at the other options for hell being offered.  There’s the Unitarian Universalist approach which teaches that there is no hell but that salvation is universal in that it is granted to everyone.  Already the problem with this is it denies the existence of hell which goes against Christian thinking.  However, this isn’t the only idea which promotes universal salvation.  There is a theory which resembles the myth of Er found in Plato’s Republic.  While arguing that justice has greater value over being unjust, Plato appeals to the existence of the eternal soul which a warrior named Er discovered.  Er had died in battle and his arrived in a place that had two gates.  One led to a 1,000 years of punishment and torture for sinners who didn’t live just lives.  The other led to a realm of a 1,000 years of peace and joy for the righteous.  After the millennium, the dead would then choose which lives they would lead which would dictate which where they would spend the next 1,000 years after they died again.  Er is resurrected to proclaim this insight so that people would actively choose to live justly.  Some have taken this idea and applied it to the Christian doctrine of hell where unbelievers must be punished for a period of time and then are taken to heaven for the rest of eternity.  Others say that the wicked are merely annihilated and cease to exist.  They get around the charge of not believing in hell by saying that this is what hell actually is.  All the fiery descriptions are merely metaphors to describe what non-existence would be like.

So are any of these correct?  Well let’s see how Scripture describes it.  If you remember from last week, we said that Ps. 16:10 was a definite example of hell in the Old Testament and the key phrase is “don’t abandon me to sheol.”  If there is no hell but only annihilation, why ask that God not to abandon him?  To abandon something is to say the thing still exists.  If annihilation is supposed to occur, then why not say something like “dedicate me to destruction?”  This would fit well with God’s command to utterly destroy and remove the Canaanites and their civilization from the promised land.  And given the psalm’s emphasis on life and security with God, it would be apparent that the verse was talking about annihilation.  However, because it uses the word “abandon” it is unlikely this passage supports that theory.  What about temporary damnation?  Is it describing hell as being a finite experience or infinite?  Maybe.  The text doesn’t focus on sheol for very long.  Instead its theme is about remaining faithful to God and that God will provide salvation via deliverance from sheol.  Now this could mean that those in hell will remain there forever because why would someone say “abandon me to sheol” if God is going to eventually let you out at some point?  An answer could be that David is hoping for a “Get Out of Hell” free card.  However it doesn’t explain why he would use a word like abandon if that is what he wanted.

Well what about the New Testament?  What does it have to say?  Well as mentioned last week, Christ does refer to a place of punishment for sins after death.  Again this repudiates the idea that God makes sinful and unsaved souls cease to exist.  But what about the universalist concept?  Does Christ or the authors of the epistles preach an eternal damnation or a temporary one?  I’d have to say they preach the former.  If we’re going with the idea that hell is only temporary but heaven is eternal, then what do we make of verses like Luke 16:23-26?  The passage describes hell as a separate and an opposing realm from heaven with an impassable chasm between the two.  If hell is only temporary and its occupants will eventually go over to the other side, why would Christ have Abraham say, “…between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us”? (NIV)  The only explanation would be that hell is the eternal abode for those who are not saved just as heaven is where the saints spend eternity.  Matt. 25:46 also supports this idea of eternal damnation and eternal salvation.

But what about the Old Testament?  We seemed to have concluded that it only denied annihilationism but not a temporary damnation.  Actually that is what we concluded from one verse which used sheol.  In Daniel 12:2, the prophet is speaking with Gabriel about the end times.  The angel tells him that at the end of all things, the dead will arise to receive their reward which will either be to everlasting life or punishment.  Revelation 20:11-15 also supports this view of the last judgment.  Thus both testaments are in agreement with each other and hell is indeed a place of eternal punishment and not a temporary experience.  To deny it to be a doctrinal truth of Christianity is to propose a false version of Christianity, that is a heresy.  As disturbing and hateful as hell is, one cannot separate it from the rest of God has revealed to through our religion.  If anything, it should be a motivator for us to rescue souls from hell and into the joy of residing with God for all eternity.

Should College Be Free?

As I approach graduation, I’m facing what is popularly known as the “quarterly life crisis.”  It is the point in life where college seniors and some graduate students realize how much work and time is needed to survive in the real world.  Topics that were once only over heard in hushed tones from mom and dad are starting to require more and more of my attention.  And I’m not alone in this.  Thousands of 20 somethings across the US are trying plan what their future is going to be like.  Do I share an apartment with friends or perhaps finally settle down and get a small home?  Is my degree going to land me a job, or am I going to have to take a “temporary” position at the local coffee shop?  Should I pursue grad school or take some time off and get work experience?  For many, another question is at the very top of their to-do lists: how am I going to pay these student loans?

According to collegeboard.com, “60% of students…from the public and private nonprofit institutions at which they began their studies graduated with debt.”  At public four year schools, graduates with bachelor degrees could expect to have on average $25,000 in cumulative debt while their counter-parts at private, non-profit schools were facing $29,900.  Of course, this is the average and may not even be an accurate number for most college graduates.  It certainly isn’t the highest.  Now if one were making the US average income of $50,000 or so, these debts probably wouldn’t pose too much of a problem.  However, many students are finding it hard to locate jobs with that kind of steady pay.   Sure popular majors like Business Management and Nursing can have starting annual wages ranging from $43,000 to $54,200, but that doesn’t mean jobs for those students are readily available.  Also some jobs are now requiring a terminal degree like a Master’s or Doctorate which means spending even more time at school and less in obtaining a full time position in the work force.

With all of these stress factors, many young people are beginning to wonder if college is even worth the cost.  Others are beginning to request that the government should provide free higher education for all potential students.  But is that a reasonable response?  Should the government be granted that responsibility?  Or is this just the hopes of frustrated students who haven’t thought the whole thing through?

Well, it is easy to understand why students and young people would want the government to step in and cover the cost for education.  As I mentioned above, they are entering a stressful moment in their lives when the only thing that is guaranteed to be in their future is student debt.  And good number of these students are responsible individuals, not slackers.  They don’t like to shift responsibility or pass the buck, but at this moment in their life they believe they have been dealt an unjust hand by colleges and universities who are constantly driving tuition costs up each year.  For them it makes sense for the government to intervene particularly when schools are accepting federal loans.  And it shouldn’t be forgotten that nearly 50 million children are currently receiving their education through government funded public schools.  If it works for K-12, why can’t it work for bachelor programs?

The problem is…it is passing the buck to someone else.  The government cannot create a profit and must rely on taxes from citizens to accrue revenue.  In order to support everyone on a universal tuition plan, someone’s taxes are going to have to rise.  And it can’t be just the “one-percenters” carrying the 99%.  Doing so would kill the geese who lay the golden eggs for our economy.  Everyone would have to pay their fair share.  And because the government would now be guaranteeing higher education, more people would be inclined to apply.  The sudden influx of demand will out pace supply meaning the cost for student admissions will rise higher than previously expected.  The government will then have to play catch up with the market.  Or it could dictate how much each school will receive from tax revenue which will decrease the incentive to provide a high quality education.  Ask the USSR for how well central planning works.

As for public schools, do we really want to use it as a precedent for universal tuition?  Consider how many reforms and solutions there are at this moment trying to fix public schools and make students more competitive internationally.  And none of them have had success across the board or a large amount of public support.

So what do we say then to those who feel trapped by student loans?  Tell them, “Sucks to be you”?  Absolutely not.  We should try to be supportive and maybe help them find a financial manager or an accountant to help organize a budget and pay off debts.  But making college free to everyone isn’t going to solve the problem or teach future students to take personal responsibility for their expenses.

What’s needed are more entry level jobs for graduate students because the best way to pay off a debt is with steady and frequent paychecks.  This gives students a sense of pride in being able to pay off their debts on their own and gives them the satisfaction of being a self-sustaining, independent individual.  Unfortunately the recession has created a job shortage that gives older and more experienced workers the edge.  If anything students need to be asking the government what it can do to encourage job growth for them.  That is what young people like myself need right now, not a government handout but a better economy and job market.

Does Hell Exist? Pt-1

If you were like me and grew up in a conservative Christian household and attended a relatively conservative church, you would probably answer the above question with, “Yes, of course hell exists.”  However, not all people who claim to be Christians accept this bit of doctrine.  They believe the Church in general has been led astray about the afterlife particularly when it comes to unbelievers.  Some blame faulty translations, Roman Catholicism, or a misunderstanding that has arisen over the years.  Yet should this doctrine be brushed aside?  And if so, do we replace it with universalism and say “All are saved”?  Or do we just say that nothing happens to those who die and didn’t put their faith in Christ?

This is a big subject worthy for seminary dissertations and books.  So I’m going to do two brief posts on the subject.  The first will cover whether hell has its origins in the ancient Church or if it is a man-made construct.  The second will discuss the other options that have been proposed to supplant the doctrine of hell.

Let’s begin with the faulty translations by looking at a few key passages that mention or describe hell starting with the Old Testament.  In Genesis 37:35, Jacob has just been told that his favorite son Joseph has been torn apart by wild beasts.  Rejecting any comfort, Jacob sinks into depression and awaits the day to join him in the grave.  The importance of this verse is the word “grave” which in Hebrew is sheol that makes its first appearance in Scripture.  Many believers will use this word as proof that hell was an established doctrine in the Old Testament.  However if Sheol just means “the grave,” it doesn’t necessarily mean hell.  So what other definitions does it have?

According to qbible.com, an online lexicon, the word can mean the generic realm of the dead, a place of no return, the realm of the damned, etc.  And like all words, the definition depends on the context that it is being used.  In this case of Genesis, the best that can be determined is that Jacob is referring to the after life and not the place of eternal damnation.  So are there passages where Sheol means hell?  Yes.  Ps. 55:15-16 is a good example.  The psalmist, David, is calling upon God’s mercy and help from enemies lurking within his closest circle of friends.  (Perhaps a prophecy of Judas Iscariot?) In verse 15, the psalmist calls upon God to send these traitors to the pit or sheol for their wickedness.  Yet in verse 16 David claims God will save him.  Because of context of sinful men on one side facing death and righteous David on the other, it is reasonable to define sheol as hell in this passage.  A clear distinction is being made between what is occurring to the righteous and unrighteous after death.  However, it should be noted that the phrase “going down alive to sheol” is also used in Numbers 16:33.  Here the rebels Dathan, Korah, Abiram, and their followers fall into the earth during an earthquake and were immediately covered over.  So in a sense they entered the sheol or the grave alive in that they were buried alive.  A similar interpretation could be applied in Ps. 55.

Ps 16:10 also uses sheol but doesn’t have the ambiguity that Ps. 55 has.  Though we don’t have a righteous and unrighteous comparison in this verse, it is interesting to note that David is once again asking God to spare his soul from sheol.  If sheol simply means the grave or afterlife, why ask that God not abandon the soul there?  This is particularly troublesome for universalists.  For if only heaven exists, then how can the soul be abandoned by God if the only place it can go is to the presence of God?

Alright so the Old Testament mentions hell.  What about the New Testament?  Unlike the Old Testament, the New uses at least three words to indicate the place of the dead.  The first is Hades, a Greek term which can mean the god of the Underworld and the dead or the realm of the dead.  The second is Tartarus, which in Greek mythology was the place in Hades meant for great sinners and the Titans.  The third is gehenna which was a place not too far from Jerusalem where child sacrifices use to occur.  During the time of Christ, it had become refuse pile collecting dead bodies and sewage from the city.  Typically whenever Christ mentions a place of eternal fire and an undying worm he is referring to this area because it seemed the piles would never go out once lit and there maggots and parasitical worms constantly crawling out of the dead bodies.  Clearly it is a hellish place.  But were these terms used to indicate a place for those who died unsaved?  It depends.

Tartarus, given its origin and context in mythology, can mean only one thing when used in II Pet. 2:4.  And it is rather fitting because it describing the fate of fallen angels which St. Justin the Martyr believed to be the gods that the pagans worshipped.  So Tartarus most definitely means hell.  But that’s just one instance and it isn’t referring to humans.  What about gehenna?  We first see it in the New Testament in Matt. 5:22,29-30.  Jesus is referring to it as the punishment for sin, specifically unlawful anger against one’s neighbor and lust.  Now someone might say that because gehenna was a real place Christ was using it to get a point across and didn’t actually mean people should go there or will go to its spiritual equivalent.  They would point to the hyperbolic interpretation that is used in verses 29-30 when it comes to eye gouging and mutilation.  However, that doesn’t fit with the parallel structure that Christ uses at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount which is to take outward sins and their external punishments and add to them their spiritual sins and consequences.  Thus it would make more sense to see gehenna as the physical representation of hell.  Hades is a little more ambiguous.  In its mythological context, it just means realm of the dead.  But in Matt. 16:18 and Luke 16:23, it is clear that Christ is describing a place of punishment for the wicked after death.  So like sheol, it needs to be taken in context.

Well if hell is mentioned in the Bible, does that mean it isn’t a made up idea from Roman Catholicism?  Yes, but I think it is still a good idea to go over this accusation briefly.  There’s been many attacks on the Roman Church for either being too oppressive, unwilling to adapt to a progressive world, etc.  These often come in the form of questioning Church doctrines like hell.  Though to be honest I’ve never seen someone solely attribute this doctrine just to Roman Catholics, but apparently the people at tentmaker.org do.  The author never actually attributes his beliefs to any particular Catholic theologian or saint.  He mentions Augustine, but I feel he quotes him out of context.  He also seems to be hung up on literary devices instead of what Scripture is saying.  Anyway, his only evidence about hell as a construction of Catholicism is that much of what we think of hell comes with Catholic poets and writers like Dante.  First I’d like to point out hell was accepted as dogma as early as the Crusades when clergy promised salvation to those who went to the Holy Land, well before the time of Dante.  Second, very early Church Fathers taught the concept of hell as a Christian belief like Justin the Martyr in his first apology.  So is the doctrine of hell a construct of Roman Catholicism?  No.  The author of the Tent Maker article shows very little scholarly evidence that points to a conspiracy and spends way too much time on literary devices than substantial evidences.

And finally, is hell simply a misunderstanding?  Perhaps the way it has been taught has caused some confusion, but the existence of the doctrine is very much a part of Christian theology.  From the Bible to the Church Fathers, the concept of hell has been taught by members of the faith.  To say that it has not part in Christianity is to deny being a member of the Christian religion.  But what does it look like?  Is it eternal or finite?  These and other questions will have to be resolved in next week’s post.

Campaign Jargon and Rhetoric

Well the 2014 mid-term elections are upon us and you know what that means.  We’re about to see massive amounts of political jargon, annoying TV ads, political jargon, whiney news pundits, and…have I mentioned political jargon yet?  That’s because political jargon is one of the most important elements in any political campaign because how a candidate or debate moderator chooses his words greatly influences how voters see particular issues.  This same concept applies to how people react to social justice.  The difference is that political jargon tends to be purposefully misleading in order to gain votes.  So I thought I’d help clear a few terms and phrases that are sure to be brought up this year.

First, let’s get women’s rights out of the way.  This is a very sensitive issue and usually the rhetoric is directed against Republicans.  Bloggers, pundits, and some editorials will say the GOP is against women’s rights or wants to meddle in women’s health issues.  The problem with these statements, as well as for those to follow, is that they are too vague.  What particular right or health issue is the GOP against?  The answer is abortion.  Republicans are pro-life and a good number who would either like to ban it altogether or restrict and regulate it to point where it becomes impossible to have one.  The exception for some would be if the life of the mother was in danger.  Again this is a hot topic, but it isn’t what one might imagine if listening to Democrats and liberals.  They will refer to this as “women’s rights” so that they don’t have to be more specific about what they mean during the campaign and will reap their reward in votes during the election.  Why?  Because if one side is for women, voters can think the other side is made up of masochistic men who want to keep women from working or voting are trying to take office.  Some might make the connection to abortion, but others won’t see past the sound-bite.  Which is a shame because they may actually have a different opinion than the “women’s rights” candidate about abortion.

The second bit of propaganda is currently used among conservatives.  Tell me if you heard something like this before: “Immigrants are taking jobs away from Americans!”  It’ll probably be in a newsletter or blasting out of the radio and will ask you to vote for John Doe to keep American jobs open for Americans.  The problem again is vagueness.  What is meant by “immigrant”?  Does the person mean all people who’ve come to live and work in the United States?  Or just illegal aliens?  Usually it is the latter; however, it works well to leave it at immigrant and let the patriotic passions of the voters do the rest.  After all, many Americans are looking for jobs and to hear that someone who isn’t identified as an American is taking those jobs can create a lot anger among citizens.  However this overlooks the growth potential for reforming the current work visa and naturalization systems.  Immigrants, even those who are not specialists, often bring a good work ethic with them and will try to improve their situation with each passing generation.  There are a few who don’t climb the socio-economic latter very well, but for the most part those who are two or three generations apart from their immigrant forbearers will have completely assimilated into their American and English speaking communities often providing new businesses and job openings.

The third is quite common and typically gets media attention for a couple of days but eventually dies down.  It is when a candidate or a Political Action Committee pulls the minority card.  “A vote for X is a vote against blacks.”  “Candidate 123 is sexist and wants women to stay in the kitchen and never participate in public life.”  These were common slogans during the 2008 primaries in Kentucky for the Democratic presidential nomination.  Kentucky’s primaries are late in comparison to most of the country, but Mrs. Clinton still won the commonwealth despite then Sen. Obama’s lead in the polls.  Supporters of Obama felt that to vote for Hillary was to deny the black community to make history.  Supporters of Hillary felt the same about women.  Republicans are facing a similar problem between establishment conservatives and the new and younger libertarian crowd.  “Incumbent Blue has been in office for too long!  Help fight Washington cronyism.”  “My opponent supported the bail out before he was against it.”  It is classic mudslinging and quite enjoyable to watch, but it unfortunately comes across as being truth rather than a spicy retort.  And few people want to support racism, sexism, the “establishment,” or liars.

And it goes on and on.  The point I want to make this week is to stop listening to the sound bites and start learning about the issues the candidates are addressing.  If you are deeply concerned about immigration reform, then study how current system works and see which of the politicians are offering the solutions you think will solve the problem.  Decide for yourself if abortion is a women’s right issue.  We the people wield the power by voting.  If we want true change and reform to occur, then we need to stop taking the lazy route and accepting the vague and misleading statements being thrown at us from the soap box.  Instead we need to set the stage for a more honest and well-worded debate on the issues at hand.

St. Patrick

Long before I knew that I had a drop of Irish blood in me, I was obsessed with anything and everything to do with St. Patrick and St. Patrick’s Day.  Maybe it was because we shared a common name.  Maybe it was because I was enchanted with the fairy tales about leprechauns and the luck of the Irish.  Or maybe it was because it was the one day out of the year during my childhood when eating and drinking something green was not only okay but cool.  Whatever the reason, I still admire this man of faith.  And considering this is St. Patrick’s Day, I’d like to share some of the reasons I hold this man in high regard.

Before I do, I want to make a few things clear.  I’m not going to disprove myths about Patrick or apologize for his mission work in Ireland.  There are plenty of sites, including the History Channel’s website, that will debunk the legends which have crept up around the man.  I’m more interested in his faith and insight about God.  There are also many progressive and liberal theologians who are more then willing to apologize for the existence of the Christian faith.  Again, I’m interested how this saint has inspired me not whether I should be ashamed of the Great Commission.  That being said, let’s jump into the life and faith of St. Patrick.

At the beginning of his Confession, one of two of his surviving works, he describes himself to be the son of a deacon, the grandson of a priest, and one who “did not, indeed, know the true God.”  That is rather astounding to me, but not because St. Patrick lived not knowing God until age 16.  Rather his predicament is similar to the one in the modern Church.  We often feel it necessary to reach those who are outside of the Church as if they are the only ones needing Christian love and guidance.  Yet I wonder how often we ignore those within our own church walls.  Think about it.  Why are so many young people leaving the faith?  Is it because the Church isn’t hip?  Is it because it isn’t inclusive to their way of thinking?  Or is it because we as the Church have failed to instill the true purpose of what it means to be a follower Christ?  I have no doubt that there are broken churches that have wronged many people physically, emotionally, or spiritually.  But I don’t believe that is the sole reason for why so many of those who grew up in the Church have fallen away.  We’ve become so consumed with just making converts, that we forget that we need to also disciple those within the church walls particularly those who have been born to believing parents.

Yet this shouldn’t be taken as a condemnation without hope of a second chance.  Even though St. Patrick lived 16 years of his life not knowing God, he did return to the faith of his fathers.  God in his mercy is constantly patient with us and taking great pains to endure our follies.  He is not interested in destroying us for wickedness but desires that we all be saved (Ezekiel 18:32, II Peter 3:9).

As he continues his Confession, he mentions that his grandfather had a villa, that is a rural estate, from which he was captured by Irish raiders.  This would suggest that Patrick’s family was not only an important part of the religious community but also had some political and economic clout.  It would be reasonable then to assume that Patrick would have some level of education available to him.  Yet he often tells his readers that he wasn’t a very educated man. “I, Patrick the sinner, unlearned verily:-I confess that I am a bishop, appointed by God, in Ireland”-the Epistle.  I find this rather fascinating because in both his Letter and Confession, St. Patrick speaks like someone who is not only familiar with the Scriptures but also someone with authority like Christ or the apostles did.  In this day and age where experts are expected to act as omniscient masters in their fields, we are often quick to judge and dismiss those who don’t.  True, it is good that those who wish to become clergymen should go to seminary and learn all that they can.  However, let us not forget that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge and that we are to become fools before we can call ourselves teachers of the faith (Prov. 1:7, I Cor. 3:18).

This last bit of inspiration from the life of St. Patrick is from a recent study on internal prayer.  I had received this last Christmas a copy of The Way of a Pilgrim which describes a Russian pilgrim’s journey throughout his country discovering how we are to continuously and unceasingly pray.  The people he often meets tell him that to pray in such a way requires the Holy Spirit to pray within him as well.  The pilgrim’s readings in the Philokalia also suggest this is needed as both a sign of encouragement and a prompting to pray at all times.  St. Patrick, in his Confession, relates what such an experience is like through a dream.

“And on a second occasion I saw Him praying within me, and I as it were, inside my own body, and I heard Him above me-that is, above my inner self.  He was praying powerfully with sighs…But at the end of the prayer it was revealed to me that it was the Spirit.  And so I awoke and remembered the Apostle’s words: ‘Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we know not how to pray as we ought…'”

This second vision came after St. Patrick had been told to return to Ireland to preach the gospel after becoming a member of the clergy.  As mentioned earlier, Patrick held a low opinion of his education and was reluctant to appear as an equal of learned men.  Yet through prayer and faith in God the Spirit, our very great help, he managed to overcome his weakness to accomplish the work that God had laid before him.

I hope this has been an enjoyable and fruitful post.  I know St. Patrick’s Day is often overrun with stickers and buttons that say, “Kiss me I’m Irish” or over-the-top parades in places like Chicago or New York or an excuse to go to the local bar and down pitchers of green beer.  That can be a lot of fun I suppose.  However, I think it is good that we remember the saint and his life we are supposed to be celebrating.  He wasn’t just a man with myths to tell to children.  He was a man of God whose life should be honored and studied for our own benefit.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

My sources come from Christian Encounters: Saint Patrick by Jonathan Rogers which has both the Confession and the Letter in the appendices of his book.  The Confession can also be seen online at http://www.ccel.org/ccel/patrick/confession.txt.