Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Death, Hell/ Sheol and Eternal Life - and the parable of Lazarus and Dives

I cannot shake the conviction that Christians often misinterpret Christ's message by misunderstanding what is meant by death, 'hell and eternal life - when they occur in the Gospels.

My understanding is that Hell refers to what is called Sheol in the Old Testament - and this refers to the Ancient Hebrew belief (which is indeed shared by many pagans) that death means death-of-the-body and that afterwards the severed-soul continues to live in a shadowy realms as barely conscious souls that have lost memories, their sense of self, lost their will and purpose - and simply subists moment by moment in a state of 'lostness'.

In other words, if we are to take mortal human comparisons, 'Hell' is more like a state of severe dementia than like a state of being perpetually tortured.

The reason that Hell is like dementia is exactly that the soul is separated from the body. Therefore, when Christ offers us the gift of eternal life, what he is offering is the resurrection whereby the soul is restored to the body.

So the good news of Christ, which gives the name to the gospels, is that we are all saved from the state of demented spirits in Hell/ Sheol.

Heaven and Hell are therefore properly what happens after resurrection - and the overall tenor of the gospels is that what happens after resurrection is greatly preferable to Sheol. What exactly Hell is like is metaphorically described in very unpleasant terms - but nonetheless Hell is a chosen state; and we know from our own experience that even in mortal life there are many people who choose to live in some version of Hell - alone, tormented with burning regrets - but utterly locked into this state and inaccessible by pride and defiant despair.

We need this framework because, without it, it is so easy to misunderstand references to Hell. For example, in the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man (aka. Dives) there are horrible depictions of Hell - but the point of the parable is not the literal truth of such depictions but the last verses 29-31:

Luke 16:
24 And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.
25 But Abraham said, Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented.
26 And beside all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed: so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, that would come from thence.
27 Then he said, I pray thee therefore, father, that thou wouldest send him to my father's house:
28 For I have five brethren; that he may testify unto them, lest they also come into this place of torment.
29 Abraham saith unto him, They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.
30 And he said, Nay, father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent.
31 And he said unto him, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.

The point of the parable is clearly not to give us a literal description of 'what it is physically like' in Hell but to emphasize the adequacy of existing revelations and therefore the absolute necessity for faith: If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.
In other words, there are some people for whom there is never enough evidence - they always want more, and more, and more 'proof'; because all evidence without exception requires interpretation.

Not everyone who saw that Lazarus rose from the dead - or Jesus - was thereby converted - maybe they didn't really die, maybe it was a trick, maybe they had experienced an hallucination?
Most people who experience miracles are not converted by them - they find some other explanations, or they say (quite accurately) 'yes - but...'

Anyway - let us not get distracted from the good news by misinterpreting it as being bad news - ie, the fallacy that Christ came in order to send everyone to a Hell of perpetual torture excepting a few who successfully negotiated that obstacle/ assault course which is human life.

The tortures of Hell are self-chosen and self-inflicted - and none the less real for that; but Hell is not a matter of being tortured because that is what God wants. It is because that is what the inhabitants have chosen. The real horror  of Hell is that people really will, really do - in mortal life, choose this.