“Zingcreed (motto: “Just Jesus, no God!”) is written by a self declared “Christian atheist”, so do I believe in heaven and hell or not? Well, this is an academic polemic, so what I believe is no one else’s business. Each item is examined as if it were a cultural artefact, an alien belief system that I am trying to get my head around and evaluate to the best of my limited ability. I’ve come to realise that religious ideas change over time. Nothing is fixed and final. My scribblings here in 2017 will seem hopelessly quaint and anachronistic by 2117. Ideas of heaven and hell and God evolve over the years. This is the topic addressed in this Post.
I hope you find this interesting.
The evolution of hell.
In Old Testament times, Jews referred to the underworld where they thought people went when they died, as ‘Sheol’. (Greek ‘Hades’). Everyone there is in a deep and permanent sleep, and will eventually be forgotten by the living. Some Jewish sages suggested that, although at death the body turns to dust in the earth, the breath that gave life to the body returns to the God who gave it. The writer of the book of Ecclesiastes on the other hand believed that we shared the same fate of oblivion as the animals.
The possibility of eternal life.
About two centuries BCE devout Jews known as Pharisees came to believe that just as the world had a beginning, it must have an end too, and that when that end comes there will be a Final Judgement. At that point in the future all who have ever lived will be resurrected from their graves and brought before the throne of God to hear the divine pronouncement on the kind of life they had lived. Those who receive the verdict of divine approval will proceed to everlasting life, while those who do not will be condemned to shame and everlasting contempt.
Where did they get such an idea from? It would have been considered preposterous among Jews living a century earlier. The answer is probably from the Zoroastrians of Persia. The idea of a general resurrection followed by a Final Judgement began to enter Jewish thinking towards the end of the period of Persian supremacy. At first traditional Jews such as the Sadducees rejected the idea outright. Nevertheless it came to be widely adopted, not just by Judaism but by its two offshoots Christianity and Islam as well. The reasons may be as follows:-
1/ It met a deep spiritual need. It opened a door of hope to those who, like Job, felt crushed by injustice and unjustified suffering. It had the effect of reassuring people that this is a moral universe after all, one in which justice is finally meted out to everybody.
2/ It gave hope to people that death, this so-called enemy of humankind. would be finally conquered.
3/ The prophet Zoroaster had a lot of authority.
4/ The book of Daniel, the Jewish book in which the idea first appears, was composed during the Maccabaean wars, when Jews revolted against a Syrian ruler who was bent on stamping out their culture by destroying their synagogues and holy scriptures. It appears that many loyal and devout Jews adopted this new hope, believing that their god Yahweh would surely mete out justice to the young Jewish soldiers who in effect became martyrs to their faith.
5/ The spread of the Roman empire during the next few centuries caused the Jewish people such suffering and uncertainty that many thought the end of the world was at hand. Cue the new Jewish sect that grew up around Jesus of Nazareth. He came to be worshipped as a divine figure who would save his followers from the cataclysmic destruction they believed to be imminent. Paul spread this notion to the gentile world. He went so far as to claim the world would end in his lifetime. Jesus was believed to have risen from the dead, and Paul had an experience on the road to Damascus that convinced him he had personally encountered the risen Jesus. This was sufficient evidence for the early Christians.
A strange and unexpected development then took place in Christian thought. Because Christianity was spreading primarily in Greek culture, an idea borrowed from the Greeks entered the collective Christian imagination. The Greek philosopher Plato taught that the real essence of each person is a spiritual entity he called the soul. It contains our memory and the knowledge accumulated during life; it is immortal and hence survives the death of the body. Plato saw humans as eternal souls temporarily resident in a body of flesh. The Christian church combined Platonism with the belief in a Final Judgement. It taught that our souls face judgement as soon as we die.
From the Jews (/Zoroastrians) the church inherited the idea of a Final Judgement at the end of time. From the Greeks they took the idea of judgement of the soul at the point of death. Gradually the latter replaced the former. By modern times, Christianity had virtually become the way to conquer death.
Conservative Christians still fear death because of the judgement they expect to face. They believe the good/religious will ascend to heaven while the wicked will be despatched to a fiery place of punishment under the earth called hell. At first this was just a revamped version of Sheol; but hell was a place of eternal punishment not a euphemism for nonexistence. Belief in any form of afterlife has now just vanished into the mist. Instead many people acknowledge this life to be the only one we shall live, thus motivating us to value it all the more and to live it as fully as possible.
Lloyd Geering “Such is life!” Polebridge Press (2009)