I was tossing the frisbee with my friend Jake in Guatemala when he asked me a question that would shake the evangelical ground beneath my feet: “What did people in the Old Testament think about the after life?” he asked. “Like, what did Abraham, Moses or David think happened to them when they died?”
My brain functions like a rolodex which I scan for Bible verses mentioning any given topic, so I thought for a moment.
Then another moment.
Then I realized that I didn’t know any passages from the Old Testament that deal with the afterlife. Many deal with death (sheol, the grave), some talk about the destruction of the wicked and the future prosperity of the righteous, but none directly address what the Israelites thought happened after death. There is also an indirect mention in Job (the oldest book in the Bible), but it could be read a number of ways. David talks extensively in the Psalms about deliverance and the God who saves him, yet read in context, these are almost all about physical deliverance from very real human enemies who were about to kill him. This made me nervous for a number of reasons.
Why didn’t the Israelite people seem to care about what happened to them after they died??
There are the most promises of a future of hope in the prophets…after the Israelites were exiled in Assyria and Babylon. This is concerning because those nations were Zoroastrian in religion. This religion puts a heavy emphasis on the afterlife, and many Israelites were held captive in these nations for centuries.
Therefore, when Jesus comes onto the scene in the New Testament and talks about life after death, it begs the question, “Did Jesus’ teaching on the afterlife simply come from this pagan Babylonian religion?” So much of Christianity hinges on this premise of the afterlife, and I feared that I was tugging a thread that would soon unravel all of my Christian faith.
(I later realized that they were also held captive in Egypt for 430 years—another nation which puts a hefty amount of thought into the afterlife—yet they didn’t adopt their thought on the afterlife…)
In other words, the entire Bible before Jesus puts much more of an emphasis on this life rather than the life to come.
It seems that in the past 2,000 years of reading the Bible, Christians have flipped it to the extent that we often can care more about people’s souls/eternal destinies than we do about their lives right now. The classic example is missionaries who would go tell a starving African child to accept Jesus so they’ll be in heaven forever, all the while neglecting to put food in the kid’s stomach right now.
It seems to me that in reading the Bible, God prefers that we feed the kid first, then teach them about Jesus. If you were to count up the number of passages on afterlife vs. this life, it would be an exponential difference. In Love Wins, Rob Bell points out that it’s easier to shrug off social action to the afterlife where everything will be sorted out by God, than to try to fix things in the world now.
Have Christians put more emphasis on our idea of heaven and hell than Jesus Himself did??
Even Jesus Himself was surprisingly lax in His emphasis on the afterlife. Look at the Rich Young Ruler. The man asked Jesus how to have eternal life (Jesus didn’t bring it up), and Jesus told him that the key was to sell everything he had and give all his money to the poor (actions in this life). Then, Jesus doesn’t stop him when he sadly walks away from Him.
I highly recommend reading this account by Peter Enns on his similar epiphany to how he approaches the Bible. For him, it was Adam and Eve. He was talking to a Jewish friend and mentioned ‘the fall of man,’ as if it were common knowledge. Then his Jewish friend asked him where he saw that phrase in Scripture. Enns soon realized that the account in Genesis 3 doesn’t ever mention the words ‘sin,’ ‘satan/devil,’ ‘fall,’ or most of the terms Christians associate with that biblical episode. Do yourself a favor and read his story!
In other words, Enns and I have both come to moments where we realize how much we bring to the text because of our evangelical upbringings, rather than what the text actually says (I always tell people that most of what they believe about heaven and hell comes more from Dante than the Bible. #ChangeMyMind).
What’s even more ironic is that one of the most revered features of Evangelicalism is its embrace of Sola Scriptura, the insistence on relying on Scripture alone. Yet when one of its tenets—i.e. the doctrine of original sin in Adam, or the eternal torment of the wicked—is challenged, people get a bit spooked. These doctrines are passed down primarily from Augustine (again, not solely the Bible), and tend to be embraced (scaffolded by a few proof-texts) without much thought given to them. They pull from the Bible, but the Bible itself makes no definitive claims about them.
What I’m getting at is this: a year or two ago, I had an answer for everything when it came to the Bible and theology. I had a well-oiled system that ran smoothly and I could whip out verses to support any answer to any question.
The more I learn though, the less I realize I actually know.
I’ve had to come into contact with many parts of the Bible for the first time. I’ve begun to take seriously some of the contradictions I used to laugh off in the past (How can the same God who gave us the Sermon on the Mount also command ethnic cleansing of the Canaanites? Like really? If it were any other context, we would see it as one ancient tribe’s deity ‘commanding’ them to violently take land from another tribe that had settled there).
The Bible is not an answer key to life; if it were, you’d need an intense decoder ring to sort out all the answers. As Enns says, the Bible is full of wisdom, not answers.
This is part of what sparked my interest in the Eastern Orthodox traditions of Christianity. In the West, it’s easy for us to overlook the fact that, from Jerusalem, the gospel went North (Russia), South (Africa), East (Asia), and West (Rome, evangelicals). In other words, our reading of the text accounts for one fourth of how all the global cultures and traditions on earth read it. Ours, like our culture, is fueled by scientific accuracy and philosophical logic. Eastern and Southern traditions are more comfortable with mystery, and embrace more mystical and supernatural practices.
Heck, the Ethiopian church claims to be the oldest in the world (They say the eunuch from Acts 8 went straight back there and started the church) and they have more books in their Bible than our 66! How do you account for that if your theological structure rests gently atop our English translations of the Bible? Are all Ethiopians heretics? I hope you’d also say no…
If you’re like I was a year or two ago, you’re probably sensing a lot of unease rising up within you. Maybe you’re uncomfortable with anything that seems to test the bounds of your theological system. Just ask yourself, are you holding onto your specific beliefs because it’s what the Bible says, or because it’s what you’ve been told to believe about the Bible?
Are you married to Jesus, or to your own system of rules and doctrines?
My perspective on the Bible has profoundly expanded, and I have become more comfortable with holding it as an ancient, ancient text that fits within its own time and culture far better than it fits in ours.
This means that we won’t find clear cut answers to theological systems that are waterproof and won’t be contradicted by other passages.
It means we have to be comfortable with a God who does not fit in the little boxes in which we try to contain Him.
It means that the more we wrestle with these things and with His Word, the more questions we will have, but the closer we will be to Him. It’s weird, right?
I’ve had to become comfortable holding more things in an open hand, sitting in mystery, trusting God has it figured out since I don’t. In many ways, this has allowed me to show more grace to people in every area. If the Jews could pull some truth out of Zoroastrianism, I can certainly find good in everything. I don’t need to hold others to my same standard of intellectual/theological rigor.
After all, if we could figure Him out all the way, He wouldn’t be that much of a God, right?
May we never settle for a god that can easily fit inside a little box.