Friday, June 23, 2006

Heaven & Hell

A friend once posed a question about the Apocalypse of Peter - an apocryphal book supposedly written by Peter detailing the rewards of the faithful in heaven and the punishments of the damned in hell. What's interesting about the book is that at the end, the author is told that the damned may be prayed into heaven by the righteous - an idea which challenges the finality of heaven and hell. In addition, the book was widely read and quoted among Christians in the early church. So why is it not a part of our Bible? Here's three quick points regarding problems with the Apocalypse of Peter:

1. Only two manuscripts of this book exist. One manuscript completely omits the "praying the damned into heaven" segment. Thus, the fact that the two copies don't agree on this theological concept makes it questionable, at best.

2. The book goes into extraordinary detail about what heaven and hell are like. In contrast, most descriptions of the hereafter in the Bible are made in only very general terms. For this reason, the subject matter of the Apocalypse of Peter is very enticing (after all, who doesn't want to know more about heaven and hell?) and was probably widely read because it was popular. The unique depictions of heaven and hell also raise questions about the book's authenticity.

3. Whether or not early Christians considered it scriptural does matter - but even that must be taken with a grain of salt. Very simply, theology wasn't a great issue for early believers. While churches today split on matters of doctrine, churches then typically split on matters of discipline. That is, they were more concerned about how a Christian ought to behave than what a Christian ought to believe. Considering the content of the Apocalypse of Peter is largely behavior-focused, it appears to have been written specifically for a 2nd Century Christian viewpoint.

Apopcrypha aside, what exactly does the Bible say about heaven and hell?

"This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God."
(John 3:19-21 - NIV)
Jesus says clearly that men are judged by hiding from the Light - in other words, men judge themselves by refusing to leave the darkness. The implication of these verses is that Judgement Day is not going to be so much God chasing down errant sinners and throwing them into hell, but rather God simply giving men what they have already chosen beforehand - either an eternity of the darkness they spent their lives hiding in or an eternity of the Light they spent their lives seeking out.

A good illustration of what I mean can be found in Mark Cahill's book, "The One Thing You Can't Do In Heaven". In it, Cahill, a personal friend of Charles Barkley, describes a conversation he had with Barkley's brother, Darryl. During the conversation, Darryl told Cahill that he had recently suffered a heart attack during which he had a near-death experience. Darryl said that during the near-death experience, he remembered floating out of his body, watching momentarily from above as paramedics worked on him and eventually departing toward the "light at the end of the tunnel". Interestingly, he came to find that the "light" was not heaven - it was hell. Darryl was convinced of what he saw and openly admitted to Cahill that he believed he would go to hell when he died. Yet when Cahill pressed Darryl about doing something to correct his fate, Darryl refused. Why? According to Cahill, Darryl simply didn't want to change his lifestyle.

Why would a man who is absolutely certain that hell exists and that he is destined for it do absolutely nothing to save his own soul? The only logical explanation that occurs to me is that for as much as Darryl Barkley does not care to go to hell, he cares even less to seek out God.

Strangely enough, the Bible documents this same idea in the story of Lazarus and the rich man in Luke 16:19-31. There, as the rich man is tormented in hell, he begs Abraham to send Lazarus back from the dead to convince his remaining family to repent before it's too late. Abraham responds, "If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, they will not be persuaded, even if someone rises from the dead."

It seems that heaven and hell are a "canonizing" of who we are for all eterninty - a permanent casting of ourselves either as children of light or darkness. At the risk of getting too philosophical, if we are ultimately "canonized" or cast in our free will, then it could very well be that those who are consigned to hell either cannot or will not change their minds about their destination, no matter how much they don't want to be there.

I admit it is specualtion and perhaps it's best left that way. The finality and nature of heaven and hell remain difficult topics to fully grasp, though many have tried through the years to put a perspective on it. For further reading, I would recommend C.S. Lewis' book, "The Great Divorce". His insightful views of human nature lend themselves well to the topic at hand and provide some helpful perspectives.

As a parting thought, I'd like to leave you with a quote from C.H. Spurgeon:

If sinners will be damned, at least let them leap to hell over our bodies. And if they perish, let them perish with our arms about their knees, imploring them to stay. If hell must be filled, at least let it be filled in the teeth of our exertions, and let not one go there unwarned or unprayed for.

- Graffy


Samurai Sam said...

I would have to contest your assertion that early Christians didn't have issues of theology. I think the Gnostic collection from Nag Hammadi challenges that assertion. As to the authenticity of the Apocalypse of Peter, I think you probably have a good point. That's why, when I sent you the question originally, I asked that you discount that part. I realize that, to modern conservative Christians, the Bible's theology isn't up for much debate. After all, how can one debate absolute truth? At best, one can only debate whether mankind truly understands it properly.

I still contend that, all archeological concerns aside, a doctrine of forgiveness from Hell is more theologically defensible in light of Jesus' depiction of God. Moses depiction, certainly not, which helps outline the differences between the two Testaments that helped give rise to Gnosticism.

Just as a heads up: I have some questions brewing concerning pseudo-Pauline scripture; the Pastoral letters and such. I'm doing some reading now but I'll be sending it your way soon.

By the way, hope your baby boy's giving you some rest!

Graffy said...

I wouldn't say there were no issues in early Christianity regarding theology - just that they weren't as involved as they are today. One early chruch father, Origen, believed that damnation was only temporary and many vilified him for that view. However, it's important to note that the first church division occured sometime in the third century in Egypt, and this was over discipline - not doctrine. It took another century or so (my memory isn't exact on the timing here) before you started to see divisions within Christianity regarding church doctrine. More specifically, once Christianity was no longer severely persecuted, discipline took a back seat to doctrine.

It's also important to note there's a difference between doctrine and dogma. Dogma makes or breaks Christianity - doctrine is typically a lesser issue. Thus, when early Christianity saw it's dogmas challenged (like the Gnostics attacking the divinity of Christ), of course you see contention. The point is, early Christian believers didn't really care about things like whether God predestines or man freely chooses, or whether man is a dichotomy (body & soul) or trichotomy (body, soul, spirit). Ultimately, whether or not heaven and hell are permanent states does matter, but it doesn't really challenge the essential dogmas of Christianity - not on the level that the divinity of Christ would. It's not my own view, either - that's a commonly held perspective in (conservative) Biblical scholarship. I don't doubt that this issue was a fertile breeding ground for Gnosticism, but Gnosticism was largely declared a heresy on matters greater than this.

Besides, if we all end up in heaven (which is the essential nature of the "prayers for the damned" theology), then a human being is treated as a means to an end. The point is that even if someone did want to spend eternity in hell, they couldn't because God wouldn't let them (because it's just not loving?). God, then, denies us in the end the one thing He granted us from the start - our free wills. Do we then really have free will? Or is God worshipped in heaven by automatons or, worse yet, people who don't want to worship him but are forced to? I don't argue that God doesn't want anyone to go to hell - 2 Peter 3:9 and, of course, John 3:16 shows that God loves everyone. We just have to remember that not everyone loves Him.

Pardon the cliche, but there are those who say to God, "thy will be done" and there are those to whom God says (in the end), "thy will be done"...

Holly said...

Hi, I know this comes to you years later from this post. I had googled trying to find the obituary on Darryl Barkley brother of Charles Barkley and found this post while looking. Darryl was a very good friend of mine and only after couple years later from this post. When I met Darryl, he had a copy of this book you speak of by Cahill, I read parts of it only cause he insisted. (This post that speaks of him is posted 3 years after he changed his life and started living life for God) However, Darryl shared with me a website, and actually a CD that had a interview with him on it that left me in tears. Darryl didn't believe in God until he was at what would of been the end of his life. As those days grew closer and he met with the Dr.s at UAB, and he realized what a mess he had made out of his life. He changed his life around and realized if he only had a little time left he would try to give back and knowing that only God could save him now. He had made the hospital his home, but Darryl as a changed person and not the person who was knocking on hells door was a larger than life person and to know him, would be to love him. His smile brightened many peoples lives. So, as those days grew closer he spent his days visiting kids in the hospital that either had a transplant or needed one. He could make kids laugh and smile. The day came and he only had about a 24 hour span of life left, the Dr.s came in and told him that they had found a heart for him. I met him in clinic at one of his Dr's visits 5 years later.
We became good friends. I loved to go visit the kids at the hospital when he would go and do activities like Dreams on Wings. He had such a impact on many and didn't let anyone go by and not know his life changing story. So, I leave you with his website to see for yourself.
Darryl passed away March 20, 2009. With the change of his life and his love for God, he was able to enjoy 6 more years of life with his friends new and old, his family and sweet daughter.

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