Saturday, August 4, 2007

The five Jewish people you meet in heaven

After a lunch powwow with his buddies, Noel came home with a question for me: According to general evangelical principles, are Moses and Daniel in heaven?

You see, one of the group was describing a funeral he recently attended, at which the evangelical pastor presiding opined that the recently, tragically deceased was asking Moses all those questions he'd always wondered about, or getting a first-hand description of the lion's den from Daniel.

This puzzled Noel, given that these heroes were not believers in the saving blood of Jesus Christ, for the simple reason that they died centuries before his birth.

There is a robust lack of specific teachings on such matters in many evangelical groups (including the Southern Baptists in which I was raised). The priesthood of every believer, and the freedom of every person to interpret scripture and receive the leading of the Holy Spirit on her own, mean that such groups have resisted (historically speaking) codifications of doctrine on any matters more narrow than revelation, Trinitarianism, and a very bare-bones Christology.

Naturally, the lack of official church teachings on other matters has not stopped evangelicals from being led by various influential pastors and historical positions to more or less endorsed positions on them. The question of the eternal destination of the Old Testament patriarchs is one that is informed more by the process of elimination than any positive theological construction.

The Protestant Reformation attempted, with varying degrees of thoroughness, to do away with doctrines and practices that could not be justified biblically. Catholics, of course, had gone to great links to sort all souls into appropriate afterlife bins, as anyone who has read Dante can attest. But the forbears of today's evangelicals, especially those in the Radical Reformation movements, pared the postmortem map down to two diametrically-opposed kingdoms: heaven and hell. These same groups insisted on adult confession of belief in Jesus Christ as a prerequisite for a heavenly mansion.

So what was to be done about the patriarchs? To my knowledge, the question was not given serious consideration among Protestants until the Victorian age, when English culture (and its American outposts) reimagined the afterlife as a place of joyful family reunions. Previously, heaven was seen as a venue for the glorification of God, not an extension of individual preoccupations; some writers even suggested that the dead will not recognize each other, since the resulting remnants of earthly ties would only detract from their exclusive focus on the deity.

But in the nineteenth century, with volumes being written, sermons being preached, and sentimental poetry and art being produced that portrayed heaven in more earthly terms -- a place where one enjoyed the company of friends and pursued individual interests -- people began to look forward to the conversations they'd have with the towering figures of biblical literature.

Would those heroes be present in heaven, though, to be interrogated? Fairness seemed to dictate that they would, and so a vague version of the Catholic tradition of Christ's descent into the realm of the dead and rescue of the faithful Jewish forbears held sway. Or an inchoate reliance upon God's foreknowledge might be the answer: God knew who had died believing in the eventual coming of the Messiah, and counted that as "belief in Christ" proleptically.

These matters only become a problem when the idea of a soul taking leave of the body and immediately going to heaven or hell takes hold. As most biblical scholars and classicists will tell you, this is not an Old Testament concept at all; a reading of accounts of death in the Hebrew Bible clearly shows that at most there is a "land of shades" where the dead lead a ghostly existence, not a compensatory afterlife of rewards and punishments, until the more highly-developed systems of Greek and Persian thought begin to influence the biblical writers.

It's not even clear in the New Testament that the separability of the soul from the body is accepted; aside from a couple of references to immediate destinations (Jesus' words to the thief on the cross, Paul's assertion that "to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lofd"), the focus is exclusively on resurrection. That is, the reanimation of the person, body and spirit together, which in Jewish thought is the only existence possible. Indeed, before the Victorian conception of the afterlife took hold, Christian thinkers often held that the life of the individual is suspended until the end of time, when resurrection allows that life to resume. If that is not the case, as in the currently popular assumption that the body is irrelevant to the afterlife, then it's hard to know what to make of Paul's constant harping on resurrection.


dougb0 said...

I would have to say that many evangelical churches do teach on the issue of saving faith in the OT. I've taught on it in my high school Sunday School class, in fact! There are plenty of places in scripture where this is spelled out, I think. The classic one would be "And he [Abram] believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness." (Gen. 15:6, interpreted by Paul in Romans 4). Other passages include: I Cor. 10:1-5, Hebrews 11, John 8:56. Also check out the Westminster Confession of Faith (doctrinal statement used by my church) VII:5 and VIII:6.

I think that's the orthodox doctrine, clearly addressed in the Bible, and "seriously considered" well before 1647 (when the WCF was finished).

The other issue, though (will we have relationships with other people in heaven?), I have to admit is a thorny one, and not one that I've received much teaching on.


Donna B. said...

Point taken, Doug. Although any church that adheres to a historical confession of faith is not the kind of evangelical (congregationalist polity, deriving from what was called in the eighteenth century the "Dissenting Churches") I was talking about. I noted that this lack of doctrine is in "many" (not all) evangelical groups, and I further specified that I was talking about those who find their roots in the Radical Reformation (like Baptists). Any church that finds its historical roots in Methodism or Presbyterianism is going to be able to refer to established church teaching on this issue (and many others). It's those who are fiercely anti-creedal and congregationalist that are not going to have "official" guidance, and are instead going to be led by various speculations or positions held by influential authors and pastors.

Although the question was addressed before Victorian times in Protestant circles, as you note, it was not a matter of much lay or pastoral concern. Just look at the striking lack of interest in the afterlife on the part of the Reformers and their immediate followers, compared to the explosion of speculation in Victorian times that lingers today. Sure, Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Methodists knew what a complete catechism looked like, and therefore what doctrines needed settling. But the churches, writers, and clergy in practice were not interested nearly as interested in questions about the afterlife as we are today. Some scholars who study attitudes toward death speculate that those who were surrounded by the reality of death every day (as in the sixteenth century) were less obsessed with it than those in the age of science, medicine, and the segregation of the dying into hospitals and special facilities. The less familiar we are with death, the more we are anxious about it. At least that is the influential thesis of Philippe Aries, which has been much discussed. At any rate, Americans' interest in the human side, if you will, of heaven is far greater than at any time in history, at the same time as a very large number of churches have no promulgated doctrine on the subject.

dougb0 said...

Good answer (as I expected). :-) No offense intended (and I hope none taken) - just trying to clarify.

I didn't know that definition of "evangelical." I've always understood it to mean churches that believed in the authority and inerrancy of scripture, and other conservative, orthodox doctrines.

The other interesting thing that comes to mind is that I know a lot of folks who have taken the same or similar "path" through denominations as I have - from Baptist (or similar non-creedal evangelical) to PCA (or similar creedal evangelical). I think a lot of people have rediscovered historic reformed Christianity, and appreciated the more thorough theology.