death

Being Black in America

Today Professor Steve Locke at Massachusetts College of Art and Design posted an account of being stopped by police officers on his way to lunch.  It graphically illustrates a side of interacting with the agents of the state of which the privileged (middle class white people like me) are generally ignorant, and that makes the account moving and difficult to read.  There is something wrong with a system in which a law-abiding professional can conclude that he will probably be killed by the agents of the state to which he pays his taxes.  He was stopped because he “fit the description” of the perpetrator of a recently reported crime, but the description was stupidly broad: “Black male, knit hat, puffy coat.”  Gee, a thick jacket in Boston in December, with a head covering of the most common construction worn by Americans in winter?  How many other black Bostonians did they stop today with a description like that?

As a member of the privileged group, I recognize that my duty is to shut up and listen, and to attempt to understand situations which I will likely never encounter myself.  One aspect of the account continues to confuse me, however, and I post it here in the hopes that some kind soul might enlighten the ignorance of someone who would like to understand. (more…)

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Afterlife in the Old Testament

It is often stated that the Old Testament does not present any view of heaven and hell or life after death.  This is often coupled with assertions that Hebrew authors did not distinguish between body and soul the way that we do.  Now, I do accept the critique that popular American images of heaven as pasty-faced night-robe wearing people on sedatives half-heartedly strumming harps while reclining improbably on clouds owes more to Victorian English book plates than any part of the Bible.  I also accept that most Christians today distinguish too sharply between soul and body (a quibble for another post).  On the other hand, I think what we find in the Old Testament cannot be reconciled with the common assertion that people three millennia or more ago did not conceive of personal continuity after death (apart from the obvious extra-biblical counter-example in the Gilgamesh epic).  Here I wish to focus only on a few verses from Genesis, and in particular on two revealing idioms about death.

A particular idiom is used in Genesis to describe the deaths of Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, and Jacob: each, when he died, was “gathered to his peoples” (Genesis 25:8; 25:17; 35:29; and 49:33).  Most English versions prefer “to his people,” but the noun is curiously yet distinctively plural “peoples.”  What does this mean?  It cannot be a euphemism substituted for “died,” because in three of the four occurrences “died” shortly precedes this idiom.  The verb “died” was clearly not taboo for the author.  On the other hand, the idiom does not seem to be a description of burial, given that the act of burying the deceased is indicated separately in three of the four cases.  Indeed, the burial of Jacob is narratively separated from his being “gathered to his peoples” by most of a chapter.  So it’s not simply a colorful phrase to describe some aspect of the body.  What it did mean is difficult to say precisely, except that by death each person joined other people he was associated with.  How else might death result in a gathering, unless there is some sense of non-physical reunion after death and independently of the body?

The independence from the disposition of the body is seen in another phrase which was not as common as the preceding.  When God foretold to Abraham his death, he said, “As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you will be buried at a good old age” (Genesis 15:15).  Jacob mentioned his own upcoming death similarly: “when I lie down with my fathers” (Genesis 47:30).  Since Jacob is asking to be buried with Abraham and Isaac, one might think his use of the phrase simply reflects the practice of dynastic burial.  But in fact, his grammar indicates that the act of “lying down with his fathers” occurs in Egypt, before the burial: “when I lie down with my fathers, you shall carry me out of Egypt and bury me in their burial place.”  Abraham was not buried with his ancestors, but in Canaan after having left his father’s house according to the Lord’s command (Genesis 12:1).  Indeed, the phrase was also used of Moses (Deuteronomy 31:16), whose burial place was unknown (Deuteronomy 34:6).  This phrase, like the preceding idiom, suggests a hazy concept of reunion with predecessors and other people, independently of the body, after death.  The fact that these are idiomatic phrases further emphasizes that the presupposed views were not idiosyncratic to the author, but were widely held.

Am I saying that the author of Genesis and the people described therein held to the same views of the afterlife that we do?  No, nor need I.  Even Christians today hold all sorts of theories in practice.  Am I saying that they fully understood the notion of spiritual reunion after death?  No, and I suspect we do not fully understand it either.  Views on what happens after we die have certainly changed over time.  My goal in this discussion is simply to suggest that the widespread assertion that the Old Testament authors had no notion of personal continuation after death is demonstrably false.  What notions they did have, and how those notions developed over time, is a more complex question.  But notions of heaven and hell, of personal continuation after death, did not suddenly spring into Judaism during the exilic period from Zoroastrian influence, as one of my textbooks last semester baldly (and ignorantly) asserted.

Requiescat avia mea in pace cum Christo Salvatore suo.

Once Saved, Always Calvinist?

One doctrinal formula which Calvinists bandy about and non-Calvinists like to mock is “once saved, always saved.”  Like almost all doctrinal formulas, this one is shorthand for a longer assertion.  It’s easy to expand it to “once a person has been saved, that person cannot lose his or her salvation.”  But that formulation still presumes that we know what we’re talking about when we say someone “is saved.”  Although this language is often used, especially among American evangelicals since the 19th C, I don’t think “saved” can meaningfully be used as an adjective as it always is, or even as an absolute verb (i.e. a verb without additional specification of the predicate).  Now, some folks who know their Bibles really well will immediately point out that the apostles used the word “saved” in various contexts without adding additional specification (Eph 2:5 and 8 come to mind).  But we must always ask, in every context, “What is the subject of the sentence saved from?”

Since the notion of “once saved, always saved” has come up recently in a few places, I thought I would re-post here an (edited) email I wrote back in 2010 in answer to a question from a friend.  First, his question:

What does it mean to be “saved”? Is it a once-and-for-all thing, or a lifelong process, or what? A fellow who grows up a believer and manifests all the signs of a Christian and then in, say, his late teens turns away from the faith: is he saved?

(more…)

Fighting Truth Decay

This is, at long last, an answer to a question posted by a commentator (I’m sorry to say over a month ago): “[H]ow do you see Christ as having made provisions for guaranteeing the preservation of Truth through the ages (if you see Him as having done so at all)?”  Subsequent discussion revealed that he did not mean merely since Christ’s ascension to heaven.  So this post attempts to address the question in general, but first (as a humanities scholar is apt to do), I need to clarify the issue.

Clarifying the Problem

What does it mean to “guarantee the preservation of Truth”?  In what ways is Truth not preserved?  Truth is not an organic mass which begins to decompose in the summer heat, changing color and attracting flies.  Nor is truth a substance that can be diluted or transmuted.  Truth is a property of certain beliefs, and the “preservation of Truth” is the preservation of true beliefs in the minds of people.  A true belief may fail to be preserved in the minds of people either by failing to pass it on to new people, so that the true belief may be said to end (in a sense) with the death of the last person who believes it, or by being rejected in favor of alternate (and false) beliefs.  Since no sound argument can refute a true belief, if we were fully rational beings, no true belief would ever be rejected for a false belief.  And if we were immortal and perfectly rational beings, truth would be in no danger.  But in fact, we are both mortal, so beliefs need to be passed on, and sinful, so that we often prefer convenient falsehoods to inconvenient truths.  And thus true beliefs need to be preserved.  The transfer of true beliefs to other people is a variety of revelation, the means by which those other people come to believe this truth.  The question of how sinful people are checked from simply chucking out whatever truth they don’t like is a question of redemption.  In both processes, God’s message of salvation is at stake, and therefore this is an important question. (more…)

“Choose Life”

At a climactic moment of his preaching career, Moses stood before the descendants of Israel and said to them, “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.  Now choose life, so that you and your children may live!”  The point was that, by loving and obeying God, things would go well for them, whereas if they disobeyed God, things would go very badly.

This is not an individualized guarantee, of course, however much prosperity gospel preachers hype it as such, but is a general statement that doing bad things leads to bad outcomes.  The clearest counter-example to an individualized interpretation of this statement is Jesus, who loved and obeyed God perfectly, and suffered horribly.  The fact that he knew the punchline three days later does not mitigate the amount of suffering Jesus experienced.  People who wonder what all the fuss was about in the Garden of Gethsemane, if Jesus knew the outcome on Easter morning, have never experienced such intense physical pain.  It is possible to feel pain so intense that you crave only for it to end by whatever means are to hand, no matter what good may theoretically come from it.  Jesus experienced intense pain, and knew ahead of time what he was in for.  No wonder he preferred, all things being equal, to dodge the bullet.

And yet, in that garden, though he asked his Father for a reprieve, for any other way, yet he chose to obey.  And in that sense, he chose his own death.  Not that he desired to die, or that he forced the Romans to kill him, but he had the means at his disposal to avoid his death and yet he did not.  (He made this point in Matthew 26:53-54, rebuking Peter’s resort to the sword.)  He had the honesty to wrestle with God about his desire to avoid experiencing torture, and he had the courage and humility to accept the Father’s plan.

Jesus chose death, so that we can choose life.  As he said, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.

Why does this matter?  Is Jesus just a nice augment to an otherwise affluent life, enjoying all the benefits of Western economic and educational success?

I received an email today from someone whom I don’t get to see very often because we live so far apart.  She said to call; she would have called, but she didn’t have my number.  We played phone tag all afternoon, and when I finally got to talk to her, she shared the bad news: a mutual friend, who I knew well a number of years ago, took her own life yesterday.  I knew of some of this mutual friend’s troubles, but we had not corresponded for almost two years.  I had been intending to email her again “soon” with some good news I received recently, but hadn’t gotten around to it.  I don’t know what she had been going through.

Christianity has traditionally taken a sterner rather than a more comforting line concerning the case of people who cause their own death.  In this case, when last we corresponded, my friend did not share my Lord.  We had read large portions of John’s Gospel together and discussed them, and she had been interested in reading widely about spiritual matters.  After we moved to different American cities, we corresponded by email occasionally and even spoke on the phone a few times.  I had hoped I might some day see her share in the joy of the Savior.

In cases like these, I feel grief for the loss of a friend, especially one so gifted in a number of different ways.  I have enough humanity to wonder the what-ifs: what if I had emailed her a month ago, when I first received the good news I wished to share?  What if I had been a more consistent pen pal?  Could I have done anything?  Might it have mattered?  And I pray for God’s mercy on my friend, and for his comfort for her family.

But I have no use for wishful thinking.  Jesus was not a sentimentalist: he willingly died on an instrument of Roman torture.  He said he came to give life: that is not a pleasant enhancement to life, nor an additional dose of prosperity to an otherwise okay existence.  We will all die some day, unless Christ returns first, and this physical life is temporary.  The life that Jesus came to give is the only life available, the only life that lasts.  These are matters weightier than merely physical life and death; eternity is at stake.

So let us not fool around with trivialities.  Our message to the world needs to be the same message Moses gave to the people of Israel: “Choose life!”