Wednesday, March 30, 2011

More on the antiquity of Judaism

This post originally appeared on my DISSECTING LEFTISM blog.

I love my Jewish readers. When I post something about Jews and Judaism, I always get ten times the response to what I get on any other topic -- and all well-reasoned responses too, unlike the tantrums from Leftists.

I posted a couple of days ago a provocative article that did something very naughty. I questioned the continuity between the Judaism of Old Testament times and the Jews of today. It is a tribute to Jewish good manners that my post was greeted with some politeness, albeit with great disagreement.

And, of course, it is all a matter of degree. It is probably safe to say that all religions change all the time. Nonetheless I think there is a step-change after the destruction of Herod's temple. For instance, Jews no longer put homosexuals to death (as the Torah requires) and no longer burn animals on an altar in the belief that so doing will ingratiate themselves with their god.

How often Jews did those things is beside the point. The point is that their religion required those things, whereas now it does not.

It is true that the diaspora started long before the Roman onslaught and that Jews outside Israel had already abandoned the two practices I mentioned. But the temple was still there and its centrality to Jewish practice and belief cannot be doubted by any reader of the Hebrew scriptures. Jews abroad were still in a position to feel that all the requirements of their religion were being met where that mattered: In Israel.

So it is still my conclusion that post-temple Judaism and Christianity are two different and contemporaneous adaptations of the original Hebrew belief system. And we call Christianity a different religion, so why not present-day Judaism?

A point that may have slid past some of my Jewish readers is that Jesus did a very good job of rooting his teachings in the Torah. He quoted it repeatedly and insisted that he did not question it. He was a good Israelite of his times and his adaptation of the traditional teachings provided a good foundation for what later became known as Christianity to be likewise rooted. Which is why the Hebrew scriptures are an important part of Christianity to this day.

Update: In case it is not already clear, I should perhaps note that I am speaking of Jewish RELIGION. There is also of course a substantial claim that modern Jews are RACIALLY related to the ancient Hebrews.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The meaning of "soul" in the Bible

This post originally appeared on my DISSECTING LEFTISM blog.

Jesus said: "For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?" (Mark 8: 36).

How can you lose your soul? Is not your soul YOU? Is it not your immortal essence? Sadly, although the idea that we have an immortal soul in us is an old pagan one, it is not Biblical -- as the text shows.

The Bible in fact mentions nothing like an immortal soul. The word "soul" does appear in most translations of the Bible but it does not mean what Christians assume it to mean. In the original Greek of the New Testament, the word used in Mark 8: 36 and elsewhere is "psyche", the basic meaning of which (according to the authoritative Liddell & Scott Greek Lexicon) is "breath", or, metaphorically, "life".

So when you're dead, you're dead, brother -- as Ecclesiastes chapter 9 tells you so emphatically. Your only hope is to be resurrected at the coming of the Messiah.

Monday, March 28, 2011

How ancient is Judaism?

This post originally appeared on my DISSECTING LEFTISM blog.

At some risk to my "Goy" self, I occasionally write something about Jews and Judaism. So far, however, I have escaped unscathed (I think) so here goes another foray:

It is a common and proud claim among Israelis that they are still living in the same place and speaking the same language and (sort of) following the same religion as they did 3,000 years ago. That thought gives them great pride and helps make up in some way for the horrendous travail Jews have had to go through to get to today.

But, to be blunt, it is nonsense. After the Roman triumph and the expulsion of most Jews from Israel, Jews had to change their religion radically. Judaism had been a temple-focused religion -- so once the temple was gone, huge changes in thinking and custom were needed.

And the changes took two forms: Those who accepted the ideas of the greatest rabbi (Jesus Christ) and those who laboured to stick more closely to traditional ideas. Even among the latter group, however, the surrounding pagan culture took over to a degree. The modern form of the seder, for instance, is said to be strongly influenced by the form of the Hellenistic symposium.

So Judaism as we know it today is in fact no older than Christianity. They are two branches that had to put out fresh growth after the original tree was cut down. And just as Christian thinking underwent all sorts of disputes in its development (e.g. the Arian/Athanasian controversy) so Jews waited a long while for their new ideas to coalesce -- in the form of teachings by great rabbis such as Rashi and Maimonides.

Christian thought in fact probably coalesced more rapidly that did post-temple Jewish thought. Rashi and Maimonides both wrote over 1,000 years after the fall of the temple but have been immensely influential. And by the time they wrote, they lived in a Christian world so were undoubtedly influenced in various ways by Christian ideas -- and Christianity had itself taken on a pretty heavy load of pagan ideas by that time. So I am sure that the Christian/Egyptian concept of the triune God was the subject of much private hilarity among Jews.

So we in fact have two religions of ancient Jewish origins that are quite contemporaneous -- with the Christian variant more successful in most ways. And while Christianity/Judaism precede Islam, Sikhism and Bahai, they are themselves preceded by Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism and Shinto. And I'm inclined to think that Shinto has the best hats -- despite formidable competition from the gold crowns of Russian Orthodoxy and the shtreimel of orthodox Judaism.

I guess I'll get a few zingers over all that! I'll hear about the Talmud and the Midrash and so on. As an atheist who is sympathetic to religion, however, I may be in a position to be more impartial than most.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Hellfire and the immortal soul are pagan doctrines

Although I have been the most utter atheist for all of my adult life, I cannot rid myself of an interest in theology, or more precisely, exegesis -- so I am reproducing the article below. I would normally have nothing but contempt for an "evangelical" equivalent of Episcopalian Bishop Spong but I think that there are good Biblical grounds for some of the more unorthodox views described below and I will add my reasoning on that at the foot of the reproduced article -- JR
A new book by one of the country’s most influential evangelical pastors, challenging traditional Christian views of heaven, hell and eternal damnation, has created an uproar among evangelical leaders, with the most ancient of questions being argued in a biblical hailstorm of Twitter messages and blog posts.

Rob Bell addressed the issue of heaven and hell in a video about his book, “A Book About Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.”

In a book to be published this month, the pastor, Rob Bell, known for his provocative views and appeal among the young, describes as “misguided and toxic” the dogma that “a select few Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven, while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance for anything better.”

Such statements are hardly radical among more liberal theologians, who for centuries have wrestled with the seeming contradiction between an all-loving God and the consignment of the billions of non-Christians to eternal suffering. But to traditionalists they border on heresy, and they have come just at a time when conservative evangelicals fear that a younger generation is straying from unbendable biblical truths.

Mr. Bell, 40, whose Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Mich., has 10,000 members, is a Christian celebrity and something of a hipster in the pulpit, with engaging videos that sell by the hundreds of thousands and appearances to rapt, youthful crowds in rock-music arenas.

His book comes as the evangelical community has embraced the Internet and social media to a remarkable degree, so that a debate that once might have built over months in magazines and pulpits has instead erupted at electronic speed.

The furor was touched off last Saturday by a widely read Christian blogger, Justin Taylor, based on promotional summaries of the book and a video produced by Mr. Bell. In his blog, Between Two Worlds, Mr. Taylor said that the pastor “is moving farther and farther away from anything resembling biblical Christianity.”

“It is unspeakably sad when those called to be ministers of the Word distort the gospel and deceive the people of God with false doctrine,” wrote Mr. Taylor, who is vice president of Crossway, a Christian publisher in Wheaton, Ill.

By that same evening, “Rob Bell” was one of the top 10 trending topics on Twitter. Within 48 hours, Mr. Taylor’s original blog had been viewed 250,000 times. Dozens of other Christian leaders and bloggers jumped into the fray and thousands of their readers posted comments on both sides of the debate, though few had yet seen the entire book.

One leading evangelical, John Piper of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, wrote, “Farewell Rob Bell.” R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said in a blog post that by suggesting that people who do not embrace Jesus may still be saved, Mr. Bell was at best toying with heresy. He called the promotional video, in which Mr. Bell pointedly asks whether it can be true that Gandhi, a non-Christian, is burning in hell, “the sad equivalent of a theological striptease.”

Others such as Scot McKnight, a professor of theology at North Park University in Chicago, said they welcomed the renewed discussion of one of the hardest issues in Christianity — can a loving God really be so wrathful toward people who faltered, or never were exposed to Jesus? In an interview and on his blog, he said that the thunder emanating from the right this week was not representative of American Christians, even evangelicals. According to surveys and his experience with students, Mr. McKnight said, a large majority of evangelical Christians “more or less believe that people of other faiths will go to heaven,” whatever their churches and theologians may argue.

“Rob Bell is tapping into a younger generation that really wants to open up these questions,” he said. “He is also tapping into the fear of the traditionalists — that these differing views of heaven and hell will compromise the Christian message.”

Mr. Bell, who through his publisher declined to comment on the book or the debate, has resisted labels, but he is often described as part of the so-called emerging church movement, which caters to younger believers and has challenged theological boundaries as well as pastoral involvement in conservative politics.

As the controversy exploded last week, HarperOne moved up to March 15 the publication date of Mr. Bell’s book, “Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.”

Judging from an advance copy, the 200-page book is unlikely to assuage Mr. Bell’s critics. In an elliptical style, he throws out probing questions about traditional biblical interpretations, mixing real-life stories with scripture.

Much of the book is a sometimes obscure discussion of the meaning of heaven and hell that tears away at the standard ideas. In his version, heaven is something that begins here on earth, in a life of goodness, and hell seems more a condition than an eternal fate — “the very real consequences we experience when we reject all the good and true and beautiful life that God has for us.”

While sliding close to what critics consider the heresy of “universalism” — that all humans will eventually be saved — he never uses the term.

Mark Galli, senior managing editor of Christianity Today, called in an article on the magazine's Web site for all sides to temper their rhetoric and welcome more debate.

“We won’t be able to discern where the Spirit is leading if we don’t listen and respond respectfully to one another,” he wrote.

“God once used a donkey to make his will known,” he added, “so surely he is able to speak through both traditionalists and gadflies.”


I think Pastor ring-a-ding is right for the wrong reasons. He is clearly motivated mainly by the current Leftist "prizes for all" mentality, which in turn emanates from their totally counterfactual belief that "all men are equal". So his is a secular rather than a religious gospel. I may be wrong but I rather doubt that he would be able to give a straight answer to the question: "Do you believe in God?" Spong just ridicules the question.

But orthodox Christianity is unbiblical too. It is still largely mired in the pagan add-ons that the church absorbed in its first thousand years of existence. And the heaven/hell story is one of the pagan add-ons. Why else is the supposedly "immortal" soul repeatedly referred to in the Bible as dying? (e.g. Ezekiel 18:4).

The original Jewish hope of an afterlife (as recorded in the OT) was of being resurrected to life on this earth after the coming of the Messiah. They believed that when you are dead you are dead, with no mention of some part of you flitting off to heaven or elsewhere. I give you an excerpt from Ecclesiastes chapter 9:
For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten. Also their love, and their hatred, and their envy, is now perished; neither have they any more a portion for ever in any thing that is done under the sun.... Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest

And Jesus looked forward to a resurrection on earth too. Do I need to repeat: "Thy kingdom come; thy will be done ON EARTH as it is in heaven"?

St Paul, however muddied the waters somewhat with his proclamation in 1 Corinthians 15:
"So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption. It is sown in dishonour; it is raised in glory: it is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body.... Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; neither doth corruption inherit incorruption. Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality."

So Paul was also perfectly clear that nothing happened until the resurrection and that we are mortal, not immortal. What he changed was WHAT we are raised as. Instead of being recreated as flesh and blood persons on this earth, he saw us as being transformed into spirit beings after the manner of God and the angels. And he said NOTHING about Hell. The good guys were brought back to life and the rest of the dead stayed dead.

So what the Bible says is just ignored by orthodox Christianity. It should be a huge theological puzzle as to whether we accept the OT or the Pauline account of the afterlife. Who is right? Jesus or Paul? Yet there seems to be almost no awareness that the question even exists.

And there also seems to be no awareness that there is no Biblical basis for the doctrine of hellfire. There is no mention of such a thing in the Bible. The words translated in most English Bibles as "hell" are in the original Hebrew and Greek "sheol" and "hades", which simply mean "grave".

There is on one occasion a reference to burning in the fires of Gehenna but Gehenna was simply the municipal incinerator of ancient Jersusalem -- a place where the bodies of criminals were thrown. It is NOT any kind of spirit realm.

So I agree with pastor ring-a-ding that the hellfire doctrine is repulsive -- but you can't pin that doctrine onto the Bible. The original Bible doctrine DOES fit with a loving God: The faithful are resurrected and the sinners are simply forgotten.

For more details on the above matters see earlier posts on this blog -- e.g. my post of 3.14.2005.