Archive for December 5th, 2011
“And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” Matthew 25:46 NASB
Eternal life – There is no doubt that Christianity embraces a robust doctrine of the afterlife. In fact, I suspect that if you asked the common believer or non-believer about the most important teaching of the Church, it would have something to do with forgiveness and getting to heaven. The dominance of the idea of the afterlife is striking because of its nearly complete absence from the Tanakh. In fact, Telushkin notes, “Hillel is, it would seem, the first rabbinic sage to speak about an afterlife.” Hillel lived in the first century BC, dying just a few years before Yeshua was born. He was considered one of Judaism’s greatest sages. Telushkin’s comment should cause us to reconsider our typical assumptions about eternal life. If Hillel is the first rabbi to develop any systematic thought about the afterlife, then Yeshua is the next rabbi to elaborate this teaching. That means we can usefully look at the rabbinic development of the idea of eternal life in order to understand what it means. Since there is almost no articulation of an afterlife in previous material (including the Tanakh), we must examine rabbinic influences and rabbinic development if we want to understand Yeshua’s formulation. After all, He was also a man of His time.
Telushkin makes an interesting remark about the absence of the afterlife in the Tanakh:
“I suspect there is a correlation between the Torah’s non-discussion of this topic and the fact that the Torah was revealed shortly after the Israelite sojourn in Egypt. The Egyptian society in which the Israelite slaves dwelled was obsessed with death and the afterlife. The holiest Egyptian literary work was The Book of the Dead, and the major achievement of many pharaohs was the erection of giant tombs called pyramids. In contrast the Torah is obsessed with this world, so much so that it forbids its priests (kohanim) from having contact with dead bodies (Lev. 21:1-3). The Torah, therefore, might be silent about the afterlife out of a desire to ensure that Judaism not evolve in the direction of the death-obsessed Egyptian religion. And it was not only the Egyptian religion that developed this obsession. Throughout history, religions that assign a very important role to the afterlife often permit other religious values to become distorted. For example, it was belief in the afterlife that motivated the Spanish Inquisitors to torture human beings until they announced that they were accepting Christ. The Inquisitors believed that it was better to torture people for a few days in this world until they ‘acquired’ right beliefs and thereby save them from the eternal torments of hell.”
There is no question that Yeshua speaks about an afterlife. He articulates a rabbinic idea of reward and punishment in the olam ha’ba. His words add a great deal to our understanding of a life after death. But even Yeshua does not articulate the kinds of mythology that has grown up around a focus on the next world. In fact, if you examine most of the references to “heaven” in His teachings, you will find they are situated right here, in this world. “Heaven” is the presence of God, not a place in an unseen world. Perhaps that’s why Yeshua’s teaching about eternal life suggest it begins as soon as we accept God’s rightful rule over us and it is expressed in our actions toward others in this world.
Far too often we simply accept what the Church has been teaching for thousands of years. We don’t ask, “Where did that idea come from?” We think that revelation covers everything and arrives without cultural, historical or linguistic influence. Our ideas of inspiration are far more akin to the Mormon doctrine that the angel Maroni delivered the entire book all at once. While we acknowledge that the Bible was written over a period of 2000 years by more than sixty men, we rarely consider what that means it terms of the influences that became part of the teaching. We plead God’s “supervisory” control as if that erases a man’s time and place in history.
I believe that Telushkin is right. There is a reason why the Tanakh doesn’t speak about life after death. There is a reason why Hillel and Yeshua introduce this idea. There are cultural and historical influences that shape the sacred text. If we want to have a deeper understanding of heaven, we don’t start with Andy Stanley or Mitch Alborn, as comforting as those authors might be. And you can certainly ignore Tim LaHaye. We have to start with Hillel and Eliezer, Gamliel and Ben Azzai. And Yeshua, of course. Then we can move on to their students, Sha’ul and Kepha, Yohanan and Yehudah.
Did you think you knew what “eternal life” meant? Have you been living according to a religion that focuses on death? Maybe it’s time to take a longer look. Even after the rabbis, including Yeshua, the religion of the Scriptures is all about life – here and later.
Topical Index: eternal life, heaven, afterlife, Hillel, Telushkin, Matthew 25:46