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Saturday, October 24, 2015

Doesn’t Always Mean What We Think It Means (3)

“Heaven” / “Paradise”


Yahweh’s Restoration Ministry (let’s call them YRM for the sake of brevity) says the Bible is “the most misunderstood book of all time”.

That’s a provocative statement, and not one that’s easy to prove. But given the ubiquity of Bibles in our times, the number of years most of its books have been circulated, and the diversity of interpretations some derive from it, I suppose it may be correct.

Of course, the question that almost asks itself after such a declaration is “If so, then whose understanding of the Bible is correct?” And we can probably guess how YRM would answer that one.

Yahweh’s Restoration

YRM is a group headquartered in Holt’s Summit, Missouri, for which the term “Judeo-Christian” might well have been coined. That’s because their beliefs are a mash-up of Judaism and Christianity in almost equal parts. They celebrate the Sabbath and other Jewish holy days, observe the “clean food” laws of Leviticus and other Old Testament commandments and statutes, while simultaneously proclaiming Jesus as the Son of God and fulfillment of the Messianic promises, and practicing much of the New Testament apostolic teaching.

Reconciling Christian freedom with Jewish legalism is tough sledding (read: impossible), and leads to some interesting doctrinal quirks and unique readings of portions of scripture that would be impossible to detail here. But one of YRM’s “Big Three Misunderstandings” concerns the idea of heaven, and gives rise to this challenge:
“After searching the Scriptures for 40 years we have not found one verse that says, ‘When we get to heaven,’ or ‘I’ll see you in heaven,’ or ‘Rejoice for you will one day be in heaven,’ or anything similar.”
You know, they’re not wrong about that. I can’t find those verses either. However, the conclusion they draw from their absence is quite erroneous:
“The dead are unconscious in their graves until they are resurrected.”
Uh, no.

At the root of the YRM doctrinal confusion about death and the afterlife are (1) a facile, extra-biblical usage of the term “heaven” among many groups of Christians that makes the notion an easy target, and (2) their own inadequate understanding of the terms “heaven” and “paradise”. And since YRM claims to accept the final authority of scripture, these terms bear examination.

4.  “Heaven”

The word “heaven” is used three different ways in scripture. Context best determines which sense is intended in any particular instance:

1)  Sky.  In Genesis 1, we read of God creating something called the “firmament” (or “expanse”) to divide “the waters” and naming that expanse in Hebrew shamayim, or “heaven”. He created birds to fly in this expanse, so the first sort of “heaven” must be what we call the sky. The phrase “birds of shamayim” is obviously better rendered “birds of the air” rather than “birds of heaven”, so most translations reflect this. The Greek ouranos reflects the same concept in the expression “the clouds of heaven” and others.

2)  Space.  There are numerous references in scripture to the “stars of heaven”, considerably further afield than birds are inclined to soar. So shamayim is also used to describe the “deep heavens”, or space. In Matthew, the Lord says “The stars will fall from heaven”, using ouranos in the same sense.

3)  The Dwelling Place of God.  Finally, shamayim is used to describe what is referred to as the “house of God” by Jacob in Genesis 28. He identifies the “house of God” with “heaven”, and declares that the ladder he sees reaching up into the sky with the angels of God ascending and descending on it is the “gate of heaven”. In the New Testament, the same concept is expressed with the Greek ouranos, as in the phrase “kingdom of ouranos” (or “heaven”), where it is clear that the meaning “sky” or “space” will not suffice; likewise the phrase, “your Father which is in ouranos”. The Lord Jesus tells us heaven is “God’s throne”.

Going to Heaven

Because God is spirit and “fills all in all”, in one sense he cannot be said to inhabit a “house” of any sort, earthly or heavenly. But because he interacts with created beings located in space and time, to the extent he is seen at all, he is perceived by the prophets as having a location, and scripture calls that location “heaven”.

As a result, many Christians have come to use expressions like “going to heaven” as quasi-biblical shorthand for “being with God”, though the process of passing from this world to the next is not described precisely that way in either Testament. This is probably what YRM is objecting to when they (correctly) point out that the Lord Jesus said, “No one has ascended up to heaven”.

“No One Has Ascended”

Mind you, I believe the force of the Lord’s statement in John 3 is not to insist that nobody else has ever been to heaven at all — the angels in Jacob’s vision would give the lie to that — but that nobody has ever ascended there. We might paraphrase it as “No one has ever travelled to heaven of his own volition”.

If the Lord really meant that nobody has ever been to heaven at all, what do we do with Enoch and Elijah? Enoch, it has long been understood, did not die. He simply “was not, for God took him”. But he certainly did not get wherever he went thereafter on his own steam. He was “taken” there. Elijah, it is specifically told us, was taken “up to heaven by a whirlwind” in front of a living witness. Again, he did not get there on his own steam.

It does not help if we propose that the writer of 2 Kings means that Elijah merely went up into the sky, since obviously he had to go somewhere else after he went up. Down, maybe. The notion that at the end of his life Elijah may have been taken for a joyride around the atmosphere or solar system, then summarily dumped in the dirt like the rest of us is too inane to discuss.

Either the Lord was mistaken about nobody ever having been to heaven, or we need to rethink what he meant by “ascended” (in case it’s unclear, I favour the latter option). But neither Enoch nor Elijah “ascended”. Both were “taken”, and went to heaven.

Waiting in the Grave

YRM, on the other hand, understand the Lord’s words in John 3:13 to mean that the spirits of the righteous dead go nowhere at all, but await their resurrection at the end of the world. They point out that David died, as if that settles the matter:
“For nearly a thousand years up to the time Yahshua walked this earth David lay in the grave, and he is still dead in the grave, having gone nowhere but to his rest for the past 3,000 years.”
In asserting this they have gone beyond debating mere terminology into territory in which they appear clueless about the distinction between body and spirit.

But they have another problem, and that’s with the word “Paradise”.

5.  “Paradise”

Etymology.  The Greek word parádeisos is a lot less common than ouranos in the New Testament, occurring only three times: once from the Lord, once from Paul and once from John. The word came into the Greek language via Persian, where paridayda referred to a walled enclosure or garden. The Abrahamic faiths thus associate Paradise with the Garden of Eden. It is a cross-cultural term universally understood to be someplace very good indeed.

Now it may be argued that the “Paradise” which the Lord Jesus promised to the dying thief on the cross beside him is not “heaven” proper, and that may be a subject for another day. What Paradise is demonstrably NOT is the “unconscious rest” that the YRM folks anticipate.

Abraham’s Bosom.  Further, we have the story the Lord Jesus told of the rich man and Lazarus. I say “story” rather than “parable”, because the account is remarkably unlike the Lord’s parables in several significant ways, as I set out here. Upon dying, the rich man is transported to Hades, and Lazarus is taken to the “side”, “arms”, “lap” or “bosom” of Abraham, depending on your translation of choice. The point is, he was with Abraham in a place of rest, contentment and peace immediately after dying, a place very distinct from the Hades of the rich man and separated from him by a “great chasm”.

Sounds a bit like Paradise to me, but let’s not pick at nits.

Further, Lazarus is very much conscious and aware. Like David (but unlike Enoch and Elijah), his body is in the grave awaiting the resurrection of the dead, but his eternal spirit and personhood are in a place of blessedness in which he is comforted but from which he may not depart.

Unless we wish to posit two different versions of the post-death experience for the faithful, it sounds to me like it does indeed involve rest, but also conscious awareness, fellowship with other saints, and the anticipation of being reunited with one’s glorified body.

The Heavenly Dwelling

YRM’s view of death is also out of accord with this statement of the apostle Paul:
“We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.”
Here the possibilities seem to be laid out rather starkly. It is either “at home in the body / away from the Lord” or, in the alternative, “away from the body” / “at home with the Lord”. Neither sounds much like unconscious rest in the grave. And there is no suggestion of an interval in between, let alone an interval of thousands of years in the case of some of the faithful, like David.

Further, if Paul expected to be “at home with the Lord” in the context of a general resurrection, in what sense would that be “away from the body”? In a resurrection, the soul and spirit are reunited with the body, as in the case of Lazarus. It is implicit in the word “resurrection”, if I may flog a dead horse.

Again in Philippians, Paul lays out stark alternatives:
“If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.”
The sheer silliness of suggesting that what Paul really means here is that he would prefer to maximize his time unconscious in the grave while waiting for a general resurrection rather than continue living and maximize “fruitful labor” almost defies coherent response. He does not rejoice in death for its own sake, nor does he encourage that attitude in anyone else, but he clearly sees death as identical to being “with Christ”. The thing that appeals to him is not mere relief from bodily suffering, but the thought of being united with the Lord.

In Summary

Yahweh’s Restoration Ministry rightly has its roots in the Old Testament, but they are just a little too well-rooted for their own good. The Christian is not like the Jewish believer before the time of Christ who struggled to comprehend a mystery not yet fully revealed, sometimes filling in the gaps in his knowledge with speculation, fear and concepts imported from other cultures.

We are no longer in the dark. The mystery has been revealed.

YRM seems to grasp the part about the last trumpet and the raising of the dead, but the other implications of the New Testament revelation about death and what happens thereafter to the believer, it seems, are lost on them.

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