Saturday, December 27, 2014

Where “Judeo-” and “Christian” Part Ways

Apart from a saving knowledge of Christ, even the best of men quite rationally fear death.

We hear a great deal about our “Judeo-Christian heritage” in this country, as if Judaism and Christianity have so much in common that they can be lumped into a hyphenated modifier without further ado. And while Christianity has its roots in the sacred scriptures of Judaism, the specific conclusions Christianity draws from the Hebrew texts and the certainty with which it does so put it in a class all by itself.

I encountered another one of those suspicious and intriguing subject overlaps that happen from time to time when one reads a selection from both the New and Old Testaments daily. This confluence of ideas sets forth a remarkable contrast in attitudes toward death between the “Judeo-” and “Christian” points of view.

Hezekiah on his Deathbed

Isaiah records the sickness of King Hezekiah, an event with which he was familiar since the prophet was personally dispatched by God to tell the king that he was about to die and that he ought to set his affairs in order. Hezekiah did not react well to the news and begged God for a reprieve which, unlike most of us, he received.

Much has been written about the mistakes made by Hezekiah in his final fifteen years of extended life. Some expositors, like this one, believe he may have made a drastic error in his request and that his tale is a cautionary one; the moral being that we ought to be happy with whatever lifespan God gives us:
“I have a friend whose older brother died in high school, and I remember him telling me at some point that he wondered if it was to prevent him from heading down a certain path that he seemed headed toward. I can think of at least two Christian celebrities that I suspect the same thing of.”
— Jeremy Pierce
I … don’t know. Working backwards from a position of 20/20 hindsight seems a bit questionable to me.

Hezekiah’s Psalm of Thanksgiving

In any case, Hezekiah wrote what reads like a pretty enthusiastic psalm by way of thanks to God for delivering him from his illness. And reading his psalm, it becomes very clear why Hezekiah had no desire to die. Let’s say that his theology appears to be incompletely informed by revelation, to say the least:
“I am consigned to the gates of Sheol for the rest of my years.
I said, I shall not see the Lord, the Lord in the land of the living;
I shall look on man no more among the inhabitants of the world.”
What exactly Hezekiah anticipated lay in store for him as he moved out of this world into the next is not easy to infer from a few lines, but what IS abundantly clear is that he was hanging onto temporal existence by his fingernails.

He goes on with his theme:
“… in love you have delivered my life from the pit of destruction,
for you have cast all my sins behind your back.”
What is remarkable in his concern about the “pit of destruction” is that Hezekiah was far from a wicked man (though his judgment was occasionally questionable). In fact, he appeals to the Lord on this basis, saying:
“Please, O Lord, remember how I have walked before you in faithfulness and with a whole heart, and have done what is good in your sight.”
This was not gilding the lily. No shmoozing was involved. Hezekiah had displayed great insight into the character of God during his lifetime and had been diligent in behaving righteously as well as legislating righteousness. He was one of the great Jewish reformers. And yet he anticipated judgment in the “pit of destruction”. His view of Sheol was not merely cessation of existence but being entirely isolated and cut off both from the living and from God:
“For Sheol does not thank you; death does not praise you;
those who go down to the pit do not hope for your faithfulness.
The living, the living, he thanks you, as I do this day …”
It paints a bleak picture of the afterlife, doesn’t it.

Hezekiah vs. Job

But that picture was probably not uncommon in Hezekiah’s day. It is a view based not on specific revelation from God but on superstition derived from the few inarguable facts available at the time. It echoes the beliefs of other godly men through the centuries but seems devoid of the hope that Job, who lived more than 750 years before Hezekiah, was able to muster when he said:
“For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God …”
Job anticipated seeing God, where Hezekiah had no such hope despite having lived righteously. And where Job speaks of a redeemer, Hezekiah displays no confidence in any deliverance beyond the reprieve he had been granted.

Judaism and the Afterlife

Jewish belief about the afterlife, traditionally and even today, is just as inconsistent as Job’s view is with that of Hezekiah — and equally subjective:
“… because Judaism is primarily focused on life here and now rather than on the afterlife, Judaism does not have much dogma about the afterlife, and leaves a great deal of room for personal opinion.”
The lack of dogma and absence of specific revelation on the subject of eternity in Old Testament times explains the difference between the views of Hezekiah and Job. This subjectivity was also evident in the time of the Lord and the apostles. There was an ongoing debate about resurrection:
“Belief in the eventual resurrection of the dead is a fundamental belief of traditional Judaism. It was a belief that distinguished the Pharisees (intellectual ancestors of Rabbinical Judaism) from the Sadducees. The Sadducees rejected the concept, because it is not explicitly mentioned in the Torah. The Pharisees found the concept implied in certain verses.”
So while belief in resurrection was “fundamental”, it was far from uncontested. Those who rejected the idea entirely formed a significant and respected bloc within traditional Judaism. The best the Pharisees could produce from the Old Testament was that resurrection is there “implied”. Wow. They were right, of course, at least about this. But the point is that until the Lord Jesus came, nobody could really be entirely sure. And many Jews today find themselves in the same leaky theological boat.

Judaism vs. Christianity on Resurrection

Now contrast this still-common but sadly nebulous uncertainty with the confidence of the apostle Paul in Philippians:
“For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. 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.”
What a remarkable difference. Paul as much as says he’s only hanging around to be of help to his spiritual children, otherwise he’d happily shuffle off this mortal coil at the first available opportunity. Where is the fear of isolation and judgment that characterized many a godly man of the Old Testament order? Where is the ambiguity, personal opinion and confusion of Judaism?

The difference is not in Paul’s and Hezekiah’s respective reading material, which was probably quite similar, though Paul undoubtedly had more formal training than Hezekiah. Bear in mind that much of the New Testament had not been written, let alone circulated, when Paul wrote the believers at Philippi. So he and the king who lived 750 years or so before him had all the same revelation from God to consider with respect to the subject of death and what would follow it.

The Resurrection and Certainty

But Paul interpreted the Old Testament in the light of the cross of Christ and the open tomb that followed it.

It probably helped that Paul had been given explicit revelations that Hezekiah could not have hoped to experience. It didn’t hurt that he had seen the resurrected Christ and so there was no question in his mind that the dead were to be raised incorruptible.

Secular scholars have written reams on the subject of the evolution of Hebrew thought with respect to the afterlife. In fact, here’s one now. But the sort of change we are observing here is not evolutionary so much as it is revolutionary.

You’d almost think perfect love casts out fear.

Hezekiah told God, “… death does not praise you”. But his convictions about eternity did not need to evolve; they needed to be entirely upended. In the book of Revelation we find an innumerable multitude out of the Great Tribulation in heaven — and therefore having died — that are engaged in constant praise much like this
“Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
The rock-solid conviction evidenced by the apostle about what would happen to him when he died is not remotely a “Judeo-Christian” value. It is possible only through a saving personal knowledge of the resurrected Christ.

1 comment :

  1. When reading this, it sounds really logical and consistent with the actual potential of the reality of a hereafter. After all what good is religion for if it does not offer a more comforting view of a reality to come than what is currently being experienced? The question then is how it is possible for humanity to so frequently and preferentially adopt views of reality (not only religious in nature) that are not only slightly improbable but downright nonsensical. This human tendency, or property, implies that applying logic and common sense often is a doomed enterprise and that there never will be , or can be, a resolution of disagreements concerning the non-material. Thus, the often peculiar (and illogical) perceptions and attitudes concerning the non- material will forever drive the very material consequences of our lifes, and frequently not in a positive manner.

    Christ came to try and change that by clarifying that he is the truth, way, and life. But, of course, my above argument is being applied by the world to that knowledge as well.

    However, as of late, there may some change in the air. In this link it is being explained that, contrary to previous scientific belief, the probability of life anywhere, including earth, is now believed to be so small that evolution can no longer explain it and creation can by default.

    In the link below the Huffington Post writer is presenting a typical left wing counter to the above argument using a twisted logic that puts the cart before the horse. In other words, the writer is really enhancing the argument he is trying to defeat by exhibiting his poor science and illogical and polemic thinking.

    In the next below link a very systematic scientific study of cardiac arrest patients' NDE (near death experiences) shows that consciousness survives as an entity significantly beyond brain death and may have an existence independent of physical neurons.

    In addition, based on my reading in at least one atheist/agnostic philosophy journal, that crowd is, finally, coming around to at least entertaining the possibility of the reality of an ethereal substance existing besides material bodies that could be described as a soul. They are even starting to discuss the possibility that such a thing may have been the handwork of a non-material creator. That is downright shocking given the prior tone and chorus opposing such concepts.