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What happens to us after death?

I happened to hear a point-blank sermon last Sunday about the judgment of God. The gist of it was that just as God punished sinful humanity long ago by means of a flood of water, he will again punish sinful humanity by means of a flood of fire. Come back next week for the good news.

One of the New Testament passages used in support of this dour message was Luke 17:20-37. The Pharisees ask Jesus when the kingdom of God will come. He tells them that it is not coming with signs to be observed; for “the kingdom of God is in the midst of you”.

Jesus then goes on to warn the disciples what to expect in the coming days (“The days are coming when you…”). The son of man must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation. As in the days of Noah and when Lot went out of Sodom, “on the day when the Son of Man is revealed” people will be caught out by the sudden calamitous turn of events. At that time, whoever seeks to preserve her life will lose it, whoever loses her life will keep it. Of two people in a bed, one will be taken, the other left. Of two women grinding grain, one will be taken, the other left.

In Matthew and Mark this material mostly belongs to a coherent narrative of judgment on Jerusalem that will culminate in the destruction of the temple (Matt. 24:1-28; Mk. 13:1-23). Luke brings it forward, relocating it in the body of teaching given on the way to Jerusalem. The apocalyptic setting is not immediately in view—the explicit prophecies of the destruction of Jerusalem come later (Lk. 21:5-24).

So it was easier for the preacher last Sunday to universalise the teaching about an eventual flood-like judgment.

The pyramid of theology and the train journey of history

We chatted afterwards. I said I thought Luke 17 was about the catastrophic judgment of God against first century Jerusalem. He conceded that Jesus may have had something to say along these lines, but insisted that the central message in this passage is that all humanity faces a judgment that will come upon us as unexpectedly and as shockingly as the flood came upon an unsuspecting world.

The disagreement illustrates the tension between two contrasting ways of reading the Bible—from a universal perspective or from a historical perspective.

The sermon assumed a universal perspective: the biblical material is made to serve an absolute argument about God and humanity. The core message is that God sent his Son into the world to save fallen humanity from its sins. This is the top of the pyramid, supported by the massive bulk of biblical material below, much of it just hardcore filling.

The historical perspective is different. It is not so much interested in constructing arguments, whether biblical or “rational”, in support of an overriding theological imperative. It works by way of story-telling: it tells and interprets the story of the people of God through history.

From the historical perspective, the core message or “gospel” is always contingent upon where we are in the story. It is the assurance that the creator God will, at different times, in different ways, fulfil his historical purposes for and through his people. This is not a static pyramid, it is a long train journey through the landscape of history.

So it is not trivial or incidental that Jesus warned his people that judgment would come upon them in the form of military invasion in the same way that judgment came upon the generation of Noah or upon the city of Sodom. This is the heart of Jesus’ message about the coming kingdom of God. It defines his whole ministry.

Judgment and history

Another example comes from a question sent to me regarding my views on hell:

you seem to refute the traditional Christian stance on heaven and hell, seeming to insist that the traditional stance of immediate judgment after death is not Biblical…. If what you say is true (and I believe that it is), what, exactly, is your stance on what happens to us after death?

The relevant biblical material has traditionally been interpreted according to the universal or existential model. It is assumed to have to do with humanity in the abstract. My argument is that the judgment passages in the Bible mostly refer to historical events. There is a baseline judgment on all flesh—the wages of sin is death; and a final judgment, which in effect reaffirms the connection between sin and death.

But in between there are the numerous instances of God intervening in the history of his people, as they struggle to maintain a credible prophetic witness and priestly service in the midst of the nations.

So I argue, on what I would regard as good biblical grounds, that when Jesus speaks of a judgment of Gehenna, he has in mind not endless post mortem punishment but the all too realistic suffering that would attend the war against Rome. Hell is what happens before death, not after death.

It is a mistake, therefore, to proclaim the risk of catastrophic judgment befalling an unsuspecting humanity after the manner of the flood or the destruction of Sodom as a motivation for belief in Jesus. I suppose we can’t rule out the possibility of the earth being destroyed by an asteroid at some point, or perhaps even by a disaster of our own making. But that’s not what Jesus was talking about.

[tweetable]Our non-believing friends and family are not first century Jews, so they will not get thrown into Gehenna.[/tweetable]

Similarly, I suggest that when Paul tells the men of Athens that the God of Israel has fixed a day on which he will judge the oikoumenē (Acts 17:30-31), he is thinking not of a final judgment of all humanity but of a limited historical judgment of the Greek-Roman world as part of the story that is being told about God’s people and the nations.

The question about what happens to us after death needs to be answered against this narrative-historical background.

The first point to make is that the early church believed that those who lost their lives because of their witness to Christ would be raised at the parousia—that is, on the day when pagan empire would be defeated and Jesus would be confessed as Lord by the nations of the Greek-Roman world.

So, for example, Paul was confident that if he died in the course of his apostolic ministry, he would be raised “with Christ” and would live with him. In the symbolic world of Revelation the martyrs are raised following judgment on Babylon the great, which is pagan Rome, and reign with Christ throughout the thousand years (Rev. 20:4-6).

This is where I disagree with the traditional stance on heaven. I think that going to heaven to reign with Christ throughout the coming ages was eschatologically exceptional.

It was an important part of the story, but it is not the whole story—and it is not where we are.

To dust you shall return

So what happens to us when we die?

My view is that when we die, we are simply dead. We return to the dust of the earth.

A pyramid hermeneutics leaves us with the impression that we are entitled to everything on offer, so we assume we have the right as saved people to go straight to heaven when we die. We may likewise think that non-believers are consigned to the horrors of Gehenna.

A train journey hermeneutics, on the other hand, encourages us to take historical context into account. We weren’t on the train when it travelled through the dark regions of crisis and transformation in the early decades and centuries of the Christian era. So we don’t deserve to go to heaven. Our non-believing friends and family are not first century Jews, so they will not get thrown into Gehenna.

But the God of history is also the God of creation, and the Bible in the end looks beyond history to a final rectification. So we can expect there to be a final resurrection of all the dead, when along with the rest of humanity we will be judged according to what we have done.

If our names are “not found written in the book of life”—notice that this is not the “book of life of the Lamb who was slain” (Rev. 13:8)—we will find ourselves consigned to the lake of fire, which is the second death, along with death itself (Rev. 20:12-15).

No “hell” there, just a last iteration of the simple universal truth that the wages of sin is death. All bad things must come to an end.

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