Thursday, May 31, 2012

Importance of the Gentiles. Who are the Gentiles today?

God as Christ Jesus enters into history and comes to the children of Abraham. Jesus' message disturbed and challenged the Jewish people religiously, socially and politically. His confronting image of the Kingdom of God was not what the Jewish people expected. Messiah was to be a king and champion of the religion. Jesus spent his time not just with the righteous of the faith but with those who were outside of what was considered pure and holy. Jesus talked not of war and rebellion against the Romans but of forgiveness and jubilee. His Apostles went further offering this gospel to those outside the nation of Israel, to the Gentiles, the other nations in the world. What was being focused on by Jesus inclusion of those considered unclean and not a part of the community of faith? Who are the Gentiles and what is their importance to Jesus and the missio dei that began so long ago?

A parable of three cups

There is a father of three children and to each of them he gives a drink of water. To one he gives a blue cup, to the second he gives a red cup and to the third he gives a green cup. Each of the children know which cup is theirs and they treasure and guard their cups from each other making sure that they only drink out of their cup and no one else. One day the father brings out the cups to the children all filled with water and he trips on a toy left behind. The cups fall to the floor together where the water becomes one big puddle. The children each pick up their now empty cups, the water they would have drunk is now on the floor and not separated anymore. In fact, before it was in the cups you could never have segregated the water, it was always one water. Only the cups and the children who treasured their individual cups ever defined which water was theirs.

Election of Israel : My cup is not yours

In the New Testament Jesus comes to the children of Israel, the people of the promise, the children of Abraham, the Holy Nation who followed the one true God YHWH. These people were in a state of oppression under another in a long line of foreign powers and under this yoke they chaffed and strained. By YHWH they were set apart from the rest of the world to be a holy nation before God. Lev 20:24-26 (Wright, 298-299 : 2004). It was they who had been elected by God and the fate of the all the world was dependant on the relationship between Israel and God (Fohrer, 184-185 : 1972). This heritage was sustained and kept in place by the religious elite and its strict application in the life of the Jewish people. They were Israel and the rest of the world was outside, Gentiles an Samaritans. This black and white understanding of national or tribal identity is the classical image of a persons identity (Johnson-Hodge, 274 : 2005).

YHWH was holy and his people Israel were called to be holy as well. Cleanliness was not just next to Godliness it was an essential trait of the faith, whether a person was clean or not was decided by the law. This was not just Torah as was given to Moses by YHWH it also included the oral tradition. A succession of commentaries which defined the right way to live to be clean, holy and pure before YHWH. The Pharisees had taken the law and amplified it to lead the people to becoming a Holy nation, but, they left out the core. Jesus pointed to this core that true worship honours God and serves others. The amplified traditions had to be superseded for God's law of love (Kraybill, 143-149 : 2011).

Jesus breaks boundaries : There is no difference between the cups

The Jews were a stubborn people and Jesus' parables struck right at this hardness and the boundaries they had placed on those around them. In the “Good Samaritan” Jesus lampoons not just the religious elite but the common people as well by making the hero a Samaritan! Kraybill's description of the situation is deliciously subversive as he compares the shock of combining “good” and “Samaritan” like combining “good” and “terrorist” (Kraybil, 172-175 : 2011). Jesus defined the Jewish attitude towards the Samaritans for what it was, racist. To elaborate for his disciples Jesus strikes up a conversation with a Samaritan woman (Arbuckle, 158-159 : 1990). More shocking Jesus openly admits that he is the Messiah is to a Samaritan woman who is working on husband number six. The level of uncleanliness of this woman was immense! Yet, here we have Jesus revealing the great mystery of his identity to this unclean Samaritan woman. Jesus reminded the Jews of God's love for the Gentiles and they tried to throw him of a cliff (Lk 4:28-29). Jesus openly declared that a Roman Centurion had more faith that any in Israel, he healed the Syro-Phonecian woman's child (Mark 7:24-29), his second feeding was on the Gentile side of the lake of Galilee. This pattern of breaking boundaries was passed onto Jesus followers, but, it did take a while for them to understand just how far reaching the Gospel message was to be.

Peter and Cornelius.

To Peter is given the keys to the kingdom its is his speech that is given prominence at Pentecost where three thousand are added in one day. These people are not gentiles though they of the Jewish faith. Their native tongues may be different but they are not Gentiles in any sense (Henson, 4 : 2012). In its incipient stage afterPentecost the followers of the way are still just a Jewish splinter group calling to those of the same religious context. It is possible that even the global reference of the missio dei at this time could mean the Jewish diaspora spread across the Mediterranean and the Middle East. This “left hand of God” (Glasser, 137 : 2003) was definitely a part of the future for Peter and his fellow Apostles but the missio dei was for more than the lost sheep of Israel.

The image of the unclean animals that is given to Peter on the roof of Simon the Tanner's house in Acts 10:9-16 is curious to us today, yet, to a Jew this was horrifying! As mentioned previously cleanliness was essential to relationship with God. To be unclean meant one could not be in right relationship with God. Peter's revulsion is true to the culture he was raised, it was essential to the make up of his identity. As noted before Jesus broke boundaries of social convention ignoring the rules that did not fit with the first and greatest laws concerning the love of God and your neighbours. But, there is not indication that Jesus spent time in the dwellings of Gentiles (Glasser, 217 : 2003). As he tells the Syro-Phoenician woman, Jesus came first for the lost sheep of Israel. For Peter to enter into the house of a Gentile was to become unclean.

Leslie Newbigin in “The Open Secret” clearly explains the tension of breaking such a strong cultural and personal boundary that Peter is under, yet, he is somehow convinced to go and see Cornelius. When Peter tells Cornelius' household the gospel the Spirit takes the situation out of Peter's control completely. Again Peter is there at the beginning of a great opening and this time instead of having to answer to the Sanhedrin he has to answer to the other very Jewish believers. There was much to discuss and it is possible that the scene was calm at all. Newbigin explains that they all knew too well the price paid by the circumcised martyrs of the Jewish faith. Jesus was circumcised and he never called to stop this practice. It was the confirmation of the Spirit being received by Cornelius which was the key factor. If the Spirit of God saw no problem with the uncircumcised then why should they? (Newbigin, 59-60 : 1995) It was an issue that would plague the early Church an issue that Paul dealt with whereas Peter (always the fall guy) struggled.

Paul's shifting identity.

By Acts 15 Paul has been out pursuing the ends of the earth and has returned to tell the Jerusalem church what has been happening with the Gentiles. They, like the Disciples, like the Samaritans, like the household of Cornelius have received the Holy Spirit. God has shown that a way has been made for the rest of the world to see this light, that the gospel is for ALL of God's creation. This is not the work of human hands. The mission is governed by the Spirit and the church merely has to follow (Newbigin, 61 : 1995). But what of the difference of culture? How is Paul able to associate freely with Gentiles being able to eat with those outside the covenant. In Galatians 2 Paul chastises Peter, when at the arrival of James' delegation, Peter retreats from eating with those who are not circumcised. The classical understanding of identity mentioned above is far from being standard. People have more than one identity and Paul explains in his writings his many identities. Caroline Johnson-Hodge in “Apostle To The Gentiles: Constructions Of Paul’s Identity” explains that Paul's hierarchy of identities is not just isolated to Paul. Many peoples see themselves in different ways local, tribal, national and religious. For westerners to group national identity and religious affiliation is uncommon, for Paul this was not so. Paul's hierarchy of identity began with his circumcision, tribal affiliation, descent from Abraham, A Hebrew of Hebrews, a Pharisee of Pharisee's, blamelessness under the law (Phil 3:5-6). Paul's identity is set in stone as a Jew, but, he is able to put all of this aside because being “in Christ” has become the capstone of Paul's identities. If Paul is In Christ (Gal 1:11-16) therefore all those Gentiles who heard and by faith believe are In Christ too (Johnson-Hodge 274-276 : 2005).

False Identities

The opportunity is open for all to enter into the Kingdom of God. All by the Spirit are able to like Paul become “In Christ” realising the completeness of their humanity establishing the true zenith of their identity. However, this is not the reality as people fall back on tribal, economical and national identities because of oppression. The rich towards the poor, the leaders towards the people, the celebrities towards the public. There is a restriction as both hold the boundaries that stop them from truly becoming the people Paul describes where there is no Slave, no Free, no Greek, no Jew. All are not recognising their oneness In Christ. Each are dehumanised by the other through false identities created by the oppression (De La Torre, 67 : 2009). These false identities and the boundaries they create are the same that Jesus confronts. C.J.H Wright in Old Testament Ethics for the People of God asserts the salvation that is brought through Christ is for all of humanity. In Abraham's calling it is through the seed of Abraham that ALL the nations of the world will be blessed. There is no exclusion in God's story of salvation in the election of Abraham and the creation of Israel. The identity of Israel as God's chosen nation to be holy and set apart from all others was not so that Israel itself would be saved alone. All of humanity has been made in the image of God, all of humanity is to be renewed through the nation of Israel (Wright, 461-462 : 2004) . The destiny of Abraham and his seed was fulfilled in Christ so that ALL can now claim the new identity being In Christ.

Human Identity the Source

The source of all humanity is in the creator God who made human beings in his image. Just like the water in the cups the source is the exactly the same. Only the outside visage and the identity the children give the cups distinguishes them. The creators concern for all of humanity has been known and told through his prophets. Jonah's struggles against God's call to the people of Nineveh and Jonah grumbles because God loves the weak and the alien and not just Israel. The conclusion Wright gives is that this behaviour is to be imitated by his people because this is how YHWH acts and we should not wonder why we should not copy (Wright 460 : 2004). YHWH was given the image of a parent and Israel his child is expected to imitate their heavenly father (Wright, 36 : 2004). This family is not restricted to just Israel the creation narrative asserts the common origin of all humanity. There is no human being that can be considered outside the boundary of God's redemption plan. For this reason the missio dei radiates from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth, our heavenly father does not want to leave any of “the children of the divine family” (Mills, 73 : 1998) out.

“In Christ” is an eschatological identity existing in the dynamic already/not yet of the Kingdom of God. Just as the source of the water in the cups is the same, so is the destination. God's people are to live in this tension where the ethics and morals demonstrated buy Christ are enabled by the equipping of Holy Spirit (Fee, 52 : 1996 ). This same Holy Spirit confirmed the inclusion of gentiles much to the confusion of the Jewish Disciples. Paul's argument is that by faith Abraham believed in the promises of YHWH therefore by faith the Gentiles come into the line of Abraham into the promise of salvation (Fee, 60 : 1996). This identity available for all who come by faith is to be the key to unity in diversity where, by Holy Spirit, unity between disparate peoples of different nationalities and languages, like Pentecost, reverses Babel (Henson, 4 : 2012). Uniting what was once divided. Where one day, like the waters rejoined in the puddle on the floor, humanity will be restored and renewed in the future already/not yet Kingdom of God.


To paraphrase Paul there is no Greek or Jew, no Male or Female, no Red cup, Blue cup or Green cup. Humanity, like the water, is divided by the identities that we place on each other. The Israelite call to be a nation separate was not to be divisive. Jesus came and broke these oppressive boundaries displaying the love that God has to all of his divine family. Paul took this universal message of salvation and made it the first identity without equal. All other cultures and nationalities come under this divine identity not replacing them but renewing them bringing them under the banner of the Kingdom of God. The importance of the mission to the Gentiles is that God is not willing to leave any of his creation behind. There is no difference all have been made in the image of God. Oppression dehumanises the oppressor and the oppressed as they consider the other less and themselves better. If we only focus on the exterior and the boundaries between us all we will be left with is empty cups.

The Gentiles today are those who are not known by the identity of “In Christ” and these people are not just outside the community.
Jesus called to the lost sheep of Israel and there are lost sheep in and outside the community. Our view has to be both outward and inward looking, doing too much of either will create problems. The Pharisees were trying to bring about change in their community and nation to the exclusion of others who did not fit within their program. Jesus showed the futility of this exclusion and how it closed the door on those who were truly in need of the love of God. There are those who are caught up in the practice of religion and not in the freedom of identity In Christ, just going through the motions not knowing the true identity that is there waiting for them. To look outside without first offering this truth of identity is to miss the point. Gentiles are those who do no know who they truly are, that their origin and destiny lie in the same loving heavenly father who through Christ by the power of Holy Spirit made a new identity so that we may be forever with Him.


Arbuckle, G. A. (1990). Earthing the Gospel: An Inculturation Handbook for the Pastoral Worker. London : Geoffery Chapman,

Fee, G. D.(1996). Paul, the Spirit, and the People of God. Grand Rapids, MI : Baker Academic.

Fohrer, G. (1972). History of Israelite Religion. New York : Abingdon Press.

Glasser, A.F. (2003). Announcing the Kingdom: The Story of God's Mission in the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI : Baker Academic.

Henson, L. (2012, May 17 ). Lecture Notes Week 9. (Notes taken by Phillip Hall).

Johnson-Hodge, C. (2005). Apostle to the Gentiles: Constructions of Paul's Identity. Biblical Interpretation.(13)3: 270-288.

Kraybill, D. B. (2011). The Upside-Down Kingdom.. Harrisonburg, Virginia, USA : Herald Press

De La Torre, M.A. (2009). Pastoral care from the Latina/Latino margins. In Kujawa-Holbrook S.A & Montagno, K.B.(Eds.). Injustice and Care of Souls.(pp. 59-72). Minneapolis, Illinois : Augsburg Fortress.

Mills, M.E. (1998). Images of God : in the Old Testament. London : Cassell.

Newbign, L. (1995). The Open Secret : An Introduction to the Theology of Mission. Grand Rapids, MI : William B. Eerdmans.

Wright, C.J.H. (2004). Old Testament Ethics for the People of God. Leicester, England : Inter-Varsity Press.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Embodiment of Heaven and Hell : Cosmology, Eschatology and Afterlife

Prologue : Three Houses and a Home

The first house is owned by an old man who collects items of interest. He is a hoarder and as a result of this his house is more of a storage shelter than a home. His bedroom is in a corner of the lounge room dominated by shelves of various objects. The kitchen has been reduced to a sink, a microwave and few cupboards. His bathroom should not be mentioned because that would be going too far. Sometimes he is lonely, but, he loves his collection. Anyway, there is no room for anyone else in his house. In fact there is barely room for him.

The second house has a family who own everything the perfect western household should have. It is all arranged correctly, appropriately and orderly. Even their outlandish picture of Elvis works with d├ęcor flawlessly. One day the mother decides to move the picture of Elvis. When she does the lounge does not work as flawlessly as it did before, so she changes it. Then she realises that the dining area no longer flows on into the lounge as it did before, so she changes it. This moving of the furniture continues till the whole house is changed, only the children's bed rooms are left unscathed. When the children come home from school at first they think they have entered into the wrong house. But there is the picture of Elvis and when they call out for their mother she enters smiling proudly and asks her children what they think of the new configuration.

The third house is in a state of change as the mother and her daughter who live there are moving to another house nearby. The mother takes her daughter to school and returns to supervise the final push into the new house that is only a few blocks away. When returning from school in the car they pass by the old house.
“Bye old house!” calls the daughter from the car. The mother joins in waving as they continue the extra distance to the new house. Upon arriving the daughter rushes out of the car up to the front door.
“I beat you home!” she exclaims excitedly jumping up and down as her mother arrives to open the door to their new home for the first time.


There is a commonly held cosmology about Heaven and Hell which assumes that Heaven is somewhere up and Hell is somewhere down. Unlike Santa Claus whose location is slightly more specific, Hell and Heaven have continued to exist. Despite the scientific information that outer space being vast and the molten lava below being infernally hot there is no “place” where either resides. When working out the issues involved in the cosmology of Heaven and Hell there is a clutter that needs to be sorted before any thought of ethics or reward and punishment can begin. Locating where within our understanding of life, death and what could lie beyond these ideas of paradise and punishment has less to do with doctrine and cosmology (though they can be a comfort) and more to do with the God who created it all.

Heaven and Hell's Cluttered House of Embodiment

Eschatology is the study of a future event or place that has been promised and hoped for but is yet to come. For Christian's Heaven and Hell is supposed to be eschatological yet the images we have about Heaven and Hell suggest they are happening now. This leads to the understanding of an afterlife and not a great future event. The images of Heaven and Hell are believed to the extent that they have been taken as actual places that exist now. The cosmology where Heaven is above the Earth and Hell below has taken on such a power that Heaven and Hell may be more believable than the God who made them. An idea or ideal like Heaven and Hell or more simply a belief in an afterlife can garner such attention and be used, read, and believed to the extent that it can be considered real. This is called Embodiment. Similar incidents of embodiment have taken place where as Malcolm MacLachlan explains that an idea such as Santa Claus or Shangri-La can be associated with a physical entity or location (MacLachlan, 2004 : 2) . Embodiment creates the cultural knowledge that the North Pole is where Santa Claus lives, that in the Himalayas lies Shangri-La and that Heaven and Hell are places above and below where reward and punishment are meted out today not eschatologically.

The trouble with embodiment is known well to any person who has seen or remembers when they first realised that Santa, the Tooth Fairy or Batman does not exist in real life. When the embodiment has been revealed as an abstract like Santa Claus it creates a disturbance in our perceived understanding of the world our cosmology. Our previous understanding is now under attack by this new information. Like a child denying the fact that Saint Nicholas lived and died some time ago we still believe in an afterlife and get quite tetchy when told otherwise.

The proliferation of images and ideas about Heaven and Hell stretch throughout the media spectrum whether as film, television, animation, books and songs. For any genre or custom there is a myth, belief or doctrine about what comes after death. In Greco/Roman Mythology heroes like Orpheus travel the river Styx to Hades or climb Mount Olympus to the Heavenly realm of Zeus. Punishment, reward, eternal joy, love, pleasure, pain, suffering, reincarnation, even nothing at all are within the bounds of what happens to a person after death. All of these choices are echoed back at us within the culture that we live in. To choose a familiar culture, that of the Western European first world many images stretch from the classical (Dante's Divine Comedy) to the ridiculous (The Simpson's). Hard Rock and Heavy Metal wax lyrically about Hell, Demons, and Satan most famously sung in AC/DC's “Highway to Hell”. Whereas pop standards transform heavenly agape love into eros; physical intimacy and sexual pleasure like in Belinda Carlisle's “Heaven is a place on Earth”. Humanity it seems cannot let go of such a powerfully reinforced embodiment as that of Heaven and Hell. Perhaps Shakespeare wrote it best in Hamlet describing what comes after death as “The undiscovered country” (Shakespeare, 2003 : 158) where not many have returned from.

Humanity, like the man in the first story cannot give up the collection of ideas on Heaven and Hell and breaking such a strong Embodiment creates a vacuum within a cosmology. Because belief is placed by a person or even a community into a cosmology or doctrine this vacuum of belief creates tension as the world is no longer as it was before. Terry Pratchett explores this vacuum in his novel “The Hogfather” where Pratchett's Discworld version of Santa Claus the titular Hogfather is removed from the world. Prathett's answer is that the belief in the Hogfather has to go to somewhere leaving space for other deities and mythical beings. The vacuum left by the Hogfather is filled by new deities like the God of Hangovers (Pratchett, 2006 :166) and new myths like the Verruca Gnome (Pratchett, 2006: 127). Apart from this there is greater tragedy to avert. If belief in the Hogfather is not restored the Sun will cease to exist. It will no longer govern the seasons within the mythical understanding of the Discworld, it will merely become a ball of gas (Pratchett, 2006 : 407). Pratchett is asserting myth and mystery over the sterility of cold hard facts. When it comes to the undiscovered country all we have is the barely tangible embodied ideas that there must be something after death. Therefore in aid against a total demystification of Heaven and Hell we should do as the mother does in the second story and move the furniture.

Time to move the Furniture, but, to where and when?

Hans Urs von Balthasar's “Mysterium Pascale” paints an image of a passive and dead Christ in Hell (Balthasar, 2005 : 148-150) an explanation of Balthasar's conception of Hell will occur later. When it comes to moving the furniture this is major interior design as Balthasar is a Catholic Priest. The Catholic doctrines of Heaven and Hell are exhaustive and despite concluding that neither Heaven and Hell have geographic co-ordinates the doctrines still explain in great detail their structure and function (Catholic Encyclopaedia, 2009: np). The repercussions of Balthasar's dead Christ in Hell alters the image of Heaven and Hell's present existence in favour of a singular place of the dead. Academically there is a dispute over Balthasar's imagery Alyssa Pitstick sees Balthasar's work as dangerous and leading to universalism, while Edward Oakes champion Balthasar's work as intuitive and dynamic (D'Costa, 2009 :145). This dispute is mentioned here as another example of the disturbance when Embodied concepts are threatened. In his article “The Descent into Hell...” Gavin D'Costa explores Balthasar's moving of the furniture through the opinion of Oakes. Though being favourable towards Oakes and Balthasar, D'Costa offers his own version sticking closer to Catholic Dogma than the sharp edge of Balthasar's position between Bath and Moltmann (D'Costa, 2009 : 154). Similar to the children whose mother moved the furniture Pitstick and D'Costa are not able to deal with the new configuration and prefer the old way. Though some like D'Costa may admire the new arrangement many others like Pitstick, are disturbed enough to call the new arrangement heretical.

Changing the eschatological concept within a culture has been thought to have deleterious effects beyond the existential. In “Hell, Religion and Cultural Change” Hull and Bold explore the changing nature of eschatology from an economic angle. Their findings conclude that temporal reward and punishment derived from an eschatology can have a great affect within the moral conduct of individuals within society. In the 1600's when theologians began to question the existence of Heaven and Hell they did not express such an opinion to the general public for fear it would lead to anarchy. Hull and Bold explain that in a society where the rule of law is weak and considered flawed or corrupt the reward and punishment of an eschatology can deter people from committing crime and violence. Hull and Bold caution that to be effective it is best to keep the chosen eschatology simple in structure is because the reward or penalty have to be believable and cannot be overt and hyperbolic (Hull and Bold, 1994 : 453-454). Merely simplifying the catholic dogma and the imagery of places for Heaven and Hell may be an advantage in clearing up our understanding of Heaven and Hell into a future event.

Balthasar's moving the furniture of Heaven and Hell has Christ's decent not into Hell (infernus) but, the place of the dead (inferos). Balthasar focused on Christ in Hell, but not the Hell as we have learned to picture it Inferos (the place of the dead) is used in the latin interpretation of the Apostles Creed where Christ Descendt et Inferos. This translates to Christ descended to the place of the dead, the limbo of our fathers, Gehenna or Sheol (Balthasar, 2005 : 180-181). This is NOT the place of judgement, simply a place similar to that of Jesus' parable of The Rich Man and Lazarus. Where Christ descends to is not the Hell controlled by Lucifer and his demons, but, to the place of the dead where that immortal vestige of the human being made in the image of God goes to. This is in tune with the cultural cosmology of the ancient near east of birth, life, death, place of the dead and resurrection trajectory of man. Balthasar is giving us an image of the descent using the cosmology of the time in which Jesus lived in. Being dead just like all the other dead Balthassar makes Christ mute and passive not victorious and active. Among the dead is the Son of God in solidarity with his fellow human beings (Balthasar, 2005 : 148-149). It puts Jesus in the place of the dead with all those who have died waiting for their time of resurrection. This moves the furniture away from any present now for both Heaven and Hell.

So now where is Heaven and Hell? The assumption could be that Heaven and Hell in their completeness have yet to be that the judgement is to come. Tom Wright in “Surprised by Hope” unloads the many misunderstandings about Christian eschatology. In it he asserts the promised new Heaven and new Earth united in Zion. Wright is very critical that the traditional images of Heaven are not Christian and often closer to a Gnostic escape where the immortal spirit leaves the entrapment of our mortal bodies. Wright is adamant that the bodily resurrection along with a new heaven and earth are essential to a true Christian eschatology (Wright, 2007 :106-119). This true Christian Eschatology is contrary to the current beliefs and even the Catholic doctrine of Heaven and Hell. We have a culture that has been marinating in these disembodied spiritual cloud filled destinations and Christian eschatology is not the only one to contaminated by it.

One of the greatest images of Heaven and Hell in western history was offered by Dante in his Divine Comedy. Dantean imagery is so entrenched within western culture in song, word and image that any other version despite its biblical authority has been eclipsed. To the winner goes the right to educate the next generation and the winners of the last few centuries have been the Europeans. An example of this is found in Jesper Nielsen & Toke Sellner Reunert's article “Dante's heritage: Questioning the multi-layered model of the Meso-American universe”. Their findings concluded that the believed structure of the Aztec eschatology was an hybrid of the Dantean Heaven and Hell taught to the first generation of Meso-American Indians after Cortez's conquest (Nielsen & Reunert, 2009 : 407). They explain that in the years since it was first published Dante's Divine Comedy attained the level of a “quasi-biblical text” (Nielsen & Reunert, 2009 : 405) revered by the Spanish as well as the Jesuits who taught Dante's vision everywhere they went. So effectively was it taught that the conquered Aztec people synthesised their own eschatology using the Dantean structure altering their native cosmology (Nielsen & Reunert, 2009 : 410-411) . From this it is possible to suggest that John Bunyan's Pilgrims Progress is also another Dantean hybrid. The current two tired structure is even more simplified yet still bears the hallmarks Dante especially in the imagery of its demonic punishments. This simplified image of Heaven for the good and Hell for the bad has been incredibly virulent. Hull and Bold suggest an eschatology to be simple and believable without hyperbole and to contain an imagery that is close to reality. One that changes as cultures shift over time yet, still the same dual polarity reward/punishment that can be seen on The Simpson's, Bugs Bunny, in soft pastels of angels and in violent volcanic fiery Heavy Metal album covers. It has been embodied to the extent that the cultural image is tangible to take it away would be like the Sun ceased to exist becoming just a hot ball of gas.

In all of this structure have we forgotten someone?

Carol Zaleski in “When I get to heaven” explains the disturbance and tension in the embodiment of Heaven and Hell is caused by the fact that humanity seems to be attracted and repelled by Heaven and Hell at the same time. There is a natural curiosity (which borders on obsession at times) about what will or will not happen after death. This curiosity stands against the scientific information and other philosophies that declare such a place does not exist. Zaleski suggests that in all of this curiosity, rejection and embodiment there has been a vital piece absent from the equation of Heaven and Hell, God. Zaleski goes on to remind us of the ancient near east cosmology where Heaven is reserved for God and earth for his creation. Israel added to this the belief that there was a possible future beyond life on the earth. This was not a disembodied life in the classical Greek understanding but a bodily resurrection. This absurdity was beyond the classical world and even beyond our current images of Heaven and Hell. It is beyond what we can see of ourselves now as we cannot see what we will become when this life is over. If life is over with nothing after then life is a tragedy. Resurrection promises a happy ending making life a comedy and the reason for the title of Dante's novel (Zaleski, 2003 : 22-23). It is the absurdity of a happy ending of mansions and justice promised that goes against Hull and Bold's theory that less is more when dealing with an eschatology. Our dull and believable cultural images are less than the absurdity of the promise of resurrection which has replaced the promised glorious absurdity.

Jesus tells his disciples that God has prepared a destination for us (John 14:2). Revelation goes further with its emphasis on a new Heaven and a new Earth which N.T. Wright describes as the unification of Heaven and Earth together forever where Justice and Peace reign, where the new Jerusalem the golden city is the seat of world power where Christ sits on the throne (Wright, 2007 : 155-117). This “'life after “life after death”'” (Wright, 2007 : 210) is far from the embodied Heaven that exists in peoples minds this heaven of clouds, cherubs and a golden gate where Peter sits outside as the heavenly concierge. Hull and Bold gave three hypothesis as to why an organisation or religion would talk of Heaven and Hell. Moral control, extortion for financial gain, or communication of a truth (Hull and Bold, 1994 : 448-449). If Heaven and Hell is more than just moral influence warning of future punishment, if it is the truth, its influence would be revolutionary. If there is a kingdom coming that is the ideal by which all others can and should be measured by. A kingdom of justice and righteousness where all offences and oppression will be judged (Hays, 2000 : 133) should we not be in awe of it and look forward to it eagerly. Yet we are playing around with an embodied Dantean infused Gnostic pretender which dominates our cultural mindset.


Balthasar's image of Christ descending into Inferos the place of the dead and not Infernus Hell supports the eschatological image of future Heaven and Hell. If used the ancient cosmology can be a defence against the embodied image of Heaven and Hell as a present destination. A new Heaven and a new Earth become a future destination that is being prepared for us in the exact same way the mother prepares the new home for her daughter. Like the daughter in the third story we are as the African American Spirituals sing, going Home. Not because the earth is not our home and we are just passing through, but, because there will be a new Heaven and a New Earth prepared for a future resurrected bodily existence with God. What Heaven or Hell looks like, whether it is believable or beyond imagination is not what we really need to focus on. This New Home is what we hope for not because we have earned it, but because who is preparing it loves us and wants to live with us, forever!

The extent to which God went to be with humanity is shown in Balthasar's descent. God knows us before we were born, while we were in the womb and has shared in our life intimately becoming one of us. Christ was born, lived, died, went to the place of the dead and was resurrected. If Christ is in the place of the dead then the dead have seen Christ. God is everywhere! There is no place where we can escape Him. He is with us before life, during life, after life and in the life after life after death. With God we are never alone and never apart from him. At every stage he is there. There is no need to make up an ideal of reward or punishment creating an architecture that obfuscates and distracts becoming embodied in our minds as a false destination. There is no reason to believe in Heaven and Hell except as ideals we create in this life. Belief should not be in the structure of a Dantean influenced, Gnostic, immaterial, ethereal existence or its fiery torturous opposite. Belief should be like the daughters in the one who prepares a future destination because we know our heavenly parent. It is not what the daughter knows but who she knows. It should be the same for us.

One day there is a knock on the door of a house that is very, very full of many, many things. A man who is more used to objects than people opens the door to see a mother and her daughter.
“Hi!” Exclaims the daughter. “We're havin' a getting' to know you party and YOU'RE INVTED!” Her hand is outstretched trying to give the man who is not used to the excitement and exuberance of young children an invitation card. He accepts the card still taken aback from the energetic bundle who has already run off towards the next house.
“We just moved into number 32 yesterday.” The mother explains. “I'm Sonja and that was my daughter Cleo um...” Sonja gestures to the man hinting that she would like to know his name.
“Randall” blurts out Randall.
“Well Randall the party is saturday afternoon it's out the front of our house, number 32. You're very much welcome....” Sonja is stopped by a shout from Cleo.
“MUM! THIS HOUSE HAS A PAINTING OF ELVIS! COME SEE IT.” demands the excited child.
“Sorry no rest for the wicked.” Apologises Sonja. “Nice meeting you Randall, see you saturday.”
“See you Saturday.” replies Randall distracted and still very bemused by what has happened. He closes the door and the house looks very dark and still all of the sudden compared to the invasion of noise and sound before.
“Maybe I'll go.” says Randall to himself.


Catholic Encyclopaedia. (2009). Hell. Available Internet: ( (Accessed 17th March 2012)

Catholic Encyclopaedia. (2009). Heaven. Available Internet: ( (Accessed 17th March 2012)

D'Costa, G. (2009). The Descent into Hell as a Solution for the Problem of the Fate of Unevangelized Non-Christians: Balthasar's Hell, the Limbo of the Fathers and Purgatory. International Journal of Systematic Theology, 11: 2, 146-171.

Hays, R. B. (2000) `Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?' New Testament eschatology at the turn of the Millennium. Modern Theology, 16 : 1, p115-136.

Hull, B.B. & Bold, F. (1994). Hell, Religion, and Cultural Change. Journal of Institutional and Theoretical Economics (JITE), 150: 3, 447-464.

Jesper Nielsen' & Toke Sellner Reunert's Dante's heritage: questioning the multi-layered model of the Mesoamerican universe

MacLachlan, M (2004). Embodiment: Clinical, Critical, and Cultural Perspectives on Health and Illness. NY : Open University Press.

Nielsen, J. & Reunert, T. S. (2009). Dante's heritage: questioning the multi-layered model of the Mesoamerican universe. Antiquity, 83 : 320, 399-413.

Nowles, R. & Shipley, E. (1987). Heaven Is a Place on Earth. [Recorded by B. Carlisle] On “Heaven Is a Place on Earth” [CD]. Los Angeles : MCA Records, Virgin.

Pratchett, T.(2006). Hogfather.(3rd ed.). London :Corgi

Shakespeare, W. Edwards, P (ed.). Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. (2nd Ed.). cambridge, UK : cambridge university press

von Balthasar, H. U. (2005) Mysterium Paschale : The Mystery of Easter (2nd ed.) USA: Ignatius Press

Wright, T. (2007). Surprised by Hope. London : SPCK.

Young, A. & Young, M. & Scott, B. (1979). Highway to Hell. On “Highway to Hell” [CD]. London : Edward B. Marks Music Corporation, BMI. 

Zaleski, C. (2003). When I get to heaven. Christian Century, 120 : 7, 22-30.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Minor Essay – The Tandem Application of Purity and Liberation Within Torah

Before and after their entry into the land of Canaan, the Law was spoken to the people of Israel. Laws of proper worship, dietary restrictions, proper conduct and the social mandate to not oppress the alien, poor, orphans and widows. The Law as a whole was targeted to make Israel a holy nation chosen by YHWH making them very different from that of the nations around them. Their example was to show the world another way to live. What is interesting is that the laws work together in ways that are not as clear cut when looking at them individually. The example that will be focused on is the way the laws of proper sexual conduct and worship should have worked in tandem with the social mandate to nullify the highly sexualised Baal worship. The ramifications of this unifying mission call for a gathering of the disparate and splintered offensives that even today focus on single aspects of the Kingdom of God.

In Glasser's Announcing the Kingdom he documents the spiralling descent of the people of Israel as they “reacted against the ethical and egalitarian demands of the worship of YHWH.” (Glasser,2003:115,). They were supposed to be the chosen holy nation of God, a royal priesthood, an example to the nations of what a people can do when they follow God completely. Among their failing was the unheeded call of Deuteronomy 15:11 to be generous to those in need. That because of his/her devotion to YHWH he/she will have a social conscious and look after those in need, the weak, the poor, the widows, orphans and strangers in the land ( Glasser, 2003:117-118). In contrast to this utopia was the rule of domination and oppression upheld by the rule and worship of Baals. Against the command to do justice and love mercy was the Baal support of authority and dominion of a select few over all others. Injustice, oppression, monarchical rule, centralised power, wealth and land ownership these were the hallmarks of those who like the Israelite Kings followed the Baal's (Jeyaraj,147:2008). Christopher Wright in Old Testament Ethics for the People of God states that if these hallmarks of Baal worship are in your society, if your country shows lack of compassion, greed, sexual and physical violence, then, whoever you think you are worshiping it is not the Lord. To simplify it if you chose the wrong God you got the wrong society (Wright, 2004: 59). It is by their existence in the land through God's egalitarian society that God would reveal himself.(Wright, 2004: 61) Israel's exclusivity to YHWH alone should have affected their entire society at every level of their existence. Any taint any syncretism or apostasy would resulted in failure and the fruit of failure were the hallmarks of Baal.

One of the attractors to Baal worship was the link between the farming practice and the worship of gods of fertility. Israel were not traditionally farmers they were herders of cattle they learned the practices from those in the land how to farm. This also involved the religious practices as well which were highly sexualised (Jeyaraj, 2008: 141). Compared to other gods YHWH has no distinct sexual nature (Glasser, 2003: 116), unlike the Baal's there is no female god to match with YHWH. Worship of these other gods often involved orgiastic rites and or temple prostitutes. Of course, many Israelites joined in while at the same time still offering sacrifices to YHWH such syncretism was pointed out by the prophets like Hosea (Hosea 4:11-14). The result of this syncretism was a gradual deterioration of society where Amos calls for the people to hate evil, love good and maintain justice in the courts (Amos 5:15).

The obvious difference between worship of YHWH and that of the Baals should have been seen and reacted against. However, as is well known this day sex sells. What sex creates though is children as the women who are part of the temple worship give birth to fatherless unsupported children. These children either become part of the temple practice or are surplus (possibly sold into slavery). Worship of YHWH does not bring about fatherless children and adherence to the laws of sexual purity avoid this too. Such laws were to halt the demand for this style of worship, but the laws of YHWH also deal with protecting the poor, weak and oppressed. Even the stranger was to be respected and offered the same protection as one of Israel (Glasser, 2003: 120). The disenfranchised of society embodied by the widow were people who were to be looked after and given the “reasonable livelihood”(Glasser, 2003: 88) that they had been deprived of by oppression and slavery. Who is more disenfranchised than the prostitutes and slaves coming from the temple to serve whomever comes to worship Baal? Their children are just grist for the mill poured back into the same service as their mothers. If, as is stated by the Genesis creation story that all people are from the same source and there is no higher or lower person, then, these people are worth releasing from this oppression. We have clear indication that such women were on two occasions incorporated into Israel in Rahab and Ruth and they are in the line of David. As is Tamar, who herself had to trick Judah into giving her a child by acting as a prostitute (Acosta, 2010: 65). Add to this list of heralded women Esther and Judith who were been used by YHWH to free his people from slaughter. These women were operating outside of the established purity laws of YHWH himself. How are these women any different to the temple prostitutes? Should not the laws of liberation be offered to them as well as the fatherless children of Israel produced by the false worship of Baal? Just imagine the temples of Baal emptied of those who wish to escape to the liberation offered by the people of YHWH. As they are enabled and given reasonable livelihood and protected within the tribal utopia word gets out about this promised people and their egalitarian and ethical society. Is this not the light for all the world to see?

Liberation and Purity - overcoming the objectification and oppression

There is an over emphasis on sexualisation by the media industry this is highlighted by Melinda Tankard-Riest as she asks “Ever feel like you’re living in a giant porn theme park?” (Tankard-Riest,2012: np). Sex is every where you look and like the Israelites and the Canaanite farming lifestyle there seems no way to separate it from our daily lives. Those who call for purity, abstinence and self-control are much like the Pharisees who were on a defensive footing protecting the exclusive nature of the people of God. In opposition Jesus was inclusive offering forgiveness of sin for all not just those who were pure (Herzog II, 2000:177). Purity by itself creates exclusion where those who are impure are outcasts compared to those who are not. Jesus crossed borders and boundaries to proclaim access to God for all, no matter who you were. The people he comes into contact with the lepers, prostitute's and gentiles are given access to forgiveness and salvation. It is them and not the Pharisees who are examples of faith (Acosta, 2010: 68). Purity without liberation is a straightjacket where a person is watching their own actions and or judging the actions of others. Such judgement keeps people as objects or as stigmatised and outcasts.

To focus on one aspect of the sexual culture are the modern priestesses of Baal the Porn Stars and their devotees. Those who call for valiant men describe this fight as a battle of purity within the life of the devotee to turn away, yet this does nothing for the person who is still in the sex industry. Both the person watching and the person performing are under oppression both need to be liberated. From the age of eighteen Jennie Ketcham performed under the name Penny Flame, she left the industry when for a documentary she entered therapy for sex addiction. Her realisation was...

“I've spent my entire adult life developing the identity of a woman I am not. A woman that exists for the sole purpose of others' enjoyment. I realised I have no identity as Jennie Ketcham and that I am incapable of developing sincere and intimate relationships.” (Ketcham cited in Violet Blue, 2009: np).

Wetterneck et al. suggest that those watching internet pornography are also having similar problems. The ease of access of internet pornography may result in them avoiding sexual experiences with real people (Wetterneck et al., 2012:11-12). What should have happened in Canaan is still not happening today as people at either end of the supply and demand of the sex industry are stigmatised and shamed. Jennie Ketcham relates that the person leaving the porn industry is seen in three ways shamed, a goody christian convert or trying to gain publicity (Ketcham cited in Violet Blue, 2009: np). The person at the other end is also either seen or is believed that he/she is shamed and stigmatised in their oppression as their dalliance is often described as self-abuse. Both require liberation from oppression as both are being objectified by a systematic cycle of demand and supply.

How this liberty is brought about is different in practice but the theory is very much the same it involves changing objectification and humanising the people involved. For the devotee of pornography it involves the understanding that these people are people with real names with real fathers and mothers maybe even husbands, wives and children. For the performers and other sex workers they need to see themselves as more than just existing for the enjoyment of others. Those who want liberation need to be able to enter into a community that will not label them and shame them for what they have done but stand beside them and show them how they have made themselves and others less than the true image of God that they were made in.


Acosta, M. (2010). Ethnicity and the People of God. Evangelical Review of Theology. (34)1: 58-70.

Glasser, A.F. (2003). Announcing the Kingdom: The Story of God's Mission in the Bible. Baker Academic. Grand Rapids: MI.

Herzog II, W.R. (2000). Jesus, Justice, and the Reign of God: A Ministry of Liberation. Westminster John Knox Press. Louisville: KN.

Wright, C.J.H. (2004). Old Testament Ethics for the People of God. Inter-Varsity Press. Leicester: England.

Jeyaraj, J.B. (2008). Religion and Politics in Ancient Israel and Modern India - Issues and Inter-Actions. Evangelical Review of Theology. (32)2: 136-155.

Tankard-Riest, M. (2012). Sex sells, but we’re selling out our children. Available Internet
( April 2012)

Violet Blue. (2009). Leaving Porn On Her Terms Violet Blue: Former adult star Jennie Ketcham's exit from porn defies stereotypes.Available Internet
( April 2012)

Wetterneck, Chad T. & Burgess, Angela J. & Short, Mary B. & Smith, Angela H. & Cervantes, Maritza E. (2012) The Role Of Sexual Compulsivity, Impulsivity, And Experiential Avoidance In Internet Pornography Use. Psychological Record. (62)1: 3-17.