A great programme on Radio 4 this evening on the theology and history of the Magi– the Wise Men who, according to Matthew 2, visited the infant Jesus with precious gifts of gold, frankincense and Myrrh.
9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
I love this story.
The way the coming of Jesus sent ripples out far beyond the edges of the Jewish world. The way his coming was anticipated, hoped for by ancient people searching for signs in the sky.
The way that men of a magical mystical tradition alien to the world of Jerusalem and Bethlehem were so transfixed by the hope brought be a coming king that they were prepared to travel hard long miles to attempt to find him. Some stress the Biblical condemnation of sorcery and astrology in such texts as Deuteronomy 18:10–11, Leviticus 19:26, and Isaiah 47:13–14, but there is no condemnation in the account above.
The sparse account of these men in Matthew has been added to by tradition. Names were added, and somewhere along the way, people started calling them Kings too.
Most accounts believe the Magi to be from Persia- Zoroastrian scholars well versed in astrology, and their own deep spirituality. They had their own belief in a coming Messiah, and a virgin who would conceive.
Many believe that it was from the Zoroastrian tradition that some Jewish sects- the Pharisees in particular- came to believe in an eternal life (more about this here.)
It brings to me again the possibility of a Messiah who came for all- not just a pre-selected few.
WARNING- sweary-words to be heard in the following clip.
Avoid if of a sensitive disposition- or if you are under/over the age at which knowledge of profanity should not be encouraged…
If like me, your tolerance for such things hints at your backslidden sinful state, then click on…
I stumbled across this whilst wasting time when I should have been DIYing (I now have water coming through the ceiling beneath where I recently installed a new shower. AGHHH!)
It set me thinking again about heaven, and hell, and what we might encounter when we die…
Oh, and I liked the accents too.
So what do we think about heaven and hell?
It seems that we Christians have two options to choose from-
Option 1- lots of soft clouds, harps and gold- HEAVEN
Option 2- fire, smoke, eternal torment- HELL
Hmmmm- which one do you fancy?
This, I suppose has been the evangelical strategy of church for a long time. Even though it has always troubled me- (back to those old Chick cartoons again I suppose!) It was not really that this narrow view of our impending fate was questionable within the theological understanding I was part of, but more that it was usually played down by most, and perhaps OVERPLAYED by some others.
But questions about the essential truth of this equation were never encouraged. Some of this was about Biblical truth, and the unassailable network that had been constructed around particular meanings, and some of it was about POWER- and the in-out stuff that allows us to decide who is OK, and who is not.
My concerns have always been for the following reasons-
Is it OK to SCARE people into the Kingdom? Or are we just telling it like it is?
Will a God of love REALLY throw all these people- good and bad, kids and those who have learning disabilities- any who died without a profession of faith- into a lake of fire to burn in agony for eternity?
What about Jesus? What did he have to say about this? These words are often quoted– And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where “their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched. (Mark 9:45-45)
And what about heaven? Does it not just sound slightly boring? A church service that never ends? (I have been in a few of those- or it seemed like it at the time!) Is this just the least-worse option?
Then there is the ‘your-reward-will-be-in-heaven’ business. Do lots of good, as you will get a nice big mansion, with a throne view.
So where am I up to now?
Well I realised that lots of Christian traditions have different views about heaven and hell. Some people have always had the concerns above, and even dared to express them.
To give McLaren another plug, I read his book ‘The last word and the word after that‘ a few years ago, and it was another one of those painful experiences, where I found myself confronting things I had avoided for fear of losing faith altogether.
But the end result was a deepening of the sense of who God might be, and how he might engage with us all.
In particular I was amazed to discover that the view of heaven and hell I had accepted as a fixed Biblical position appeared to have its origins outside the Bible, and perhaps even outside the Judeo-Christian world (this is not an idea original to McLaren, it seems, but is well understood by many Theologians, but ignored as irrelevant by others.)
One of the discoveries that led to the book came to me several years ago, but I don’t remember exactly how. I remember noticing that a number of Old Testament writers didn’t seem to believe in an afterlife. It was obvious in Ecclesiastes, but you know – that whole book seems odd. It struck me in some of the Psalms especially. Then I noticed this lack of belief in afterlife in other places, and I realized that Sheol wasn’t the same as hell.
Then I began to notice that Jesus talked about hell a lot, which let me know that something must have happened between the end of the Old Testament and the beginning of the New. I was curious about what happened during that time.
What appears to have happened is that some Jewish sects/denominations (but not all) adopted ideas of heaven and hell from other religions- such as the Zoroastrians, and this synthesis of belief systems became the understanding through which the Jewish people engaged with God.
There were apparently significant differences in for example, the Pharisees understanding of heaven and hell, and that of the Saducees. The former believed in the resurrection of the dead and the latter did not. Interestingly, it seems that the Saducees rejected the Pharisaical views on an afterlife on the basis of a literalistic interpretation of the Bible, rejecting the exegesis and oral traditions of the Pharisees. Truth wars were raging then too!
It seems that these grouping effectively became political parties too- so religion was definitely mixed with politics!
Does this matter?
Well when you read again the questions put to Jesus in the form of tests by these groups, it seems at least possible that they were attempting to either bring Jesus within their own fold, or expose his theology to be outside their understanding of truth, and so reject him.
The wonderful thing about Jesus is that these attempts failed, because he saw the trap coming a mile away, and neatly stepped around it. He seemed to have no time for this way of seeing faith.
Is it possible then that at least some of the words of Jesus in relation to heaven and hell can be read in the light of the context in which he was engaging? Does this change our understanding of what he was saying, or how it was recorded?
STOP! I hear you cry. This is going too far- it is a liberal re-interpretation of the Bible that will end in heresy!
In my defense, I offer no fixed positions to invite you to join me onto, and thereby defend.
But I dare to believe that the life that goes on when we are done here will always remain to us a wonderful mystery.
And I dare to hope that Jesus may yet find a way to save those who we have lost.
Hell may or may not be the place that burns up that part of us that is unworthy and unwelcome in the presence of the Living God.
And I pray that by his mercy, I will fall into the arms of a loving God.