Introduction (Rev 20)
Between Heaven and Hell Sermon No 1, 29th April 2012
A few years ago, Professor Robert Winston began a survey of children born in the year 2000, called, ‘child of our time’. In it, he looked at families from a variety of social backgrounds around the UK, to look at how a child’s upbringing and environment would affect their view of themselves and the world. And there was one test designed to gauge a child’s sense of self-worth: he would have these toddlers draw a picture of something they liked – and on a table before them, would place five coloured stars, and ask each child, how many stars they thought their picture deserved. If the child thought their picture was fantastic, the child would take five stars; if they thought their picture was no good at all, they would take only one star. And it was utterly astonishing, how the majority of children took only one star – only one or two taking a couple more than one star.
And being as arrogant as I am about my parenting skills, I couldn’t help repeating the experiment on my appropriately-aged boy. I got him to draw a picture, and then I placed the five coloured stars onto the table, and everything was set. “Do you understand what you’ve got to do?” (Nodding) You can have as many stars as you think your picture deserves? (Nodding). So, how many stars would you like? (reply: I don’t want any stars.) What, none at all? (Shaking head and frowning. I want sweets).
I’m not sure how Professor Winston would analyse that. I suppose, with some caution, given that this is the same offspring have asked me how to spell DVD, who told his football coach that tic tacs are more important that tactics, and who tried to convince a Moslem friend of mine that Ramma-Damma-Ding-Dong is a religious festival.
Well, Professor Winston’s point seems to be that the way we are brought up shapes the way we understand our place in the universe, our sense of ourselves, and our relationships with others. In Christian history – our place in the world has been largely shaped by our views of heaven above, hell below – and earth in the middle. But really – this seems like a primitive mythology that has done nothing but keep common people in a perpetual state of irrational fear, guilt and a sense of never being good enough to meet God’s high standards. In fact, this is widely understood as a crucial aspect of the so called ‘Good News’ of the Christian faith.
So, heaven is the metaphysical world above where God lives. At the end of the life, if you’ve been either a virtuous, sinless, blameless embodiment of selfless moral perfection – or a right wing, conservative evangelical – then you’re welcomed into heaven, where you will spend all eternity in the company of other intolerable individuals. If, on the other hand, you have committed genocide, parricide, infanticide, regicide or a minor parking offence – then you rightly deserve to spend all eternity in hell where you will be prodded with red-hot pokers by Simon Cowell.
Heaven, of course, is up there. Hell is down there. And in between – here we are on planet earth – spending our lives with no other purpose than trying to secure a favourable eternity.
Such are the myths of the afterlife presented still, by many Christians today. After all, the bible tells them so! Or does it? That will be the theme for this term’s Sunday evening sermons. Because the systematic beliefs about heaven as the destination of the righteous and hell, of the unrighteous – cannot be read off the surface of Christian Scripture. There are traces of such a belief system in Ancient Greece and Egypt – even among pre-Christian Anglo Saxon religions. But, whilst the texts of Scripture are sometimes quoted to support this view – it is not to be found in the Christian Bible.
I had to write an extended essay on this topic as an undergraduate – and an unfortunate typo made its way past my spell-checker: namely, that hell is the post-mortem destiny not of the unsaved – but of the unshaved, who were thus condemned to spend eternity in torment. My essay came back with a comment in the margin: “Bad news for the Greek Orthodox!” But studying as a proper evangelical, I expected to find evidence all over the bible for the reality of hell. In fact, it became clear that throughout the early history of Israel, there was virtually nothing on the subject. It was only, very late, that it became clear – just how many thousands of people who worshipped a God of Justice, went to their graves without ever seeing Justice. So of course, for God to be just – death could not be the final word. There must be some form of reckoning, beyond the grave.
By the time of the New Testament, there is plenty of talk about the Kingdom of God, which many people still take to refer to heaven. But it does not. To Jesus’ first century listeners, the kingdom of God is a political philosophy, a coming era where government would be just – and where Israel’s God is acknowledged by the whole world. And much of Jesus’ teaching is concerned with pointing out that ironically, when God’s Kingdom comes – there will be plenty of hard-core Jewish believers who will not find themselves included in it. But this is the Kingdom of God, not heaven. In fact, the New Testament says very little about heaven. A lot about Resurrection – but hardly anything about heaven.
But then we come our reading in which the talk of heaven seems unambiguous. Unfortunately, it comes from the book of Revelation. The final book of the bible, full of bizarre and incomprehensible visions – a book whose author, Richard Dawkins is convinced, was on acid. But when you study this book within the context of apocalyptic literature, a different picture emerges.
If you are a first century Jewish person living under an oppressive, imperial regime – like that of Rome – and you have a message for fellow believers, then you may need to find a way of encouraging your contemporaries in a way that raises no suspicion. The apocalyptic literature of Revelation is a recognised genre, that carries a subversive political agenda straight under the nose of the Roman authorities. One New Testament scholar described Revelation as the most powerful piece of resistance literature from the first century.
The two principle characters of the book refer to two wings of the empire’s power. The hard-imperialism of the beast (the Roman military machine) and the soft imperialism of the whore (the economic laws, the worship of Roman ideology). And these aspects of Roman power were impossible to resist – and as history shows – many Christians went to their deaths because they would not buy into the power games of the empire. They would not worship Caesar as Lord.
Of course, this passage is often seen as a reference to the end of time. And this reign of a thousand years is assumed to be an actual, literal, chronological reign of Christians… Whilst martyrs of the Christian faith were put to death like Jesus himself – it looks very much as though Christianity is powerless to resist the power of the empire. But John’s vision is for a heavenly perspective. That is – though their death seems to be the final word – we read here about a second death in which they are vindicated. This is a vision, in other words, in which the injustices of an oppressive empire, in the end – their rule, their influence over the world, their rule of a thousand years – is seen as more powerful than that of the great leaders and empires and kings. John uses the idea of a Thousand Year Reign to show the victory of the martyrs over the beast.
The authority of an imperial regime that seems to have power of life and death over all its subjects, is seriously relativized when we read that beyond the grave, there is a second death.
It is a vision in which justice is sought beyond the grave. But it doesn’t actually say very much about heaven. Nor does it call upon Christian believers to buckle down, because everything will be alright when they get to heaven and their enemies are consigned to hell.
Here, in one of few texts of the New Testament that actually makes explicit reference to Heaven – it is really an encouragement to the on-going struggle for justice here upon the earth. From this, of course, a belief in some form of afterlife can be implied – but it is pretty vague.
The bible is not a metaphysical handbook that gives us details of heaven and earth and hell.
What the authors of Scripture do offer, is a way of being in the world that opens up the cosmic dimensions of the everyday. It is to those authors that we will be listening over the next few weeks as we look again at heaven above and hell below and whatever it is that fills the space in between.