As most of you likely know, I cannot read minds—much less the mental state of paper characters invented by the minds of others, that is to say, the synoptic evangelists of whom virtually nothing certain is known. Here is a prolegomenon addressing the question in the title. The Greek word for heaven (ouranos, οὐρανός) according to the lexicographers is used three ways in the New Testament: 1. referring to a part of the ancient universe, hence firmament or sky; 2. referring to a transcendental abode, hence not part of the universe; 3. as a circumlocution for God, hence neither of the first two.
I limit my inquiry to the testimony of the Gospel of Mark and the hypothetical Gospel Q. In Mark there are 17 uses of ouranos. I would describe the uses of ouranos in Mark (readers may disagree): firmament or sky (1:10-11; 4:32; 6:41; 7:34; 13:25 [twice]; 13:27; 13:31); as a circumlocution for God (8:11; 11:30-31); as a transcendental abode (10:21; 11:25; 12:25; 13:32; 14:62). Such is the evidence in Mark.
The question now becomes do the five "heaven-is-a-transcendental-abode" sayings attributed to Jesus in Mark survive the scalpel of critical scholarship. The report of the Jesus Seminar published in The Five Gospels (abbreviated here as FG) is the most critical sifting of the Jesus tradition to date. All but one of these sayings attributed to Jesus by Mark are colored gray, meaning that in the judgment of the seminar Jesus did not say this, but the ideas expressed are (may be) close to his own (FG, pp. 36-37). The saying rendered black is Mark 14:62 meaning Jesus did not say this; it represents the perspective of a later strand of the Jesus tradition. To see their rationale, look up the sayings in The Five Gospels. Hence, the sayings on heaven as a transcendental abode in the Gospel of Mark appear to be a later Christian tradition attributed to Jesus. Apparently Jesus himself did not share the view of an ultimate heavenly abode affirmed by the later tradition. Such is the judgment of critical scholarship on Mark's sayings about heaven as a transcendental abode.
The hypothetical early Christian gospel Q (Quelle, source), which no longer exists but is reconstructed by scholars from close verbal parallels between Matthew and Luke, is thought to be earlier than Mark. It is dated by some as early as 50 CE. Reconstructions of Q include seven sayings on heaven, four of which appear to be referring to heaven as a transcendental abode: Luke 6:23; 11:13; 12:23; 15:17. One saying can either be a transcendental abode or a circumlocution for God (Luke 10:15). One refers to heaven as part of the firmament (Luke 16:17), and the last is a circumlocution (Luke 17:29). Such is the evidence from the hypothetical early Christian sayings gospel Q.
Critical scholars regard four of these Q sayings as highly questionable (i.e., colored gray): Luke 6:23; 11:13; 12:33; 16:17; and three of them were definitely not spoken by Jesus (i.e., colored black; Luke 10:15; 15:17; 17:29). Such is the judgment of critical scholarship on Q's sayings about heaven as a transcendental abode.
When the earliest sources about Jesus (Mark and Q) are read critically it appears that Jesus did not share the later Christian hope of heaven as a transcendental abode to which the Christian soul journeys after death. He did, however, anticipate the imminent coming of what he called the "sovereign rule of God" (Mark: 10:14, 23, 25; Q: Matt 6:10a/Luke 11:2b; Matt 12:28/Luke 11:20) All of these sayings, when evaluated critically, are affirmed as originating with Jesus.
On the basis of the passages I have listed just above, the sovereign rule of God does not appear to be a transcendent abode (readers may disagree), but rather a domain, in the sense of God's sphere of influence over human life—or do you read them differently?
It is a naïve mistake to assume that what the church believes is what Jesus believed. Basically people must decide if they will live by the uncritical faith that the New Testament gospels are historically correct in all particulars, or live by reason and logic and make use of the results of 250 years of critical studies of the Bible. Critical scholars are not always right—true enough! But neither are they always wrong. One must look at the evidence and make informed judgments.
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University
You write of our choices: "...(1) uncritical faith that the New Testament gospels are historically correct in all particulars, (2) or live by reason and logic and make use of the results of 250 years of critical studies of the Bible."
The problem is that a very small percentage of folks care about the second choice. As a pastor in the early 70's I remember a mother telling me about her college age son, "He switched from Methodist to Catholic because he was too busy with the rest of life to have to think hard about religion. He went to where they told him what was the right way to think. Another example: I have two daughters. When in their 20's I bought them what I thought was a good scholarly introduction to the New Testament. Their basic reaction after reading only a few chapters, "We just don't think the way you do, dad." These folks, and zillions of such folk, do not have studying about how Jesus thought about heaven on their bucket list. And they probably won't receive any information about it from their pastor, either, who is unlikely to waste his/her time on something that's bound to upset the congregation.
Scholars have trouble realizing that they make up an elite group of very high IQs. The combination of lack of interest and lack of cognitive equality among the remaining population just about rules out
any strong influence in the Christian community at large. Pastors could put a dent in that problem, but like their parishioners, they see their spiritual foundations as more matters of the heart and volition than of the mind and cognition.
Me, there's nothing I enjoy more than a critically informed bible study!
There are no readers without prejudice, though we hope that both the rigors of scholarship and the peer review of the field will help us to avoid simply finding what we are looking for, I will suggest that there was/is a lingering prejudice among the JS to present the historical Jesus as a favorable light and not to reveal him to have been a dim witted and superstitious. However, realistically, he was at least influenced by if not a whole cloth product of his environment. Pharisees did believe in life after death and that was a part of their argument with the Sadducees. Since Jesus seemed to interact more with Pharisees than Sadducess, it seems likely that he was more a part of the camp of the former rather than the later (I spend a lot of time arguing and discussing with liberal democrats with whom I have some differences and I can't remember the last time I talked with a Republican because we have so little in common that we don't have much to talk about). I think that it is likely that Jesus believed in an other worldly afterlife but I am not afraid to add that he was just wrong about that as were most of his peers and our peers.
I have no doubt that for the most part you are entirely correct about the state of affairs in the church. Several years ago a Greek pediatrician told me as much. She said she had too much uncertainty in her field and needed something solid to hold on to in her religion. That being the case, it is a good reason for thinking people to remain in the traditional church to raise the level of conversation--I am assuming that you agree that the results of critical scholarship should be publicized.
Good Morning Roger,
I personally would not deny that Jesus may have had a belief in some form of an after life. He probably did. What I tried to show was that the evidence, such as can be sifted from the propaganda of the gospels, did not support the view that he believed in the Christian view of heaven. I think you are correct that Jesus had a great deal in common with the Pharisees and their debates as portrayed in the gospels seem like family arguments. But there is enough distance between the views of Jesus and those of the Pharisees as portrayed in the gospels to suggest that he did not share their views of afterlife. From the evidence he did anticipate the coming of God's sovereign rule, which may eliminate more traditional views of afterlife from consideration.
Charlie, I wonder if perhaps Jesus did not concern himself with the afterlife since so little was written about it in the Torah. I can't know this for certain, but preoccupation an "afterlife" seems to be mostly a NT obsession. The two rabbis to whom I listen have stated repeatedly that Judaism does not focus very strongly on any kind of afterlife experience- whether or not you are rewarded with a "paradise" or punished with a "hades".... Christians seems to be very confident that they alone know where people are headed after they leave the land of the living, unlike the followers of Judaism. Christians don't seem to mind at all that their confident claims are ultimately unprovable, but rabbis very much mind and therefore keep the focus on daily life in the here and now. Which I appreciate about their faith. Who gets punished and who gets rewarded in the hereafter is none my business. (and I doubt that even happens)
It does seem that what is written about the Jewish Messiah has more to do with some sort of utopia here on earth... Some kind of new earth where no one will need to teach anyone else the knowledge of God but each man will know it in his heart, Jer. 31:34. That has nothing to do with heaven but with a "new" earth. Don't you think Jesus had something like that in mind rather where people end up after they die? Does that question make sense?
Basically- does it seem to you like the NT focuses more and heaven and hell... Whereas the Tanach focuses more on a "utopia" experience on earth after the Messiah comes? It's an interesting difference. Where do you think Jesus focused? From the scriptures you mentioned, his focus was more on the heavenly realm.
Thank you as always, Elizabeth
Hi Charlie, you wrote:
"On the basis of the passages I have listed just above, the sovereign rule of God does not appear to be a transcendent abode (readers may disagree), but rather a domain, in the sense of God's sphere of influence over human life—or do you read them differently?"
I think perhaps we can use the word transcend in the sense that the kingdom of God is presented as transcending the influences that normally prevail.
On the matter of publicizing scholarship, my big regret is that I was never successful in mastering languages. But I appreciate those who have! Does anyone recognize that we need translations of the scriptures and related literature for those with elementary reading levels.
I agree that we can use the word "transcend" of God's sovereign rule as transcending all other influences that normally prevail.
Good Afternoon Elizabeth,
In your second paragraph you asked me about what Jesus had in mind. I am very careful to avoid saying what people think, because I really do not know. And you ask me for a generalization in your last paragraph, and I really am not able to do it. From my perspective there is too much diversity in views about the "end" in the New Testament literature to make a safe generalization. The texts that I use in the blog suggest to me that Jesus was more interested in life in this world. But with so little historical information, which can be demonstrably shown to be reliable, the question becomes very difficult to answer responsibly--in my view.
Do any of the scriptures you cited (in the third to last paragraph) indicate whether or not "sovereign rule of God" takes place on heaven or earth? If earth is the realm of God's sovereign rule, would you classify that as a uptopia?
Good Morning Elizabeth,
If you are asking me about the verses concerning the "sovereign rule of God," they appear to me to reference a rule of God that is realizable in the then present world. A utopia is "an imaginary and ideal country." So I suppose if everyone lived obediently under the rule of God many, if not most, would consider that utopian and a very good thing. But I can imagine also that there would always be those who find life under the authoritarian rule confining and complain about the loss of their personal freedoms.
Sorry to drag this out Charlie, but I was curious about your comment regarding authoritarian rule and personal freedom. What would lead you to assume that personal freedom would be restricted under the sovereign rule of God? And why would it be considered authoritarian? It's ok if you don't wish to answer in this blog- maybe you could go into it in a future blog... It's just that I never in my life ever heard someone from a Baptist church describe God as authoritarian... Or suggest that God would deliberately take away personal freedom. Dictators on earth do that, but isn't God supposed to be on a higher spiritual plane than a dictator? Isaiah 55:9 suggests that God's sovereign rule would be far different than man's sovereign rule. Thank you as always, Elizabeth
Good Morning Elizabeth,
You are quite right to challenge my assessment of God's sovereign rule, since no one really knows what it consists of. I was basing my statements on two things. 1. On how God is portrayed in the Bible. Very briefly: the Ten Commandments are not suggestions; God's boasting that he is a jealous God; Paul depicting God as condemning those who disagree with God by acting in ways God does not approve. Hence if God has not changed, I would imagine that s/he would not be tolerant of those with different ideas. 2. I understand a sovereign rule to be exercised by one who has the supreme authority within a given sphere. In such a context things are only done God's way.
And by the way Baptists historically do not subscribe to creedal statements but practice "soul liberty"; each Baptist follows the dictates of his/her own conscience.
Charlie, I've never been a member of any denomination other than Episcopalian when I was christened as a baby... Then my family attended a non-demoninational church when I turned school age- and I do not remember any creeds or creedal statements- other than the Nicene Creed. Is that the creed to which you were referring? Soul liberty is something I had not heard of either, but it does sound far more preferable than adopting creeds.
Even though Baptists historically didn't subscribe to creedal statements- don't they have church doctrine? Or is that something different?
Good Morning Elizabeth,
A creed is a set of fundamental beliefs, which is more or less authoritative, promulgated by a religious group. Most religious groups have some kind of a formal faith statement. The Presbyterians, for example, use the Westminster Confession that dates I think from 1646. The Nicene Creed is a famous confession promulgated by Christians of the fourth century, and is a traditional creed basic in some ways to most modern churches that came out of the Reformation.
There are some 60 or so Baptist groups and I cannot speak for all of them. I grew up in a Baptist Church, which thought of itself as independent but it was aligned with other churches of like faith and order in The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). There have been three confessional statements from this group in the 20th century (1925, 1963, 2000), which are referred to as "The Baptist Faith and Message Statement." When the denomination went through a theological/political controversy back in the 1980s The Baptist Faith and Message statement was heralded by the "Peace Committee" as "what most Baptists believed." Coming to adulthood in the Mississippi Delta in 1948-52 in a church aligned with the SBC, I simply cannot remember the 1963 "Statement of faith" playing a great role in church life. What I believed was not tested against the 1963 Statement of faith at the time I was ordained a minister of that group. In the local church it simply did not play a significant role. "Soul liberty," as I understood it, was simply that one was free to believe what his/her conscience led them to believe.
If I misstated any of the data about Baptists or the creeds I hope that someone who is a better Baptist than I will step up and correct the record.
Thank you Charlie- I did some cursory digging in Wikipedia and CenterForBaptistStudies.org and personally, I find the subject of creeds and Baptists kind of interesting... never having belonged to a particular church or being a member per se. Non-denominational churches are run differently, so I'm sorry to pull you into the weeds about creedal statements. But what I found in those two sites did help me understand things a little more clearly. I did not know that Baptists historically refrained from adopting creeds and the like- that they look to the Bible alone. What I read about soul liberty was pretty fascinating actually. How much can one trust Wikipedia- well you have to use your own judgement. And what I read at the "baptist center for studies/ analysis of the 2000 statement of faith" put their creedal policy in yet a different light. I guess they perhaps have a divergence of views on that subject, but I'm still glad you brought it to my attention and as I said earlier- I prefer the soul liberty perspective. Very interesting point of view, thank you.
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