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The afterlife

Liberal interpretations of passages from
the Christian Scriptures: 1st century  CE

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Topics covered in this essay:

This essay describes a common liberal interpretation of the beliefs of the emerging Christian movement in Palestine during the first century CE concerning life after death. A conservative interpretation is explained elsewhere on this web site.

bullet Judaism. There were about 24 Jewish groups in first century Palestine who held a wide spectrum of incompatible beliefs. Of these, the Essenes, Pharisees and Sadducees were the largest.
bulletSt. Paul's writings; 48 to 65 CE. The few "saved" Christians -- those who believe in Jesus' resurrection -- will go to heaven. There is no Hell; non-believers simply die and cease to exist.
bulletAuthor of Gospel of Mark: Circa 70 CE Heaven is for those who do good deeds. Hell exists as a place of eternal torment with fire and worms for those who are insensitive to the needs of others.
bulletAuthor of Gospel of Matthew: 80-85 CE. Heaven is for those who do good deeds. The torments of Hell are emphasized for those who do not do good deeds.
bulletAuthor of II Thessalonians: 75-90 CE. All the unsaved will be killed when Jesus returns.
bulletAuthor of the Gospel of Luke: 85-95 CE. Heaven is for those who do good deeds. Hell exist as a place of torment with heat and thirst.
bulletAuthor of Revelation: 93 CE? Evil people are thrown into a lake of fire and annihilated. Some are eternally punished.
bulletAuthor(s) of Gospel of John: circa 100 CE. Heaven is for those who believe in Jesus' divinity. Hell does not exist.

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Jewish Beliefs During 1st Century CE:

There were about 24 different Jewish religious/political groups during the time of Christ. The three main movements were:

bulletThe Sadducees rejected the concept of resurrection, because it was considered of Pagan foreign origin, probably picked up from the Zoroastrian religion during the Babylonian captivity. The Saducees followed the ancient Jewish beliefs about Sheol as they existed before Greek influence modified them. They also did not believe in fate, in demons or in angels. The Sadducees believed that God would reward the righteous and punish the wicked during their lifetime on earth.

They were in charge of the Temple and its rituals. They felt that as long as animal sacrifices and other rituals were continued in Jerusalem, that Israel would flourish without major disasters. After the Roman army attacked and destroyed the Temple and the rest of Jerusalem in 70 CE, they were bitterly disillusioned. They ceased to exist as a cohesive group shortly afterwards. By the end of the 1st century CE, they had essentially disappeared.
bulletThe Pharisees embraced much of the recently introduced Greek Pagan theology. They believed in resurrection and an associated system of rewards and punishment after death. They did not expect justice to be achieved on earth. They expected that God would make certain that everyone received their just deserts in the future when he established his Kingdom. St. Paul was a Pharisee before he developed Pauline Christianity.
bulletThe Essenes lived in tightly organized communities, either in remote wilderness areas or within towns. They believed in baptism, a close and loving community, and a simple lifestyle. They taught that the soul separated from the body and was resurrected to eternal life. The body decayed. John the Baptist was probably an Essene, or at least was educated in an Essene community. Although they were quite numerous and were widespread throughout Palestine, they are not mentioned in any of the books found in the official canon of the Bible.

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St. Paul

St. Paul wrote a series of epistles (letters), starting  about 48 CE. Many early Christians believe that he was executed by Roman authorities in Rome fewer than twenty years later, circa 65 CE.

Paul wrote repeatedly that people of the 1st and later centuries CE would only attain the Kingdom of God after death, if they had previously been saved while they were alive on Earth. They attained salvation by believing and trusting in the crucified and resurrected Christ. He would have disagreed with the later authors of the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) who emphasized salvation by good deeds and attitudes. Paul specifically negated the importance of "works." He also would have disagreed with the authors of the Gospel of John who said that salvation was through belief in Jesus' divinity, rather than his resurrection.

He also believed that individuals who engaged in certain prohibited behaviors would be excluded from heaven. They would "not inherit the kingdom of God."

bulletGalatians 5:19-20 includes the following behaviors: "fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousies, wraths, factions, divisions, parties, envyings, drunkenness, revellings, and such like." (ASV)
bullet1 Corinthians 6:9-11 states that: "neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with men, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God." (ASV) [The two behaviors listed after adulterers are controversial. The New American Version translates these as "boy prostitutes, practicing homosexuals." Their footnote defines the latter as referring to men who sexually abuse boys. So, both the victims and the victimizers would not inherit Heaven. More details.]

Paul wrote in 1 Thessalonians 4:14-14 about the rapture. This passage contains a precise description of Jesus returning towards earth during Paul's lifetime. The dead who had been saved will rise out of their graves and rise through the air towards Jesus. Those saved Christians who were still alive then would rise to meet Jesus in the sky. The second coming of Jesus did not happen in the middle of the 1st century CE, as Paul expected. Many conservative Christians believe that it will happen in our near future. Liberal denominations and most mainline denominations have not included the rapture in their belief system.

Paul taught that after death, all saved believers would be judged by Jesus and be rewarded according to their deeds, good and bad, while they were alive on earth. This implies that everyone who enters heaven will not be treated equally:

bullet2 Corinthians 5:10: "For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad."
bulletRomans 14: 10-13: "...For we will all stand before God's judgment seat...each of us will give an account of himself to God."

St. Paul apparently did not believe that the unsaved are resurrected after death and taken to Hell for eternal torture. He implies that the fate of the unsaved is to die and cease their existence. The best known passage expressing this belief is probably:

bulletRomans 6:23: "For the wages of sin is death..."

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Author of the Gospel of Mark:

Traditionally, the church has taught that this gospel was written by person by the name of Mark. However, very few current theologians hold this belief. The author is unknown.

"Mark" comments about the danger of eternal damnation for anyone who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit. God may never forgive the individual. She/he may be eternally damned. Unfortunately, the author does not precisely specify what form the damnation might take.

bulletMark 3:29: "But he that shall blaspheme against the Holy Ghost hath never forgiveness, but is in danger of eternal damnation." (KJV)

He describes Hell as a place of eternal torment and torture. It is a place of eternal fire, where worms are continuously present. Presumably, the fire is hot enough to cause considerable pain, and the worms eat the flesh of the residents of Hell. He repeats the passage three times for emphasis:

bulletMark 9:43-48: "And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched: Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched. And if thy foot offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter halt into life, than having two feet to be cast into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched:  Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched. And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out: it is better for thee to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire: Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched." (KJV)

This appears to be the earliest reference to Hell (as we currently know it) in the New Testament.

"Mark" believed that heaven is reserved for those who have committed good works and have good attitudes, or those who have accepted poverty and followed Jesus. Mark appears to know nothing about being saved through belief in Jesus' resurrection or divinity.

This essay continues below.

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Author of the Gospel of Matthew:

Church tradition names Matthew, the tax-collecting disciple, as the author of this Gospel. There appears to be no real evidence to support this. Essentially all liberal theologians regard the author as unknown.

"Matthew" lays great emphasis on Hell. He incorporated the passage from Mark 9:43-48 into his gospel at Matthew 5:29-30. He also adds some new passages:

bulletMatthew 10:28: "And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell." This passage would seem to imply that an individual would not spend eternity in Hell, but would be annihilated after residing there for a while.
bulletMatthew 13:40-42: "As therefore the tares are gathered and burned in the fire; so shall it be in the end of this world. The Son of man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity; And shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth." This, and the following passage could be interpreted either as sudden annihilation or as eternal punishment.
bulletMatthew 13:49-50: "So shall it be at the end of the world: the angels shall come forth, and sever the wicked from among the just, and shall cast them into the furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth."
bulletMatthew 23:33: "Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?"
bulletMatthew 25:30: "And cast ye the unprofitable servant into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth." The darkness seems incompatible with the fire of Hell mentioned elsewhere in the Gospel.
bulletMatthew 25:41: "Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels:" This passage also could be interpreted as sudden annihilation, or as eternal torture of the individuals thrown into the fire.

As in the Gospel of Mark, "Matthew" records that Heaven is for those who have committed good works and have good attitudes, or who have accepted poverty and followed Jesus. Matthew appears to know nothing about being saved through belief in Jesus' resurrection or divinity.

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Author of II Thessalonians:

Liberal theologians are divided over the authorship of II Thessalonians. Verse 3:17 states that Paul is the author. However, religious liberals assert that internal evidence shows that the epistle was probably written 10 to 25 years after Paul's death by an unknown person.

In 2 Thessalonians 1:7-10, the author describes how Jesus will return to earth in a blaze of fire and inflict vengeance on the great majority of humanity. Those who "do not know God and do not obey the gospel" will be "punished with everlasting destruction." This presumably means that nonbelievers who are on earth at Jesus' second coming will be annihilated: killed and never again be conscious.

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Author of the Gospel of Luke:

Luke also copied large portions of text from the Gospel of Mark and incorporated them into his gospel. He chose to soften Mark 3:29 by deleting the reference to eternal damnation. He deleted the entire description in Hell in Mark 9:43-48. But he added one passage that was not in Mark: the parable of the rich man and the beggar.

While alive, the rich man ignored the needs of a starving beggar, Lazarus. After death, the beggar was carried by the angels to Abraham, while the rich man ended up in Hell. The latter was tormented by the heat and lack of water. He begged Abraham to send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool the formerly rich man's tongue. Abraham turned down the request on the basis that there is a physical barrier, a gulf, between heaven and hell. Also, Abraham implied that the rich man was getting what he deserved. (Luke 16:19-26)

It is worth noting that the rich man did not end up in Hell because we was not "saved" through belief in Jesus. He was condemned to Hell because he had not helped the poor. As in the Gospels of Mark and Luke, Matthew records that Heaven is for those who have committed good works and have good attitudes, or who have accepted poverty and followed Jesus. Matthew appears to know nothing about being saved through belief in Jesus' resurrection or divinity.

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Author of Revelation

The book of Revelation almost did not make it into the official canon. Again, religious conservatives and liberals take opposing views on this book:

bulletConservatives generally believe that it was written by one of Jesus' disciples, John. It was this belief that convinced the early church to reluctantly include it in the Bible. They view much of the book as predicting events that will unfold in our future.
bulletFew religious liberals agree with John's authorship. They conclude that its actual author is unknown. Most believe that the book describes many dreadful events which the author expected would happen in his immediate future. The purpose of the book was to stiffen Christian resolve in the face of pressures by the Roman Empire to introduce compulsory emperor worship.

The author views the true Church as being composed of those who have refused to worship the emperor, and have threatened with or experienced martyrdom. He describes a God consumed with anger and the need to take vengeance against those who have given into the pressure to conform. This is a very different picture of God than we see described in the synoptic gospels. There is no love for one's enemies. There is only bitterness, hatred, and a desire for revenge. Some references in Revelation which deal with Hell are:

bulletRevelation 14:9-11: "And the third angel followed them, saying with a loud voice, If any man worship the beast and his image, and receive his mark in his forehead, or in his hand, The same shall drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is poured out without mixture into the cup of his indignation; and he shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels, and in the presence of the Lamb: And the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever: and they have no rest day nor night..." The author appears to be describing an endless torture scene, with angels and Jesus present either as observers or as officials who are directing the torture. Their precise role is unclear.
bulletRevelation 20:10: "And the devil that deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are, and shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever."
bulletRevelation 20:12-15: "And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works. And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works. And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire."
bulletRevelation 21:8: "But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death." (KJV)

The first reference implies that eternal torture without ceasing is reserved for those who have worshiped the beast - who may have been the Roman emperor.

The third and fourth references are particularly interesting. It mirrors the last judgment scene in Matthew 25:31-46. In both cases, the entire human race is judged on the basis of their deeds during their lifetime. Those who have done good works go to heaven; those who have been uncharitable towards the poor are punished. They appear to face immediate destruction and annihilation in the lake of fire; there is no eternal torment for them. Judgment is made on the basis of their good and bad works, not on their belief in the divinity or resurrection of Jesus.

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Author(s) of the Gospel of John:

Many liberal theologians believe that the Gospel was not written by Jesus' disciple John, but that part of the book was composed by an unknown author or authors. A later person edited the book and added additional text in order to make it conform to church belief at the time.

"John" has many references to heaven being attained by Christians who believe in the divinity of Jesus. Belief in Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection are not required, as Paul wrote.

The author of John does not mention Hell. One can infer that he believed that it did not exist. For this and other reasons, the gospel of John is believed by religious liberals to have been written by early Christian(s) who followed a very different religious tradition than did the authors of the synoptic Gospels.

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Copyright 1997, 1999 to 2001 incl. and 2004 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2004-APR-12
Author: B.A. Robinson

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