Wednesday, December 21, 2011

(A Bit More) On the Way to Heaven and Hell

The Last Judgment
Michelangelo's Last Judgement
Michelangelo Buanorroti began painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel at the age of thirty-five. It was 1510 and it would be seven years until Martin Luther’s nailed his Ninety-Five Theses nailed to the Wittenburg Cathedral door to initiate the Protestant Reformation. But from 1536 to 1541, as he labored on the fresco of The Last Judgment, Rome was feeling the impact of the Protestant revolt against its religious authority. In Michelangelo’s enduring artistic image of the Christ’s judging the world, Christ pronounces the fate of all humankind with awesome finality. The 314 figures clearly divide into two groups. One is raised into the glories of heaven with the Apostles and the Patriarchs. The other, the damned, cower in abject despair. In light of the religious controversies of the day, significantly one man is barely saved by hanging onto the rosary, a symbol of medieval Catholic devotion to the Virgin Mary. 

In addition, as the Princeton theologian, Daniel Migliore, comments, 
The martyrs of the faith who surround Christ seem to take satisfaction in the torment of the damned.
And there Michelangelo—surely one of the world’s greatest artists and intellectuals—reveals a base flaw. His view of the final judgment—and often ours as well—conflates a sincere devotion to God’s sovereignty with a touch of hate for our foes.
Jesus Christ is the antidote to these unhelpful notions. In him, we certainly meet our Judge. Yes, Christ will judge all people.  Yes, he will root out evil. But this Judge is also our Savior. I gained a valuable insight from Karl Barth on the nature of Christ’s judgment: the only God we know as Christians is the God who is for us, the God revealed in Jesus Christ. Or as Migliore writes, 
the very same Christ who was crucified and raised for us will also be our judge on the final day.
Snap Shot of Paul taken on my iPhone
Jesus walked on the streets and taught God’s grace. Jesus sat at table with his disciples, saying, “Take and eat. This is my body broken for you.” This judge gave himself for us. Paul says it best in the final verses of Romans 8 as he lifts his rhetoric to truly heavenly heights:
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)
And to put a coda on this: As I prepare for my class this spring on Rob Bell's Love Wins and the Bible, I realize this is one of Bell's major concerns as well--that somehow we never forget that "God is love" (1 John 4:8). Our vision of our final destiny must always keep in mind that we will meet at loving God. And to be timely, this is the Jesus we also meet at Christmas, "the Word who became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood' (as Eugene Peterson paraphrases John 1:14). 

And that brings me to my usual question, What do you think?

(A postscript: In March, I posted something on "Heaven and Hell" as I took in the controversy over Rob Bell's Love Wins. That post has dwarfed all my others in the number of hits it has received. As I noted, that post, as well as this one, is excerpted from the final chapter of my book, Creation and Last Things: At the Intersection of Theology and Science--I added the link to Amazon in case my publisher becomes a little uncomfortable with how much I'm putting into my blog.)


whatthehellbook said...

Study and debate is a good thing. I'm glad you're at least talking about the issue.

Anonymous said...

This post reminds me Jonathan Edwards sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," (he quotes Revelation 14:10):

"You shall be tormented in the presence of the holy angels, and in the presence of the Lamb; and when you shall be in this state of suffering, the glorious inhabitants of heaven shall go forth and look on the awful spectacle, that they may see what the wrath and fierceness of the Almighty is; and when they have seen it, they will fall down and adore that great power and majesty. Isa. 66:23,24. '... And they shall go forth and look upon the carcasses of the men that have transgressed against me; for their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched, and they shall be an abhorring unto all flesh.' "

Justice is the theme of Dante's inferno. It's full of characters who tempt us eloquently for sympathy. The inscription over Hell's gate states Justice moved God to create Hell. Our compromised view of Justice distorts our view of God 's Judgement. Dante explains our unmitigated states:

"At which I said: "And after the great sentence –
o master – will these torments grow, or else
be less, or will they be just as intense?"
And he to me: "Remember now your science,
which says that when a thing has more perfection,
so much the greater is its pain or pleasure.
Though these accursed sinners never shall
attain the true perfection, yet they can
expect to be more perfect then than now."

Hell answers the cry of "public Justice." Plato calls Justice a state of harmony. And justice would be a simple if men were simple, but our internal wars destroy justice, making every city, in reality two cities at war: “For whence come wars and fights and factions? Whence but from the body and the lusts of the body?”(Plato in "Phaedo,” 66)

Justice is not is essential to community. Aristotle takes the communal applications further:

“friendship seems to hold cities together...relationships with which friendship is concerned be the same as those which are the sphere of justice..the proverb says ‘Friends' goods are common property,’ and this is correct, since community is the essence of friendship..."

Nicholas Wolterstorff, in "Philosophers Who Believe" picks up on this Justice/Love connection:

"These...encounters with real suffering in contexts of injustice..have evoked in me a great deal of...reorientation... the proper response to moral injury is lament and outrage....I began to see that the Bible is a book about justice; but what a strange and haunting form of justice! Not our familiar modern Western justice, of no one invading one's right to determine one's life as one will. Rather the justice of the widow, the orphan and the alien. A society is just when all the little ones, all the defenseless ones, all the unprotected ones have been brought back into community, to enjoy a fair share in the community's goods, and a standing and voice in the affairs of the community...."

Hell answers God is a community and lives in community. Communal Love demands communal Justice. In Greek, ("nomos") “law” means both law and song...from a root meaning "to distribute." For Paul and Plato, Harmony is Justice and the "Song" of Justice" is the health of both city & soul.

It is NOT the retributive torment the host of heaven rejoices over, but public Justice...that God, " might be just and the justifer...". (Rom. 3:25) Wickedness is stopped. It is isolated and given Justice (for rejecting mercy). God still moves upon chaos separating light from darkness. This is the continuing story of the bible of two cities. Augustine in “City of God,” like Plato, asserts there can be no "great city" without perfect Justice. If there is a Heaven of pleasures at God's right hand, there must be a kind of hell away from all pleasures.

Bill Jackson, Oroville CA