Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Evidence of Belief in a Three-Tier Cosmos, Or Purely Metaphorical "Burial Language?"

Paul wrote of beings existing “under the earth.” Paulʼs Hellenistic and Jewish readers were familiar with underworlds in which beings lived, i.e., the Greek Hades, the Roman Tartarus (both terms appearing in the Gospels themselves) and the shadowy Sheol of the Hebrew Bible:

The departed spirits tremble under the waters and their inhabitants. Naked is Sheol before Him [Yahweh].
Job 26:5-6

A witch in Endor calls up Samuel from Sheol. (She is not calling him up from his personal burial site because he was not buried in Endor.)
1 Sam. 28:3,12ff

The dead are not simply lying dead in the earth but “under the earth” and remaining active in some sense, if only in a shadowy sense in the case of early Greek and Hebrew views of Hades and Sheol. Below are verses from Paul and Revelation that mention beings living under the earth. Consider them from the viewpoint of a first century Hellenistic convert:

That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.
Philippians 2:10

English Bibles fail to render fully the meaning of “under the earth” in the above verse—the Greek word katachthonion refers to “the beings down (kata) in the chthonic (chthovios) or subterranean world.” The Anchor Bible translation is “those in the world below,” with the added comment, “katachthonioi was a designation for the dead in the underworld [the commentary then cites sources from Hellenistic antiquity]… The meaning is spirits above, humans on earth, and the dead in Hades, appropriate for ‘the Roman milieu of Philippi.’ … The full phrase came naturally for Christians there to describe the universe… Those in the heavens [several ‘layers,’ 2 Cor. 12:2 ‘the third heaven’]; on earth [1 Cor 8:5; 10:26; 15:47]; and in the world below, Sheol or Hades.” [John Reumann, Philippians, The Anchor Yale Bible, 2008, p. 357-58]

The book of Revelation features a similar notion:

No one in heaven or on earth or under the earth could open the scroll or even look inside it. Revelation 5:3 … Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, singing: “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!” Revelation 5:13

Also consider how a Hellenistic convert might read these verses, starting with talk of a “prince of the power of the air,” and also about “descending into the lower parts of the earth”:

…in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Ephesians 2:2 … That the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known through the church to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly places. Ephesians 3:10 … Now this expression, “He ascended,” what does it mean except that He also had descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is Himself also He who ascended far above all the heavens, so that He might fill all things. Ephesians 4:9-10 … Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places. Ephesians 6:12

Interestingly, a different letter says that these “things in heavenly places” were reconciled to God:

… and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
Colossians 1:20

Further Information On Sheol In The OT

Sheol is typically depicted as a place to which one “goes down” (urd; see Num 16:30;Job 7:9; Isa 57:9; cf. Isa 29:4; Ps 88:3-4). It represents the lowest place imaginable (Deut 32:33; Isa 7:11) often used in contrast with the highest heavens (Amos 9:2; Ps 139:8; Job 11:8). To emphasize further the depth of Sheol we also find it modified by tahtit/tahtiyyot (e.g. Deut 32:22; Ps 86:13; Ezek 31:14-18), usually translated “the lowest parts of the underworld.”

Sheol is also associated with terms for chaotic waters, including Sea, River, breakers, waves, and the deep. So Sheol is associated with primeval waters lying beneath the earth as well as with judgmental waters loosed by God (water that God is depicted elsewhere as miraculously holding back in order to maintain creation, see “The Cosmology of the Bible” chapter in The Christian Delusion). Ancient Near Eastern imagery also links a crossing of water with oneʼs travel to the underworld and the imagery is so common from Mesopotamia to Greece that it probably played a role in the Hebrew linkage of water with the land of the dead.

The inhabitants of Sheol are called the Rephaim, and a great deal of literature has been written on the nature of the Rephaim since the publication of Ugaritic texts where they are mentioned extensively.

As already stated, it is not a matter of being forced to choose between totally metaphorical usage versus all other usages or understandings. In early usage Sheol is like a metaphor for the Uber-grave, but even metaphors do not preclude other meanings, depictions, definitions rather than purely “burial imagery.” In fact, recognition of ideas shared by biblical and ANE sources makes the likelihood of belief in a three-tier cosmos more likely, not less so. Same goes for NT conceptions, see below.

Further Information On The Underworld In The NT

The underworld is depicted not only as “Hades” in the NT (into which Christ descended in order to preach to the spirits of the dead, 1 Pet 3:18-20; 4:6—such a “descent into hell” becoming part of the Apostleʼs Creed), but the underworld is also depicted as the “Abyss” (abussos), often translated as “Bottomless Pit” (Luke 8:31; Rom 10:7; Rev 9:1-2,11; 11:17; 17:18; 20:1,3). “Tartarus” is another word derived from Greek mythology and employed by NT authors, itʼs a place that Greeks depicted as lying as far below Hades as earth is below the heavens, so much so that an anvil could fall for nine days and nights until it reached it. Tartarus is described as a prison with gates and sometimes personified (as was Hades, and also Sheol in the OT). The author of 2 Peter 2:4 mentions rebel angels being cast into Tartarus, based on a story found in the inter-testamental work, 1 Enoch (or at least based on a general knowledge of the “Watchers” myth in 1 Enoch):

1 Enoch 10:2-3, 10:11-14 — A deluge [Flood] is about to come upon the whole earth … And the Lord said unto Michael: ‘Go, bind [the evil angels] in the valleys of the earth till the day of their judgment … is consummated. In those days they shall be led out to the abyss of fire: and to the torment and the prison in which they shall be confined for ever.’

Compare 2nd Peter 2:4-5 — God spared not angels when they sinned, but cast them down to hell, and committed them to pits of darkness [Tartarus], to be reserved unto judgment; and spared not the ancient world, but preserved Noah … when he brought a flood …

Portions of the Book of Enoch can also be found in the NT books of Jude and Revelation. Interestingly, 1 Enoch depicts a flat earth.

[Much of the information in the above sections on Sheol and the NT underworld was derived from Theodore J. Lewis, “Dead, Abode of the,” Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol. 2, Doubleday, 1992]

Final Point Of Interest: Did The Ancient Israelites View Sheol As Real Or Not?

“A cursory overview of modern interpretation of biblical thanatology quickly reveals the lack of current consensus among scholars. There is pressing need for further study and clarification. Was Sheol real or not for ancient Israelites? If it was real, were all souls expected to end up imprisoned there? How did Israelites interact (or refrain from interacting) with the shades of the dead?”—Stephen L. Cook

Cookʼs complete paper is online: Funerary Practices and Afterlife Expectations in Ancient Israel

Prior to the publication of his paper Stephen L. Cook also composed these shortened presentations of various points:

  1. To Be Gathered To Oneʼs People
  2. Burial and Afterlife in Yahwism, Part 2
  3. Burial and Afterlife in Yahwism, Part 3
  4. Burial and Afterlife in Yahwism, Part 4
  5. Burial and the Hereafter in Yahwism, Part 5
  6. Burial and the Hereafter in Yahwism, Part 6
  7. Yahwism and Life after Death: Part 7
  8. Life after Death, Part 8

See also this new book on the afterlife, L’homme face à la mort au royaume de Juda: Rites, pratiques et représentations by Hélene Nutkowicz. Cook comments: “Nutkowicz suggests that the Hebrew people believed in amortality. At first glance, it seems to me that this might be a helpful term, since it stresses that the soul does survive death, but it does not view death as positive or beatific as might be implied by the term immortality. N. also discusses the relationships between the living and the dead, the repa’im [also spelled, Rephaim], the ’elohim, the practice of necromancy, the duties toward the dead and toward the living, inscriptions, and the cult of the dead and of the ancestors.”

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  1. Ed,

    I would agree that the Israelites viewed hell or sheol as a literal place and that Paul did also.

    I don't see it is simply and merely being a figurative place or metaphor. If so it would make no sense for Jesus to have "descended" ...descended into a metaphorical place?

    Now, the question is was this in the literal earth?

    Jesus called the place "outer darkness" where weepeing and knashing of teeth existed also.

    Wherever this place is, it is considered to be a literal place not figurative place. Are you suggesting that Hayes holds that "the lower parts of the earth" was only a metaphorical place or that the language used to describe it was only metaphorical language?

    To me these are two totally different arguments that you seem to have turned into one argument. Clarification is in order.

  2. Hi Harvey,

    Steve Hays as I currently read him, is arguing that the phrase "under the earth" is purely metaphorical, mere "burial imagery" since the bodies of the dead were kept in tombs in the earth. I point out that that was not necessarily so. The ancients did not simply speak in metaphors concerning the cosmos, never daring to even hazard a guess as to the shape and structure of the cosmos. In fact as I point out in my article, a belief in the solidity of the heavens, held firmly above the earth, along with the primeval waters being held at bay were ideas of prime concern to ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians. Such ideas helped them feel secure. And such ideas can be found in the Bible as well. I examine those ancient cosmologies before demonstrating the parallel imagery, concerns and ideas in the Bible.

    There are also plenty of instances of a three-tier cosmos in ancient literature including the view that the dead somehow inhabit the nether regions of the earth. The earth was of course all that the ancients knew. It was an age without telescopes, and only about 6,000 stars were counted with the naked eye. In fact with our own naked eyes today we can't see the billions of galaxies out there, we see only the brightest stars of our own galaxy that lie nearest earth. (Correction: There are two galaxies so near our own that they can be seen with the naked eye, but they appear as only two very dim dim stars. However, via telescopes we now know that if you place your fist in the air anywhere in the sky, your fist is covering up about a million other galaxies scattered in the depths of space.)

    So the earth was what the ancients knew and for millennia in Egypt and Mesopotamian and for centuries in ancient Israel (a much younger civilization than either Egypt or Mesopotamia) the ancients were concerned with the earth being the flat firm foundation of creation. The horizon itself was viewed as a place of mystery where heaven and earth somehow met or were nearer one another. The earliest portions of The Book Enoch (a book written in Palestine between the Old and New Testaments) contain the view that heaven and earth met at the horizon, while elsewhere in the same book it seems to be implied that heaven was held above the earth mysteriously by four angels located at the far ends of the earth in the four cardinal directions). Therefore the ancients did not know about a spherical earth and other planets circling our sun or planets circling other sun-like stars. They imagined only the earth existing, along with the heavens directly above the earth (with objects set in them for the sake of the earth below, for signs and seasons (time keepers for when to hold religious festivals--the same word translated "seasons" being used in the Pentateuch for holy festivals). So to the ancients the heavens and the earth were like two equal halves of one whole cosmos with God living directly above the earth. The heavens are the heavens of the Lord, but the earth He has given the sons of men. Where did the dead go? Neither the Mesopotamians nor the ancient Hebrews spoke about everyone going to the home of the gods above the earth. Only Enoch was taken by God, and Elijah (ascended to heaven in a flaming chariot). So where did the majority of the dead "go?" Beneath the earth is the primary option, and the meanings and usages of Sheol substantiate that that is what they most likely believed. Ancient beliefs about the afterlife were not absolutely separated from ancient beliefs about cosmology.

    My chapter on "The Cosmology of the Bible" in the book, The Christian Delusion, goes into detail concerning many of the ideas mentioned above. See also the endnotes that discuss verses that some inerrantists attempt to interpret as examples of "modern science" in the Bible like Isaiah's circle of the earth, and Job's hanging earth.

  3. Ed,

    Thanks for the response and the emails regarding the subject in the book. I will read your cosmology chapter in the book, but these are my thoughts based on your post and response to my inquiry:

    Now, as I see it, what you're pointing out is that the ancients would have understood hell to literally and physically be below or beneath the earth and that biblical language regarding hell was not metaphorical in any sense. I believe that you are clear in stating that the ancients had no reference for believing that the position of "Sheol" or any other form of the word hell could be anyplace other than literally in the physical earth or as you point out "beneath" the earth because they assumed the earth was flat with a heaven above it and a hell beneath it comprising 2 of the 3 tiers that you point out.

    First, I have no problem with the ancients having a 3 tiered belief or understanding for a number of reasons. The primary reason being that any understanding of the abode of God and or the dead was not an issue over which men sought salvation etc, under the OT or NT system. The location of heaven or hell wasn’t an issue whereby individuals either wanted to go or not go. Secondly, I can find no inference where God teaches or instructs in a 3 tiered cosmology even if men's understanding leads them to believe that to be the case.

    I say that because the implication in your statement is that God specified somehow that there was or is a 3 tier, flat earth system and continues to reinforce that concept throughout scripture. You hold that any modern Christian interpretation of scripture to indicate that God taught or revealed a circular earth, such as the use of Isaiah stating that God sits upon the “circle of the earth” (Is. 40:22), is merely syncretism.

    As to not overstate the obvious, I have a few reasons for differing with you regarding both what God revealed and the ultimate meaning behind the ancient belief of the physical position of hell.
    I’ll begin by saying that I'm glad that you at least acknowledge that hell, whether literal or metaphorical, is a biblical teaching. But I believe you minimize these two additional points regarding it and the development of the concept of it through scripture:

    1- There is a such thing as progressive revelation. What we think we know today can be perfected over time without manipulation of the evidence. Linguistics is one example. As revelation and study expands we learn better about language and certain terms within ancient languages in a much better fashion without altering what was originally found. In this sense our understanding of ancient language and terms progresses as there are new discoveries and understanding brought to light.
    Now the materialist holds out this same type of concept for science where empirical facts normally don't change. Science, in and of itself, progresses by nature allowing us to find out more about the "why" of something over time. This would acknowledge that the materialist recognizes that this sort of progress does often occur, and people rely on such progression and understandings of science to increase inventions and worldly comforts.

    However, the literalist or fundamentalist gives no room for the fact that man's understanding of what God said can and often does change or progress over time yet leaving his word unaltered and in tact. I'm not talking about perspective, I'm talking about learning what HE said, why and how.


  4. 2- Ed,

    This would be an argument worth pursuing and one that can be developed to combat what seems to be a very literalistic approach to the understanding of the ancients, especially the followers of YAWEH. The progressive understanding of hell, punishment and judgment itself is accounted for within scripture and are concepts that offer progressive understandings by virtue of their very nature. We see development of those concepts throughout scripture, not a rescission or a vacillation between opposing concepts.

    As I read scripture the location of hell is less emphasized than the outcome or avoidance of it. Scripturally everything is “lower” than the holiness and righteousness of God. So the emphasis is clear, the earth is “lower” than God because it is tainted by sin and those who don’t believe are “lower” than the earth itself as indicated by their burial into what they live for(as signified by their non-belief)…the earth. Clearly, “hell” within scripture is laid out as an undesirable place or abode and is associated with being beneath the earth. Conceptually sin, wickedness and the rejection of God is also described in the same or similar terms as being a part of the “earth” (the system controlled by unbelievers). Example: Revelation outlines “kings of the earth” (Rev. 6:15) indicating those leaders who rejected God and were fearful at his coming; the scripture also ascribes a type of wisdom that is “earthly, sensual and devilish” (Jam. 3:15). I think the point of these scriptures and scriptures like them is to indicate the association and commonality of nonbelievers and those out of relationship or fellowship with God himself or those less than part of the holiness of God rather than a literal place.

    One of the scriptures you point out, we sit in “heavenly places” with Christ (Ephes. 6:12) undermines your argument in a sense. As believers we understand that our belief offers no significance to our physical position here on earth. In other words we’re not floating higher and higher in the air as if to levitate, therefore getting closer to God. Within Christian belief God is ever present and present in our physical location. Thus to rigidly apply “heaven” or “in the heavens” or “hell” or “beneath the earth” to indicate that all who recited such things thought they were talking about being in a physical place either in the air or beneath the earth is certainly not what scripture intends to do. Your approach not only decontextualizes the scriptures but also misses the complete point of the scriptures themselves. That the nature and holiness of God is morally, physically, spiritually and absolutely above that of men. I believe you have applied a concept to arguments regarding the abode of hell and make assumptions that concepts regarding the issue are borrowed, and that what biblical writers state is somehow based on those concepts. When in fact, I contend that there is ample evidence to conclude that what the biblical authors do is reveal and emphasize that hell is a condition or result of physical existence which denies God. Hell does have a specific location, but the bible writers do speak in language and concepts that we, as well as the ancients, can and could readily understand and apply multiple concepts to including a physical location that would be undesirable if one were present.

    see 3

  5. 3- Ed,

    2- Matthew records Jesus pronouncing the upcoming judgment 3 times in Mt. 8:12, 22:13, & 25:30 in each instance he used the phrase ἐξώτερον (outer) and σκότος (darkness).

    If Jesus is God, as Christians believe he is, in these statements Jesus certainly doesn't line up so readily with the 3 tiered cosmology that you rigidly impose on the ancients, nor some of the other elements that are commonly and literally said about hell and judgment.

    Now , many of the teachings regarding hell at this time specified a hell where there were φλογὶ (flames), torment and consciousness. In fact the story of Jesus talking about Lazarus and the rich man (Lk. 16:23) offered a scenario where there were 2 compartments of "ᾅδῃ" (hades) in which there was ongoing sight, including depth perception, sound and obviously light to be able to see, and communication with knowledge of subject matter and who was being communicated to.

    For Jesus to state "outer darkness" and also reference the "flames" or hell certainly is more in line with an understanding that hell is indeed unpleasant, but certainly not revealing its physical location. Where is “outer darkness”? Are we to assume that Jesus taught that hell runs along the edges of the physical universe?

    Now, could the ancients understand the physical location as being in or beneath the earth? Certainly, and I believe you correctly point out that many interpreted it as being a literal abode beneath the earth. The imagery borrowed from the Greek myths are evident of a certain progression as I mentioned previously. However, Jesus, as God, built upon the understanding and added dimensions as I mentioned above but never physically ascribed hell’s position in such a literalistic fashion, although opening one up draw their own conclusion as you have done.

    Now, did the writers of the text understand or interpret the language as being metaphorical?If they were inspired by God, which scripture tells us that they were, they certainly wrote things that they could relay even if they couldn't understand it.

    In short, I think there's much more to the argument than merely saying that the ancients lacked knowledge of science therefore, the God they envisioned gave them scripture that suited their lack of scientific understanding, and or that the concepts were borrowed from surrounding religious ideas which is essentially your arguemnt.

    God also wan't obligated to correct scientific misconceptions as you also suggest. Heck, neither you nor I can tell how, or why the pyramids were built and we assume that they were built by humans like us...speculations exist and abound but the ancients had more knowledge about some things than modern people care to acknowledge. So being ancient doesn't necessarily entail being less sophisticated or unable to deceipher between something literal and something metaphorical.

  6. Hi Harvey, I read your replies and hope you'll continue to follow the series as it unfolds. My recent post on geocentrism is part of the series, and so was today's post on Sheol/Hades, titled, "Where is Hell?"

    "Outer Darkness" is discussed toward the end of "Where is Hell?"
    But it's not discussed by me, but by one of your own Christian brethren.


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