|Breakfast talk, April 19, 1996
Hell and the Devil.
At the end of January, our minister Craig in a children's sermon on the Apostles' Creed mentioned John Calvin, the founder of Presbyterianism, inserted the curious phrase, "He descended into Hell." This caused a stir so Jack Howard asked me if I would speak today about Hell and The Devil. Who better to ask than a guilt-ridden Jewish Christian Presbyterian.
The phrase, "He descended into Hell," was dropped out of the Apostle's Creed by Martin Luther, who felt Jesus was too holy to go into Hell. Craig taught the children this statement was reinserted by Calvin to show that humans need never have fear. Jesus has overcome every possible human experience on our behalf. Even Hell.
And of course, we can't speak of Hell without the Devil. I want to thank Jack for this provocative subject. Studying Hell and the Devil is tough going during Lent. But now Easter's happened. It will be enough this morning to scratch the surface of the Underworld.
So, where is Hell? Is it down there, under the magma below the earth's crust? Is it just a bogeyman idea to scare young Catholics into obeying the Sisters? Most of us either have a childlike idea of Hell, or more likely, we don't think about Hell at all now that we are grown-ups leading Christian lives more or less as best we can.
So, what is Hell? Is Hell is a physical place with dimensionality , or is Hell a spiritual place, or maybe just an idea, or if it does exist, it's outside our ability to understand it. Is it the flip side of Heaven? Let's take the scientific view. In Biblical terms, this is the Wisdom approach. 1 Corinthians 22, Paul said, Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, Let's leave aside the Jews looking for signs for a moment, and focus on the Greeks seeking wisdom. Wisdom in this sense is logic and scientific inquiry. This morning we'll seek both as Greeks and as Jews.
Thomas Cahill, who you remember from "How the Irish Saved Civilization, has a new book called, "The Gifts of the Jews." Cahill describes Sumerian pagan concepts of heaven and Hell in Abraham's time. The motion of stars, sun and moon led the ancients to the concept of a great dome above a flat circular earth. They did not have the idea of time as a forward movement which an individual can alter. Cahill thinks that idea was one of the gifts of the Jews. The pagans thought of time as cyclical. It just came around again and again. The gods controlled all. Man was just to do business and propitiate the gods. Fit in and don't fight destiny. Death was seen as a place under the earth. An underworld. The grave was still, at the center of the wheel-like movement of the earth and heavens. This concept of the grave moved forward in early Jewish thought to Sheol, or, in Greek, Hades. This is a place of death, and possibly, of waiting.
From the scientific point of view we can look at Hades, or this early version of Hell, as an end of the law of entropy. Newton's Laws of Thermodynamics assert everything moves from complexity to simplicity. That is, things run down. Iron rusts, flowers wither, corpses break down to elements, the universe may implode in the big crunch. Life, of course, is a defiance of entropy. Through some mysterious initial big bang, life began as a movement to complexity. The corruption, or destruction of the grave is the entropic place where the Sadduccees of the Old Testament thought we would end up. Pharisees, on the other hand believed we would somehow come out of the destruction of Sheol, and have a life after death. Which, of course, is what Jesus life, death and resurrection promises. And if there is an eternal life after death, and there is Heaven, there must be a place for the unrighteous to go.
So, the early view of Hell is destruction, the abyss, the grave, nothingness, rest, waiting, corruption. Here, the body is no more, and the soul or spirit waits. However, in the inter-testament time, this concept of Hades changed. Hell developed as a place of torment. Payback.
Before we develop Hell, however, we should give the Devil his due. There is not much mention of the Devil, or Satan, in the Old Testament. He is referred to most famously as the serpent who either tempted, or had intercourse with Eve in gan eden. Satan in the Old Testament is The Accuser. Or the Adversary. He has many names. Satan, Belial, Beelzebub, Mastema, Samael, The Old Enemy. Isaiah calls him an angel of light, and because of rebellion, this angel, the Devil and a third of all the angels were cast down from Heaven. Depiction of Satan in the book of Job gave rise to the concept of the devil, not as an enemy of God, but as God's agent, in subjection to God, who performed a TESTING or PROVING function with humans. We hear reference to this idea today in the Lord's Prayer. ..to paraphrase, "Do not lead us into temptation -or testing - but deliver us -from the dark side of our nature -from evil actions and desires. "
In the New Testament, the devil, demons, and Satan take on a more prominent
role. For flavor, here is Revelation 12:7:
Towards the end of the second century AD, the Christians were now
gaining ground in the empire and creating problems for the Roman way of
life. Jesus calls us out of family, municipality and national ties
into a new universal brotherhood of believers. God is universal, not particular
to a city or empire. Thus, the Romans accused the Christians of sedition
and atheism. Rome and paganism now are the demons, the Devil, the
dark forces of evil at war with God's people. Now, pagans liked demons.
In fact, the word DAEMON, meant "natural energies or spirits."
They could be good, or at least indifferent to people. This is the heart
of paganism -and a lot of new age thinking.