Her Gates Will Never Be Shut

JerusalemIn Her Gates Will Never Be Shut: Hope, Hell, and the New Jerusalem, Bradley Jersak has given us an insightful study on the destiny of humans after death. For the most part, he examines scriptural categories associated with heaven and hell to glean their most likely meanings, and this is the most helpful part of the book. His overviews theological positions in the church from the Church Fathers to contemporary evangelicals does not give much depth but it does make sure the reader is at least basically informed on the major strands of thought.

He discusses briefly several relevant New Testament words such aionos but what was really new and revelatory to me was the distinction between kolasis and timoria. They both refer to punishment but although timoria could be unrelenting, kolasis is always remedial, and that is the word Jesus always used for punishment.

The extended discussion of Gehenna is particularly valuable. It is fairly well-known that Gehenna was the massive garbage dumb just outside Jerusalem where indeed the flames were never extinguished, as Jesus said. Jersak explores the use of the image in Jeremiah, noting that Jesus often imitated Jeremiah as a suffering prophet and was influenced by his prophecies. It is Jeremiah who denounced the Valley of Hinnom for the child sacrifices committed there. It is this valley that was used for the garbage dump in later generations, making it a shadow side of Jerusalem. Jeremiah announced that Jerusalem was subject to the same destruction as the Valley of Hinnom for the sins of Israel BUT when Jeremiah proclaims the new covenant in chapter 32, he declares that God will make this unholy valley holy again. That is, God will redeem Gehenna!

Jersak also has an extended discussion of the “lake of fire” which he correlates with the Dead Sea and finds in scripture the same redemptive thrust for this place of horror as well.

By following through on the redemptive passages in Isaiah, Jeremiah, the Gospels and Revelation, Jersak makes a strong case for the eternal, irrevocable offer of salivation and healing for all comers. That is, those cast outside the city in Revelation are still invited in at the end of the book.

The Cross as a Crisis of Faith

crucifix1Rachel Held Evans recounts her spiritual journey from fundamentalist Christianity to a Christian stance with many more nuances and much more depth in her book Evolving in Monkey Town, the town being Dayton, TN where the famous Scopes Trial, or Monkey Trial, took place. One event made a particularly deep impression on me as it showed how a growing instinct for the Paschal Mystery broadened her vision of a terrible news story she witnessed on TV.

The story was shown in 2001, just before the US invasion of Afghanistan, obviously for the purpose of justifying the invasion on the grounds of the Taliban’s callous treatment of women. (Never mind that if every country that has people who commit atrocities towards women deserve to be invaded, then every country in the world would deserve it!) The video showed a woman named Zarmina, dressed in a burqa, being dragged into a soccer stadium during halftime where she was executed before the capacity crowd. She had been charged with murdering her abusive husband, although a confession extracted after two days torture is rather suspect.

It is very important to note that Rachel’s reaction had nothing to do with criticizing Islam as a religion. Rachel’s problem had to do with Christianity. She had been taught all her life that only those who consciously accept Jesus as savior can be saved. But seeing a woman suffering such an atrocity on TV made it very hard for her to believe that a woman who had suffered so badly should have her suffering compounded by spending eternity in hellish torment because she had died a Moslem. That Zarmina had said her Moslem prayers in the face of what her co-religionists were doing to her speaks strongly for the power of Islam as a source of deep spirituality.

It became very hard for Rachel to believe that a loving god would predestine a woman like this to hell. When she thought about the Killing Fields of Cambodia, the gassing of Iraqi Kurds and the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, Anne Frank among them, it became harder than ever for Rachel to believe this of God who had sent his only begotten Son, not to condemn the world, but to save the world. She noted that in Sunday school, hell had been presented as a place for people like Hitler, but with no mention of his victims. Yet, all of Hitler’s victims who were Jewish were excluded from Heaven according to what she had been taught.

This event precipitated a crisis of faith that lasted several years. The irony is, this crisis was caused, not by a self-centered doubt about God, but by a deepening formation within her of the Paschal Mystery. If the risen and forgiving Jesus is the “living interpretive principle,” as James Alison says, then Jesus does not just interpret the scriptures, although obviously he does that, but Jesus interprets everything everywhere through the Paschal Mystery. So it is that all victims from Abel to the latest youth killed in urban gang warfare are brought into the Cross, and from there, raised to the life of the Resurrection. What Rachel had experienced as a crisis of faith was really a deepening of faith in the scope of the Paschal Mystery. So it is that Zarmina was surely gathered into deeper and greater life blossoming from the Moslem prayers she recited just before she died.