Monthly Archives: September 2014

Plato, Socrates, the Bible, and Reinventing Hell

So I’ve been writing a lot about books lately, because I’ve been picking up some fascinating ones. Right now I’m reading this book called Inventing Hell by Jon M. Sweeney, and it’s really, really freaking me out. It’s screwing with my head and everything I’ve always believed about the Bible, and I just don’t know what to do with this new information I’m soaking in.

Before I get into all that, let me briefly explain what the book is about. Basically, it analyzes how we as human beings have conceived of the afterlife throughout history—specifically, what we have believed about hell. Sweeney mostly tackles this from a Christian perspective, delving into every Old Testament reference to the afterlife and explaining what most people believed about it in those times.

The bulk of his book, however, is devoted to discussing Dante’s Inferno and the incredibly pervasive influence this great work has had on how we conceive of hell today. It’s been pretty mind-blowing to realize that so much of what we believe about the afterlife is extra-biblical, and how the scriptures are anything but uniform when it comes to the fate of perished sinners.

I picked it up because I wanted to become more informed on what the Bible really has to say about hell, and if belief in its literal existence is biblically sound, or if it is simply a man-made doctrine like so many orthodox doctrines seem to be (technically, I guess you could say all doctrines are man-made, but that’s a whole new can of worms). But oh my goodness, have I gotten more than I bargained for by reading this!

So, all of this brings me to why I’m freaking out. In the chapter I just finished, Sweeney talks about the transition when people first began exploring the belief in the immortal soul. Almost exclusively throughout the Old Testament, it was generally believed that every human who dies descends to Sheol, which is a huge spiritual graveyard—essentially a permanent resting place which is neither benevolent nor malevolent.

All that changed when Socrates and Plato came on the scene, roughly 400 years before the birth of Christ. They introduced the idea that the soul is immortal and lives on after one’s body has died. Sweeney then spends a large chunk of the chapter outlining very specific ways in which Paul was heavily influenced by Plato and Socrates’ ideas when he penned the letters that would later become part of the biblical cannon. For example, Sweeney writes:

“For centuries, Christian theologians pointed to Paul’s words in Romans 1:21, saying that he was talking about some of the Greek philosophers when he said, ‘For though they knew God, they did not honor him as God.’ And so-called pagan authors like Pythagoras, Plato, Cicero, Horace, and Virgil were quoted and paraphrased, their words seemingly baptized as holy whenever necessary.” (Inventing Hell, p. 83)

And another, more thorough excerpt, in case that one didn’t really hit home:

“If you are an orthodox Christian believer, you probably never knew just how Greek you were. Even Paul’s most famous one-liner, about welcoming the soul’s release from the body at the time of death, wasn’t an original. ‘I say that to die is gain,’ said Socrates in the Apologia,  and then Paul: ‘For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain’ (Phil. 1:21)! The idea of an ideal city, introduced by Plato in The Republic, also seems to be addressed in similar terms by Paul in his lengthy letter to the Romans. Enough. The comparisons could go on forever. Simply put, Paul learned from Greek philosophy and made use of the immortality of the soul in the formation of Christian theology.” (Inventing Hell, p. 84)

Now this is my crisis. Over the last few years I’ve essentially been putting a lot of the Christian beliefs I’ve always held as inerrantly true on the chopping block. Some I have reconsidered, and some I haven’t. But one that I have held on to quite tenaciously is the belief that the biblical cannon was assembled under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and its content from Genesis to Revelation is divinely inspired by God.

I’ve always believed that, and I’ve never wavered, because how else am I to know what is Truth and what isn’t unless God has revealed it to us tangibly?

But now I am discovering that the theological foundation of the Christian faith, and in some cases the verbatim words themselves that Paul wrote and that most orthodox Christians consider to be God’s Holy Word, are based on the philosophical writings of two pagans! That is a really hard concept to grasph considering the high view of scripture I’ve always believed in.

Needless to say, all of this will take a long time to digest and process. I’m going to keep plugging along in Inventing Hell, because it really is a remarkable book and I’m learning all kinds of fascinating things. I just don’t know where I go from here, regarding what I believe about the divine inspiration of the Bible. I guess, essentially, I feel I have no rational choice but to add it to that growing list of beliefs that are going on that chopping block.

I’d really love your thoughts on this blog post. Reading Inventing Hell has given me so much to process, and doing so is always easier with the wise input of others. Specifically, I’d like to hear about how you believe Christians ought to reconcile the divine inspiration of scripture (if you believe in that, of course) with the fact that much of the New Testament is quite clearly based on pagan writings.


My Second Stop in a Search for a New Church Home: Thoburn UMC

These past two Sundays, I’ve been going to Thoburn United Methodist church. It’s a reasonably large church, and the entire flavor of the church service is pretty different from what I am used to. They light candles before the service (which I was told represents the presence of the Holy Spirit), and sing hymns and use a choir, organ, and piano as accompaniment. The sermon both weeks was also quite short – just about twenty minutes or so.

The focus of the sermons were so different from what I’m used to as well. At my other church, there was a lot of time spent reading long stretches of scripture and talking about spiritual discipline and such like that. And while this was broadly addressed in the two sermons I listened to the past two weeks, I also got the impression that the pastors at Thoburn were very outwardly focused. What I mean by that is they talked a lot about scripture and what it can teach us about relating to others rather than focusing on individualized spiritual growth.

It was pretty refreshing. The first morning I attended, I was introduced to a group of women and one of them invited me to her small group meeting on Sunday evenings. Small groups are, I believe, critically important to the body of Christ. They are where we break through the superficial veneer we always put on display on Sunday mornings, and we have the opportunity to talk through matters of faith on a more vulnerable level. So I was pretty excited.

So I’ve also gone to the small group twice now, and both times I came away with somewhat mixed feelings. Most of the people in the group are married, so the discussions often revolved around parenting and raising their kids to love Jesus and such. These discussions are important, but they don’t really matter much to me as a single person. And what is more, I kind of miss meeting with people my age like I was able to do at my old church, because when I am with people in their late twenties and thirties, I feel much more intimidated and it is harder for me to speak up. So mostly I stayed very quiet and listened. I learned a lot, but found that participating was difficult for me.

The second Sunday I went back to Thoburn and I was pretty excited because they would be kicking off their Sunday school classes for the new school year. Unfortunately, I was pretty disappointed. The last thing I want to do after sitting through a sermon is get together in a small group and…sit through another sermon. I think sermons have a place, and they can teach you, but when you’re in a small group you should be having a discussion, not sitting passively and listening all over again.

That’s what we did though. We listened for about 45 minutes to a Louis Giglio sermon about space and the universe and all these admittedly fantastical facts about how huge the universe is and how terribly tiny we are. And it was pretty cool, I guess, to put things in perspective like that.

But if I wanted to listen to a sermon about space and God’s hugeness, I’d curl up in my home with my laptop and pull up a Google search. That is not what church is for. Church is for collaboration, fellowship, and growing corporately into men and women of God.

The short discussion itself was rather troublesome to me as well. Before he started the video, the group leader talked about how Christians must get the basics of the faith down before moving on to more theologically murky waters. And what was the basic that we covered that day? The existence of God. Yup. The leader talked very carefully about how he thinks it’s an important part of Christianity to believe in God.

I saw no conviction there, no confidence. Instead, it was like the group was doing their best, in a room full of Christians, to speak with tolerance about belief systems other than Christianity. It was kind of unnerving, especially after coming from a church where the sovereignty and holiness of God was brought up on a constant basis.

That Sunday school class was like a wake-up call for me. I realized for the first time that I probably won’t ever find a church that has struck the right balance between celebrating God with confidence and creating room for different theologies and genuinely nurturing each other in our walk with God. Such a church would be perfect, and perfection has never really existed in this world.

So I’m not sure what’s in store for me next week. I think I might go back, and perhaps try a different Sunday school. I don’t know yet if Thoburn is the church for me, but I definitely want to keep going for now and see where things go.

Brief Book Reviews: Pagan Christianity and A Christian Survival Guide


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Lately I’ve been reading a few books that have been turning a lot of customary Christian thought completely on its head. I must say, I am really enjoying breaking open the can of worms that is Christian tradition and digging into the ways in which so much of what we believe is human thought, and not necessarily rooted in scriptures.

One such book is Pagan Christianity by Frank Viola and George Barna. This book delves into all the basics of institutional Christianity. There is a chapter devoted to the church building, the liturgy, the sermon and pastor, tithing, the sacraments, Sunday School, and other practices that Christians generally take for granted as an unshakable part of Christian tradition.

The authors then trace each of these practices to their origins, and come to the mind-blowing conclusion over and over again that we do not derive the way we practice our faith from scripture at all. Rather, paganism had an incredibly pervasive influence on how Christianity developed in the centuries after Jesus’ death, when an organized religion began to emerge due primarily to the influence of Emperor Constantine.

The book was fascinating, and left me with a lot to question about how we “do church” today and what that means for my personal life and my continuing search for a community of believers with whom I can live out my faith in Jesus.

The second book I picked up, which I’m currently still reading, is Ed Cyzewski’s A Christian Survival Guide. Its tone is quite a bit different from Viola and Barna’s book, which is a little heavy academically and full of historical facts about the development of institutional Christianity.1404162367_thumb.png

Rather, Ed’s book is about a lot of the issues that Christians often find hard to reconcile with their own faith. He writes about prayer, and why it can be so discouraging because it often feels like God is silent in our prayers. He also writes about the problem of suffering, and doubt, and violence in the Bible, and questions about biblical inerrancy. I haven’t gotten to these chapters yet, but he also discusses Christian practices such as tithing, church-going, and evangelism.

What I am really appreciating about Ed’s book is that he writes with a gentle sort of conviction that has challenged me to think more deeply about what it means to be serious about my faith in a way that is not threatening. He doesn’t subscribe to a particular theological camp in his discussion of all the different issues he writes about, and he is careful to remind the reader that what he is offering are a few options in the quest to make sense of this world we live in, but that we are free to make up our own minds.

It’s a wonderful book, and I imagine took a lot of guts to publish it. Because the ideas Ed discusses don’t really fall squarely in either the conservative or progressive camps, but rather offer an alternative to the pitfalls of both, it can sometimes be an uncomfortable read no matter where you fall on the theological spectrum.

So basically, both books have been incredibly enlightening reads. I’m really glad that I read them back-to-back, because they balance each other out really well. Pagan Christianity pulls apart all the ways we have abandoned the practical, organic Christian community practiced by the early church in favor of rigid traditions heavily influenced by paganism. And A Christian Survival Guide provides useful, thoughtful tools for navigating problem areas in Christian theology and forging a new way that shifts beyond oversimplified, problematic doctrines and yet still remains molded to the fundamentals that the Christian faith holds dear.