Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Checkmate For Hell - Part 14: A New Diagram

This is part of an ongoing series of blog posts, meant to be read in order.  In the first post, I introduced the concept of Universalism, and introduced the concept that I would be defending my position through a series of "chess moves".  I mentioned that I believe I have checkmate in 2 moves, but because a lot of questions would be left, I would use a series of further moves to keep the king in checkmate while I systematically removed the rest of the pieces from the board.  I would highly suggest you read the previous parts of this series before reading this one:
Part 1: Moves 1-3
Part 2: Moves 4-5
Part 3: Moves 6-7
Part 4: Move 8
Part 5: Moves 9-10
Part 6: Move 11
Part 7: Move 12
Part 8: The Six Line Narrative
Part 9: Two False Gospels, and a Man in a Pit
Part 10: Creation/Fall and Spirit/Soul/Body
Part 11: The True Gospel
Part 12: Deconstructing Our Ideas of Heaven
Part 13: Resurrection and "Spiritual" Bodies

A Better Diagram
So one might ask me: “if the Six Line Narrative diagram is not accurate, what would a better diagram of the Biblical narrative look like?”  Before I even attempt to answer that question, it is important to note that no diagram can ever do the Biblical narrative justice.  One of the reasons for this is that we simply cannot grasp concepts that regard the future – as N.T. Wright says:

All Christian language about the future is a set of signposts pointing into a mist.

When we try to grasp a hold of what exactly “the kingdom of God” is, we often are simply asking the wrong questions.  It’s like asking “what does Jazz music smell like?” or “how does yellow sound?”  And perhaps this is why Jesus told so many stories to illustrate what the kingdom of God is like.  And so, before I present some ideas of what a proper diagram would look like, I must point out the severe limitations of such an exercise.

With that being said, let’s start with three spheres.

This is how most people imagine our reality to be like.  They imagine the realms of Hell, Earth, and Heaven to be entirely separate from each other, and imagine souls being transferred from Earth to either Hell or Heaven upon exit.  So the first thing we must do to this diagram is to point out a flaw.  I propose that Hell is not a separate realm at all, but is in fact a manifestation of the results of sin.  In his book “New Seeds of Contemplation”, Thomas Merton writes:

Hell is where no one has anything in common with anybody else except the fact that they all hate one another and cannot get away from one another and from themselves.

They are all thrown together in their fire and each one tries to thrust the others away from him with a huge, impotent hatred. And the reason why they want to be free of one another is not so much that they hate what they see in others, as that they know others hate what they see in them: and all recognize in one another what they detest in themselves, selfishness and impotence, agony, terror, and despair.

We see, from this description, that Hell is all too often a present reality.  I am going to explore what I think Hell is in a later section, but for now I am going to leave it at this basic understanding, and propose that the realm of the sphere of Hell be superimposed on the sphere of Earth, like so: 

Now before we move on to the next step, we must discuss another concept: the temple.  We need to expand our idea of “temple” from being simply a place of worship, to being a place that Deity rests within, and rules from.  A temple is a place where God’s presence comes to earth.  When Jesus was present on earth, he referred to himself as a temple when he said in John 2:19: “destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”

Now hopefully by now, you understand that “the gospel” is a message of God’s kingdom being established on earth through Jesus.  And the singular defining act that proves this is so is the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.  The story of the death and resurrection should never be separated – they belong together.  Without the resurrection, Jesus’ death is meaningless.  The resurrection is a sign that the kingdom of God is real and has in fact begun to break into the sphere of Earth, and Jesus’ death is the seed planted which resulted in this new life.  Jesus is the way that the sphere of Heaven begins to invade the sphere of Earth, resulting in the kingdom of God.  And so I propose the following diagram as a way of envisioning this concept:

But this diagram is not complete, because where the Kingdom of God breaks in, Hell is pushed out.  And so we expand the diagram like so:

Now there are some weaknesses to this diagram, because it does not convey the sense of transformation and expansion that is the very nature of the kingdom of God.  Jesus’ parables about the kingdom of God often included the imagery of seeds and the plants that grew from them.  In one parable, he compared the kingdom of God to a mustard seed:

Matthew 13:31b-32
The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. 32 Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.

The mystery of the kingdom of God is that as it produces new life, it not only changes that within which it was planted, but also causes it to grow and expand in a dramatic way.  This is the fundamental difference between “perfect” and “good” – “perfect” is static and unchanging, whereas “good” continues to grow and expand and become more good.

Another idea that I feel must be conveyed is the sense that the church is not equal to the kingdom of God.  The kingdom of God is not contained within the church.  The church is merely a vessel through which the seeds of the kingdom of God are planted – it is a point where the kingdom of God breaks through from the sphere of Heaven into the sphere of earth, much like Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection was the first seed through which the sphere of Heaven broke through into the sphere of earth.  So we must learn to see the church as merely a part of the kingdom of God, like so:

Without framing the church properly like this, we fail to expand the kingdom of God and instead, end up forming a community removed from the world and inaccessible to it.  We fail to expand His kingdom and instead separate us from it and the world, which is the opposite of the way Jesus lived, and the opposite of the intention of his teachings.

But there is another truth which must be conveyed, and that is the timeline of the kingdom of God.  Living within the Six Line Narrative, one does not live in the now but rather is continually promising that which is not currently present – an ideal and non-existent sphere of Heaven, outside of our own.  The narrative of the kingdom of God changes all of that, and brings that future into now.  The kingdom of God is a mystery in that it is both now and not yet – it is here, though not yet fully realized.  This gives us a sense of hope which the Six Line Narrative is unable to deliver.  In the narrative of the kingdom of God, we are able to see the new life that the kingdom of God is already creating and see it invading the sphere of Earth and causing expansion.  Eternal life, we learn (though “eternal” is a mistranslation), is not a future ideal, but a present reality, though not fully realized.  In John 7:37-38, Jesus says:

Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. 38 Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.

Eternal life is meant to be a stream of living water flowing through us and into the world outside, not a treasure we hoard and keep from others for future use.  In John 17:3, Jesus clearly defines eternal life as something that is not future, but available now:

Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.

Alfred Hitchcock popularized the term “MacGuffin” to signify a plot device in the form of some goal, or other motivator that the protagonist (and sometimes the antagonist) is willing to do and sacrifice almost anything to pursue, protect or control, often with little or no narrative explanation as to why it is considered so important.  The most ingenious uses of a MacGuffin within a plot are when the MacGuffin is never revealed by the end of the film.  We find that the value of a MacGuffin is created by those who chase after it.

The frighteningly despairing possibility of a MacGuffin is that the characters pursuing it may find it has no value at all, as in "The Maltese Falcon", where at the end of the movie the Falcon is discovered to be a fake.  What's interesting about "The Maltese Falcon" is that the characters who profited from the Falcon were the ones who never had any intention of possessing it at the end, while the characters who pursued it with the most vigor were the ones who realized all their efforts amounted to loss in the end.  But the even worse possibility is that the MacGuffin doesn't exist at all.  In the J.J. Abrams film "Mission Impossible III", the MacGuffin is a mysterious object referred to as "the Rabbit's Foot", and is never revealed.  Various characters are desperately seeking this unknown object throughout the movie, and yet we never learn exactly what it is, nor do any of the characters chasing it know of its nature: the only reason anyone desires it is because everyone else seems to want it very badly as well.

What if Heaven were a MacGuffin?  What if - by seeking it as an object outside ourselves and in the unknown future - we can never obtain it?  More frightening is the possibility: what if it doesn't even exist?

Or...what if it did, and we discovered that it was here all along, right within our grasp?  What if we found that it was within us, and all around us?

When Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come in Luke 17:20-21, he answered:

People can’t observe the coming of the kingdom of God.  They can’t say, "Here it is!" or "There it is!" You see, the kingdom of God is within you.

The apocryphal Gospel of Thomas has an interesting version of this statement: 

Jesus said, "If those who attract you say, 'See, the Kingdom is in the sky,' then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, 'It is under the earth,' then the fish of the sea will precede you. Rather, the Kingdom of God is inside of you, and it is outside of you. [Those who] become acquainted with [themselves] will find it; [and when you] become acquainted with yourselves, [you will understand that] it is you who are the sons of the living Father. But if you will not know yourselves, you dwell in poverty and it is you who are that poverty."

What I believe the message of these statements was supposed to communicate is that the kingdom of God is not like human kingdoms, defined by borders, and insiders and outsiders.  Rather, the kingdom of God is realized by recognizing that God loves us unconditionally and infinitely, and then realizing that this same love applies to everyone else.  As the Gospel of Thomas said: it is inside of you, and it is outside of you.  When we recognize the present reality of God's love for us, and our neighbors (even our enemies), and then we act upon the whispered commands of that love, we inaugurate the kingdom of God in our present reality.

We, each and every one of us, suffer from a tendency to seek the future and place our hopes and dreams within it in a way that makes hope unattainable.  From an early age, we say to ourselves “wait until I grow up – I will be a [fill in the blank] and then I can really live!”  This becomes “wait until I get to junior high school – then I can really live!”  Then “wait until I get to high school…”, then “wait until I get my driver’s license…”, then “wait until I graduate high school…”, “wait until I get to college…”, “wait until I graduate college…”, “wait until I get that job I want so badly…”.  Or maybe we’re putting our hopes and dreams into a person: “wait until I get a beautiful girlfriend – then I can really start living!”  Or perhaps we have somewhat more noble pursuits: “wait until I have kids – then I can really start living!”

The hope that Jesus gives us in the paradigm of the kingdom of God is that we can stop living in the unattainable future, and start living now.  Within the kingdom of God narrative, we learn that Heaven is not a future ideal that is outside our realm, but an existent present reality that is continually growing and becoming more real. 

Jesus says that the kingdom of God is within us.  It's a heart matter: a matter of changing our hearts with the knowledge that God loves us - and our neighbors - unconditionally.  The kingdom of God is not a MacGuffin.  The kingdom of God presents real, tangible hope.  We see it when the love of a mother envelops her child and we hear it in the child's laughter.  We see it when former enemies become friends and when people from very different traditions and backgrounds embrace.  Its echoes resonate from the Civil Rights movement and the overthrow of Apartheid in South Africa, and we are still seeing signs of the kingdom of God breaking through into present reality today.  The kingdom of God is not a MacGuffin, and so the kingdom of God can give us real, present hope and the promise of an even better future.  The kingdom of God enables us to live in the present, and to live life to the fullest.

But even more than this, the kingdom of God is not achieved in the way that earthly kingdoms are achieved.  Earthly kingdoms are achieved through domination and grasping at power.  But Jesus showed that the kingdom of God is achieved in a way that contrasts the way earthly kingdoms are inaugurated.  All of Jesus’ life was a contrast to conventional wisdom, and so it should not be surprising that the way he died, and inaugurated the kingdom of God, is contrasting to conventional wisdom as well.  Jesus inaugurated the kingdom of God not through force of will or domination, but by sacrifice.  Jesus inaugurated the kingdom not by displaying His power to subject others, but by using it to serve others.  And in His death, Jesus inaugurated the kingdom of God by emptying himself of power.  And so we enter into the kingdom by that which is contrary to our nature – by giving of ourselves in acts of self-emptying love.

Once again, we're going to take a break.  But when we continue, we will explore the conclusion of this series - examining the fruits of a this understanding of Hell and the Kingdom of God.

Next: Conclusions 

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