Reader Questions 3
The last time I asked for questions from my readers, I got enough for at least two posts. I answered some in Reader Questions 2, and this is the rest. You can submit your questions to me anytime on my Facebook page, or e-mail
- What is the nature of Heaven? Why do we have to follow rules to get there if we’re given free will? Why send anyone to Hell?
- Why doesn’t God step up and solve the world’s problems, especially natural disasters?
- If the New Testament replaces the Old Testament, can there be newer testaments to replace it? Where have all the prophets gone?
- Why are some people seemingly blessed, and others seemingly cursed?
Heaven and Hell and how to get to one or the other
The Nature of Heaven and Hell
What is Heaven? We don’t really know. Mystics have asked this question since human beings had the capacity for language; what comes after this life?
In many traditions, including Christianity and some forms of Judaism, Heaven is an idyllic place where we’ll live for eternity without sickness, and eternally joyful in the Presence of God. Some picture literal gates made of pearl and literal streets paved with gold, and a place filled with mansions. Some see those statements as metaphor. I’m personally more inclined to the latter viewpoint.
Some see this idyllic promise as a place which only exists in our imagination because death is hard and there’s so much suffering here. We have to assign a point to it all. Perhaps there’s a little bit of truth to that belief, in that we may have romanticized ideas about Heaven based on our own psychological need. Heaven may not be anything like what we picture it.
If you believe in evolution, and I do, you might see what’s next as simply the next step in our evolution. Evolution, as a rule, doesn’t necessarily make “better” creatures, just creatures who are better adapted to the change in environment which sparked their evolution; however, it seems with humans there is a special case. Each form of hominid has been slightly more advanced, until you get to modern man. Who is to say our present form is the last step?
Belief in reincarnation isn’t unheard of in Christianity and Judaism, especially among practitioners of kabbalah; which is a deep, mystical study of the scriptures. So, perhaps the goal is reincarnation into a more advanced form, one more directly in tune with the Divine. In that interpretation of the afterlife, those who make it are sent to the New Heaven and New Earth spoken of in the book of Revelations.
The reader also asked about following rules in Heaven, and the only answer I can give is that Heaven is a different playing field. If there are rules, they won’t be the rules of this existence, because those rules won’t be applicable there.
Hell is an even trickier question. The Latter Day Saints (Mormons) believe in “Outer Darkness” where only the wickedest people get sent, and it’s a sad place because it’s not near the Presence of God. Traditional fire and brimstone visions of Hell, based more on Greek and Roman mythology and Dante than the Bible, are ones with which we’re all familiar. Some say that no one goes to Hell, and all are saved by Yeshua regardless of what we do; however, I am not satisfied with that answer. Still others think that souls which don’t make it are recycled until they make it, and the worst ones are burned clean of the stain of sin and become new souls; akin to the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory, but for all souls.
Who goes there?
The reader specifically asked about free will, and why we have to follow rules to get to Heaven. What is the point of free will if we can’t truly do whatever we want?
I have never liked the reward/punishment model, and I believe a more direct salvation model makes the most sense. That is; I believe that what we do directly harms or grows our souls, and we directly determine our fates. The only judgment from the Divine is; did this person grow enough, or what can I do to help them do better next time? You can see I believe in the reincarnation model, because it makes the most sense.
The idea of free will is that we have to be able to choose to do right, and that means we have to be given the choice to do wrong. We are Divine Sparks, and it is only through truly choosing wisdom, love, and compassion that we can grow those sparks. What evil we do directly damages it, especially evil we do to others because all Divine Sparks are connected.
Thus, we get from Yeshua not the message of, “be good or I’ll punish you,” rather we get the message, “This is how you grow and flourish.” We must have the fertile soil of love, compassion, and wisdom in order to grow. Acting contrary to those principles is like trying to grow on rocks or poor soil.
Why doesn’t God intervene more?
The specific question was: God said he was not in the fire or the earthquake, or a few other things, why won’t God step out of the “still small voice” and into the fire and wipe out those that are hurting His children? Instead of allowing the things God is not in to destroy the innocent?
The reader was referring to Elijah’s encounter with God in 1 Kings: 19. God sends winds, earthquake, and fire, but God is not in any of those things. It is when God speaks with a still small voice that Elijah knows he is present.
I’m actually glad the reader referenced that passage, because in it lies part of the answer to the question. I’ll come back to that in a moment.
First let’s consider the pine tree. Some pines and redwoods have seeds which will only open and germinate once exposed to fire. The fire melts a coating, and the seeds are dispersed from the cone. The fire further clears the underbrush, so that the seeds can take purchase and grow uninhibited.
Those seeds are an imperfect, though pretty good, metaphor for our souls. We must be exposed to the trials of this world in order to grow. It burns away our underbrush, our naivete, so that we can set in the roots of knowledge and wisdom.
The Earth is a school for souls, and the souls here are young. Right now humanity is approaching graduation. Some are stuck in spiritual middle school, but many are advancing through high school and ready for the advanced courses; the next existence. The goal is for everyone, if possible, to be ready for graduation before this school closes. We just somehow have to either retrain or otherwise control the bullies who get in the way. The teachers (ministers) help, but the superintendent (God) rarely gets directly involved. Another imperfect metaphor, but I think it illustrates part of the equation of life.
To break it down; basically, God can only directly intervene so much, or we don’t really grow. If God came down and set everything to be hunky-dory, then where would be our free will? If God was personally destroying evil-doers, almost no one would choose evil. In order for us to truly choose good, evil has to seem enticing; and it really does, despite how it destroys one’s own soul and by extension weakens us all.
Natural disasters are part of the equation, and it’s a math much higher than my understanding. It would probably make advanced calculus look like basic arithmetic if someone ever tried to illustrate it.
I know that the Earth has cycles of renewal, and most natural disasters are caused by us not understanding those cycles; we’re getting better at it. Perhaps that’s part of it; driving us to learn, to be able to adapt and grow.
Sister death is one of the hardest parts of the formula to accept. I never completely understood putting sentience, self-awareness, into finite forms, and linking so much of our being to those forms.
Consider Phineas Gage, the railroad worker who had a drastic personality shift after surviving a railroad spike piercing his brain. We think of a person’s personality as being reflective of one’s soul, but a railroad spike can’t damage the soul.
So, how much of us is in this body, and how much is spirit? When we die, we know this body rots away, but many people have seen clear evidence that something of their loved ones survives death; that their loved ones remember them and remember this life, even after their body has long gone. I myself have seen such from my own mother, my father, and many others since they have passed on; including an uncle whose spirit came to tell me he was dead, which was later confirmed that morning.
I wouldn’t dare question God, whose wisdom infinitely surpasses my own. So, I while I don’t understand sister death, I try to have a Franciscan attitude about it and accept it as inevitable; just hopefully not soon!
How does God intervene?
We hear about instances of miracles, where God seems to directly intervene to make things better. Whether we’re talking about destroying wicked people, or healing which happens through the intercession of a saint, living or dead. The mystery of why God sometimes grants these boons is beyond our understanding, but we do know that they are rare, and usually minimal. However, there is a way in which God intervenes all the time.
The way in which God most often intervenes is through human beings. God will use other humans to do good and to put a stop to harm from others. It is the very nature of our existence and our growth that we must choose to make it better. We must choose to do good.
God sends us messenger after messenger to tell us the same exact thing, and we somehow always manage to twist the message to support our own greed and our own whims. It really isn’t as difficult as we make it out to be, except for how difficult we make it for one another. It is up to us to listen to these messengers, such as Yeshua, and start making it better for each other.
Can there be a newer testament?
The simplest answer to this question is; it depends on how you think of the Bible, and who you believe. In order to answer it, I’m combining it with another question from another reader; “can there still be prophets, and why does the church say there can’t be.”
Christians think of the Bible as divided into 2 sections, but wise Christians and Jews understand that the Bible is made up of several different sections, with different purposes and different kinds of authority.
The sections of what Christians call the Old Testament are; The Torah (laws), the histories, the songs (Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon), and the Prophets (sometimes divided into greater prophets and lesser prophets, but that discussion is not relevant to this question.) There is also what is sometimes called the “Apocrypha,” or “Pseudepigrapha” which are books found in the Greek versions of old Jewish Bibles, but not in the Hebrew or Aramaic versions.
The New Testament is Divided into the Gospels, the letters, and the apocalypse. While the Old Testament was set by priests and Rabbis long before Christianity existed, the New Testament had to be decided on by a church body. They opted for books which were written only by direct apostles or the students of those apostles. Hence, we have Matthew and the Gospel and letters of John, and the letters of Peter which were supposedly written by the Apostles Matthias and John (many scholars believe at least one of the letters, and the Book of Revelations, were written by a different John) and Luke writing a gospel and the Book of Acts as a student of Paul. Of course, we primarily have Paul’s letters, because he wrote a lot, even though he never met the living Yeshua and often didn’t get along with the 12 Apostles who did know Yeshua in person.
So, in the view of the church, the canon is set in stone; there can’t be any more books added, because the Apostles of Yeshua are no longer around, and neither are their direct students. At best, we have the Popes whose authority descends from the Apostle Peter, but even the Pope can’t establish new doctrine, only interpret current doctrine. To the church, the age of prophets ended with Yeshua, which brings us to our next topic.
Where have all the prophets gone?
As noted above, the Catholic church believes that no more prophets exist after Yeshua, and that nothing can be added to scripture. They interpret the “gift of prophecy” (1 Corinthians 12:10) as being for personal and family use, not to prophesy for the whole world or the church as a whole.Others, including other Christians, disagree.
When I was a member of a Pentecostal church, and in school to be a minister there, they believed that there were living prophets. Those prophets would often visit our church or other Pentecostal churches to give prophecies, offer healing, and cast out demons.
The Latter Day Saints (Mormons, LDS) believe that Joseph Smith, a farmer and treasure hunter in early 19th century New York, was a modern day prophet. He even came up with new scriptures, some of which he claimed were ancient (Book of Mormon, Pearl of Great Price) and one of which were his own words (Doctrine and Covenants.) The LDS have lesser prophets as well, from the father who is the patriarch and prophet for his family to the stake patriarch who gives a “patriarchal blessing” which is a personal prophecy about one’s role in life. Even though their church President is considered a Prophet who can make doctrine for the church, no LDS President has written any new scriptures in several decades.
Islam treats Yeshua as one of many prophets, along with Mohammed, and believes that Christians and Jews corrupted the Bible. Thus, Mohammed, in their view, was necessary because he set the teachings of God back to right.
The Baha’i World Faith takes it a step further and believes there have been many prophets, and that the most recent one was Baha’ullah. The believe Yeshua and Mohammed are among the great prophets, each sent to set the world right after corruption of the teachings, and Baha’ullah was similarly sent. I’m not overly familiar with their faith, but I believe they are awaiting another prophet to be the final prophet; akin to the second coming of Christ, but it’s not Christ they’re expecting.
In this world of convincing con-men, and people who are convinced they’re prophets when they’re not, it’s difficult to tell who has a real message and who is fake. Are we dealing with Elijah or Jim Jones?
The best we can do is to seek out those who seem to manifest the spirit of God as we know it, and to consider their wisdom without worshiping them. That is, we should consider their thoughts, but we should also think for ourselves.
This view is also how I perceive much of the Bible. It was written by human beings in specific circumstances which are far different than anything we have today. The books are full of wisdom from people who were close to God, but only the words of Yeshua himself and the direct commands from God are truly trustworthy. Even with Yeshua, we have to understand that most of what he said wasn’t written down, and it was all written down long after the fact (the first Gospel only appearing after his death.) So, the Bible is a useful collection of books by men (and possibly women in a couple of cases) who were close to God. As such, they’re incredibly valuable.
At the same time, there are other books which have value as well. The Gospel of Thomas is a gnostic text which appears in the first or second century, which I find has a lot of value, even if it’s not as authoritative as the canonical Gospels. I don’t always agree with Episcopalian Bishop John Shelby Spong, but his books are amazing sources of knowledge and edification. I agree with him probably 50% of the time, but I always learn from him; especially when we disagree. There are many other authors I love to read. The Dalai Lama, Plato, Nietzsche, various Popes, and Catholic Apologists like Trent Horn.
None of these other books will ever hold the value of the originals, but people are writing books for spiritual edification all the time. There’s wisdom in drawing upon the experiences of others and seeking out books by great philosophers and spiritual thinkers.
About the only books I would consider “scripture” which aren’t in the Bible, at least Christian or Jewish scripture, would be The Book of Enoch (which is in some versions of the Bible, and was once in most versions) the Sefer Yetzirah, and the Zohar. These are all ancient texts, and probably wouldn’t be understood by most people. I would probably still put the Book of Enoch in the Bible, even though it’s steeped in mystery, but the Sefer Yetzirah and the Zohar are only meant for deep scholars of the Bible and the mysteries of God.
That’s just my luck!
The reader actually asked why she is so blessed, and why she should be so lucky, because she really feels blessed to have her kids and her family.
I love when the question itself provides the answer; she is blessed because she feels blessed. Happiness is a external and fleeting, but joy is internal and eternal.
The woman who asked actually has kids who are special needs, and some parents with special needs kids, unfortunately, ask “why me, why was I so cursed.” Instead, she looks at it as a blessing, “my kids are awesome for being just who they are,” she says. She sees the blessing she gets from learning from them and learning to take care of their needs. She sees how amazing of a gift it is for her to be blessed with these children. We could all learn something from her about attitude towards life.
That’s not to say that some people don’t have it legitimately and significantly more difficult than others. Those difficulties don’t usually come from God, but from other human beings. Even drought is not a problem when humans work together.
There are times when God will encourage things to go especially right for someone who is serving Him well, and times when He will cause things to go horribly wrong in order to teach someone a lesson about charity or humility. However, most of the time our luck is just our luck, and depends greatly on how the system is rigged. Again, it’s up to us to make the world a better place.
At the same time, we see people in third world countries, who are living in abject poverty, yet they smile and are happy because they have love in their lives. That’s what I mean when I say happiness is external and fleeting, but joy is internal and eternal. When you have true joy inside, you more often express happiness on the outside.