Film references to Jesus’ ‘descent into hell’

Question 113, from MC

In the movie “Jesus of Nazareth” which aired in 1977, there are two scenes where it seems to quote the Bible but I cannot find it anywhere. Do you know where this comes from?

“I went down unto the countries, to the countries buried beneath the earth, walked among the people of the past and I was lost, yet I heard your voice and you lifted me from the pit” (paraphrased)

The film ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ attempts to tell the story of Jesus’ life by harmonising the four gospels, which naturally results in certain events being missed out and other material being added in.

Certainly, it would seem that this is a deliberate reference to the doctrine of Christ’s descent into hell. This is the idea that between his death and resurrection Christ’s spirit entered Hades/hell and liberated the captive souls of the righteous. Although popular enough to be included in several creeds, there is a limited Scriptural basis for this belief. (more…)


Gabriel’s appearance

Question from NG, United Kingdom.

What did the angel Gabriel look like?

Gabriel is the name given to the angel who announced to Mary that she would give birth to Jesus supernaturally (Luke chapter 1, verses 26-38), having already announced the conception of John the Baptist to John’s father Zechariah (Luke chapter 1, verses 11-20). The name was also applied to the angel who interpreted visions for the prophet Daniel in Daniel chapter 8, verses 15-26 and chapter 9, verses 20-27.

(more…)


God’s physical and visible form

Questions 110 & 111, on the subject of God’s nature

Question 110, received from SD, United Kingdom
A while ago, we were talking to a friend about God. The conversation turned somehow to the physical form of God, and our friend started talking about a particular heresy which he said had been disproved in either the 15th or 16 century, (I can’t remember the details) about God having a physical body. As far as I’m concerned, the Bible says that man is made in the image of God, and to me that means a human body. I’m quite happy to accept that I’m wrong in this, but what I can’t understand is why does it matter? So what if I see God as an old man with a long beard sitting up there in heaven on his throne? But our friend got really upset about it.

Question 111, received from AB, United Kingdom
Do you say God has a form with which he shows himself to the angels and sits on his throne or is he entirely spirit?

These are awkward questions to answer, because Christian theology usually wants to firmly propose two contradictory positions. (more…)


More questions about The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown

Yet again The Da Vinci Code is the focus of some questions for freelance theology.

Question 108 from TLJ, United Kingdom
Is the Christian response to the Da Vinci Code actually detrimental in that it’s giving extra publicity to it?

Question 109, from JG, United Kingdom
In The Da Vinci Code the author says that Jesus married Mary Magdalene. My question is not did he marry, but if he had, would it theologically have affected our salvation. I was wondering what you think about this question. My church is up in arms about this. Please help.

Whatever one’s views on The Da Vinci Code, it seems as if the controversy around it will not die down, despite the poor critical reception for the film version released this summer. Further controversy has been stirred by the court case in which the author, Dan Brown, was accused of plagiarising a number of ideas (Brown was later acquitted).

Opinion within Christian circles seems to be mixed. There are those who dismiss the whole controversy as irrelevant, others who regard it as a positive sign of ‘spiritual hunger’, and still others who condemn it outright as ‘blasphemous’. Previous articles on freelance theology have highlighted (more…)


Living merrily ever after

Question 107 – from ER and BR, United Kingdom

ER: Is there wine in heaven?
BR: If so, is it alcoholic, as some people say that ‘wine’ in the Bible was merely grape juice?

While the Bible is never fully clear on the subject of what ‘heaven’ is like, there are references to eating and drinking. In Luke chapter 22, verse 18, Jesus is reported as saying of a cup of wine that “I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” Whether this is a reference to his appearances after the resurrection, or in heaven is hard to know. However as he was (more…)


Lucifer being called the angel of music

Question 106 – from LM, USA

Where in the bible is Lucifer referred to the angel of Music?

There is no Biblical reference to Lucifer as the ‘angel of music’. Other articles on freelance theology have covered the development of various beliefs about the devil, although the origin of this particular idea seems to be obscure.

Certainly the popular idea that Lucifer was a prominent angel in the heavenly court, who then rebelled and was cast out of Heaven, has been embellished over the centuries. It is certainly possible that one of these additions to the basic story is that Lucifer was the director of music. This could be because of the many Biblical references to angels singing worship to God. In Job chapter 38, verse 7 the ‘morning stars’ or are identified with ‘sons of God (often translated as ‘angels’).

‘Lucifer’ is actually the Latin for ‘lightbringer’ and was a word used for Venus, the Morning Star, which often shone out shortly before dawn. When Isaiah ironically used the Hebrew term ‘daystar’ to describe the ambitious King of Babylon in Isaiah chapter 14, this was then translated as ‘Lucifer’ in the Latin translation of the Bible (the Vulgate). There has been a long history of associating Isaiah’s ‘Lucifer’, who is ‘cast down from heaven’, with Satan’s ‘fall from Heaven’ that Jesus claimed to have seen in Luke chapter 10, verse 18. If the singing angels in Job are all ‘morning stars’ it follows that Satan/Lucifer is the morning star, i.e. the leader.

The stories that have grown around the troubling character of Satan in Christian theology are varied and complex. While there are many who would still adhere to a belief in a literal personal being called Satan, this mythological belief system has been heavily criticised for lacking a Biblical basis. It’s popularity owes more to the pre-modern superstitious world that Christianity grew up in and eventually outgrew.

It is interesting though that Satan’s involvement with music is also ingrained in popular culture. The devil is said to ‘have all the best tunes’, although this comment can actually be traced to the founder of the Salvation Army, William Booth, who firmly believed in appropriating the ‘devil’s tunes’ and setting Christian evangelistic hymns to them.


Questions about the creation of Eve

Question 105 – from DW, USA

God says in the Bible “It’s not good for the man to be alone, I will make a helper suitable for him” (Genesis chapter 2, verse18).
I have three questions about this passage
a) “It’s not good” Was God capable of creating a situation that was not good?
b) “Man to be alone” I thought God walked in the garden with him, can you be alone while in the presence of God?
c) “A helper suitable for him” What did Adam need help with? Tending the garden? Or naming the animals? He wasn’t under a time constraint was he? As far as companionship, remember we were created for Jesus’ good pleasure, and purpose, there is no marriage in heaven or eternity, if there is something more that we need than Jesus, there is a problem.

This is actually a refined version of a question DW asked previously, and some points are worth reiterating. It would seem that the creation story found in the first few chapters of Genesis is a merging of two accounts. The first describes, in general terms, the creation process that brought the world into being in seven days. There is then an abrupt shift in emphasis in Genesis chapter 2, verse 4, which introduces “the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created.” This second version deals with the specific creation of named human beings, Adam and Eve, their subsequent Fall and loss of a Golden Age.

Some people go to great lengths to prove the scientific accuracy of the Genesis account. There has been some speculation recently whether the story of Eden is an ancient folk memory concerning the fall of civilisations in ancient Africa and the Near East due to sudden climate change approximately six thousand years ago, which coincides roughly with the Biblical chronology (see ‘Why Deserts will Inherit the Earth’, The Independent, 5 June 2006). Or it may be a myth, in the technical sense of the word, i.e. a true story that has been explained supernaturally because the writers lacked the scientific language necessary to objectively describe it.

Whatever the case, these early chapters of Genesis do present some seeming contradictions. Taking the accounts at face value, it is probably best to approach these three questions individually.

a) If two different stories were merged into one (as seems to be the case from textual evidence) it would explain why God terms everything as “good” in Genesis chapter 1, verse 31, but then later on there can be an aspect of this ‘completely good’ creation, which is ‘not good’. Additionally, from later chapters, it seems that God has allowed creatures an element of independent free will, meaning that even if God’s initial creation was perfectly good, it contained within it the possibility of falling away from that initial state and become less than perfect.

Adam’s loneliness is the only thing described as ‘not good’ before the account of the Fall. One explanation for this is that: “Humanity is created as a social being, and is meant to exist in relation with others.” [Alister McGrath, Christian Theology, 1994, p.235]. Being made in the image of God (Trinity) naturally presupposes this. It could be assumed that Adam would want to relate to others like him, in the same way that God, within the Godhead, exists in interpersonal relationship. Adam need not have wanted this, but once he did, this unmet need would have made the situation ‘not good’.

Alternatively, it may just be the phrasing. There is an old joke that God made Adam first and then got started on an upgrade – Eve. In a sense this may have a grain of truth in it. God’s ongoing interaction with the world is shown by the attempt to improve creation that is already good, as God seeks to bring about the best world possible. While this image of God giving creation a ‘tweak’ is over-anthropomorphic, the creation of both Adam and Eve as individuals has already occurred after God’s ‘sabbath rest’ from creation (chapter 2, verse 2), implying that creation did continue after the six days of Genesis chapter 1.

b) In the account, God put Adam into Eden, but did not necessarily live there with him. In chapter 3, verse 8 (after Adam and Eve disobeyed God by taking the forbidden fruit), God is said to be ‘walking in the garden in the cool of the day’. The use of a specific time of day implies that God was not always walking in the garden with Adam. The story itself implies God is absent when the serpent has its fateful conversation with Eve in chapter 3, verses 1-6.

This is an interesting phrase though, with God depicted almost like a country landowner, inspecting his estate in the early evening when strolling around it is cool and enjoyable experience. The anthropomorphism of God at this point is another reason why many people regard this story as an allegory and not literal truth.

c) If these creation accounts are read as allegory, then they seek to explain, in non-scientific terms, why humanity takes the form of two genders. ‘Helper’ is a very interesting choice of word here, and possibly reflects later religious thought being ‘read back’ into the account of origins. Most primitive religions of the Middle East revolved around fertility practices and reverence of the ‘life-bearing mother’. As Israelite religion sought to establish worship of the ‘male’ Yahweh, it would be natural to promote this creation account where the female is subordinate to the male, a ‘weaker’ gender introduced as a ‘helper’ to the ‘stronger’.

The idea that human beings exist solely for God’s pleasure has entered into popular theology in many churches. This idea has been particularly highlighted by the book The Purpose Driven Life, written by American pastor Rick Warren, where it is explicitly spelled out as the first of five purposes for every human being (op. cit., published by Zondervan 2002, pp 63ff). There is a good Biblical basis to this point of view, but it does not necessarily mean that God is selfish about creation.

To put it another way, being made for God’s pleasure does not limit the actions and activities of human beings, as long as those activities bring pleasure to God. Again the phrase ‘created in the image of God’ crops up. Human beings, as image-bearing creatures are designed to be relational and as such need other creatures that they can relate to, so that they do not feel ‘alone’.

God could have created every human being the same way Genesis records him creating Adam. Asking why God introduced sex into the equation by creating a new gender leads to pure speculation. Perhaps it was to introduce a random ‘chance’ element into things. Maybe it was a necessary part of allowing free will. It is impossible to know, but Adam’s relational need for a helper does not contradict the idea that all human beings exist because of God’s creative actions and for God’s pleasure.


The Tale of the Talmud

Question 104, from JV, United Kingdom

I am currently looking into the Hebrew roots of Christianity, I was wondering as to whether we need to study the Talmud (oral laws), as God gave them, as well as the commandments on Mount Sinai. Jesus is said to be the fulfilment of the law not the abolisher of it, does that include the oral laws? I find there is great wisdom in them and the fact that Jesus himself studied the oral laws and argued with them show to me that they are of value!

The Talmud (technically Talmuds, because there are two of them) are systematic commentaries on the Mishnah, which is the rabbinical law code of proper Jewish practice. The final version of the Mishnah is generally dated to the second century AD, after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem (AD70) and the ‘diaspora’ as the Jews made their home in other countries. The Talmuds are usually dated two to three centuries later.

The general consensus is that as the life of the Jewish community adjusted to the upheaval of the dislocation from Temple-centred religion, a revised law code was needed to ensure that Jews were still living according to the customs and rituals that marked them out as God’s chosen people. The Mishnah, based on the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, also called the Pentateuch), therefore enabled Judaism to continue despite the Temple being razed to the ground on the orders of Titus Caesar.

Unlike the Hebrew Bible/Christian Old Testament, the Mishnah is arranged systematically by topic, rather than by author. It is divided into six broad parts: Agriculture (mainly farming according to the principles of Torah), Appointed Times (how to celebrate the holy days of Judaism), the role and status of Women, Damages (dealing with governmental issues and conflict resolution), Holy Things, and Purities (including lists of things that make a Jew impure).

The Palestinian Talmud and the Babylonian Talmud each develop the teaching of the Mishnah, although neither expand upon the Purities section. The Palestinian Talmud omits Holy Things, while its Babylonian counterpart does not reference Agriculture. As such the Talmuds fill in some gaps that have been left out of the Mishnah.

While the Torah, and later the rest of the Hebrew Bible, was regarded as divinely inspired before the Mishnah was compiled, it was not long before the Mishnah was regarded as being the embodiment of an oral tradition that was alleged to date back to the time of the exodus. There is no way of proving whether this belief has any truth to it, although historians tend to assume that it does not. However, the Mishnah, and the Talmuds, do contain material which probably had a long folk-history before it was ever written down. Jesus therefore was probably aware of, and may have been influenced by, this material, but chronologically he was unable to engage with the Talmud during his earthly ministry.

The Talmuds also refer to extra material not found in the Mishnah, including previous commentaries on the Torah. The two Talmuds also contain references to the Mishnah as the ‘oral Torah’ and, because of their inextricable links to the Mishnah have thus taken on a semi-canonical status in Judaism themselves. In fact, the sixth century Babylonian Talmud is regarded as the authoritative encyclopedia of Judaism.

While the Mishnah and Talmuds provide Christian theologians with valuable insights into Christianity’s Jewish roots, it is generally held that these works are not authoritative. The New Testament in its current form dates from a similar time, and it could be argued that the Talmud and the New Testament represent two diverging views. One was a retreat back into the legalistic world of the Torah; the other looking outward beyond the confines of one people group into a wider world.

Thanks for your question JV.


7 Questions for Brian D. McLaren

Jon the freelance theologian was recently privileged to meet Brian D. McLaren, author of A New Kind of Christian as well as many other titles dealing with Christianity on the cusp of the postmodern era. In the following exclusive interview, Jon asked Brian for his thoughts on one or two important topics and also asked a few personal questions to find out what make this internationally respected theologian tick.

Do you have a favourite Bible verse, and why is it your favourite?
I think 2 Corinthians chapter 5 and verse 19 [“in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses , and entrusting us with the message of reconciliation”], because it puts the focus on reconciliation with God and among human beings.

Which theologians have had the biggest influence on you?
Francis Schaeffer, CS Lewis, Leslie Newbiggin, Walter Bruggeman, NT Wright, Rene Padilla, and Nancey Murphy. (When pushed to pick one, Brian said NT Wright was his biggest influence).

In the postmodern era we are seeing the re-emergence of Gnostic alternative truths (e.g. Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, National Geographic’s Gospel of Judas). Most reactions from Christians are modern proof-based arguments against them. What postmodern ways could we respond?
I’ve actually got an article on the Sojourners website on this topic, so it’s probably best if people read that. What I add is that the popularity of The Da Vinci Code tells us there are deficiencies in the way we present Jesus to people. [Click on this link to visit Brian’s Sojourners article – you may need to subscribe to Sojourners’ regular email update to access the article]

How do ongoing doctrinal disagreements in Christianity affect the credibility of Christians seeking to engage a modern and postmodern society that has no need of God?
Jesus said that ‘all people will know my disciples by the love they have for one another, and will know that the Father sent me for the same reason’ [John chapter 17, verses 20-23]. So if we don’t love one another it’s a very serious problem. Speaking personally, I am most unloving when I’m afraid or angry or greedy…

Your church, Cedar Ridge Community Church, is based in Washington DC. How do you feel about the recent establishment of the Washington Nationals baseball team? And do you think that the artificiality of baseball franchises have parallels in how Christians regard church?
I haven’t been to a Nationals game and haven’t kept up with them. I live closer to Baltimore anyway, so pay more attention to the Orioles. Franchises are formed by market realities and when we let our churches be formed by market realities too, then they do seem like a game.

Have you got one thing you would like to say to readers of freelance theology?
It’s great that you’re engaged through this website in theological conversation because if people can engage in constructive and charitable theological conversation that helps build a better world.

What does the ‘D’ stand for and why do so many Americans use a middle initial?
Douglas. The US is a big country. There are a couple of other Brian McLarens, who I feel sorry for in case they get saddled with my critics.

Read more by Brian Douglas McLaren on his personal website [click]:
Brian’s also recommends: Amahoro; Emergent (UK)


Life after death for non-believers

Question 103 – from CP, United Kingdom

In your post about the time lapse between bodily death and resurrection, you say: “The deceased are already resurrected and to them it would have felt instantaneous.” It seems to be your belief that those who achieve a life ‘with God’ and with Jesus in this life are the ones who are resurrected. And The Bible says those who believe in Jesus and ask for forgiveness will be resurrected. However, it seems strange that lots of very ‘good’, charitable, loving and kind people who might not believe in Jesus or might be vague about it will not be resurrected with the others. Where do they go? How about the difficult person who causes a lot of upset to others but who believes in Jesus all along or towards the end? Why would that person be resurrected before the charitable person? I understand to the degree that we ALL inevitably sin in our lives and Jesus is the key to being re-united with God. However, this type of question still puzzles me. How does it all work?

This question in one form or another has perplexed Christians for many years. Loosely speaking there are three basic alternative solutions:
i) universalism – the belief that everybody is granted eternal life,
ii) annihilationism – where the ‘saved’ (or righteous/good) receive eternal life, while the unsaved (bad) cease to exist, and
iii) judgement – where the saved/good go to heaven and the unsaved/bad go to hell.

There are problems with all three doctrinal positions, so it comes as no surprise to discover modified and hybrid opinions as well. However, put simply, universalism does not allow for free choice, because human beings get saved whatever they do. It also has very little Biblical basis. It does, however, emphasise God’s grace, mercy and forgiving nature, and has a long pedigree among freethinking Christians (often regarded as heretics). One notable theologian who adopted this view was the third century scholar Origen, who went so far as to claim that even the devil would eventually be redeemed.

Annihilationism is often argued from the reference in Revelation to the ‘second death’ endured by those who are thrown into the lake of fire in chapter 20, verse 14. As with the more typical ‘division between heaven and hell’ judgement scenario, annihilationism does take human sin seriously. In fact, human sin is the reason why those judged unrighteous are annihilated. However, this goes against the Biblical statements about hell, which seem to infer a continuing, conscious existence (see Mark chapter 9, verse 48).

The judgement scenario has always been very popular in Christian thought, particularly among ‘fire and brimstone’ preachers. In some ways the concept of hell feeds the social insecurity caused by religion, in that while Christians may feel that they are a persecuted and threatened minority, they can at least take comfort in the fact that they will be proved right on judgement day. However, this simplistic approach – that believers automatically go to heaven and unbelievers automatically end up in hell – has intrinsic difficulties, both in its Biblical support and internal logic.

For a start, it has often been pointed out that it was the religious leaders that Jesus warned about hell. Jesus clearly saw a distinction between words and deeds, with words on their own not enough to save a person (Matthew chapter 7, verses 15-23). So it appears that a person who “causes upset” will be judged for it, regardless of whether they have said the ‘right’ formula of words (e.g. a ‘prayer of salvation’).

Reducing the effects of salvation merely to the afterlife takes the emphasis away from doing the will of God in the here and now, which is clearly part of Jesus’ intended message. In Luke chapter 4, verse 18, Jesus launches his ministry with a declaration of intent borrowed from the prophet Isaiah and promises “To preach good news to the poor”, liberate prisoners and the oppressed, and heal the blind. Later in Luke many of these phrases are repeated to authenticate Jesus’ status as the messiah to the imprisoned John the Baptist (chapter 7, verse 22).

In two ways then, the Biblical stories undermine the simplistic heaven/hell divide. There is also the question of rational understanding. If hell is a ‘physical’ place or dimension it must have been created specifically for that purpose, but there is no Biblical record of that taking place. In fact it seems from the Old Testament that the idea of hell ‘evolves’ or develops as time goes on, from ‘sheol’ the grave, through to ‘gehenna’ in the New Testament.

If hell is defined as ‘separation from God’ (as it often is in ‘softer’ versions of the judgement theory), then logically how can any place be separate from its creator? Hell will always bear the creative mark of God. Added to that is the sense that if people are condemned to hell for eternity, then evil has won, and God is not the triumphant victor that Christian tradition has always proclaimed. The question why God would allow human souls to be ‘lost’ is an inexplicable mystery.

Perhaps the best answer to this query is to say that the destiny of unbelievers remains uncertain. In contrast, the future of the believer is assured in the Bible and in Christian theology. While many missionary endeavours have been spurred on by the belief that people are being saved from hellfire, it would be as inspiring to give people the opportunity to replace uncertainty with the certain knowledge of eternal life.

Thanks for your question, CP.