Monday, October 11, 2010

The Afterlife

The New Testament givers very little detail about the afterlife, so we should take a humble approach to the topic. We must not assume we know more than Jesus wanted us to know (probably because human minds are not capable of grasping it).

When describing the afterlife, Jesus used images (fire, lake, rubbish dump). He also used textual descriptions (eternal punishment, eternal destruction). An image can take a number of meanings, so we should be careful about interpreting these as detailed descriptions of the afterlife.

The images are all physical. Fire is physical fuel being oxidised. Smoke is floating ash particles. The after life takes place (at least in part) in a spiritual world. Images of physical things cannot be a perfect description of a spiritual world. For example, a spiritual body will not burn. Therefore the physical images that Jesus used to describe the negative afterlife must be interpreted analogically and not strictly empirically.

The same applies to the image of a rubbish dump, which the modern church has transliterated as hell. We must work out what a rubbish dump means in a spiritual world.

I presume the purpose of the images was to invoke emotions and elicit a change in behaviour, not to be a. Fire is a powerful image that can elicit strong emotions, such as comfort or fear, depending on the situation. However, fire as an image can take a variety of meanings:

  • Heat
  • Pain
  • Light
  • Destruction
  • Torture
We need more information to determine which meaning Jesus had in mind when talking about the afterlife.

We should use the textual descriptions provided by Jesus to explain the images, and not vice versa. Likewise, we should be very careful about going beyond what the textual descriptions say, on the basis of an image. Textual descriptions of negative afterlife are quite rare, so our knowledge of it will be quite limited.

More at Afterlife.

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