Saturday, July 26, 2014

Sex in Heaven

First, I’ll admit the title is a bit of a bait-and-switch.  Yes, this post will be about sex in heaven, but it’s really more of an excuse to discuss a couple of things that surround this. 

First, to some basics: will there be sex in heaven?  I don’t really know, and neither does anyone else, though there are no lack of opinions (here for the standard response or here for a more nuanced and frankly more interesting opinion).

Probably at least a few of you have seen this question before, or it may have been posed more delicately as “will there be marriage in heaven?”  I’ve even heard the question posed in marriage ceremonies, where (probably too) much is made of the “till death do us part” provision of traditional vows.  Probably at some point, you will have heard a reference to Matthew 22:23-33 (there are parallel passages in Mark 12:18-27 and Luke 20:27-40):

“On that day some Sadducees (who say there is no resurrection) came to Jesus and questioned Him, asking, “Teacher, Moses said, ‘If a man dies having no children, his brother as next of kin shall marry his wife, and raise up children for his brother.’  Now there were seven brothers with us; and the first married and died, and having no children left his wife to his brother;  so also the second, and the third, down to the seventh.  Last of all, the woman died.  In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife of the seven will she be? For they all had married her.” But Jesus answered and said to them, “You are mistaken, not understanding the Scriptures nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.  But regarding the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was spoken to you by God: ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living.”  When the crowds heard this, they were astonished at His teaching."

I hate to sound persnickety, but this passage doesn’t say anything about sex in heaven (or even marriage, actually).  Consider these questions:

1.    -- What is this passage really about?  If you answered “marriage”, I’m afraid you are mistaken, not understanding the Scriptures nor the power of God.  As the text says, this passage is about resurrection, and that this is taught in Scripture and reflects the power of God. 
2.    --    Does this passage mean there is no marriage in heaven?  As our Mormon friends will point out, strictly the passage does not say  “there is no marriage”, but “they will neither marry nor are given in marriage”.  Though I would quibble with their subsequent reasoning, I think they are correct: the passage could, at least in theory, allow for an earthly marriage to continue.
3.  --      What kind of marriage are we talking about here?  Where I would quibble more with the Mormons is that this passage isn’t really about “marriage” as we conceive of it.  The Sadducees were concerned about what is technically known as “levirate marriage”: the custom of a man ‘marrying’ his late brother’s wife in order to raise up children in his brother’s name.  Notice there is no mention of an existing wife who might not want to share her husband nor any mention of love nor “soul mates”.  Put bluntly, the reason the man is marrying this woman is to have enough episodes of intercourse to get her pregnant with a child who can carry on her dead husband’s name.  I presume it’s obvious that this is a generally different sort of marriage than we conceive of today, however common it may have been in Jesus’s day (and there’s a fair bit of debate as to how often it really occurred even then). Given this, the Sadducees’ question is more silly than vexing: Mosaic covenant concerns about land inheritance are presumably not going to be an issue in an environment where there is no strife over land and inheritances.
4. --       Jesus points out that we will “be like the angels”: so what do we know about the social lives of angels, exactly?  Most people reflexively assume this means nothing like sex or anything like it. I humbly suggest this probably owes more to a mashup of Stoic (or even Gnostic) deprecation of the body and some leftover Victorian delicacy (the people who brought us angels who look like this) who are about as far from sexual as possible.  I, for one, don’t claim to know much about angels or their relations with one another, except that whatever they do is in accord with their created nature as not generally bound by our physics and materiality.  Indeed, if you’ve read any of Teresa's "Autobiography" (e.g. XXIX, 17), the beatific vision can be suspiciously sensual.  I doubt she knew any more than the rest of us, but she wasn't being a heretic in describing this way, either.

All of this brings out a common difficulty people have in reading the Bible: it often times is annoyingly deaf to the questions we ask it. Here’s just a sample of these questions, some more controversial than others:
  1.  Will my beloved dog Fifi make it to heaven, hopefully without her annoying tendency to piddle on the carpet when excited? 
  2.     Will I get to review my life as I lived it? 
  3.      Will I be able to listen to some rock n roll (not the devil-worshiping kind, of course)?  Will I be able to watch “Star Wars” on a 108” screen in high def?
  4.    Will I get to watch the family I left behind, like grandpa does with Billy in “The Family Circus” (and am I the only one who finds this a little creepy?)?
  5.      How exactly do we experience God between our deaths and the resurrection?  We will be “with Christ” (Phil 1:23), but what does that mean exactly?
  6.     What specific sorts of events will precede Christ’s return? 
  7.   Is an electrified praise band more or less pleasing to God than an organ?
  8.  How exactly did the Bible’s authors receive their inspiration?  Did they even know what they were doing, and how did God oversee the formation of the Bible?
  9.  Is Gandhi in hell?  Why or why not?  And what about (fill in the blank with anyone who was not especially and obviously saintly)?
  10. What about homosexuality?  And aborted babies?  And how exactly does Jesus's death on a cross 2000 years ago affect my sins today?

Some are obviously more important than others, but I’ve seen attempted answers to all of these and more.  The only reliable thing about these questions is that the answers tend to be believable in approximately inverse proportion to how sure the answering authority is in his conclusions.  The ghosts of Harold Camping and Lindsey's "The Late Great Planet Earth" live on.

So, in the grand scheme of things, will we have sex in heaven?  I don’t know.  Jesus really only answers this question if you start dragging in a bunch of extra-textual assumptions, at least some of which are silly and probably even contrary to otherwise well-thought out Biblical theology.  I admittedly find it hard to believe that God made a mistake when he invented sex and it will all go in the dustbin on Christ's return. I also find it hard to believe that those, er, parts of our bodies will be solely decorative in the resurrection, but deciding what a uterus in a resurrected woman is good for is speculation of the airiest sort.

All of this reminds me a little of a classic CS Lewis quote:
“I think all Christians would agree with me if I said that though Christianity seems at first to be all about morality, all about duties and rules and guilt and virtue, yet it leads you on, out of all that, into something beyond. One has a glimpse of a country where they do not talk of those things, except perhaps as a joke. Everyone there is filled full with what we should call goodness as a mirror is filled with light. But they do not call it goodness. They do not call it anything. They are not thinking of it. They are too busy looking at the source from which it comes. But this is near the stage where the road passes over the rim of our world. No one's eyes can see very far beyond that: lots of people's eyes can see further than mine."  Mere Christianity
Most of these questions are only answered "where the road passes over the rim of our world."  I think there can be helpful speculation on some of these, if for no reason other than that they force a person to confront what they really believe about these assorted topics and work through some of the implications.  If the implications of a way of thinking about a question don't lead to Christ as king of heaven, then that manner of thinking will be 'revealed with fire, and the fire itself will test the quality of each man's work.'  At best, such idle speculations will be the subject of jokes.  Such speculation can be a sort of testing on this side of Christ's return, however, if it forces us to confront these less-sturdy parts of our beliefs.

(incidentally, if Gen 6:1-2 is a particular issue, you might consider this sidebar)

Monday, February 3, 2014

A quick and dirty review of Reza Aslan's "Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth"

(This is a fairly brief review; for more detail, try           
     If this is your first foray into historical Jesus studies, welcome to the Wild West which is the historical quest for Jesus!  Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (Random House, 2013) is one of a series of popular-level books meant to reveal the “real Jesus”, stripped of later churchly embellishments and editorial agendas.  Right of the bat, you can probably see one issue:  the assumption that the Jesus we get in the Bible, and certainly the Jesus we get in the church, is automatically distanced from the actual Jesus.  There is, in other words, a distinction between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith.                  But we’re starting on the wrong foot. First, the good: Aslan is a reasonably careful scholar and a lucid and entertaining writer.  His digressions into historical fiction are occasionally a bit melodramatic and contain their own share of inaccuracies, but when it comes to portraying the lives and times of typical peasant Jews in 1st century Palestine, he gets it mostly right and does so in an entertaining and accessible fashion.  Unusual for a popular-level book, he has some loose notes about each chapter (at the end of the book) that can guide readers to deeper reading, and the Jesus he portrays is appropriately down-to-earth.  The Jesus of much popular piety, especially among people who have never stepped foot outside a small-group Bible study or some light pastoral preaching, often seems to never touch the ground.  He may have touched lepers and shared meals with his disciples, but he was never really quite human, and always spoke with some combination of detachment and inscrutable wisdom, never a hair out of place, even while being artfully crucified. He certainly was not involved in local politics, he didn’t have any tooth decay or smelly feet, and his entire ministry could be summed up with “my kingdom is not of this world.”  Aslan does his best to eliminate this sort of Jesus early on, providing an excellent summary of the political, economic and social climate in which Jesus grew up and which was inescapable context for all his teachings and for the early church.  If you’re just looking for some historical background or a basic primer on what 1st century Palestine was like, Aslan’s book is actually not a bad place to start (though I would recommend others with less ideological baggage, such as NT Wright's Simply Jesus or Theissen’s The Shadow of the Galilean).

Aslan’s final line in Zealot is meant, I assume, to be positive and encouraging (216): “Jesus is, in short, someone worth believing in.”  It’s unclear what he could mean, however, since the final Jesus Aslan winds up with is very different than that of any historically orthodox Christian church or seminary.  His Jesus was “crucified under Pontius Pilate”, but was not “born of the virgin Mary” and certainly is not the “very God of very God” of the creed.  This is not surprising, however, since as careful a thinker as Aslan is, he starts in a very different place than anyone of a more conservative bent.  The foundational problem is not Aslan’s methodology, but the assumptions he brings to the text.  There are a number of crucial ideas that Aslan clearly believes that feed into his thesis.  They are:

  •           A distinction between the “Jesus of history” and the “Christ of faith.”  Behind this is the simple assumption that God cannot act in history.  There can be a grubby 1st century Jewish peasant being crucified, or the dying Son of God, lifted up for the salvation of the world, but you can’t have both.  Aslan is not the first to be offended by the combination of the two, but he is insistent from the beginning that they cannot in the same person.
  •          Aslan nowhere lays out a theory of history, but some things rise to the surface.  Consistent with the point above, something cannot be simultaneously meaningful and historical.  He does not, apparently, agree with the contention that all history requires some interpretation (if nothing else, in the events that are chosen to be recorded).  Rather, when an event has theological import (i.e. that Jesus calmed the storm or fed the 5000), it is illegitimate; when it has a naturalist or anti-supernatural import (that Jesus was merely a 1st century peasant Jew), it is to be assumed reliable. 
  •         Consistent with this is a persistent anti-supernaturalism.  It is one thing to adopt a methodological naturalism for the purpose of doing history: miracles are not routinely regarded as the cause of historical events.  It is a different matter, however, to say that God does not or cannot intervene in history when it suits his purposes.  Aslan seems to simply assume that miracles are impossible, though he nowhere explicitly argues this.  The resurrection, the conversion of Paul and the attribution of assorted miracles of Jesus (admitted even by his opponents, e.g. Mt 12:24, Mk 3:22) tend to be glossed over, ignored, or simply listed as mysteries we’ll never unravel.  How this approach is helpful in understanding the Christian faith or its origins, both of which are claimed by believers to be thoroughly supernatural, is not clear.
  •         Since predictive prophecy is impossible (since it is miraculous) and since Jesus is recorded as predicting the fall of Jerusalem, the gospels cannot be earlier than 70 CE.  Prior to this, according to Aslan, there were two competing schools of Christianity, a Jewish, Torah-observant, somewhat radicalized wing, and another group, mostly Gentile and headed by Paul, which was much more pacifist and other-worldly.  Anything which disagrees with this thesis is probably unreliable, if not outright propaganda according to Aslan’s method. 
  •         There tends to be a persistent assumption of intellectual and cultural superiority, what CS Lewis referred to as “chronological snobbery.”  Traditional interpretations of any event in Jesus’ life or times are to be discarded in favor of more recent re-workings.  Since occasionally these re-workings actually do make better sense of the text (e.g. that Jesus was, in fact, primarily crucified for sedition), any other re-imaginings are equally valid, not because they are supported by evidence, but because they are modern.

 All these assumptions result in a fairly consistent picture of Jesus, but are rarely supported, and tend to cause as many problems as they solve.  Indications that the “Christ of faith” was fully in play within 20 years of his death tend to be largely ignored.  Paul is dealt with by assuming that he really didn’t know anything about Jesus and had turned from a thoroughly conventional devout Judaism to found a Gentile church.  Why or how he did this is largely left unexplored.  The high Christology of his letters (which Aslan admits were written to established churches no later than the mid- 50’s) is, apparently, just an idiosyncrasy of Paul that was grasped by later Christians who sympathized with him.  The letter to the Hebrews, which both speaks of the temple in the present tense (i.e. was obviously written before 70) and talks about a divine Jesus who dies for sins, is ignored. It could be admitted, for the sake of argument, that the relationship between Peter, James and the other apostles and Paul was a bit rocky but that these two groups were founding churches with radically differing views of their founder is largely unsupported, both by evidence and by Aslan’s argument.  He simply seems to assume that Jesus could not have been extraordinary in any sense, and so the extraordinary Jesus that arose out of Paul and the post-70 church must have been the fabricated one.  As support for this, he mentions several early church fathers that wrote favorably of James and Peter, despite Paul’s split with them.  What he does not mention is that these citations are vastly outnumbered by positive views of Paul by these same authors (and high views of Jesus), but why let facts stand in the way of a good theory. 
       In the end, Jesus is a mystery.  The Jesus of history is supremely ordinary, one of a score of wannabe messiahs who gathered a following and were crucified; his followers soldiered on, apparently out of belief in his program if not his person.  The Christ of faith arose in the Gentile church, being founded by Gentile-loving Pharisee who, for reasons unknown, abandoned his heritage to found a religion.  Documents which tend to oppose this thesis are merely the result of later propagandists, while the documents (even the same documents) which argue for a radicalized rabbi Jesus support Aslan’s reading. Overall, Aslan’s view of Jesus is internally consistent.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t actually explain the available evidence, and the reader is left wondering what questions Aslan has actually answered.  

A couple other good reviews:
By NT professor Craig Evans
By historian John Dickson