05 The Sheikdom of Heaven

Paul was merely following the customs of his day when he wrote his letter to the Ephesian churches. Those first verses in chapter 1 string together a huge image, and in most English translations, it’s poorly rendered. That’s because it’s written by a Hebrew mind trying to stuff mystical truth into the Greek language, and this passage is one those where English just fails completely. You have to read it over a dozen times and toss it around in your head for a little while.

It helps if you avoid any translation that uses “dispensation” in verse 10. That is an inexcusable mistranslation, exposing a serious anti-Hebrew bias. Here’s the deal: Paul chose the Greek word oikonomia to capture the image of a very large Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) feudal sheikdom. You really need to move as far away as possible from words that permit Western notions to leak back into this picture. His words draw the image of a very powerful ANE nomad potentate living in tents. Someone like that doesn’t think in terms of real estate; he has the power to protect his turf and keep out folks who aren’t welcome. But it’s not a permanent occupation; intruders can have it once he moves on.

Rather, his true wealth is his people. It’s not even the flocks and herds, because that’s the means to keep his people alive and healthy. But his people are the real treasure, because good people can always produce more material goods. Being nomads, their needs are pretty simple in the first place. His whole focus in life is their social stability and welfare. His sole claim to greatness is his success in those terms. Wherever they travel on his business, they flaunt the richness of his provision. That’s his glory.

Paul’s point here is that we need that image to understand how God does things. His primary objective in what He does in this world is just like any ANE nomad sheik. He has His one Heir who has entered His co-regency apprenticeship, having performed the heroic act of winning back the rightful inheritance consisting of many souls. So there’s this transition period where He demonstrates His rightful place on the throne by carrying on His Father’s business. At some point that apprenticeship will be complete and the Father will call in all His vassals and settle up, ensuring that the Son knows precisely the magnitude of what He inherits.

Meanwhile, this is feudalism; the Son has called into His service all kinds of folks and adopted them as kin so that they can inherit their own share of interest in this sheikdom. People with a shared investment tend to act together with an eye to increasing value. And their whole business is to carry His fame throughout the world and attract more investors, people who will in their turn become vested family members, too.

All of that is in those first few verses of Ephesians, folks. This isn’t about you finding your personal peace and keeping it inside. It’s about showing off the glorious treasure of our Divine Sheik, flaunting His rare and fascinating symbols of wealth. We are so loaded up that we can afford to leave our loose change and small bills on the counter when we leave. In other words, we see no great need to correct people’s minds on some objective truth. Rather, we display our casual attitude about concrete reality in favor of what really matters — moral discernment. They can keep all they want of this world, but that means we know they aren’t moved by the implication that they could have something far better. If they want that better stuff, they’ll have leave this world behind, same as each of us have done.

Again, we are raiders of souls. We don’t intend to colonize; we don’t want this world. Let the dead keep their dead world. We’ll sneak in and flash His glory around until someone reaches out for it. Then we’ll hook them up with our Rich Daddy Sheik and keep fishing for more. Eventually our mission will end and we’ll go back home to our own noble household within the Sheik’s domain.

And somewhere way down the road will come that Final Day when the Son is finally paraded before the world as the Heir, and He’ll take possession of everything. Those who cling to this world and their moral blindness will be forced to stand in His Holy Presence with no protection of kinship. God alone knows what that will be like, but for the rest of us, it’s a whole new dawn into some blissful eternity none of us can imagine.

The Taste of Truth

We are wired for narrative.

The Hebrew culture was mystical in nature; it was part of the Ancient Near East (ANE), which is a collection of cultures and civilizations that shared a mystical orientation. Westerners have struggled to make sense of that peculiar brand of mysticism because it is so very alien. Our language and culture makes mystical things “spooky” and dangerous, whereas the ANE folks took it for granted and were entirely comfortable with it. Their “unknown” was never threatening; it was where man could find God.

It’s further exceedingly difficult to get across to Westerners that there is a third level of awareness beyond first, fleshly wiring in appetites and emotions, or second, intellect and reason. This is why genuine faith and trust in God is so very difficult for Westerners. What Western Christianity ends up with is a requirement for orthodoxy (“right thinking”) to force pre-approved outcomes. We simply cannot have something open-ended like faith is meant to be. Thus, it provides a phony “faith” that is some form of iron logic, which is supposed to conquer the flesh. But it cannot conquer flesh because intellect is still flesh; it’s still man doing something the mind imagines is God’s work. To be “spiritual” means some better quality of cerebral exercise in reason.

The only real difference between that kind of belief versus atheism is simply a matter of starting assumptions. It rests entirely in the fallen flesh. It’s all the same kind of thing. People choose their assumptions on some grounds they cannot comprehend because reason cannot admit to dependency and need. The seeming power of reason is too enthralling to ignore; intellect cannot choose to surrender the myth of superiority in all things. It is the God-complex woven into the human soul. In other words, you cannot start from logic and arrive at truth because there is nothing on which to stand. Logic is a tool; it has no substance in itself. Thus, the choice to believe or not is nothing more than subconscious sentiment.

This remains the sad story for the vast majority of those seeking to practice Western Christian religion. Especially as the size of the organization grows, the portion of people in it who are simply believers without genuine commitment on that third level grows higher because the size of the crowd makes it easier to hide the weakness. There’s so much shared enthusiasm that it feels like it must be the power of God; it didn’t come from within the self.

This, despite the rather flatly literal teaching in Scripture that genuine faith in the individual defies the whole world if necessary; even the end of reality itself does not vanquish true faith. Move those individual members to a hostile environment and their belief suffers. Something nibbles away at the edges of the fragile belief. It requires a constant exposure to that mass enthusiasm to reinforce those cerebral boundaries. There’s no fountain of life welling up within.

Nobody says the mind cannot be strong; it’s never strong enough. It can’t bear you into God’s Presence. We don’t need more teaching. There is no truth in explanations that meet the tests of intellect. I use it here in our virtual parish only to deconstruct, to indicate how you shouldn’t rely on it. I use the tools of reason and intellect to poke holes in what the brain can do by itself.

The truth of God isn’t in teaching. The closest we come to divine revelation in human language is parable and narrative. Do you understand that two or more narratives can conflict on the facts and still tell the same truth? Two people can come away from a narrative with entirely different experiences, but still stand in the same faith. Narrative brings with it a whole raft of experiential truth that touches the places mere data cannot find. And it’s those other places in the soul where we can provoke or crush genuine faith. A well told story that rests on certain assumptions will convey those assumptions by drawing the listener into them. It becomes the reality in which that soul stands for a time.

Thus, the very concept of communication and language in the ANE was all about the narrative, drawing us into the place where we can find truth. We are wired to absorb that truth. Once we get used to this, we can detect lies because they bring us to the wrong place, a place that feels alien and hostile. But only if we are used to thinking in terms of the narrative and its purpose as communication. As long as we hang everything on the data, anyone can slip vast deceptions into the narrative and we’d never know it.

A morally strong narrative finds a witness in your convictions. It feels like home; it restores your faith. It tastes like something eternal.

An Epistle for Our Times

In terms of missions — addressing the world around us — we stand in the gateway of Noah. That is, we use the framework of Noah’s Covenant to address the broader needs of humanity. Sure, it complicates things when we are talking to Christian believers, but our general approach remains the same. To the world at large, our religion is more or less the Law of Noah.

On the one hand, the Law of Noah lays out all the basic provisions for living in our world. We’ve discussed the discrete provisions plenty of times under the heading of a call to repent. It includes the traditional Seven Noachide Laws as found in the Talmud. We take that listing with a grain of salt simply because the Talmud is a mixture of corrupt Jewish traditions and just a little bit of ancient lore that didn’t make it into Scripture. However, the more important elements of this does show up in Acts 15. In my study of Acts I describe how some of the seven laws aren’t mentioned specifically because they were already covered under what was then the current legal framework of Roman Law. What’s left is this word from James:

“Therefore I judge that we should not trouble those from among the Gentiles who are turning to God, but that we write to them to abstain from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from things strangled, and from blood.” (Acts 15:19-20 NKJV)

This leaves us explaining just what it means for something to be polluted with idols, or what constitutes sexual immorality, but we probably won’t have much trouble with folks wanting to eat meat that was strangled or hasn’t been properly bled. Instead, we have a substantial job explaining why these things matter.

Thus, we come to the monumental prerequisites for actually observing the Law of Noah. This is where we mention the Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) feudal government, for that is precisely what was required in Genesis 9 where the Covenant is announced. Further, the context of that covenant assumes a heart-led culture and way of life (AKA, ANE Mysticism). This is where we spend so very much time explaining what that business in Acts 15 summarizes, because Gentiles in that time and place were usually familiar with all of the ANE heritage as a part of their cultural background. Quite significant was that those Gentiles had already sampled a wide array of varying civilizations and had an instinctive awareness that their own culture was not the default way of looking at things.

The Western lack of such awareness is our primary burden. This peculiar blindness is the mountain we must move by faith. It’s not as if we can’t package the external requirements for ready consumption, but the last thing we need is a bunch of folks hardened in their misunderstanding of everything behind those requirements. The Apostles didn’t have to wade through that, so going out and preaching in the town square was the simplest way to get the message out. For us, it’s more like shouting across a thousand miles of distance, even as we stand among the people who need to hear. We have to invest the effort to establish our weirdness visually and with power before speaking does much good.

All the more so is the burden upon us as we have already crossed the threshold into a new world, a changed reality. This is the time to invest the effort to see what our faith demands of us simply living a heart-led existence. I have this burning zeal to help you discover the fullness of shalom, the calm assurance that things will work out if we simply seize upon the heart-led necessities. When your convictions speak, that is your Voice of God for the current context, so learn to listen. And then learn to see with moral eyes what may never be apparent to mere mechanical vision. Learn to hear the song of Creation praising the Lord, the bubbly celebration of Life in the natural world around you. Let it feed your soul and keep that vivid existence burning brightly in the world around you.

This is not a time to affix labels in the way Western minds do, where the label is the identity of a thing. If it seems our function is apostolic, it would still be misleading to label ourselves “Apostle So-n-so.” Let’s be happy with Brother and Sister, and then later we can talk about vested roles. I’m on the verge of introducing a new and younger male elder to the virtual staff here in our online parish. All it means is that I trust his ability to lead the way we lead, which is rather like a shepherd calling out to the sheep who might hear, but otherwise letting them follow as they will. If the sheep are not bound by trust, there is no leadership.

So we progress as a virtual parish. We are building a network of voices who share a common vision for how to handle a world about to be shaken to the very foundations. Tribulation has come; we are a tribulation church. God has come on an inspection tour, and He is worthy of our best. We are His living epistles.

Psalm 119: Cheth 57-64

This octet of verses is the Song of Loyalty. The psalmist is fully committed, wholly owned by his Sovereign, a loyal servant who shares in the inheritance as a son. That’s the meaning of the first line, and he as offered the ritual of covenant binding, giving his word to live by the Law of his Lord. He held back nothing in secret, but cast his whole being on the favor of Jehovah. He knows there is no master among men who would be so merciful because the Lord for His part gave His word on it.

Upon this commitment, he gave long consideration to his own ways and determined to bend his path to following the ancient markers of God’s eternal road of truth. There was no hesitation at all.

The wicked pay no attention to revelation as they devise a system that favors their comfort, and they have tried to hold the psalmist accountable to their man-made laws. But he simply cannot absorb their false ways as the truth of God echoes down from Heaven into his heart.

It was considered normal in ancient times for adults to awaken at least once in the night and stay up for a while, often doing things that are difficult to do in daytime. It’s a quiet time of private matters, and our psalmist finds his first impulse is to give thanks to God. This is not something you can fake. He finds his mind drawn back to all the amazing things God has revealed in His judgments of what is morally good and bad.

His loyalty is overwhelming, so wherever he encounters someone who lives by a heart-led commitment to Jehovah, the psalmist is that person’s friend and ally without question. When he witnesses someone acting consistent with God’s Laws, he wants to share in their burden of work. Everywhere he turns, there is a vision or song marking God’s mercy; the earth itself trembles and hums to the divine glory. He asks that God use those echoes of mercy to goad him into a life that God outlined long ago.

Call on Him

It’s the biggest compliment you can offer.

Our culture arises from Western feudalism, where a man’s pride and glory was in the property he owned, and the power he wielded. The more important he is, the less important others are to him. Thus, we are all used to petty bureaucrats flexing their importance and reminding us of our impotence. Debase yourself and beg, and maybe they’ll pay attention when the mood strikes them.

That’s totally different from the culture of the Bible. In Ancient Near Eastern feudal culture, a man’s power and glory rested on the number of dependents who served in his household. More people calling on him to exercise his power meant higher prestige. It was blessing that others came to you for help. In fact, a man who had to train up servants to sift through all the petitions brought into his courts was very important, indeed.

Call on Him; He takes it as a blessing when we seek His face.

Anti-Activism

It’s a question of dominion. You and I are permitted to take assertive action only within the boundaries of covenant. When it comes to social and political issues, the prevailing applicable covenant is Noah’s. We could easily get lost hashing out the details of the Seven Noahic Laws, but those will not help us because there are prerequisites not stated. The primary issue is that God has wired us to live under Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) feudalism. Without that, you simply cannot have a valid covenant for human organization. Oh, and it requires you reject Western intellectual assumptions.

Inside a covenant community of faith, these changes are pretty easy. Noah’s Covenant isn’t that hard under a presumption of genuine faith. Granted, you could choose a simulacrum of Moses’ Law, so long as you realize that the ritual offerings are swept away by the Cross, aside from offerings given to support worship and leaders. However, it’s largely unnecessary to go that way and Noah is good enough. Instead, we use Moses to inform our understanding of Noah, as Moses has effectively ended, but Noah remains in force so long as there are rainbows. Still, God requires your church be organized like an ANE feudal household. Otherwise, it’s not really a covenant community. Mainstream Western churches are essentially corporations, not spiritual families. It can’t be both. You may well have the latter inside the former, but they aren’t the same body in moral terms because each stands in a different sphere, so you’ll satisfy the requirements for one or the other, but not both.

A covenant presumes voluntary submission. In the Old Testament, children were presumed under parental authority and not free to choose until passing through a collection of moral portals along the way. Parents held total life-n-death prerogatives over their own children. Sometime around age 9 began the transition to social engagement with adult life, culminating in the bar Mitzvah (“son of the Law”) which made them a citizen. (That business of thirty years old had to do with eligibility for community leadership.) At any point after bar-Mitzvah, they could opt out, but only at the price of being regarded socially “dead.” They left the covenant and became aliens, alienated from everyone inside the covenant. Their parents no longer treated them as family, no longer under the protective moral dominion.

In other words, humans must elect to join and actively keep the attachment, or they become nothing more than resident aliens. They still have to meet minimum standards to remain in the physical space of the community, but they don’t actually belong. They still have to recognize they are outsiders with no inherent rights, only a grant of privilege.

A critical element in Old Testament covenant dominion was the actual faith to assert Covenant Law effectively. That is, all covenants depend on the faithfulness of the members. If you don’t have effective control, something is missing inside the covenant community. Effective control presumes you use it in preserving divine justice, AKA shalom AKA social stability under covenant provisions.

So it should be obvious that America, for example, is not a covenant nation. Christians cannot simply assert that it is, or ought to be, or demand that it become so. American Christians generally have no clue what’s required and you can be sure they would reject ANE feudal organization. Even under the most superficial terms, they refuse to obey Noah’s Law. At a minimum, it requires a radical and painful shift from Western thinking to something closer to ANE thinking, and most of them would flatly refuse. They insist on enforcing something closer to the Talmud, with all the goofy legalistic assumptions about reality. Western Christianity is inherently Pharisaical.

Inside the covenant community of faith, we rightly make certain moral demands. Projecting those demands outward onto the secular society is sinful. It’s rather like trying to demand that God offer them His covenant protections without His moral dominion. And in case you missed that, our primary warning to sinners is that their choices are not in their own best interest. They are hurting themselves; it’s the wrong approach to think in terms of how we find things morally offensive. But any change in their choices must come from within. If they don’t accept the whole covenant, they can’t have any part of it. It has nothing to do with their strength to walk away from temptation, but we need to see a genuine desire to walk in divine justice. We all have our moral weaknesses, so humility remains our first impulse. Thus, agitating for piecemeal changes in secular law to more closely match Noah’s Law is evil. While there may be any number of posers pretending to stand for Christian moral values, it’s all or nothing in terms of validity. You can promote the whole package, or you can stop pretending.

And are you willing to make this look like the kind of thing ISIS does by imposing a strict regime by force?

The only valid approach is that a body of people come under conviction and appeal to God for a valid covenant of law. It has to be granted by God as the divine sovereign Lord, a sort of suzerain-vassal treaty. That’s the nature of Law Covenants. His offer stands, but if He has to take us by force, it’s too late. We are obliged to sue for peace before He comes in force. You can choose to enter into covenant individually, but a part of that is recognizing the limits of dominion. Your personal covenant with God is not binding on any other human.

You can be an activist in terms of gentle persuasion; the proper “sell” is telling folks Noah is in their best interest. It’s a loving call to repentance — stop the self-destruction. However, it doesn’t take much to turn that into political agitation and the wrong kind of activism. When we attempt to use any kind of human leverage to drive people into a non-faith decision about morals, they either have to be children under our personal dominion, or it’s the work of Satan. Human politics outside the covenant remain under Satan’s dominion.

Psalm 104

This is another of those soaring lyrical songs that is impossible to summarize. What may not be obvious is that we have ample examples from other cultures across the whole region and in different millennia of the Ancient Near East (ANE) with similar songs of praise to various named deities. Any of them would have recognized this instantly; it’s very typical of what defines the ANE as a whole.

More, those other cultures would have recognized most of the symbolism, the imagery meant to portray things beyond human expression. There are details we recognize in factual terms, but noting them would miss the point most of the time. From the broadest categories down to the smallest elements of life, our Creator pays close attention to everything, and sets it all in order to please Himself. We could not possibly grasp the full range of what this means. Humanity striving to know all facts this many centuries later still can’t begin to scratch the surface of what God has designed and implemented.

Much of it is also reminiscent of the Genesis creation narrative. The recurring theme of the waters above and the waters below is easy to spot. It is God who decides the boundaries of the seas. For Him, it must be easier than stretching a line with His finger. The heavens are a mere curtain He hangs, the waters as a garment.

And it all works together in an incomprehensible grand symphony. Some of that water is left to stand precisely so animals can drink, and to grow them food. What is also very easy to miss is the utter importance of how mankind could fit into this harmonious pattern if he listens to God and takes His divinely appointed place. The same forests supply homes for birds and humans alike, despite how each uses those trees differently. It’s all there for our use, so we must honor our Provider. Everything has a place in God’s plan, regardless whether it pleases you to have those things around. We cannot fathom the wealth of God’s provision.

Notice that in ANE thinking there are three basic domains: earth, sea and sky. And we note in passing that the word translated Leviathan generally means anything in the water big enough to eat you. God manages to feed the most massive sea creatures and still grant us opportunity to avoid them. Yes, the Creator breathes life and takes it away as He sees fit, and has plans to manage the whole universe without the least struggle.

So when we see ourselves so utterly insignificant against all of these things, how can we not shout and sing in awe at His greatness? Don’t be a fool and ignore His gifts.

Keep It in the Heart

The Ancient Near East in general, and the Hebrew people in particular, bore an ancient legacy of the heart-mind. While it’s obvious not everyone was heart-led, it is also obvious that Scripture took seriously the existence of the heart-mind as the core of human awareness in this world. Thus, we see frequent references to a “purity of heart” that translates roughly to a clarity of commitment.

So the entire Law of Moses presumes the heart as the highest faculty of human awareness. You could obey the Law without it and probably get by in a Covenant Nation, but you would never understand what the Law was for. It was designed to prepare the mind for proper obedience from the heart. It conditioned the mind to think along the lines of the moral fabric in Creation, God’s moral character. Thus, the mind was properly prepared to respond and implement from this frame of reference the demands of conviction.

Paul assumes this heart-led awareness in his writing. Not that he expected every Gentile to already have it, but that his writing makes little sense without first engaging that higher faculty. His writing presumes an awareness of the very personal nature of things. Not subjective as Western minds conceive of it, but that Creation was alive, and that all things in it were alive; every human experience bore a life of its own. He presumes you understand that spirituality was not cerebral, but a personal and living communion with God. Justice cannot be objectified, but is inherently a matter of personal communion with the Person of God. It’s organic and alive; that’s the nature of reality. Nothing is inert and passive in that worldview. The dominating assumption about reality is that all things are alive and in some sense sentient. That’s the logic on which the heart operates.

Thus, we follow Christ — not as a body of principle, but as a living Person who might as well be walking alongside us every moment of the day. He is the ultimate expression of what the Law meant to offer us. I wrote in my notes on Galatians:

Paul lays the theological foundation for declaring the Law of Moses dead. This is not about good deeds in general, but specifically about the Law of Moses and particularly as expressed in Pharisaical teachings. While we might find that the original Law of Moses symbolized a path to spiritual truth, the Law itself was not that truth. To further remove the Law by making it an empty ritualistic observance as practiced by the Pharisees was utterly pointless. That sort of religion was wholly an effort by man to please a false god of human imagination, a perverted image blasphemously labeled “Jehovah.”

The Law was a gateway, awakening the need for spiritual redemption. Observing Moses had nothing to do directly with saving souls from eternal damnation. It was a system by which deeper truth could be discovered, but the system required a nation to live it. Israel failed miserably, losing it for herself and for everyone who should have looked to them for answers. Pharisaism only deepened their loss. For that reason, God sent His Son to pay the price for our sins, to make a path to come before Him and receive His holiness as a grant of grace. Christ joined lawful and faithful living into a continuity with eternity. A new standard of holiness would arise from a completely new covenant. Every element of the Old Covenant was under review; the Talmud was rejected flatly as a perversion before that process began. Pharisaical Jews doing their best according to the Talmud stand doubly condemned. If God requires that they find their salvation by faith in Christ, how could returning to the Pharisaical Law bring any hope to Gentiles? For a Christian to cling to the Talmud was saying Jesus sponsored sin.

Today we hardly suffer the infestation of the Judaizers as in those days. Instead, most of the mainstream Christian religion is so deeply Judaized that we have to start from scratch all over again. And with the First Century Christians, we don’t organize to dismantle the old dead religion, but we simply move away and hope to attract a few who might notice that we aren’t under that bondage any longer. I don’t know if we should expect a fresh wave of “Judaizers” to infiltrate our work these days, but I wouldn’t be surprised.

Keep it in the heart and keep it mystical.

Ditch the Systematic Theology

“What must I do to be saved?”

We see this question from the Philippian Jailer in Acts 16:30. The question itself arose from Greek culture. It became a figure of speech, so the actual meaning varies with the context. It was intentionally ambiguous in the sense that it was seeking whatever divine rescue was available, asking what were the terms. The jailer was hardly unaware of the plethora of Eastern religions represented across the Mediterranean in those days. He knew that people connected to Judaism were also part of that broad collection of Eastern mystical religions. Since he saw the power of something beyond human ken and these men were confident and at peace, he wanted some of whatever it was that set them free but kept them from escaping and getting him in trouble.

In Western culture, the question has taken on a rather precise theological meaning that builds on a false foundation. Bear with me a moment while I try once again to untangle this.

Ancient Near Eastern thought presumes a Spirit Realm separate from this realm of existence. Western thought presumes this universe is it, in the sense that there could be no other kind of universe. In other words, Western thought negates any kind of Spirit Realm a priori. This assumption is not discussed in the existing ancient literature (so far as I know) that teaches Greek philosophy. They didn’t bother to argue against it for the most part. Thus, it is a part of the package of assumptions about reality on which the rest of their stuff stands. When this Hellenized approach collided with the already weakened moral reasoning of the rabbinical schools of Hebrew religion (they had already been influenced by Babylon and Persia during the Exile), they were overwhelmed by the sheer intellectual thrill of analytical reasoning. The mind was back on the throne, and it loves to rule. But it bore the poisoned root of rejecting the Spirit Realm.

Judaism is the result of this collision. It is not the Hebrew religion of ancient times. Mixing Hellenism with Hebrew traditions results in legalism. The mystical was trashed in favor of nit-picking over particulars. What to do with the Spirit Realm? It became by default a spooky place rather like the myths of River Styx and the place of the dead. And how many times have you read discussions of sheol that equate it wrongly with the Greek mythology? Instead of the mystical Hebrew approach, God and Heaven became something akin to Plato’s realm of the Ideal, an entirely cerebral construct. It was all objectified.

Now, we are naturally unable to explain a mystical truth, but in the Hebrew mind, there is a sense in which the Spirit Realm has continuity with our realm of existence here. The Spirit Realm is ultimate reality, as it were, while our existence is the Realm of Shadows. We are forced to use parabolic language, but we do know that your manner of life here reflects something about your eternal destiny with God. Insofar as you are damned here, you are damned eternally. Even then, I’m using a figure of speech. What the Hellenized approach does is break that continuity and substitutes a false conceptual continuity that yields to reason.

So we see all kinds of a prior assumptions that attempt to force God into the boundaries of reason. Common Western (Protestant-Catholic) conceptions of Heaven are persistently Platonic in nature. Theologians can hardly break out of that track without a lot of study in what it means to be Western and what Western thought looks like from the perspective of non-Western intellectual traditions.

But this a priori assumption that equates God with Plato’s Ideal means all Western theology is infected with the notion that God has to make sense. Thus, we have a duty to reason about God and create Theology. We have to explore all the possible particulars by analysis and explain everything. And so we have a theology of how people are “saved” — soteriology. And we have this rational delineation of logical steps that ends up making God the creator of evil. Most Western theologians deny this because it breaks some of the other rules of logic, but the paradox is inevitable if you approach God from a rational foundation.

I can tell you how I backed out of that hellhole; that’s what some of my books are about. Maybe some of it will echo your own situation and I can help you escape. The Hebrew word most often translated as “saved” is rooted in the idea of escaping something.

The fundamental concept of moral human sorrow in the Hebrew Scripture is “separation.” You are separated from God. We were meant to be fit for His Presence, but somehow humanity got off on the wrong foot. So we start out alienated from Him. The mystical truth of how that problem is solved was never meant to be reduced to descriptive language. There are no steps to salvation that everyone can follow. All any of us can do is demonstrate what it’s like to live in peace with God. We allow Him to work things His way from His end and hope that means you find a path to peace. We don’t pretend to tell folks “how” to be saved, only to demonstrate what it looks like. We already know that there is no “how.” If you are going to get it at all, it has to come from something unique to you and God. Nobody has a clue what-when-why-how He decides to offer terms of peace, only that He does.

So the answer the Apostles gave to the Philippian Jailer was symbolic, not a precise HOWTO. He would have understood it that way soon enough, if not already. Despite his being bathed directly in Hellenist culture, the historical context included a lot of stuff we no longer have around.

And do you know how hard Western theologians struggle over that business of “you and your household”? When you objectify “salvation,” you are forced into cerebral gymnastics. How can one man’s decision affect the eternal salvation of his family members? Ditch the objectification of salvation and the whole thing takes on a different meaning. Since the man clearly worried about his moral standing, the Apostles presumed he was primed to take the heart-led moral path to God’s character. If he takes that path, it must include his entire household over which he holds moral dominion. That word “salvation” means walking in a heart-led moral truth, not some objectified status change in the Ideal. If someone begins instituting the changes inherent in heart-led moral commitment, who on earth could suggest that man is not at peace with God? So we are back to that mystical continuity I mentioned earlier.

That’s how we are saved.

What the Hell?

Some of you get it, but it seems there is enough confusion that I need to restate things for clarity.

I use the English word “Hell.” If you have been paying attention, you’ll notice I use it in the vernacular sense, having a very flexible meaning, and have never bothered with defining it as a religious term.

The image of serving as slaves of Satan applies to this life. It’s the biblical image of ANE feudalism, God’s dominion over Creation. A part of what we need to know about Satan and his activities is derived from this parabolic image of Satan as God’s personal Potiphar, if you will. This has nothing to do with Western Medieval images of torment and Hell; that should have been obvious by my steady denunciation of Western Christianity. People who do not walk by a heart of commitment to God’s revelation are, to varying degrees, slaves of Satan here and now. Their share of the blessings God intended to grant them under covenant are consumed by Satan, and Satan gets none of his own.

But in this image, I include multiple references that Satan is somehow confined to this world, along with all his demons. There is a sense in which that image of slavery is “Hell,” but I don’t recall thinking or writing that Satan was also in charge of Hell as a place beyond death. “It is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). Whatever that verse means about “judgment” is the more precise meaning of “Hell.” I have never pretended to offer any firm knowledge of Hell because the Bible avoids a literal description. It’s always been lyrical references to torment of some kind, but that could just as easily mean standing in the Presence of God with full awareness on that higher level that you are not in His favor. That can’t be comfortable, but you can’t possibly presume to describe it in literal terms.

And on top of all that, I believe Hell is not eternal; neither is whatever is signified by the word “Heaven.” Note that Jesus on the Cross referred to it by the Persian word for Paradise (Luke 23:43). Indeed, our current “place of the dead” for everyone, in God’s favor or not, is a temporary state. It’s all prior to the final Resurrection of the Dead, prior to the Final Judgment. I tend to believe that “new Heaven and new Earth” is somewhat literal. Some parts of Revelation 21 do have literal connotations, but how literal can you be about something the intellect cannot grasp?

So while American vernacular English does permit a flexible use of the words “Heaven” and “Hell” — to include symbolism and parable — if you want to shift to a more precise discussion of matters of faith and Scripture, both are apparently outside of this realm of existence, but attached to it in some way that indicates they will be replaced along with the rest of Creation at some point out there in our world’s future.

Do we really need a comprehensive word study of Sheol, Hades, Gehenna, etc.? I’ve already covered the Old Testament teaching on afterlife to show that Jesus wasn’t so much adding new revelation about the afterlife as He was speaking to an audience that had drifted far from their ancient Hebrew roots. You need a heart-led discernment to recognize that some of it was just using the common rabbinical manner of speaking (because folks were familiar with it) even as He corrected false impressions about things. Often He was pushing them back away from Hellenism toward the ancient Hebrew way of thinking. Hebrew language uses words as signposts, not as containers of truth. The whole point was to persuade you to seek God’s truth from God Himself, with the underlying assumption you must have an active heart-mind in order to hear from God in the first place.

I don’t think chasing down precise word meanings in Greek and Hebrew will help you very much because that was never the point. A proper heart-mind operation means that words are indicative, not descriptive. If you could read Greek, you’d know that Paul’s Hebrew mind constantly searched for ways to express those thoughts in Greek so that he was always coining his own Greek words. If you were born speaking Greek in that time, you would tend to resist that Hebraic thought pattern. You would read things back into his writing and struggle to keep up with Paul’s teaching. This is why the Apostles spent so very much time with each of their church plants, because it was downright tough to make a Greek mind shift over to Hebrew patterns of thought.

And now we have English with a whole batch of fresh barriers keeping us from Hebrew thought. A part of me wonders if I’ll ever get that across to enough people before I die. The language you speak is the language you think, and the language can seriously hold you back from thinking the way God designed us to think. All I can do is ask that you learn a cynical suspicion of the person in the mirror, because I’ve had to cultivate that, too. It doesn’t require paranoia, because God is surely at work in you, helping you to move steadily closer to Him. Always be willing to question whether you have actually caught on, and turn inside to your heart and connect with the Holy Spirit for patience and guidance. You don’t have to accept my answers, but maybe you can learn something useful toward your own answers by noticing how I get mine.